Menu Close

Turkey’s great challenge: integrating 2.7 million Syrian refugees

A Syrian couple waits on the Turkish side of the Oncupinar border crossing for their parents to arrive. Osman Orsal/Reuters

Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, millions have fled across the border to Turkey. Turkey’s open-door migration policy has seen the number of registered Syrians in Turkey reach 2,730,000.

This has led to rapid change in the demographic structure in several Turkish border cities. In Kilis, for example, the number of Syrian refugees is greater than that of the local population. Despite these enormous changes, and the added financial burden of hosting refugees, public sentiment towards Syrian refugees in Turkey has remained relatively moderate.

This is in stark contrast to attitudes in other countries, such as Hungary and Slovakia, where tiny numbers of refugees are vociferously rejected by politicians and the public.

A kind of instinctive philanthropy in Turkish society has provided an anchor for Syrians settling outside the refugee camps, who account for almost 90% of all Syrians in Turkey.

But this philanthropy has its limits. When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced in July that Turkish nationality would be granted to Syrians living in Turkey, he triggered a significant social and political backlash.


Political backlash

Despite clarifications from government representatives, the process of naturalisation remains vague, which has boosted anxiety for many locals. The involvement of some Syrians in criminal activities in Turkey within the same week as the naturalisation announcement – in particular, the accidental death of two of them while building a homemade explosive device – only made this worse.

Following these events, the hashtag #ulkemdesuriyeliistemiyorum (“I don’t want Syrians in my country”) began trending in Turkey. In response, some Turkish NGOs made declarations supporting citizenship for Syrians.

Meanwhile, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party in Turkey proposed a referendum on the naturalisation issue.

We can discuss the various arguments and justifications from opponents and supporters of the naturalisation plans, but one fact is beyond debate: the sensitiveness of the issue for social cohesion in Turkish society. To better integrate Syrians into Turkish society, we need to understand five important threats to proper integration.

1. Underestimating public consent

Turkey is the largest host country for Syrian refugees, and it hosts them under temporary protection, due to the reservations regarding the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees.

For many people in Turkish society, it is hard to distinguish between the terms such as “refugee”, “guest”, “temporary protection” and “asylum seeker”.

Until recently, despite a lack of information (or alternatively an overload of irrelevant, unsolicited or low-value information), conflict and anxiety about refugees have remained relatively low in Turkish society. None of the parties directly used this issue to attract more votes during the 2015 elections.

On the other hand, Turkish society is unlikely to immediately accept the changes the come with naturalising Syrians, which could transform the country’s demographic structure and, more importantly, the political structure, by integrating new voters into the system.

Until last year, Turkey’s discourse about Syrians was based on concepts of hospitality and temporariness. So before framing any backlash against citizenship for Syrians in terms of racism, it is important to recognise that such a rapid shift in discourse and demography could stimulate anxiety in any host society. The question is how to manage this, rather than ignore it.

2. The spread of disinformation

Like many in government and the public, the media was also blindsided by Turkey’s new role as a host country.

Following government speeches on naturalisation for Syrians, Turkey’s conventional media determined their stance in line with their overall position towards the Turkish government. While the newspapers that support the government highlighted the unjust suffering of Syrians or simply stayed silent, opposition mainstream newspapers were mostly filled with columns addressing the “Syrian threat”.

On social media, posts were full of misinformation concerning the rights and benefits that Syrians may gain for education, health, social security and employment.

The lack of critical thinking and the rise of discriminatory discourse rejecting Syrians both pose a threat for Turkish society. The former ignores the feelings and concerns of Turkish people, while the latter leads to the marginalisation and exclusion of victims.

3. Eroding legal procedures

Turkey already has a well-established system for naturalisation. According to Turkish law, the eligibility requirements for the acquisition of Turkish citizenship are: being of adult age, having lived in Turkey for five years or more, having no criminal report and being able to speak basic Turkish.

As an exception, Article 12 of Turkey’s citizenship law allows the council of ministers to take citizenship decisions regarding certain groups of foreigners.

Current debates have left the public with the impression that these procedures will be totally ignored by directly naturalising all Syrians with one rapid decision. Even supporters of naturalisation for Syrians have become suspicious of the legal process.

Exceptional policies for one group of refugees may set an example for other groups in Turkey who are deprived of the status of refugee or citizen since there are also other groups of refugees living in Turkey rather than Syrians. For instance, a significant number of Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians reside in Turkey, and it is not clear whether they will be subject to a possible naturalisation process together with Syrians.

4. Deciding for Syrians without Syrians

We still do not know enough about the best solution for Syrians in Turkey.

What will happen to those who do not claim citizenship? One scenario is to grant citizenship only for Syrians with certain educational or vocational qualifications. If a regulation is designed as to provide citizenship opportunity just for the “qualified Syrians”, what will happen to those who are not “qualified” enough to claim citizenship?

Another critical question is that whether they really wish to settle in Turkey permanently? If they get Turkish citizenship, how will it influence their Syrian citizenship? Such questions can only be answered by consulting Syrians themselves and by better analysing their needs.

5. Skipping integration

Naturalisation cannot happen overnight. It requires a mutual integration process for both the immigrants and host societies. While being introduced to a new culture is time-consuming, it is an essential step.

Men chatting in front of real estate agency with Arabic boards. Murad Sezer/Reuters

Rightly or wrongly, the cultural transformation in Turkish society can be easily observed as one of the substantial fears of those opposed to the naturalisation of Syrians in Turkey. This fear can be conquered through a successful integration policy that involves all sectors of society, including NGOs, business representatives and local administrations. New platforms establishing links and creating dialogue between Syrians and Turkish citizens can also help to overcome prejudices.

There are various types of integration models and naturalisation is just one approach. By considering the urgency and necessity of the related initiatives both for Turkish society and also Syrians, it is possible to design a particularly Turkish model for integration. As a starting point, we must understand that integration is not just about citizenship.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 165,700 academics and researchers from 4,639 institutions.

Register now