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Syrian refugees in Turkey: defusing the powder-keg

In sharp contrast to wider Europe, Turkey has taken in many refugees from the Syrian civil war—but its hospitality is starting to excite social frictions and sectarian tensions

John-Paul Rantac
21 May 2014
Syrian refugee girl in Turkey

Welcome: a young Syrian refugee in Kilis. Demotix / Yasmin Al Tellawy. All rights reserved.Amid the horrors of the Syrian conflict, the humanitarian response by Turkey has been nothing short of heroic. While Europe has largely closed its borders to Syria’s refugees, Turkey has presented an open door, reflecting its “zero problems with neighbours” policy and its obligation to the universal principle of non-refoulement. Turkey has also spent $2.5 billion on “five star” refugee camps, equipped with schools, clinics and community centres. As a result, Turkey has soared from 59th to 10th in the United Nations index of hospitality towards refugees.  

But after three years of conflict Turkey’s welcome is coming under serious strain. David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee has commented that “the humanitarian crisis in Syria is not the accidental by-product of war; rather it is the strategic product of a war without law”. There is strong evidence that the Assad regime is strategically targeting civilians in a desperate attempt to retake rebel-held areas. With episodes like the barbaric use of chlorine gas on children and the bombing of a school and a market in Aleppo, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has swollen to almost 1m and is expected to reach 1.5m by the end of 2014.

Although the refugees comprise a small fraction of Turkey’s population (76m), most are concentrated in the southern border provinces of Hatay, Kilis, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa and Mardin. This has stretched Turkey’s social, economic, and political fabric and could create enduring problems for the country.

Non-camp refugees 

It is estimated that 400,000 refugees are living outside the camps, mostly in derelict rented accommodation. The rapid population increase near the border has driven up the cost of living, with rents and house prices more than doubling, causing friction between locals and refugees. With costs rising and their savings diminishing, many of the Syrians have turned to the informal labour market for income, in turn depressing local wages. There is evidence of exploitation by employers, who in some cases refuse to pay wages due. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees  has commented that, in the face of immense hardships, many refugees have “turned to negative coping mechanisms to make ends meet".

This could have more wide-reaching political implications for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has increasingly displayed Sunni favouritism.

Their destitution has also been exploited by criminal networks, with an increasing number of girls forced to marry older Turkish men for money. These short-term marriages are a legal cover for sexual exploitation, with several sold into the booming prostitution network of Syrian girls.

As more Syrians arrive in Turkey, these socio-economic pressures could push many of the refugees to fight in Syria alongside opposition forces including jihadist groups—as happened during the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation recruited Palestinians residing in Lebanese refugee camps. With the Turkish government opposed to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has turned a blind eye towards thousands of foreign jihadists streaming through the country to fight alongside Syria’s rebels, who have been using refugee camps in Turkey to rest and receive health care.

Turkey’s indirect support for the rebels was condemned by the US administration after Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, took control of the Kassab border crossing. If Syria collapses into a weak and divided state, as appears likely, jihadist infiltration of Turkey’s refugee population could see the conflict spill over into Turkey.

Alawite-Sunni tensions

As most Syrian refugees are Sunni Arabs, the ethnic composition of Turkey’s southern border provinces has been dramatically reshaped. This is most notable in Hatay, where one-third of the local population are descendants of Arab Alawites in Syria and tend to back Assad’s Alawite regime. The arrival of the refugees, supportive of the Sunni opposition fighters, seems to have reignited longstanding sectarian tensions.

This could have more wide-reaching political implications for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has increasingly displayed Sunni favouritism. The Alawites, along with the Alevis (a large offshoot community of Shi’a Islam), are strongly opposed to the AKP government, with thousands from both communities having taken to the streets of Antakya, Istanbul and Ankara in protest at Turkey’s support for Syria’s Sunni opposition groups.

The rift was further inflamed by the government crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters in Istanbul last year, with four of the five killed in the ensuing violence being Alawites or Alevis (two from Hatay). It is important for Turkey to micro-manage the arrival of new refugees, as the rising tensions could push the larger Alawite-Sunni division beyond its tipping-point.

Integrating the refugees

With the conflict in Syria at a stalemate and all diplomatic routes seemingly exhausted, it is likely the refugees will remain in Turkey for some time, with more arriving as the crisis continues. Turkey however cannot simply build further camps, as the costs are unsustainable and the refugees prefer to live outside them.

Yet because the Turkish government has classified the Syrians as (temporary) refugees and not immigrants, they are unable to obtain Turkish citizenship, which has in effect relegated them to second-class status. This could develop into a long-term security issue, as the longer Turkey hosts a marginalised population without full citizen rights the greater the risk it faces of cultivating an enemy of the state.

Turkey should instead consider integrating the refugees, which would help to defuse ethnic tensions along the border and protect the Syrians from exploitation by criminal and jihadist networks. It should seek to extend its recently implemented migration law, providing the refugees with entitlements and rights on a par with Turkish citizens: freedom of movement; access to housing, education, the labour market and health care; and Turkish-language skills. Integration will be a difficult and long-term process. But rather than becoming a financial burden to the state, as their economic and social freedom rises the refugees would gradually become less reliant on it, and would instead begin contributing to the Turkish economy.

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