How Syrians in Turkey are coping with a polarised political climate

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Turkey has become home to the biggest number of refugees in the world. This is a remarkable turnaround for a country that, upon signing the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, insisted it only be legally obliged to take those fleeing “events occurring Europe”. Fast forward more than 60 years and it is likely that there are more Syrian refugees in Istanbul than there are in the European Union. Turkey, once reluctant to become drawn into the crises of its Middle Eastern neighbours, has led the humanitarian response to the catastrophe in Syria. In contrast to Europe…

As of 15 June 2017, there were 3,049,879 Syrian refugees registered in the country, with the unofficial figure likely to be much higher. Less than 10 per cent of these are hosted in the refugee camps. The rest have made their home in the bigger cities along the Syrian border in the south east, such as Urfa and Kilis, or in the large urban centres of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. 

When Syrians first started fleeing to safety across the border in June 2011, the Turkish government was still operating under the assumption that the Assad regime would follow that of Mubarak in Egypt, and succumb to the democratic wave sweeping the Arabic region.

Sympathetic to their aspirations, and confident that it would not have to wait long, the ruling Justice and Development party welcomed persecuted Syrians not as refugees, but as people under their “temporary protection”. Syrians were granted free access to healthcare and interim education centres were set up to ensure that displaced children would not miss out on too much of their schooling.

In retrospect, Turkey’s welcoming of Syrian refugees is an almost unparalleled act of human decency, and one for which the Turkish government and citizens derives much credit. But the truth is that the eventual scale and magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis caught officials in Ankara by surprise. The result has been an ad hoc set of paternalist policies, with Syrians relying on the goodwill of the government, but state institutions struggling to cope.

Caught in limbo, the Syrian population is forced to exist in a legal grey area. Syrians' rights under the temporary protection status were only guaranteed by law in 2014, and could technically still be withdrawn. And although a small number of work permits are now being issued, most Syrians essentially still have no right to work in Turkey.

Instead, the vast majority are forced to find work through other means. Exploitation is rife, with upwards of 300,000 Syrian children estimated to be engaged in some kind of informal work. And there are growing reports of forced marriages, often with men taking on a second (illegal) Syrian wife.

This has caused tension with existing communities in Turkey, who often perceive Syrian refugees to be undercutting local wages and receiving unfair access to services. There have been a growing number of violent incidents, particularly in the last couple of weeks.

In Istanbul, a man was stabbed after reports that a young Syrian man had cat-called a Turkish woman, with riot police using tear gas to stop further violence. In the city of Samsun, two Syrian men were nearly lynched after allegedly taking pictures of women sunbathing on a beach.

Antipathy towards Syrians in Turkey is fuelled in part by rumour and suspicion. But in Turkey’s polarised political climate, all sides tend to view decisions as having an ulterior motive. The government’s decision to take in Syrian refugees is no different, and has become a channel for social as well as economic anxiety.

Secularists and Alevis share concerns about the implications of what some regard as an influx of pious Sunnis. Turkish nationalists are uncomfortable with a growing Arabic influence in the country. And some Kurdish commentators have accused the government of seeking to alter the demographics in Turkey’s south east, where the Kurdish political movement is most powerful.

All accuse the government of seeking political gain, particularly after the prospect of giving Syrians full citizenship and voting rights was raised during the recent constitutional referendum. And there are certainly those within the Justice and Development Party who see themselves as the leaders of people beyond Turkey’s boundaries, and would now happily consider Syrians to be within their natural constituency.

But this is only one side of the story. Yes, there is widespread cynicism at the government, but this is balanced by empathy and understanding for the Syrians themselves. Turkey’s beleaguered civil society is working hard to fill the gaps left by the government, with women’s organisations in particular playing a vital role. And there are countless stories of ordinary Turkish and Kurdish people partaking in quiet acts of kindness, such as giving up their front rooms to Syrian families.

The Anatolian region has always been home to a plurality of intersecting communities, and has been shaped by a tragic history of displaced peoples itself. Be it the population exchanges that followed the First World War or the hundreds of thousands of Kurds who have been internally displaced by conflict. The Syrian community will just be the latest to leave its mark on society in Turkey.