BACKGROUND: To the surprise of the Turkish government – which believed in a prompt ouster of Syrian President Bashar al- Assad – the Syrian civil war is in its third year, with no end in sight. This has created a number of challenges for Turkey, and in particular for its southern and southeastern border provinces. These problems may come to be further compounded by the instability in Iraq, following the progress of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). In order to contain the effects of the refugee crisis, the Turkish government needs to recognize the long-term nature of the problem, and pursue policies accordingly.
The Turkish Interior Ministry estimates that 1.35 million Syrian refugees now reside in Turkey, following the Turkish government’s “open-door” policy. Only around 220,000 refugees live in camps, while the rest are dispersed around the country, particularly in the southeast. In some Turkish cities close to the Syrian border, such as Kilis and Reyhanli, refugees outnumber the local population.
Turkey lacks the legal as well as institutional framework to deal with a refugee stream of this magnitude. Organizations such as AFAD (the Prime Ministry Disaster & Emergency Management Administration) and Kizilay (the Turkish Red Crescent), have mainly been dealing with natural disasters such as earthquakes. Moreover, Turkey has restrictions related to the Geneva Convention, which mean that refugee status can only be obtained by Europeans fleeing to Turkey. Consequently, the Syrian refugees have been classified as “guests” under “temporary protection”, which entails rather generous support inside the camps. The temporary protection status does not, however, guarantee residence or work permits. To obtain a residence permit, official papers and a passport are required, which many do not have, while the process of applying to a work permit is arduous – and requires a residence permit.
The war in Syria is negatively affecting the Turkish economy in terms of trade and tourism. Additionally, the refugee situation puts a heavy strain on public services, not least in health care and has led to Syrians competing with locals in the job market.
Furthermore, in the province of Hatay, the sudden influx of predominantly Sunni Syrian refugees is disrupting the province’s religious, ethnic and linguistic balance. Alawites make up over a third of Hatay’s population, and many among them fear that sectarian tensions will spill over from the Syrian civil war.
The AKP’s foreign policy contributes to the feeling of unease amongst Turkey’s Alawites – and also amongst Turkish and Kurdish Alevis – as the AKP leadership has showed strong emotional support for Sunni movements such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In particular, Turkey’s support of the hard-line Sunni Syrian rebels irks the Alawite community. There is also growing mistrust among Sunni Turks toward the Alawite communities as they are regarded as supporters of Assad.
IMPLICATIONS: The turmoil in Syria – coupled with the potential of further conflagration in Iraq – leaves Turkey with a large long-term problem on its hands. The increasing number of refugees into Turkey’s cities has in some places sharply increased the cost of rents, and tripled the price of some everyday foods. Meanwhile, wages have declined in some sectors. The Association of Hatay Construction Workers claim that the refugees cause unemployment among its members. The notion that Syrian refugees work for low wages, take jobs, and do not pay taxes is a cause of irritation among many Turks. Refugees work illegally due to the difficulties in obtaining work permits, and receive lower wages than they otherwise would, undercutting the wage level. Many people are also weary of the increase in begging and increasing crime rates, the surge in smuggling, and feel distrustful of the Syrian refugees.
The government is striving to make it easier for refugees to work, and has passed a bylaw aimed at simplifying application procedures, and changing the requirements, for work permits. The Labor Ministry also plans to reduce the amount employers have to pay for social security premiums when hiring Syrians, in order to stimulate employment.
Meanwhile the Turkish Doctor’s Union reports that doctors’ workloads have increased significantly following the influx of refugees, especially in the border towns. Locals are complaining that access to healthcare has deteriorated, as Syrian refugees receive treatment in state hospitals on the same terms as Turkish citizens.
The tourism industry in Hatay and Gaziantep, which used to accommodate busloads of tourists from the Middle East, has taken a hit due to the crisis – although the negative result has, to some extent, been offset by an increase in domestic tourism.
Trade has also been affected; Turkey and Syria signed a free-trade agreement in 2007, which lead to a boom in trade – which the conflict rapidly reversed. As exports to Syria only made up a small percentage of the border cities’ exports, the overall effect has, however, been limited.
A more serious consequence for the economy has been the loss of trade routes through Syria to the rest of the Middle East, most importantly to Saudi Arabia. Also, following the progress of ISIS, Turkey’s trade with Iraq – Turkey’s second largest trade partner, accounting for 7.9 percent of all exports – has come under threat, and declined in July.
In an EDAM/TNS poll released in January of this year, around 86 percent of participants argue that Turkey should stop taking in refugees from Syria. Some have already shown their discontent with the status quo, and the situation has, in some places, become inflamed. Fights between locals and Syrian refugees have recently started to break out across the country, and there have been protests in cities such a Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş, where participants chant slogans accusing Syrians of stealing their jobs and not paying taxes. Other examples include attacks on shops owned by Syrians in Adana, and a building in Ankara, which was set on fire as it was sheltering refugees.
There are fears that tensions may escalate the more the effects of the crisis are felt. The talks of lynching refugees – which have already been attempted – are disconcerting. The government has taken some steps to defuse this, such as encouraging the settlement of refugees in the more homogenous and stable provinces of Konya, Kayseri or Urfa rather than in Hatay.
The AKP government’s harsh anti-Assad stance, coupled with what is generally perceived as indirect as well as direct support for hard-line Islamist factions in the Syrian opposition, has politicized – and polarized – what should be a humanitarian issue. Aggravating the issue, rumors are circulating that Syrian refugees are receiving special privileges from the government, and that the refugees – who are assumed to be loyal to the AKP – will be allowed to vote in future elections. The opposition parties CHP and MHP also contribute to the polarization by further politicizing the refugee issue.
Until recently, Turkey turned a blind eye toward the flow of foreign as well as domestic jihadi fighters over the Turkey-Syria border, on their way to fight the Assad regime, believing it would help hasten its fall. Today, however, the Turkish government faces the prospect of Turkish jihadists returning home, worsening an already fragile security situation in the border provinces. The Turkish Government also fears that the rise of radical Islamists within Syria may create a safe haven for terrorists just south of its border. In response, Ankara has tightened border crossings, hoping to control the situation.
Meanwhile, the ongoing peace talks between the Turkish government and the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, promises to end the violence related to the Kurdish issue. One important reason for these talks is the Turkish government’s worry about the potential emergence of an autonomous – or even independent – Kurdish region on the other side of the Turkish-Syrian border. Such a development, it is believed, would encourage Turkey´s own Kurds to strive for independence and provide the PKK with another base for attacks into Turkey. Many PKK fighters have left Turkey to go to Syria to help its sister organization, the PYD (Democratic Union Party), to fight Syrian Islamists. The Turkish government has reportedly provided support for Islamist fighters in the hope of combating the PYD. However, as the PYD has consolidated its presence in parts of Northern Syria, the Turkish government has come to realize that it will have to solve its own Kurdish problem, or risk becoming more vulnerable to future attacks. As a consequence, the Turkish government has sped up the peace talks with the PKK, which, if successful, would not only improve the security situation in the east and southeast of Turkey, but also lead to increased economic growth in the country’s poorest region.
CONCLUSIONS: Given that the Syrian refugees will likely stay in Turkey for years to come, it is vital that they are integrated into Turkish society in order to minimize the negative effects of Syria’s civil war. Otherwise, the country will run the risks associated with having a marginalized and unemployed segment within the population. Thus far, the Turkish government has not done enough, especially as many of the state institutions dealing with the crisis have been focused on the refugee camps – and not on the much larger urban refugee population. The government needs to address the legal issues facing refugees, who find it difficult to obtain residence and work permits. Moreover, it needs to work toward defusing present sectarian tensions, and abstain from further politicizing the refugee issue, lest it risk conflict between locals and refugees.
Southern and southeastern Turkey need external support – both from the government and the international community – as these parts of the country bear a disproportionally large burden of the refugee crisis. Public services need to be expanded and ways need to be found to stimulate the local economy. Ultimately, the Syrian civil war will continue to negatively affect Turkey until its resolution – but measures can and should be taken to alleviate the pressure on those hardest hit by this crisis.
Jesper Åkesson was an intern with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center during June-August 2014. This article is based on field research in southeastern Turkey during July 2014.
(Image Attribution: T.C. Başbakanlık Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı, Wikimedia Commons)