A critical threshold

Snapshot of the Syrian Refugee
Situation in Turkey

By Sarah Slye

Prior to the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, Syria had a population of 22 million. Almost 4 million have fled the country since then, and 7.5 million are now internally displaced. This leaves less than half of the people in Syria still in their homes, and despite the efforts of U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura and his predecessors, the conflict shows no sign of abatement. Many observers fear it will continue indefinitely or perhaps even expand, destabilizing neighbouring countries.[1]

As University of Arizona professor Leila Hudson, an expert on Syria, told Europe Insight, “The conflict can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future.” And according to a report published by the UN Security Council on 23 July, widespread fighting continues among the parties, and it is “characterized by widespread disregard for the rules of international humanitarian law and the parties’ obligation to protect citizens”.[2] Thus, unmitigated conflict combined with brutalization of the civilian population could result in Syrians continuing to flee the war-torn country at the same rates as before or at an increased rate.

Indeed, if the situation continues to deteriorate as many expect it to do, the desperation of people – especially young men – to flee will only increase. Although Professor Hudson thinks that life goes on somewhat normally for many people in Assad-controlled territories, where the main effects of the war are found in currency inflation and economic depression, she has also observed a recent surge in young men seeking to make it through the border. Some of the reasons for this are “rumours of German citizenship, increased danger to young men from an undermanned Syrian military and fear of missing the opportunity to flee as borders tighten from Turkey to Hungary” she said.

On the other hand, certain factors may ultimately limit the outflow of those fleeing Syria. For example, Turkey has ended its open door policy and the Turkey-Syria border is becoming increasingly militarized, Syrians abroad are cautioning their relatives not to risk a perilous overland or oversea journey to an uncertain future, and arguably only a fraction of the IDPs will leave Syria because, as Professor Hudson explained, “people will be able to move internally to the territory where their families, tribes and coreligionists are aligned with the governing power as Syria fragments into armed camps”.

Whether Syrians continue to leave their homeland in large numbers or not, nearby states are already struggling to accommodate millions of asylum-seekers who seemingly showed up overnight. According to the most recent UNHCR data, 629,000 are now hosted by Jordan – even though its own population only totals about 6,800,000; this means one in ten persons in Jordan today is a Syrian refugee. The situation is even more critical in Lebanon, where there are over 1,150,000 refugees for a population of approximately 4,460,000.[3]

Although Turkey – currently hosting the world’s greatest number of refugees[4] – has a larger overall population of about 77 million,[5] the majority of the close to 2 million Syrian refugees in that country are located in the five border provinces of Gaziantep, Hatay, Kilis, Mardin, and Şanliurfa where they now make up about 10% of the local population.[6] Moreover, according to a January report by the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), “Effects of the Syrian Refugees on Turkey”,  85% of these refugees do not reside in monitored camps (16 tent cities, 6 container cities and 1 temporary admission center) but rather find alternative solutions such as staying with relatives, renting shelters, or sometimes even squatting. To make matters worse, refugees outside of camps receive little direct support from international organizations or the government. This massive and partially uncontrolled population inflow creates an unsustainable situation where, as the report states, “Turkey is now hosting many more Syrians than its critical threshold.”[7]

Elif Mujen Şencan from the Support To Life (Hayata Destek) organization explained to Europe Insight that despite the enormous amount of sympathy shown by Turkish citizens towards Syrians, the imposition of so many unexpected visitors has given rise to social and economic tensions. Social issues include security concerns, demographic changes, decreased access to health care, utilities cuts, marital problems, and a lowered quality of life in general. Economic factors contributing to strained relations between the local and migrant populations are perceived competition for low-wage jobs, some businesses hiring migrants illegally and paying lowered wages, increased rental rates, and inflation.

Until recently, refugees had only a “guest” status and lacked the right to work, which left them at the mercy of handouts and potentially abusive employment situations. But, on the basis of the new Law on Foreigners and International Protection (2013), Syrian refugees now enjoy temporary protection as “conditional refugees”, a status which grants them the right to apply for work permits.[8] Moreover, according to the Hurriyet Daily News, Labour and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik announced in November 2014 that the government would begin issuing temporary work permits.[9] To those working directly with refugees, however, little seems to have changed yet on the ground. To make matters worse, employment opportunities are especially limited in those areas where the highest concentrations of migrants are found. As Ms. Şencan pointed out, there was no great need for labourers in the border areas even before the crisis began.

Thus, despite the fact that the bulk of Syrian refugees remain near the border, where they may have relatives or can more easily maintain ties with their compatriots and home, there is a significant outflow into other regions and cities in Turkey of refugees driven by the need to find a less strained existence and seek gainful employment. At present, data from the Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs provided by ORSAM indicates there are approximately 330,000 refugees in Istanbul; 50,000 in Adana, Mersin, Konya and Kahramanmaraş; 30,000 in Ankara; 20,000 in Bursa and Batman; between ten and twenty thousand in Şırnak, Kocaeli, Izmir, Osmaniye and Antalya; and lesser numbers in cities as far away as Samsun on the Black Sea coast.

According to the pattern observed by Ms. Şencan, most of these refugees are very resourceful and help each other by sharing accommodation and knowledge as they collectively spread from the border territories into areas where they can contribute to the economy and enter less-saturated labour markets. Thus, it would be unfair to say that the Syrian refugees are nothing more than a drain on the Turkish economy. Moreover, ORSAM reports that of the very few criminal incidents involving migrants, they tended to appear as the victims.

On the other hand, there is an observable phenomenon where roving bands of people claiming to be refugees from Syria descend upon one city after another to beg in the street. “These seem to be Turkmens of Syrian origin,” said Esra Nur Terzibaşi, a Trabzon tile maker who created a non-profit organization in order to help destitute refugees. “I couldn’t just ignore their plight, so I met with the local bar association and we registered ‘Peace’. We collect a certain sum each month from various community members. It is used to pay rent for different families and to purchase furnishings, clothing and kitchen appliances. I’ve bought roughly 30 refrigerators so far. They are extremely important. Otherwise, costly food gets wasted.”

Ms. Terzibaşi’s organization also provides guidance and counseling to refugees, informing them of their rights and how to access health care and educational opportunities. She explained to Europe Insight that whenever indigents appeared in the town, the government was simply rounding them up and sending them back to the camps. “I told them they would better use that money by helping them settle here,” she said. “So now if they are living in a home they receive some aid in the form of money, coal or coupons from the provincial and municipal authorities. But those who are seen begging in the streets are still sent back to camps.”

None of the informants interviewed by Europe Insight for this article believed that the international community or European countries, in particular, were doing enough to help Syrian refugees in Turkey. “According to international refugee law, all responsibility falls on the state receiving the refugees, and Turkey is taking this responsibility very seriously,” said Ms. Şencan. “But if you look at resettlement, European countries are accepting relatively few applicants. Moreover, Turkey receives the least amount of monetary aid relative to Jordan or Lebanon, primarily due to the impression that Turkey is handling the crisis comparatively well.”[10]

It seemed to Ms. Terzibaşi that Europe only accepts the most highly educated and desirable immigrants, leaving Turkey to deal with all the rest. And a Syrian man working for a European NGO who preferred to remain anonymous, thinks that Europe is taking the wrong people. “Europe is seeking to provide assistance and help but always gives access to the wrong ones. More than 25% of those issued residence permits were working in the Gulf region or other neighbouring countries not affected by the war. Those residing in camps or who do not have shelter are the ones who deserve asylum.”

As far as resettlement patterns, it is true that European countries are accepting relatively few migrants. According to a UNHCR report from June 2014, “Syrian Refugees in Europe: What Europe Can Do to Ensure Protection and Solidarity”, in 2013-2014, the European countries (not including Great Britain) pledged only 31,817 confirmed and unconfirmed places to vulnerable Syrian refugees.[11] To be fair, Oxford Professor Dawn Chatty told the website Syria Deeply that Germany and Sweden have each accepted about 50,000 applicants even though other European countries are more reluctant to make any commitments.[12]

In financial terms, Turkish Minister for European Union Affairs Volkan Bozkir stated in July that Turkey has spent over $6bn on Syrian refugees while the EU has done nothing but promise $70m.[13] While the European Commission states that it has already funnelled $3.7bn into assisting people affected by the Syria crisis and has promised to increase its funding for refugees and IDPs by $200m in 2015, it is possible that these funds are going primarily towards humanitarian efforts in Syria or the camps in Lebanon and Jordan. If so, this leaves the Turkish state and concerned Turkish citizens shouldering the greatest burden in accommodating the ongoing inflow of Syrian refugees into Turkey itself. “Unfortunately, sympathy and goodwill are not a reliable mechanism for providing for two million refugees,” said Ms. Şenjan. “We definitely can’t manage two million more without help.” Minister Bozkir would agree.[14]

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