President Erdogan’s out-of-the-blue announcement that millions of Syrians living in Turkey are to be given the chance to become citizens of the country has been met with widespread skepticism in society.
A poll, conducted by Metropoll in March this year, had shown that 83% of the population was against it, opposition running across the political spectrum.
Turkey, the biggest refugee hosting country in the world, is currently hosting about 3 million Syrians. Only a minority of the Syrians in Turkey live in refugee camps. Most of them live in towns and cities, spread around the country.
So, it is hardly surprising that the issue has been dominating the domestic agenda.
Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention but the Convention is ratified with a geographical limitation. Refugee status is granted only to Europeans. Syrians and other non-Europeans are given a temporary protection. Syrians fleeing their country to Turkey are not able to claim asylum. They are officially called “guests”, brothers and sisters, for the time being sheltering in Turkey.
This temporary protection mechanism does not provide Syrians the necessary legal framework that their large numbers require. Recent efforts to patch up legislation such as the 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection, bringing its treatment of non-European asylum seekers more closely in line with the convention’s provisions, are not enough to provide internationally accepted levels of protection or satisfactory access to basic services.
Denied full refugee rights, with limited access to health care, education, accommodation and lawful employment, most Syrians in Turkey live in dire circumstances. Many of them are destitute, at risk of exploitation and the most impoverished among them, highly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.
The increase in the number of beggars in the streets, rise in petty crime, growing prostitution and illegal marriages have a detrimental effect on attitudes to Syrians in the country. Clashes between local people and Syrian refugees are becoming more frequent. Involvement of Syrian nationals or people radicalized in Syria in recent terrorist attacks in Turkey have been spiralling distrust towards refugees.
Ignoring social unease or being complacent about growing tensions will only make matters worse.
The other side of the coin is deepening insecurity and hostility among Syrians towards their hosts.
Government inaction against Turkish citizens that treat Syrians in an inhumane and degrading manner, exploiting workers, abusing women and children is a big part of the problem.
The wretched spectacle of the current debate on Syrians in Turkey is a consequence of an ill-thought out, ineffective policy. It also bears testament to the fact that there is a deep streak of racism in Turkish society.
The xenophobic, inflammatory language used by many opposition politicians and the press, in reaction to the offer of citizenship to Syrians, is very disturbing. Inappropriate comments such as “I don’t want Syrians in my country” have been attracting very little condemnation from public figures who should know better.
There is much to criticize the government for its short-sighted, utterly incoherent Syria policy and for its failure to develop sustainable, long-term arrangements to accommodate millions of refugees that arrived in the country.
Much of the blame for the worsening security situation and the growing dissatisfaction with rapid demographic changes in the country lies squarely with the AKP government.
It was obvious that tying humanitarian action to narrow political interest was never going to end well. The casual way the President dropped the idea of granting citizenship to Syrians, raising suspicions that another careful political calculation was being made, once again proved that the lessons have not been learnt.
We are where we are, however we got here. The task is formidable and it cannot be wished away.
It is time to recognize that many of the Syrian refugees will never go back and both the politicians and the society at large have to find a workable, humane solution to integrate them to Turkish society.
This post is also available in: Turkish