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Syrian refugees in Turkey and the changing concept of Turkish citizenship

A Syrian family is seen on a pick up truck with their belongings as they return to their homes Afrin and Idlib, after Turkish Armed Forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) took complete control of northwestern Syria's Afrin from PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and Daesh terror groups within the "Operation Olive Branch" on 24 March, 2018 [Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency]

Granting citizenship to Syrians in Turkey is a topic of discussion today more than ever before. So far, more than 50,000 Syrians have acquired Turkish citizenship. This has ignited debates among the Turkish public, primarily due to the provocative media coverage of the topic and increasing nationalism in Turkey.

Citizenship is considered a pillar of any long-term integration process. In this regard, there have been two major undertakings regarding the naturalisation of Syrians in Turkey: the change of discourse about Turkish citizenship and the change in practices of granting citizenship to Syrian refugees.

The changing discourse of Turkish citizenship

Since the early days of the republic, Turkish citizenship has been conservative and limited in nature. The Republic of Turkey built its notion of the nation-state and citizenship through a single ethnic, religious and cultural identity. Although non-Muslim groups were given legal status as minorities and therefore excluded from the ideal Turkish national identity, there were attempts to assimilate non-Turk Muslim groups – for example, the Kurds – into the ideal Turkish national identity.

The very definition of Turk is problematic, with the multi-ethnic imperial roots of the country giving “Turk” a religious definition rather than an ethnic one. Therefore, in the early republic, being a Turk wasn’t solely an ethnic identity but rather an ethnic and religious concept that represented the ideal national identity. Different political parties and political agendas have since challenged this conceptualisation. After years of ignoring the existence of ethnic minority groups, the former President of Turkey Süleyman Demirel was one of the few politicians to acknowledge “the Kurdish reality”. Demirel acknowledged the fact that Kurds in Turkey were not solely “mountain Turks”, as was claimed in the early republican period, but a non-Turk ethnic group which lives in Turkey.

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Although this acknowledgment did not make tangible differences to the state’s practices, it did break some of the taboos. Further, it demonstrated that the Turkish people cannot be considered homogeneously Turk. This issue was also brought onto the agenda by Turgut Özal, former Turkish President and Prime Minister. In this regard, Özal took serious steps to acknowledge the existing problems, such as lifting the long-imposed ban on speaking Kurdish. However, as a result of his sudden death in 1993 and the difficult political atmosphere, those steps did not end up making a great difference to the existing conflict.

It was not until the AK Party came to power that the demands of minorities were more vocally expressed and discussed. Following this, one of the major changes that took place was the removal of the “Andımız” (National Oath) that every student in Turkey had to learn by heart and recite every morning, denoting their pride in their Turkishness and proclaiming “how happy is the one who says I’m a Turk”. The AK Party’s liberal discourse and reforms, made under the reconciliation process, have continued until 2015 when the PKK terrorist organisation, internally known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, intensified its attacks and ended the unilateral ceasefire by declaring an open war.

Turkey has been one of the main country which has been welcoming Syrian refugees - Cartoon [MiddleEastMonitor]

Turkey has been one of the main country which has been welcoming Syrian refugees –
Cartoon [MiddleEastMonitor]

Although Turkish citizenship has been discussed mostly in light of the clashes with Kurdish identity and other minority groups, today Turkey is facing a very new conflict of identity regarding Syrians and other Arab minorities in Turkey. Without the necessary integration policies, the coming years will see more difficulties regarding this issue. As has been indicated by previous ethnic and religious minority group struggles, if Turkey pursues assimilatory policies it will fail in embracing this diversity.

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However, Turkey has a history from which these lessons can be learned. The development of better policies regarding Syrians should not only be retrieved from the demands and struggles of existing ethnic groups in Turkey, but also from Turkish migrants based in Germany and Western Europe who faced the difficulties of settling in another country. The unfortunate experiences of Turkish immigrants should guide policy-makers in their approach towards Syrian refugees and other immigrant groups in Turkey. The bad experiences of Türken raus! (Turks out!) should be used to avoid the mentality that underlines the discourse of Suriyeliler defolsun (Syrians out!).

Today, we are slowly but steadily seeing an increasing number of Syrians becoming Turkish citizens. This is important for Turkey in coming closer to a post-nationalist discourse, where different members of society would be absorbed more easily. However, this change should not be left in the hands of certain ideologies, rather legal pathways are needed for a long-term solution. Therefore, another important step regarding this issue is the institutionalisation of the naturalisation process.

Syrians should not be left in the hands of certain political ideologies

It should be acknowledged that the number of Syrians who have acquired Turkish citizenship is not high; so far around 50,000 Syrians have become Turkish citizens. The majority of these are Syrians who either have Turkish parents or a Turkish spouse, which legally enables them to acquire Turkish citizenship. Only a small number of people have acquired citizenship status through the exceptional citizenship law, which highlights an important issue regarding the legal pathways for integration.

Under the current system, a Syrian who is entitled to temporary protection status is not able to apply for Turkish citizenship, even if they fulfil the necessary requirements – such as 5 years of residency. The Ministry of Interior Affairs announced that they are working on entitling citizenship to those who would be beneficial to the nation in industry, science and education. Currently, Syrians cannot apply for citizenship individually, but the Ministry of Interior Affairs chooses which Syrians can be interviewed for the naturalisation process. In the short term, this is a very important step to provide the necessary rights for Syrians to be included in the labour market and be a part of the social and political community. However, in the longer term, Turkey does not have the necessary institutions to analyse the profiles of 3.5 million Syrians. Therefore, it is imperative to institutionalise the naturalisation process.

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This lack of institutionalisation also leaves the issue of naturalisation to be obfuscated by certain political ideologies. Just recently, the existence of Syrians in Turkey was addressed in the presidential and parliamentary election campaigns in Turkey. Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate of CHP (Republican People’s Party) who got the second highest results with 30 per cent of the vote, was pushing the rhetoric that: “72 thousand of them [Syrians] go to Syria for a holiday, later they are coming back. If you can stay in Syria for a week, then your conditions are proper. Why are you coming back to my country? If you are going for the Eid holiday, I will close the door, and you will stay there. Is this a food bank? People in my country are unemployed.” Similarly, Meral Aksener, the candidate of the IYI Party (Good Party), has promised to send “Syrian brothers” back home. Not only did these promises fail to acknowledge the political realities of Turkey and the region, but they also encouraged the xenophobic tendencies of people who weren’t happy with the fact that Syrians have become a permanent reality in Turkey. The campaign period also increased the fears of Syrians who are living in limbo. The elections resulted in an Erdogan’s landslide victory, and it would not be wrong to claim that many Syrians living in Turkey have embraced this result with relief. The election period showed us that the future of Syrians should not be left in the hands of certain political parties or figures, but rather in the hands of legal and institutional processes which should provide a durable path towards naturalisation and integration.

Syria: 560 killed, 2,000 injured in Eastern Ghouta in 9 days - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Syria: 560 killed, 2,000 injured in Eastern Ghouta in 9 days – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In this regard, the change of discourse on Turkish citizenship has been an important development since the early republic. This change should be strengthened with legal regulations and the institutionalisation of granting citizenship. Hence, granting Turkish citizenship to Syrians residing in Turkey on an exceptional basis should be transformed into a system which enables Syrians to apply for citizenship when they fulfil certain well-defined criteria. Only then will Turkish citizenship become a post-nationalist phenomenon.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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