Globally, mass migration and refugee concerns provide a significant challenge to countries and international organisations. Turkiye, on the other hand, is praised for its ability to host the largest refugee community in the world now, and for its resilience and ability to manage refugee inflows from its neighbours and conflict-ridden regions.
For Turkiye, mass migration and refugees en masse are not a new phenomena; the country has long hosted various displaced individuals from the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and beyond. A combination of factors explains the paradigmatic shift Turkiye has undergone. Turkiye has maintained its political stability and economic growth against all odds, compared to its volatile neighbours. Thanks to its EU bid and growing prominence in world politics under the current government, it has undergone legislative reforms involving the acceptance and accommodation of refugees. These features, together with other geographical and cultural characteristics, make the country an obvious choice for people fleeing death and persecution, as well as those seeking a better life.
Turkiye pursued an open-door policy
Turkiye now is home to 3.7 million Syrian refugees, apart from more than 200.000 Syrians who were granted Turkish citizenship after 2012. Back in 2012, Turkiye pursued an open-door policy and accepted all Syrians, irrespective of their ethnicity and religion when the Assad regime paid no heed to the reformation demands of the opposition groups and started massacring them with the help of the Iranian militia and Russian jets.
When the Obama administration declared it a "fantasy" for Syrian opposition fighters to win the war with US artillery, it meant open season for the regime and its protectors. The "strategic stalemate" – in the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen's words – has been created and prolonged via proxy organisations, first the Daesh and then the PKK-affiliated PYD and its branch YPG, leading to the world's largest displacement crisis. While the former caused death, injury and calamity to Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Yezidis and Turkmens, as well as the destruction of Syrian cities, the latter never fought the regime, suppressed all Kurdish political parties and killed all dissidents, including well-known Kurdish political actors like Mashaal Temmo.
Millions of Syrians escaped the regime's atrocities and these terrorist groups. In order to eradicate the threats posed by these terrorist groups and strengthen its border security, Turkiye erected a 4-meter high wall along 98 per cent of its land border with Syria and created safe zones in northern Syria after 4 successful military operations.
European countries never kept their promises
Both the Assad regime and Russia strategically forced Syrians to relocate both within and beyond the nation, similar to what Russia has been doing in Ukraine since February 2022. Turkiye's response to this coercive pressure by opening its borders saved millions of lives and potentially the future of Syria. Almost half a million Syrian babies have been born in Turkiye since 2011, and Turkiye's humanitarian and responsible approach to forced migration alleviated the situation. Framing the influx of Syrians as a "crisis", particularly in 2014 and 2015, European countries have shunned their responsibility to protect by agreeing to share the burden of Turkiye, but never kept their promises.
At the initial stages of the mass exodus of Syrians, Turkiye established temporary accommodation centres along the border and inside the country, most of which have been gradually shut down. Today, only 50,043 Syrian refugees reside in temporary accommodation centres, and the rest of the Syrian refugees live in city centres. Turkish cities today host Syrian refugees with varying proportions, with Istanbul and south-eastern cities holding the highest numbers. Kilis, a south-eastern Turkish city on the Turkish-Syrian border, has a Syrian refugee to local population ratio of 38.4 per cent, which is unimaginable in most European cities.
Facilities for Syrians in Turkiye
All registered Syrian refugees in Turkiye are granted temporary protection under Law 6458 and have access to free healthcare. In addition, 185 EU-funded Refugee Health Centres cater to Syrian refugees in 29 Turkish cities to overcome language barriers. In these centres, almost 4,000 Syrian health personnel are employed.
To meet Syrian refugees' basic needs, the Turkish Red Crescent, in conjunction with Halkbank, created the Red Crescent Card concept to provide allotted relief amounts to persons in need, while saving time and avoiding logistical activities. Cardholders can complete their shopping without using cash by transferring money specified by the Turkish Red Crescent into their own Red Crescent Card accounts.
Enrolment in primary education reached 65 per cent, thanks to favourable legislation and exceptional initiatives. 730,086 Syrian students were enrolled in Turkish schools in January 2022, with 40,547 attending pre-school, 313,695 attending primary school, 268,753 attending secondary school and 107,812 attending high school. Nearly 1.5 million Syrians have attended free courses, mainly aimed at teaching the Turkish language and vocational skills, at public education centres between 2014 and 2021.
Integration of Syrians
During the initial stages of mass migration, Turkiye accepted and ensured the smooth integration of Syrian university students into the country's higher education system by approving their certificate and statement when no other documentation was available. In time, Syrian university students under temporary protection registered in Turkish universities for the 2020-21 academic year totalled 47,482 or 21 per cent, making them the largest group of international students in Turkiye. This means that 9.5 per cent of the 500,000 Syrian refugees aged 19 to 24 were enrolled in Turkish higher education institutions, which is higher than the global refugee enrolment rate of 5 per cent.
In 2019, Syrian refugees started 15,159 businesses, employing more than ten thousand Syrian workers. Syrian artists in Istanbul, in particular, have benefited from and contributed to Turkiye's artistic and cultural life.
Voluntary return of Syrians
Overall, Turkiye has the longest land border with Syria and has been the most affected by the developing catastrophe and forced migration. Turkiye has done its part in the refugee crisis; now it is up to the West and the rest of the world. Initially, Ankara adopted an "open-door policy" toward Syrians fleeing conflict and terrorist attacks and exerted tremendous effort to persuade the Coalition, which was formed under American leadership, to stop the Assad regime's massacre of Syrians, and eliminate the threat posed first by Daesh and, later, by PYD/YPG, and establish a "safe zone" in northern Syria to facilitate a voluntary return. However, these efforts were in vain.
Using its right to self-defence as recognised in Article 51 of the UN Charter and customary international law and to secure its southern border and stop further refugee influx, Turkiye felt compelled to launch military operations in northern Syria in cooperation with the Syrian National Army. The safe zones lessen the need to approach the Turkish border and act as a vital barrier against new migrant flows by providing a safe sanctuary for the civilian population and facilitating the voluntary return of Syrians to areas where life has been returned to normal.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.