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Syrian refugees in Turkey and their integration

Ihsan CetinThe situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey is increasingly tragic as the result of the ongoing bloody civil war in their home country; ever more refugees are crossing the border daily. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara, there were more than 500,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey by September; reports now say that that figure has now passed the 600,000 mark. Around a third of the refugees live in twenty-one camps; the rest struggle to make a living in rented apartments, stores, shacks or public parks in various cities around Turkey.

This is the first time in the history of the republic that Turkey has hosted such a large influx of refugees. Although migrants from Bulgaria, Bosnia and Albania have settled in Turkey in the past, the general sentiment of having shared origins with the Turks made it easier for them to build new lives and even obtain Turkish citizenship. Their integration into Turkish society was accomplished relatively easily when compared to the integration of the Syrian refugees. They have a unique dynamic.

As refugees, not immigrants, the Syrians cannot benefit from the laws allowing a person to obtain Turkish citizenship after living in Turkey for 5 years. Unlike immigrants from the Balkans, they do not have the advantage of coming from a shared ethnic background. Although there are Kurds, Turkmen and Caucasians among the Syrians, ethnically the majority are Arabs; Turkish society generally does not look kindly upon Arab identity. The Arab Revolt of 1916, which led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, is still very much in the Turkish consciousness, particularly among the elderly. Its scars present an obstacle for the integration of Syrian refugees. Moreover, according to official pronouncements, there is a clear governmental decision not to grant citizenship to the refugees, although this is being contested.

The Turkish government's policies and projections regarding Syria have more or less failed to materialise. As such, it is expected that the policy of registering the Syrians as refugees and not immigrants may also fail. According to current research, more than half of the refugees claim that they will return to Syria if and when the conflict ends. Most left family members and property behind so they are keen to return. The few who are leaning towards putting down roots in Turkey are the people who will contest the government decision to reject citizenship applications.

Several pathways to citizenship exist for those Syrians wishing to remain in Turkey. One of the most common is through marriage; a Syrian-Turkish marriage is not an uncommon event, particularly in the border regions. Since 2010, seventy-eight people have become Turkish citizens for exceptional reasons, which have not been explained by the government. Citizenship is also available through legal action; thousands of lawsuits have been filed by Syrians to obtain Turkish citizenship on the grounds of "ancestral bonds" with their Turkish relatives. A much smaller number of Syrian refugees already have dual citizenship. Finally, according to data provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, more than 5,600 babies have been born in Syrian refugee camps since 2011. These children are currently without citizenship but having been born on Turkish soil, and with their need and human right to have a nationality, a strong case can be made for them and their parents getting Turkish citizenship.

Syrian refugees now live in almost every region of Turkey. Since they are in the country unofficially, they cannot receive any aid from the government. This forces them to work in jobs at half the wages of a Turkish citizen; they get no insurance and they struggle to meet the high living costs. Savings brought with them from Syria don't last long in such difficult conditions and they depend on support from neighbours, relatives, friends and charities.

However, anti-refugee campaigns have also been in evidence. While they are generally limited to the internet, public demonstrations have taken place. The power of the dominant social group can affect not only the acceptance of the refugees (and even bona fide immigrants) but also their ability to stay in Turkey. As recently as last month, twenty-one Syrian refugees in Mersin, on the south coast, were evacuated as a result of the local furious reaction to the beating-up of a shopkeeper by Syrian men. He had tried to break up a fight among the refugees and their response to his intervention was both horrific and unwarranted; even so, the removal of twenty-one people for the crime of a few, due to public demand, reminds us of the hegemony of the majority over the minority. While it is tempting to regard such small-scale events as exceptional, there is no suggestion that xenophobic and racist actions against the refugees' presence will not happen again.

As the Syrians struggle to make ends meet, some get into business for themselves. Syrian bakeries have sprung up in a number of places; bread is sold in bags with Arabic writing on and it is the same shape and taste as that across the border. It is becoming common to see refugees selling Syrian products on the streets, such as coffee, spices and the aforementioned bread. Wealthier refugees have gone into business with Turkish partners.

It could be said that the Syrians will become integrated in Turkey as time passes. Certainly, their growing ability to speak the Turkish language has already facilitated their becoming more settled. However, it is difficult to assert that this process will end with integration, because it is a two-way process based not only on the willingness of the minority to adapt and join the wider society, but also for the majority to accept them.

With its collectivist social structure and limited experience with immigrants, it seems unlikely that Turkish society will welcome such a large number of newcomers with open arms. Unlike the US, Australia and some European countries that have long experience with minority communities, Turkey does not have a social history that includes coexistence with different immigrant groups; this is a new experience for the Turks. While there are African immigrants living in Istanbul whose number has increased over the past decade, their community is still small and they live only in particular districts of the city. In contrast, as well as clustering in cities close to the border, Syrian refugees have scattered around different cities all over the country. With the war across the border likely to last for some time yet, the number of refugees is only going to increase.

In time it is possible and even probable that the refugees' thoughts of returning to Syria will weaken while their links and bond with Turkey will strengthen. There is a strong possibility, therefore, that Turkey will face a situation similar to that of Germany, which once had a formative experience with Turkish immigrants who, in the 1960s, were described by the Germans as "guest workers" (gastarbeiter); they were expected to return home after a specific period of time. The workers laboured under the same impression and planned to go back to Turkey with the money they had saved. In other words, the temporary nature of their stay in Germany was agreed mutually by both parties. Things did not work out as planned, however, and permanent settlement in Germany became common as time passed and new generations were born. Eventually, most Turkish immigrants gained permanent resident status in Germany.

Neither the government nor any individual can guarantee that the same process will not occur with the Syrian refugees in Turkey. Although Ankara and Turkish society identify the Syrians as "temporary" the experience of Turks in Germany demonstrates that this status can itself be temporary.

While the refugee crisis is playing out, Turkey finds itself as the destination of choice for migrants from around the world. It is likely, therefore, that Turkey will face a situation similar to that which European countries have been experiencing for the last 50 years or more. The history of immigration across Europe suggests that this process of integration has been fraught with tension, violence and xenophobia. Anticipating such outcomes and working to mitigate their severity can help to lessen the pain of the process.

One may suggest that, as a result of these migration issues, the social structure of Turkey is changing in a permanent way. Turkish society, which is already moderately multicultural, will become more so by receiving new immigrant groups. If this continues, the biggest contribution to the new population will be by those Syrian refugees who appear to have decided to settle in Turkey.

As a political issue, the integration of Syrian refugees has the potential to supersede the Kurdish peace process and the preparation of a new constitution at the top of the list of priorities. In order not to have the problems of integration that some European countries have faced, Turkey must get accustomed to its growing identity as a country welcoming to migrants, and develop new policies and reforms to deal with this new reality.

Ihsan Cetin is a scholar at Cukurova University in Turkey and holds PhD degree on Sociology.

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