On Thursday, we marked another World Refugee Day, which was
dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the
world. A lot has been said and written about the desperate plight of those who
have been forced to flee their homes. As the UN says on its website: “Every
minute, 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or
terror.” It seems we will continue to write this for many years to come.
Turkey, located between the Middle East and Europe, hosts
more refugees than any other country in the world. As one of the first
countries to establish a UN High Commissioner for Refugees regional office in
1960, Turkey’s hosting of refugees is not new. However, the Syrian war and
resultant arrival of millions of Syrian refugees has changed the dimension of
the story. Indeed, of the 6 million-plus Syrians who have fled their country
since April 2011, more than half are currently in Turkey.
According to Turkey’s Interior Ministry migration management
department, 415,000 Syrian babies have been born in Turkey since 2011, while
only around 100,000 of the 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey are older than 60.
Indeed, what to do with this large and continuously increasing number of
refugees has become a major issue, occupying much of the political space in
Turkey. The refugee flow has turned the warm welcome into grave concern, given
the fact that less than 10 percent of the refugees live in the camps.
Istanbul, where some 20 percent of the Syrian refugees in
Turkey are thought to live, is going to experience another mayoral election on
Sunday. Both candidates have made clear their stance on this issue. In a TV
debate last Sunday, the opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate
Ekrem Imamoglu said he would establish a special unit to address the Syrian
refugee issue in Istanbul. “We will hold a refugee population census,
especially among children,” he pledged. His counterpart from the ruling Justice
and Development Party (AKP), Binali Yildirim, said that the refugees would
ultimately return to Syria, adding that they would be sent to liberated areas
by the Turkish army.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has also said that
Turkey has a lot of ground to cover on refugee adaptation. The CHP has already
offered to establish an “immigration and integration commission” under the roof
of the Turkish Parliament in order to create a road map for negotiating the
Needless to say, the influx of Syrian refugees is an important factor that has had and will continue to have an effect on voting behavior in Turkey. Turks are highly divergent in their perceptions of Syrians. Today, there are a lot of complaints regarding the Syrians, ranging from security-related issues to their role in the labor market and educational problems. Prominent writer Gulse Birsel reflected on the polarized feelings toward Syrian refugees in a recent article. She wrote: “My feelings about the refugees fly between compassion and anxiety, sympathy and anger. It’s mixed. While it is a source of pride to hear that Turkey is the largest refugee-hosting country, the lack of planning and lack of integration programs for our guests is concerning me that these refugees will be the biggest problem of our future.”
Needless to say, the arrival of approximately 4 million
Syrian refugees has changed and is further changing Turkish society. It seems
to be having a long-term impact on at least one generation, with Turkey’s
demographics, politics and social landscape being shaped by that impact. While
politicians vow and most Turks hope that all the Syrians will eventually return
to their country, that possibility seems very weak for now. While there are
some returning to the liberated areas of the war-torn country, substantial
numbers of Syrians want to remain, especially taking into account the
businesses they have established in Turkey.
However, the main issue is the long-term integration of the refugees into Turkish society, which is something that has recently been acknowledged by Turkish politicians. Eventually, integration will become a necessity for social harmony, stability and peace. Therefore, it does not matter who wins the Istanbul election, as both candidates have promised that various integration methods should be pursued as early and thoroughly as possible. Such decisions will determine whether the long-term effects of the presence of Syrians in Turkey will be positive or not.