Turkey’s refugee crisis: humanitarian response and integration

Almost two years after the agreement between Turkey and the EU, Ankara is struggling to keep up with its own “open-border” policy and European financial funds cannot compensate anymore. Although the Syrian conflict is coming to an end, integration and inclusion remain a long-term issue as well as creating the best conditions on the Syrian soil to support the flow back to the other side of the Turkish border. But is Erdogan’s inclusion and citizenship policy a mere compassionate action or is there an ulterior motive to pursue these humanitarian ideals?

Migration is considered an issue as long as European borders are questioned and threatened, otherwise it is to be underestimated. Indeed, the unprecedented crisis that Turkey has been facing was not thoroughly analyzed nor given enough importance. While Turkey response to such an escalating crisis has been almost impeccable, considering that EU funds do not cover all the expenses, both the European Union’s values and the agreement signed between the two parts proved to be quite a failure: instead of prioritizing asylum seekers rather than economic migrants, the new system has peacefully convinced Europe to give up on its responsibility towards refugees and transfer it on its new ally in exchange of the acceleration of the visa liberalization procedure and a fund of €3 billion to cover all kind of expenses.  Turkey’s capacity has reached a saturation point, but Europe is keeping its eyes closed, pretending that money can fix a humanitarian crisis.

Turkey alone hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, that’s to say around 52% of them, while the EU only 15%. Even though  the armed conflict in Syria and Iraq is coming to an end, refugees are unlikely to return to their destroyed homes very soon, which makes the issue of integration quite urgent and long-term. Despite what we see in pictures or documentaries, most of the refugees (92%) are actually living in urban areas, while a small share is to be found in camps. So, most of them are struggling to make ends meet despite their debit cards with 120 Turkish lira (around €30) per month and despite their low-paid informal jobs which allow them to have a barely decent housing.

These two factors are also contributing to marginalization, exclusion and ghettofication: lower incomes force refugees to settle in poor areas, create clusters and their own support community; besides, since most of them do not benefit from any work permit, they are more vulnerable to exploitation and lower wages in the informal market, which makes them more appealing to employers, to the detriment of the local people. Therefore, it is also quite easy to imagine why the employment issue plays a major role in both social and economic inclusion: the perception that the refugees are stealing local people’s jobs is quite rooted and does not help social integration in the community. On the other hand, cheap labor force has had a positive impact on the Turkish economy and investments. Many Syrians have even moved their investments to their host country, as the Turkey’s Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency stated.

Nevertheless, integration is not the only issue, at the least if we look at the bigger and long-term picture: Syrian refugees are not “real” migrants and the majority of them are still considering going back when the war is over. According to an academic study by Hacettepe University in Ankara, 52% of 14,700 Syrian students admitted they would go back, while 27% of them rejected the idea. This means that creating ideal conditions on the Syrian soil for the refugees to go back needs to become a priority as well: until now, Turkey has tried to keep as many refugees as possible in Syria and provided any kind of humanitarian support, though an open-border policy has been maintained; then-deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş stated: “We are not in a position to tell them not to come. If we do, we would be abandoning them to their deaths”. Also, Turkish President Erdogan called for a greater support from the international community and the creation of safe zones in Syria, a controversial proposal due to safety concerns: they could easily become a hub for terrorists.

Even though Erdogan keeps on accusing and blaming the international and European communities for being blind, he continues to pursue the “open-border” policy. But is he doing that out of the goodness of his heart or are Syrian refugees a means to an end? While considering refugees and migrants as an economic burden and a security issue are two constant factors in the perception of foreigners, the peculiar situation in Turkey implies a third factor which is deeply influencing the implementation and success of the integration policies: Syrian refugees are seen as a pawn to reshape national identity and the possibility of granting them the Turkish citizenship is widely considered as a political strategy for the next elections to come.

The ethnic-sectarian and cultural environment in Turkey is so diverse and complex that it is quite wrong to assume that this is the best country for refugees to settle in because they are Sunni Arabs as most of  the Turkish citizens. Neglecting this complexity has been causing some frictions, especially among Alawites, Kurdish nationalists, liberals and secularists. These groups consider refugees as a threat to the country’s demographic balance and national identity, especially in those areas where Alevis extraordinarily outnumber Sunni Muslims. Besides the potential for Sunnification in a country where Sunni Muslims already represent a majority, the proposal of granting Syrian refugees the Turkish citizenship is feared even by liberals and secularists, who look at it as an electoral strategy of the AKP, Erdogan’s party, to consolidate his power, gain votes for the next elections and head to theocratic conception of State.

While this latest scenario is an internal case, the humanitarian crisis that Turkey is facing almost alone is not: financial funds cannot make up for its actual capacity, but the international and the European institutions seem to be waiting for the Syrian conflict to end and the humanitarian crisis to solve on its own.


  • Turkey’s Refugee Crisis: The Politics of Permanence, International Crisis Group, Europe Report N°241, 30 November 2016
  • Refugee, Asylum-Seeker and Migrant Perceptions, Mixed Migration Platform, Survey Report, 25 August 2017
  • The Syrian Conflict and Turkey’s Humanitarian Response, Turkish Policy Quarterly, 20 December 2016
  • Spotlight: 3.3 mln Syrian refugees registered in Turkey, int’I response expected, New China, 7 September 2017
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