ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkey, which hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, currently is home to around 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data. Many of the Syrian youth had to leave their home country at a very young age and now live in Turkey’s major cities. Amidst an economic crisis that has taken hold of Turkey this year, Syrian youth struggle to find sources of income and face the threats of poverty and increased violence and discrimination.
The Shift of Attitudes Towards Syrian Refugees in Turkey
Hadi Abdallah, a 24-year-old from Damascus City, Syria, had to leave his home country for Turkey in 2015. “In the beginning, I refused to leave my family and my country no matter what. But the situation kept getting worse every day. I’ve lost count of my friends and people that died. What we saw in the war still haunts me to this day,” he told The Borgen Project in an interview.
When Abdallah first arrived at the borders of Turkey, a welcoming community greeted him. However, this welcome didn’t last long. “Right now there is a huge difference in the treatment I get in Turkey compared to when I first came. I always have to try more than local people to fit in with the country’s culture and do what the community considers is ‘right’ as a refugee.”
Eleven years after agreeing to host Syrian refugees, Turkey’s attitudes towards them have sharply changed. Around 98.5% of Syrians in Turkey under temporary protection live in camps in places already facing severe development issues according to the World Bank, such as education, housing and employment.
Although an EU-Turkey deal in 2016 provided Turkey with humanitarian aid to address the development issues of Syrians in Turkey, this has not been sufficient. Dr. Fatma Yilmaz-Elmas, a researcher at Istanbul Bilgi University European Institute, talked with The Borgen Project about the shortcomings of this deal. “In the concrete framework of the 2016 Turkey-EU deal, we have not seen a reflection of a migrant-centered approach. The recent European approach has been focusing on keeping the Syrians away from its external borders. It tries to compensate for this approach by just giving financial support. The deal allows the EU to ignore many concrete critics over democratic standards and human rights in Turkey at the expense of keeping refugees out.”
Despite the EU’s financial support, recent economic troubles in Turkey have made the lives of Syrian refugees in Turkey even more precarious. With discrimination and outright violence breaking out in many major cities of the country, Syrians are facing threats to their lives every day. Areas like Bagcilar in Istanbul have a large Syrian community and recently there has been an outbreak of violence against Syrians.
An attack occurred on a 22-year-old Syrian in June this year, a sign of escalation of recent aggression towards Syrians. “When we look at the development of refugees-host community relationships in many countries, economic depreciation marks a discernible turning point for the scapegoating of refugees and the Turkish experience is not an isolated case.” Emre Yavuz, a current affairs analyst and researcher for Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENAF) told The Borgen Project. “Although there were frictions between host communities and refugees in Turkey prior to the onset of the Turkish currency and debt crisis, it has undeniably been transformed into significant social tension in recent years.”
Economic and Social Barriers for Syrians
For Abdallah, this discrimination has become a regular part of his life. “In my experience, a company will always treat a refugee as a last and final choice and won’t give you the same opportunity as compared to a local person,” he explained. “Although a refugee applicant could have all the documents and necessary qualifications and experience, they will still be treated as the very last choice.”
Many Syrians are thus forced to seek jobs in the informal market where they are increasingly prone to exploitation. This is in large part due to the fact that Syrians are not officially recognized by Turkey as refugees but rather placed under temporary protection status, leaving them without the protection that comes with that label. This temporary protection status, according to Yavuz, “is not on par with the refugee regime; hence, many Syrians find jobs in the informal labor market due to the cumbersome bureaucratic mechanisms.”
This lack of official recognition by the state also manifested recently in the deportation of hundreds of Syrians in 2022. “Temporary protection status falls short and has challenges in many parts of the integration, including their economic participation,” said Dr. Yilmaz-Elmas. “This temporariness is a reason for the inertia of local authorities in handling social cohesion issues.”
With Turkey’s inflation rates soaring up to almost 85% in October 2022, anger towards Syrian refugees has increased. “In such an environment, the populist movement is beginning to fill the vacuum. They represent themselves as the remedy for their concerns,” Dr. Yilmaz-Elmas explained. This process makes the Syrian refugees in Turkey feel uncomfortable about their situation and their future in the country.”
Looking Towards the Future
There have been some efforts to help Syrian refugees living in Turkey. The Government of Turkey, along with the European Union and the World Bank, has employed employment support programs such as the Employment Support Project for Syrians under Temporary Protection and Turkish Citizens (ISDEP) which aims to train and support communities. Another program, the Development of Businesses and Entrepreneurship for Syrians under Temporary Protection and Turkish Citizens, has helped Syrian business owners in starting their own businesses, according to the World Bank.
However, a focus on developing policies that help Syrians assimilate into the community is necessary. “A more comprehensive approach is necessary to handle the situation of Syrian refugees by accepting the reality that many of them will not go back to their homeland,” says Dr. Yilmaz-Elmas.
Furthermore, equipping Syrian communities with the necessary skills to enter the formal job market could provide them with more permanent economic relief. “I think the number of evidence-based studies should increase to assess the exact impact of Syrians on the Turkish economy and create a policy pathway,” Yavuz told The Borgen Project. “Turkey should spiral out of the irrational anxiety around Syrian refugees and start thinking about the next step.”
– Umaima Munir