Erdogan Is Quietly Integrating Syrian Refugees to Gain More Voters, Wombs and Islamists

He is screaming that Turkey can't handle more refugees but if he really didn't want them, he'd stop creating so many

Erdogan gains more conservative Muslims and the EU helps pay for their integration

Erdogan is telling whoever will listen that Syrian refugees are a huge burden to Turkey and that Turkey can not possibly accommodate more, this accomplishes three things:

1. It assures the Turkish public that he shares their concerns about the pressure on the budget and wages and is on their side.

2. It comes handy when he goes to Brussels and demands the EU forks over billions in aid.

3. It comes handy when he claims a stake in how the Syrian civil war unfolds. It provides him with the superficially plausible argument that Syrian army offensives are huge burdens for Turkey as they create short-term refugee spikes.

Reality is different. To begin with, probably no single country has done more to make refugees of Syrians than Turkey has. Erdogan went from somebody whose wife took shopping trips with Bashar al-Assad’s wife, to someone who enthusiastically backed an armed insurgency and civil war against his erstwhile “friend” when he felt the opportunity to bring fellow Islamists (that he believed would look to him as a mentor) to power.

When that backfired and instead brought the rise of Kurdish power in eastern Syria and American backing for them, he tacitly aided ISIS, by keeping the border with them open (while keeping it closed to Kurds) and allowing it to raise money in Turkey openly.

He then went on to wage a limited offensive against ISIS (lest the Kurds and Americans do it before him) of the exact same kind that the Syrian army is now waging against al-Qaeda in Idlib.

Next, he invaded and largely ethnically cleansed the Kurdish-majority Afrin enclave, again creating more refugees (albeit these did not flee to Turkey).

Right now, he is the sole reason the Syrian civil war has not yet ended. He is doing everything to stall Syrian advances against al-Qaeda claiming they result in refugees, which is true in the short-term, but in the medium term, the defeat of al-Qaeda is necessary to end to the war which is when many of the refugees can start returning.

This seemingly counter-intuitive misalignment of goals and ends is better understood when you understand that in reality, Erdogan doesn’t mind the refugees a great deal at all, but wants many of them to stay.

The Syrian refugees in Turkey are uniquely well-integrated into the larger society. 98 percent live outside refugee camps, many hold jobs, and they are slowly beginning to be handed citizenship (this would be done faster but the Turkish voting public is against it).

This state of affairs is not accidental but is the outcome of efforts of the Turkish government which has, unlike all the other host countries, pursued a conscious policy of rooting the new arrivals.

For Erdogan retaining a million or two of the new arrivals accomplishes a couple of things:

1. It helps inject vitality into Turkish demographics. Turkey is a populous country and had been growing fast for decades but that is now over. The fertility among ethnic Turks (as opposed to ethnic Kurds) is under the replacement rate.

2. The new arrivals from rural Syria are more conservative than many Turks, helping with the re-Islamization of the country, and more importantly, can be counted on to become voters of Erdogan’s AKP.

3. The refugees are disproportionally located in southern Turkey which also happens to be territory that is contested between Turkey and the Kurdish nationalist PKK. More non-Kurds helps Turkey keep that for itself.

Keep in mind that while the refugees are Arab that is not a problem for Turkish Islamists. Islam and Islamism are cosmopolitan to start with, and Anatolian Turkey in particular, accommodated numerous non-Turkish Muslim refugees from the outskirts of a receding empire in the late 19th and early 20th century.

These “muhajirs”, for example, Circassians from the Caucasus, or Slavic Muslims from the Balkans have long since been assimilated and Erdogan is counting the same will be the case with Syrians.

Of course, all of this has to be balanced out against Erdogan’s immediate electoral concerns. So sometimes you will see Turkey close the border, even fire on refugees trying to enter, but that doesn’t mean there is any serious commitment or desire to see the Syrians already in Turkey repatriate in entirety.

And that’s why Erdogan doesn’t care if the war in Syria goes on, and on, and on.

Because Turkey’s refugee problem is much less of an issue for him than he claims.

More about the Syrians’ situation in Turkey:

Largest number of refugees

Since the start of the conflict in Syria more than seven years ago, Turkey has hosted a steadily increasing number of refugees from that civil war.

The country is now home to the largest number of refugees worldwide, reaching around 4 million people today. Syrians make up about 3.7 million of them, 44% of whom are children.

To put this in perspective, Pakistan hosts the second-largest population of refugees at a little less than 1.5 million; most of those refugees are Afghans and Somalis. Germany, which started with an open door policy for Syrian refugees in 2015, hosts just over 1 million refugees, just over half of whom are Syrians. The United States has increasingly limited its numbers for refugee resettlement, with the strongest impact on Syrians.

Integrated into Turkish life

Ninety-eight percent of the Syrian population in Turkey live in local communities, not in refugee camps or temporary protection settlements. The situation of Syria’s refugee population is considered by the U.N. as “protracted,” or long-term, which means the refugee group has been exiled for five or more years in a country that has given them asylum.

Turkey does not officially recognize Syrians as refugees under international refugee law; the country recognizes only asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Europe. Turkey has put in place a temporary protective status which allows all Syrians and other asylum seekers to receive public services, including health care and education. Turkey claims it has spent US$45 billion supporting the refugees.

Turkey also now allows this population to be employed legally, including seasonal agricultural work and animal husbandry. According to the U.N., since 2016 when the relevant law came into effect, more than 60,000 work permits have been issued to Syrians. It is estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million Syrian refugees with protected status currently work in informal or irregular employment. Some Syrians have received resident or even citizenship status.

The United Nations and hundreds of international nongovernmental organizations, such as Save the Children, also provide assistance to Turkey and local municipalities as well as directly to refugees and their host communities. Turkish nongovernmental organizations are also very active.

Programs offered to refugees cover basic food needs, education, Turkish language training, health care and legal support, including for domestic violence victims.

The EU alone has invested more than 2 billion euro in humanitarian funding for Turkey’s Syrian refugees along with other forms of financial assistance to the country.

Poverty persists

Yet the situation of many Syrian refugees in Turkey is not easy. The United Nations estimates that over 64% of Syrian households in cities live close to or below the poverty line.

The challenge to Turkey in hosting such a large refugee population goes beyond temporary humanitarian assistance, to the social and economic future of the country. Many municipalities in Turkey have embraced programs that seek to integrate rather than isolate the refugees, improving the urban environment for all inhabitants. There are risks to social, political and economic stability for the country if refugees are marginalized and grievances of host communities are not addressed.

Some analysis indicates that many Turks expect large portions of Syrians to remain in the country, even if the conflict in Syria comes to an end.

To return – or not

Turkey has a responsibility under international law not to return Syrians to Syria if they would face torture, violence or persecution. This rule of nonreturn – called “non-refoulement” – is a core principle of international law related to refugees and incorporated into human rights standards prohibiting torture and other inhuman treatment.

The principle was integrated into domestic law by Turkey in 2011.

Despite not recognizing the Syrians as refugees, Turkey is obligated to uphold the rule of nonreturn, which is generally accepted by all countries. This means that any concrete move by Erdogan to forcefully return large numbers of Syrians to Syria would be met with considerable resistance by Turkey’s allies.

According to the U.N. refugees agency, the majority of Syrians living in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq hope to return to Syria one day. At the same time, some studies on Syrians in Turkey specifically indicate that many have positive feelings about integration and want to remain in Turkey.

While Turkey still faces the prospect of U.S. sanctions over the invasion of Syria and military operation against the Kurds, the current cease-fire agreement with the U.S. keeps Turkey’s goal intact of a safe zone on its border free of Kurdish fighters. The current situation in northern Syria isn’t peaceful and is reportedly creating new refugees who are fleeing to Iraq.

According to the U.N., returning home under safe conditions continues to be the solution of choice for refugees. This would require an internationally accepted peace process in Syria and a voluntary system of refugee return. This is the scenario in which Syrian refugees would probably prefer to return to their homes.

Even then, it seems likely that many Syrians will remain in Turkey forever.

  1. Grand Nagus Zek says

    been going on for years now. wife is from Mersin and her home town is chock full of them.
    this is how he is shoring up his voting base. He would be gone otherwise, sadly

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