Over the last decade, Turkey has grown to become one of the nations hosting the most refugees worldwide. People fleeing violence and the lack of economic opportunities flock from countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria to Turkey in hope of a better future. Currently, Turkey hosts more Syrian refugees than all other nations combined. Despite welcoming them since the early days of the conflict, granting them access to free healthcare and public schools, their actual status inside Turkey remains uncertain. Syrians arriving in Turkey are offered temporary protection but are expected to return as soon as hostilities wind down. However, due to Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian regime, the war drags on and people are therefore not expected to return anytime soon. 

Meanwhile, the ruling AKP reconsidered their open-door strategy by building an EU-sponsored 764km long border fence along the Syrian border. Additionally, Turkey launched a large invasion into Northern Syria, with the aim of establishing a safe-zone in order to enable the safe return of Syrians. However, this idea has to be treated cautiously as Turkey is using this pretext to legitimise their military offences against Kurds, who have traditionally inhabited the border region.

The uncertain future of the Syrians in Turkey is leading to a surge in anti-Arab resentments among Turkish society. In the midst of a major economic downturn, Turkish public opinion has become quite adverse to hosting the approximately 3.35 million Syrians any longer. According to a survey conducted by the university of Kadir Has, over 66% of the respondents indicated that they are not happy with the Syrian presence in Turkey. This public resentment has been translated into a political message during the 2019 municipal elections which resulted in the AKP’s loss of all major cities. A historical achievement of the opposition which successfully materialised the Syrian presence against the ruling party. The main reasons stated for the unwillingness to host Syrian refugees any longer are the rise in unemployment and the fear of Islamo-Arab cultural imperialism. Thanks to the entrepreneur-friendly environment in Turkey, most Syrians that managed to evacuate some savings out of Syria, open up small businesses. Those arriving without any money in their pockets usually end up in the informal textile industry. 

Due to their fragile situation, Syrians are often eager to work long hours for low salaries without any social protection. Their arrival can therefore be seen as a chance for Turkish business operators but as competition for low-skilled Turkish workers. Contrary to the economic argument having some truth to it, the accusation that Syrians might change the secular nature of the Turkish Republic is widespread but simply ridiculous. In 10 years, the former Kemalist republic has seen the construction of nearly 9000 mosques and a significant rise in hate crimes towards minorities. Since his ascent to power, Erdoğan has been pushing a culturally-conservative agenda, by financing the construction of religious institutions in and outside of Turkey. Thus, Turkish citizens who have voted in favour of the AKP are rather to blame for jeopardising Turkey’s secular values than Syrians fleeing Russian bombs. 

Not only the opposition is politicising the presence of refugees on Turkish soil but also Erdoğan himself uses them as a pressure tool against the European Union. The first wave of refugees back in 2014 strongly affected the EU’s internal cohesion and led to the rise of conservative, EU-critical parties all around the continent. In order to assure its survival, the EU realised the need for action and initiated a strategy that would aim at preventing refugees from reaching European ground. Countries situated on the outer borders of the EU, such as Turkey, Libya, Morocco or Bosnia, thus became the watchdogs of the Union. 

The European taxpayer’s money was spent on securing the external borders by constructing fences and arming border guards instead of investing these funds into proper accommodation. The EU wants to spread despair among arrivals by keeping reception centres in a desolate state in order to demotivate anyone else to seek refuge in Europe. Was this policy of deterrence successful? Partially – over the last few years, fewer people arrived at the European outer borders, however, the reason for this trend is rather among the more and more perilous routes taken and the increasingly violent “border protection”. Thus, the problem is not solved but pushed outside of the public’s attention. The EU outsources their migration management to regimes outside their realm, often characterised by a high level of corruption and authoritarianism, where local elites benefit from EU funds. Since maintaining the status quo guarantees a steady income, effectively combatting reasons for flight does not seem to be a desirable option. Not only do these policies offer local elites a stable revenue but it also enables them to push their own interests. Turkey was thus free to advance its territorial claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, a region rich in natural gas. Additionally, they made use of Syrian mercenaries as cannon fodder in Nagorno-Karabakh and in Libya. Because of the EU’s dependence on third states keeping refugees back, its political leverage remains extremely limited. Refugees have thus increasingly become a political bargaining chip rather than a humanitarian emergency.

Edited by Philipp Harnik; Photo credit: Matthieu Hansen