Syrians in Turkey are no longer limiting themselves to camps on the border between the two countries; of the close to 2 million registered and unregistered Syrians in the country, the International Crisis Group, which has authored a new report on the situation, says that an estimated 500,000 are now seeking work in major cities like Istanbul, Izmir and the capital, Ankara.
Of its neighbors, Turkey stands to absorb major financial and humanitarian costs of the Syrian conflict, which is now in its fourth year. The country has spent $3 billion on Syria since 2011, and has only seen a 10 percent reimbursement from international donors. The Syrian National Council, the opposition in exile, is based in Istanbul, and foreign extremists have been entering Syria through the porous southeastern border in increasing numbers. All of this has led Turkey deeper into a conflict it once hoped to avoid, and which remains hugely unpopular among Turks themselves.
The solution to Turkey’s Syria quagmire, says ICG’s Turkey researcher Didem Aykel Collinsworth, lies in a structured agreement between Ankara and the international community for a long-term integration of Syrians into Turkish society.
“We are calling on Turkey to move back to a position of greater ethnic and sectarian neutrality in its foreign policy, underlining that by itself it’s not able to make a real difference in the Syrian conflict,” she says. “We want it to work with regional counterparts to create an environment that’s more conducive to a compromised peace, and we’re also asking it to condition its support of the opposition, to those groups that abide by international human rights laws and demonstrate nonsectarian behavior: to use its standing as a logistics hub as leverage.”
Syria Deeply: What is the easiest way for Turkey to integrate the Syrians living here now?
Didem Aykel Collinsworth: Ankara has become a main player in the conflict. It brought very high costs to Turkey, which we tried to examine in this report. The first finding is regarding the humanitarian crisis and the influx of refugees into Turkey. The big problem Turkey is facing right now is the 720,000 registered Syrians inside Turkey, and the unofficial numbers are a lot higher than that. The influx continues on a daily basis. There is a need for a long-term comprehensive accommodation strategy, and a strategy to care for these Syrians inside Turkey.
Another finding is that Turkey has already spent about $3 billion on these Syrians and has only been able to recover about a tenth of it from the international community, about $180 million. The Turks are right in saying that “we are hosting the Syrians on behalf of the international community, we opened our doors to them and they should shoulder more of the burden.” So whatever long-term arrangement is going to be found, it has to be a mutually agreed plan with donors paying the majority of the bill.
SD: How many people will this affect?
Collinsworth: Right now, 220,000 are in camps, so they are registered. Around 500,000 registered are in the cities, but the unofficial number is probably twice that. The number one problem with urban Syrians is registration. You need to know how many you have, what their needs are and where they are. So you would need to have a mechanism in place where you can account for these people. A priority is to have the deal framework in place to determine what assistance and rights to give the Syrians. In April 2013 Turkey passed a law with an article on temporary protection, but it’s insufficient in its current form: it doesn’t outline what the protection entails regarding things like employment rights. Turkey would first need to flesh out a comprehensive legal framework to deal with Syrian temporary protection status.
SD: What are the steps? How exactly does this get carried out, and what does the international community need to do to help?
Collinsworth: Turkey needs to provide them with uniform identification papers. If you go to the southeast, there are local attempts to register them in local governorates, but they’re not compatible with each other. Once you register them this way, start plans for a more stable long-term accommodation strategy. One of our recommendations is for international donors in Turkey to have a housing scheme where they can pay the Syrians’ rent, through housing vouchers or conditional cash assistance, while Turkey provides the actual housing in a way that’s appropriate for its own domestic dynamics. Some Turks don’t want to rent out their houses to Syrians, so a guaranteed scheme would alleviate those problems.
The second priority is education. A lot of Syrians I talked to in the southeast didn’t know they could even send their kids to schools. For integration it’s very important for young Syrians to start learning Turkish early and attend Turkish schools, so it’s important for Turkey to make that available. There also needs to be language training for Syrian kids in the southeast; it’s being done, but it has a very uncoordinated, ad hoc feel to it. There needs to be a national education strategy. There are schools for Syrians that teach in Arabic, but the diplomas are often not recognized on an international level. So Turkey will need to address these issues about the schools established on its soil.
There’s already a Syrian working class in Turkey, not just in the southeast but in cities like Istanbul and Izmir. There’s a way to get them work permits for employment, but that would require them to have passports, residence permits and documentation. There would need to be legislation that deals with that.
There’s also a great need for infrastructure projects in places like Kilis, where the population doubled. Local authorities have reached the end of their capacity, hospitals are overcrowded, municipalities have problems with waste management, everything. It’s not just Turkey’s fault, or the international community’s fault, but they have to find a working arrangement. Turkey had refused aid the first year of the conflict, saying the conflict would be over quickly and it could handle the situation on its own, but since April 2012, it’s been more open and registered more international NGOs. But it still hasn’t entirely removed the bureaucratic obstacles to their operations here.