Turkey’s Growing Refugee Challenge – Rising Social Tensions
Turkey’s Growing Refugee Challenge – Rising Social Tensions
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

Turkey’s Growing Refugee Challenge – Rising Social Tensions

The Syrian civil war has exposed Turkey to an unprecedented influx of refugees, totaling more than 3.2 million since the start of the crisis. While the backlash has been less serious than anticipated, violence against refugees and asylum seekers is on the rise and the integration of Syrians into Turkish society remains extremely limited. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to support the integration of Syrian refugees in order to defuse the risk of worsening inter-communal confrontation.

Recent events have brought tensions between the European Union (EU) and Turkey to a head. Ankara is embittered over the stalled accession process and what it perceives as the EU’s inadequate support for Turkey’s fight against terrorism. The EU and its member states voice heightened criticism of Turkey’s human rights track record, increasingly unaccountable institutions and lack of respect for the rule of law; President Erdoğan’s pre-referendum rhetoric caused particular harm to relations with Germany and the Netherlands. In the absence of substantive accession talks, the March 2016 refugee deal now represents the main venue for dialogue and the most significant strategic thread holding the two sides together. Although Ankara complains that EU’s €3 billion pledge to support Turkey’s response to the refugee influx has been conditional and that only €883 million so far has been disbursed, and while EU representatives find the Turkish bureaucracy ill-prepared for developing projects, both sides value continued cooperation in this area.

At first glance, Turkey has handled the refugee influx remarkably smoothly. The backlash caused by Turkey’s absorption of some 3.2 million Syrians, who arrived incrementally since 2011, has been far less serious than anticipated and refugee flows to the EU have substantially diminished. But the Syrian refugee issue in Turkey is far from being settled. In particular, social resentment and hostility toward Syrians has risen, notably in suburban districts of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, which have high refugee concentrations.

Risks of violent outbursts are further exacerbated where ethnic differences overlap with economic tensions.

Violence affecting refugees and asylum seekers – which, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees grew markedly in 2017 – is most prevalent in neighbourhoods offering cheap housing and low-skilled jobs: these have drawn large numbers of Syrian refugees, in turn raising housing costs and depriving host communities of job opportunities. Risks of violent outbursts are further exacerbated where ethnic differences overlap with economic tensions. This is the case in particular of Kurdish host communities, some of whose members already feel politically marginalised, resent that public institutions such as hospitals and municipalities offer Arabic translation services and are angry that the central authorities are seeking to accommodate Syrian parents’ desire for Arabic language courses in schools even as their own longstanding demands regarding the Kurdish language remain unaddressed. They also find their low-skilled informal sector jobs threatened by the influx of Syrian refugees. (The informal economy, where competition between host and refugee communities tends to take place, constitutes on average 34 per cent of the economy according to Turkish and World Bank statistics).

More broadly, interaction between refugees and host communities remains extremely limited, especially among women. Syrians and Turkish citizens living in large urban areas are particularly prone to misunderstanding and conflict, lacking the affinity that tends to exist in border provinces. Turkey’s generosity toward Syrians – for example providing them with free health care and easier access to university entrance – at times gives rise to beliefs that are strongly held but inaccurate, such as that Syrians can enter university without taking an examination, or that monthly aid channelled to Syrians in need is covered by citizen taxes; these in turn inevitably fuel resentment and anger.

Ankara also faces enormous problems in seeking to integrate roughly 1 million school-aged Syrian children into its already strained education system.

Ankara also faces enormous problems in seeking to integrate roughly 1 million school-aged Syrian children into its already strained education system. The challenge is not only to ensure Syrian children can enrol but also to cope with host communities’ anger at the overburdening of the local school system. (According to a recent report by Education Reform Initiative, around 77,000 additional classrooms, and 70,000 new teachers are required to meet the needs of local and Syrian refugee communities). This situation is all the more serious following the government’s decision to both phase out the temporary education centres (TECs) which essentially provided a parallel Arabic-language school system for Syrians and to shut down NGO-run schools for Syrians. Integrating Syrian children into Turkish public schools is the correct policy approach in the long run, but for now it generates tensions given insufficient infrastructure and teacher capacity. Funded by the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the World Bank, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Development Bank (KfW) in particular have been working closely with Turkish authorities to build new schools and train teachers to support the transition away from the temporary education centres, but implementation has been lagging. Some schools place Syrian children into separate classrooms, thereby defeating the purpose of integrating Syrians into Turkish public schools.

As 2019 local and presidential elections loom, and with the Syrian presence increasingly unpopular, opposition parties might well resort to an exclusionary discourse, calling on the state to send refugees back home. Such a political dynamic inevitably would further exacerbate tensions and fuel instability. Because the government often faults the EU for the presence of Syrians in such large number and for not doing enough to ease Turkey’s burden, rising tensions between Syrians and host communities also potentially could harm broader Turkey-EU relations. This in turn would call into question the value of the refugee deal. Both Turkish authorities and the EU should take steps to minimise this risk.

For Turkey, a key is to adopt an inclusive approach, paying special attention to those segments of society most affected by the presence of Syrian refugees. The EU and its member states also have an important role to play in facilitating the integration of Syrian refugees. In planning further disbursements and considering possible additional allocations through the EU’s Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the EU Regional Trust Fund in response to the Syrian Crisis or Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, they should:

  • Develop a roadmap for gradually shifting from humanitarian aid to local-level development, especially geared at strengthening already-existing public service capacities. The focus should be on encouraging Syrians to achieve sustainable livelihoods, although any effort along these lines should not come at the expense of humanitarian assistance, particularly to vulnerable groups.
  • Continue to support expanding vocational training opportunities to enable both Syrian refugees and host communities to acquire skills that match labour market needs and to foster greater social cohesion, particularly in big city neighbourhoods that have been rife with tension.
  • Expand opportunities for Syrians to learn Turkish as a foreign language. Some 70 per cent of Syrians in the country are believed not to speak Turkish; the resulting lack of interaction with host communities provides fertile ground for negative sentiments to grow.
  • As part of the ongoing effort to integrate Syrian school-aged children into Turkish public schools, support the employment of Syrians currently teaching at TECs as “intercultural mediators” in public schools to help refugee children who have trouble keeping up and fitting in.
  • Continue to channel resources toward bolstering school infrastructure and teaching capacities. This is key to facilitate the transition away from TECs while addressing related host community grievances.
  • Work with Turkish authorities to more effectively dispel myths about how EU funding is channelled and convey that resources and aid are not exclusively channelled to Syrians.
  • Consider offering support for service provision in languages other than Turkish in municipalities and public institutions that service large groups of residents with a different mother tongue. For example, this policy could be applied to localities where the number of such residents exceeds a certain percentage. This is a highly sensitive issue in Turkey, but could be addressed practically, for instance by employing a sufficient number of translators.
  • Ensure that field-based, EU-funded NGOs and their community centres focus on ways to encourage positive interaction between Syrian and host community groups of diverse backgrounds.

Tensions, already high, could rise further still, especially if Syrian refugees’ return prospects do not rise. With Turkish citizens’ youth unemployment having reached 20 per cent, and with relatively low economic growth rates predicted for next year, social pressures are likely to increase and, with them, the risk of inter-communal confrontation. Moreover, as Syrians learn Turkish, develop more settled communities and grow more acutely aware of their relative lack of opportunity, they could become increasingly frustrated and alienated; more may also fall prey to criminal networks. That approximately 40 per cent of school-aged Syrians currently are not enrolled in school and that up to 30 per cent of Syrian adults in Turkey are illiterate raises the spectre of the emergence of a parallel society facing long-term marginalisation.

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