Thinking Outside the Camp: Syrian Refugees in Istanbul

REPORT from Migration Policy Institute By M. Murat Erdoğan

While the notion of refugees typically brings to mind forced migrants living in camps or certain neighborhoods designated by the receiving government, the situation in Turkey is quite different in that urban refugees predominate. Turkey had granted temporary protection status to more than 3.1 million Syrians as of July 2017—all arriving since April 2011. Fewer than 8 percent (about 235,000) live in camps, while the rest are scattered across the country, mostly in urban centers, living side-by-side with the local population. Istanbul, home to more than 522,000 registered Syrian refugees, is the Turkish province with the largest number of refugees.

The emergence of these urban refugees has important implications for local governments, especially municipalities, which have taken on the direct work of caring for this vulnerable population. These newcomers arrive with a number of humanitarian and economic needs, ranging from housing and education to language support, and their sheer numbers in some cities have caused tensions with the local populace. Even as municipal governments must meet many refugee service needs, they occupy an ill-defined position with respect to their legal mandate and political authority vis-à-vis the refugees, and are also severely underfunded and understaffed.

This article is adapted from a study led by the Marmara Municipalities Union Migration Policies Workshop (Marmara Belediyeler Birliği Göç Politikaları Atölyesi, or MAGA) and conducted by a team under the direction of the author from March to November 2016. The research aimed at understanding how local governments managed the process of vast numbers of refugees settling in their districts regarding the additional burden on the resources and services as well as the humanitarian needs and demands of the mostly poverty-stricken refugees.

Based on the study findings, this article offers an overview of how 39 local governments in Istanbul province managed the vast numbers of refugees settling in their districts in terms of the additional burden on resources and services. It also examines the humanitarian needs and demands of the largely poverty-stricken arrivals. Thus far, cities have managed the process very successfully despite lack of clear authority and resources. Still, they run the risk of legal consequences and social tension in providing services to refugees and foreigners because municipalities under Turkish law and regulations can normally only serve Turkish citizens.

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