Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions
What’s new? Intercommunal violence between host communities and Syrian refugees increased threefold in the second half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. Growing grievances in Turkey’s largest metropolises Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir are driving inter-ethnic rivalries, socio-economic inequality and urban violence.
Why does it matter? The challenge of integrating over 3.4 million Syrians is compounding tensions in a country already struggling with socio-economic strains and political tensions. Grievances could be ripe for political exploitation by opposition parties in the run-up to next year’s elections.
What should be done? Ankara and its international partners should take steps to ensure the sustainable integration of Syrians while pre-emptively addressing and managing host community grievances. They should also develop mechanisms to defuse refugee-related tensions particularly in the country’s rapidly growing cities.
Turkey has demonstrated remarkable resilience in absorbing more than 3.4 million Syrians over the past six years. But host community hostility toward these newcomers is rising. Incidents of intercommunal violence increased threefold in the second half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. At least 35 people died in these incidents during 2017, including 24 Syrians. The potential for anti-refugee violence is highest in the metropolitan areas of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir where host communities see Syrians as culturally different and resent their competition for low-wage jobs or customers, especially within the informal economy. Many also believe Syrians receive preferential access to public services and assistance. These grievances are ripe for politicisation in the run-up to the 2019 elections, especially if economic growth slows, driving labour force participation down. Ankara – with the support of international donors – needs to step up efforts to ensure the long-term integration of Syrians into Turkish society while pre-emptively addressing and managing host community grievances.
Turkish society has displayed solidarity toward Syrian refugees, but their compassion is waning. Host communities – particularly those who feel marginalised by ethnic, sectarian or ideological cleavages – perceive Syrians as a threat to their political and economic interests. Over-centralisation aggravates these problems: the national government tends not to engage local authorities or civil society in planning for initiatives designed to promote social cohesion, often excluding those best placed to understand local needs and tensions. Treasury allocations are distributed among municipalities according to the number of Turkish citizens, without considering the refugee population, which means resources are especially stretched in communities with large numbers of Syrians. By ignoring or downplaying tensions, the government has allowed hostilities to reach a boiling point in some refugee-dense communities.
Although the government and donors have made enormous efforts to provide education for refugee children, some 370,000 of nearly one million school-age Syrian children are not enrolled, and another 230,000 still attend the temporary education centres (TECs) being phased out as Syrian children transition into the public-school system. International donors need to continue channelling resources toward improving teaching capacity and expanding school infrastructure. Syrian teachers currently working at the remaining TECs could be employed by public schools as “intercultural mediators” to help Syrian children fit in and keep up with their classmates.
Integrating Syrians into the formal labour market is arguably the greatest challenge. Those who remain in Turkey, instead of moving onto Europe, tend to have little education and few skills. Most do not speak Turkish. An estimated 750,000-950,000 Syrians currently work in the informal sector; only 15,000 have obtained the permits needed for formal employment. Changing this will not be easy: the informal sector also employs one-third of the Turkish labour force. Syrian refugees will need language classes and help learning other basic skills; both Syrian and Turkish workers need access to vocational training based on a forward-looking assessment of market needs. Turkish authorities should also remove the bureaucratic barriers that discourage Syrian entrepreneurs from establishing formal enterprises.
Ankara, its international partners, Turkish citizens and the refugees themselves should acknowledge that this will take time. Their long-term roadmap should include measures designed to:
Provide municipalities with funding that reflects their actual population, both Turkish and Syrian, so that local authorities can address the needs of refugees without sacrificing the quantity and quality of services available to citizens;
* Engage local authorities and grassroots civil society in planning for initiatives designed to promote social cohesion;
* Respond to local grievances over the refugee influx with public messaging that recognises problems while countering misinformation and provocations;
* Gradually transition from unconditional humanitarian aid to assistance that promotes sustainable livelihoods; continue assistance for those considered especially vulnerable (such as the disabled or elderly), without conditions;
* Expand vocational training and apprenticeship opportunities to help both Syrian refugees and local citizens acquire skills that match labour market needs and are based on sector-specific development strategies;
* Increase inspections of unregistered workplaces and provide capital and technical assistance to Syrian entrepreneurs who want to establish registered businesses or scale-up their existing businesses. Whenever possible, such support should be channelled to Syrian-Turkish joint ventures.
Ankara has been reluctant to develop a long-term strategy for Syrians’ integration for two main reasons: it would like to encourage Syrians to return should circumstances allow and it fears a public backlash should it appear to accept their permanent presence. This is short sighted and merely increases impatience among host communities anxious to see Syrians leave, creating grounds for intercommunal confrontation. Instead, the government needs to acknowledge that most Syrian refugees are likely to remain and take steps to integrate them without neglecting the needs and grievances of Turkish citizens, especially in the country’s rapidly growing cities.