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.

Executive Summary

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.

Istanbul/Ankara/Izmir/Brussels, 29 January 2018

I.Introduction

Over eleven million Syrians have fled their homes since civil war began in 2011, including more than six million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and about five million refugees. Syria’s immediate neighbours have taken in most of those fleeing across borders and no country has done more to shelter this homeless, shell-shocked population than Turkey. The country’s 80 million people were hosting 3.4 million registered Syrian refugees (around 46 per cent of them female) as of December 2017, plus from 300,000 – 400,000 unregistered Syrians. There are also more than 450,000 non-Syrian refugees (mostly Iraqi, Afghan and Iranian) in Turkey.

The strain of integrating such a massive exodus is compounding tensions in a country already struggling with socio-economic strains and political tensions. Turkish citizens feel that Syrians threaten their access to jobs in an economy with high un- and under-employment. Economic competition becomes especially bitter when it pits newcomers against groups that have long felt marginalised, such as the Kurds.

Emergency rule, in effect since the coup attempt in July 2016, has fed into the grievances of ethnic and sectarian minorities as nationalist discourse intensifies and space for civil society shrinks. The removal of over 100,000 civil servants has strained capacity to meet the needs of both Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees, especially in the areas of education and health care.

Preventing any further refugee exodus is one of the strategic objectives behind Ankara’s military involvement in Idlib. Recent attacks by regime forces in rebel-held parts of the province have forced up to 100,000 civilians to take refuge in makeshift camps near the Turkish border. If the security situation deteriorates, Turkish authorities fear more of the area’s estimated two million civilians could become displaced. If that were to happen, given existing strains on public services and growing domestic opposition to Syrians refugees, Ankara would be hard pressed to maintain its open-door policy.

In the absence of substantive European Union (EU) accession talks and with the EU-Turkey relationship deteriorating, the March 2016 refugee deal represents the main framework for dialogue between Turkey and the EU. Relations are strained: Ankara complains that EU assistance is disbursed too slowly and ridden with too many conditions while the EU finds Turkey’s bureaucracy ill prepared to absorb funding and develop projects effectively. But despite their differences, both the EU and Turkey understand that cooperation is in their mutual interest.

In a November 2016 report, Crisis Group analysed how the Syrian influx played into the country’s complex demographics and political polarisation. It urged decision-makers working with Syrian refugees to acknowledge they were likely to remain in Turkey permanently and engage with constituencies across ethnic, economic and political divides to mitigate domestic tensions.

This report is based on research in refugee-dense neighbourhoods of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Turkey’s three largest cities. It provides a bottom-up analysis of the frictions generated as refugees have moved into these urban areas from the border region. First, the report examines violence between refugees and residents, though data is limited and many incidents may go unreported. Next it looks at the disconnect between popular perceptions and the Turkish government’s official discourse. It notes that an over-centralised state apparatus can stifle local initiatives for defusing intercommunal tensions.

Finally, the report addresses how to promote the refugees’ socio-economic integration, without deepening sectarian and socio-economic differences. It suggests ways to mitigate tensions that could fuel hatred and resentment and, potentially, spark further outbreaks of violence. With the EU expected to allocate another €3 billion for Syrians’ integration in Turkey, there is an opportunity to program funding for the long-term benefit of both Syrians and local host communities.

A crowded terrace in Mardin, on the Turkish border with Syria, on July 2017. CRISIS GROUP/Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

II.Rising Tensions

A.Urban Violence

An international organisation that tracks refugee-related social tension and criminal incidents recorded 181 cases in 2017 (as of 30 November), which resulted in 35 deaths (24 of them Syrian). Violence peaked in July 2017 and increased nearly three-fold over the second half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. Residents of neighbourhoods experiencing high levels of tension say that there are many more unreported incidents of such violence involving refugees.

1.Culture clashes

International donors have focused most of their efforts on helping Syrians settled in Turkey’s border provinces such as Gaziantep, Kilis, Urfa and Hatay. By and large, however, there is more cultural continuity and less tension between residents and refugees along the border provinces than within metropolitan areas in western Turkey. Turkish citizens along the Syrian border often speak Arabic or Kurdish, which allows them to communicate with Syrian Arabs and Kurds. Moreover, these are largely rural, culturally conservative areas, making them more hospitable to the Syrians who have settled there, many of whom come from the countryside.

In major cities, the refugees’ inability to speak Turkish limits opportunities to find and build on shared values and interests. “The differences in subculture are more distinct in cities farther from the border”, said an international agency official. The lack of interaction between refugees and hosts reinforces the latter’s conviction that Syrians do not conform to Turkish societal norms. “Eighty per cent of Syrians think they can integrate, while around 80 per cent of Turkish citizens say they can’t”, an EU official said. A recent study confirms this trend: 63 per cent of Turkish citizens either feel “far” or “very far” to Syrians, while 72 per cent of Syrians feel “close” or “very close” to Turkish society.

Turkey’s three largest cities – Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir – host approximately 23 per cent of the Syrians in the country. Since 2015, Istanbul has become the province with the largest number of refugees: as of December 2017, the metropole hosted about 538,000 registered Syrians. Counting those registered in other provinces but living in Istanbul, as well as those who have not registered at all, the number of Syrians living in the metropolitan area exceeds 700.000. The large number of undocumented Syrians fuels perceptions they live in the shadows. Local residents in Sultangazi, a demographically diverse district of Istanbul that hosts some 40,000 Syrians, told Crisis Group they did not trust refugees unless they had settled with their families and registered with the authorities.

The capital city of Ankara presents a different case. Relatively few Syrians live there (around 90,000), and so there are few internationally funded programs to foster social cohesion. Yet most refugees are concentrated in a few neighbourhoods where they constitute as much as 20 per cent of the population, which has overcrowded classrooms and fuelled host community resentment. Many of these neighbourhoods, such as Önder, Battalgazi and Ulubey, have been traditionally homogeneous and largely conservative and nationalist. Gentrification over the past few years has already reduced the availability of affordable housing.

Izmir’s nearly 130,000 Syrian refugees are more dispersed across different neighbourhoods where residents share their ethnic background. Most Syrian Kurds settled in Izmir’s Kadifekale, Limontepe, Yeniçamlık neighbourhoods; Syrian Arabs moved to Buca’s Gediz neighbourhood; and Syrian Turkmens went to Bornova’s Doğanlar neighbourhood. Clashes tend to ta