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


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 take place more often in workplaces than in residential neighbourhoods, usually because of the perception, particularly among Kurdish manual workers, that Syrians have reduced their opportunities for work.

Refugees’ tendency to cluster with fellow nationals, sometimes resulting in ghetto-like segregation, can intensify hostility on both sides. Young Syrian men walk in large groups for protection, which makes them appear hostile and dangerous to locals. Social media – such as WhatsApp or other messaging platforms – helps spread rumours rapidly through both the Turkish and refugee communities. Latent hostility based on negative perceptions – such as that Syrians receive undue aid or take local jobs – creates an atmosphere in which rumours of sexual harassment or other violations of locally accepted cultural norms can trigger physical clashes.

In the Demetevler neighbourhood of Ankara’s Yenimahalle district in July 2017, for example, social media spread the rumour that a Syrian refugee had raped a five-year-old girl. The allegation sparked clashes between dozens of Syrian and Turkish men who fought each other with sticks, stones and knives. It took all night for police – three of whom were reportedly injured by stabbing –to restore order.

2.Working-class and inter-ethnic rivalries

Most violent incidents take place in low-income inner-city districts, with Istanbul topping the list. Tension is most acute in working-class enclaves where refugees settle to find affordable housing and unskilled employment in small textile, shoemaking or furniture workshops. Recruiters also seek out labour in these neighbourhoods for construction and seasonal agricultural work. Between 750,000 and 950,000 (predominantly male) Syrians are estimated to participate in the informal economy. Though comprehensive data is unavailable, workforce surveys suggest they chiefly work in the textile, construction, shoemaking, agriculture, furniture and seasonal agriculture sectors, often substituting for host community workers. Syrians have been able to obtain work permits since January 2016, but there is little incentive to seek permits and the process is cumbersome, so only about 15,000 have done so.

Many Turkish citizens – particularly those less qualified and working informally – face heightened competition for work. From their perspective, the massive presence of Syrians has created a zero-sum dynamic, forcing them to compete for a limited number of jobs or accept lower wages. With nationwide youth unemployment at more than 20 per cent, and lower growth rates predicted for next year, economic pressures are likely to increase.

The risk of social friction is especially high in low-income urban areas with other marginalised minorities, such as the Kurds. “The space previously occupied mostly by Kurds who migrated from the south east to bigger cities to work in the informal sector is now being filled by Syrians who accept less pay”. Many Kurds living in western metropolitan cities were themselves displaced from conflict in south-eastern Turkey and harbour longstanding grievances against authorities. This makes resentment based on the perception that Syrians benefit from more public assistance and greater social acceptance particularly acute. (See Section III.A.1 below)

A good example is Işıkkent, located in Izmir’s Bornova district, which hosts the city’s main shoe/leather producers and where Syrian workers have largely replaced Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin. Of nearly 10,000 workers in Işıkkent, 60 to 70 per cent are Syrian, many of Turkmen origin. Izmir employers appear to prefer Syrian Turkmens over Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin, who are considered hard to manage in comparison to “obedient” Syrians. Because Turkmens also speak adequate Turkish, locals do not have any language advantage. “If you ask me whether I prefer a Syrian or a local Kurd, I would say Syrian, because they are really respectful”, said the manager of a shoemaking workshop. “Kurds usually behave in an unmannerly way …. They pick fights quickly”.

In İzmir's Konak district, Crisis Group visits a neighbourhood settled densely by Syrians, on August 2017. CRISISGROUP

The replacement of local Kurds by Syrian Turkmens and Arabs in Işıkkent has increased ethnic friction, resulting in small clashes and two large-scale protests in 2013 and 2014 mainly led by Kurds who had lost their jobs. Employees reported that groups of men regularly harass Syrians on the street, beat them up and threaten them or their families. A similar dynamic occurs in Istanbul’s Sultangazi district, where local youth groups are said to attack refugees, including Afghans and Pakistanis, on paydays to extort money.

Some of the most serious incidents involved Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin and Syrian Arabs who compete for seasonal agricultural work in Izmir’s Torbalı district, located on the outskirts of the Izmir province. The area hosts between 8,000 and 10,000 Syrians. In April 2017, angry locals, mostly Kurds and Roma, forced about 500 Syrian agricultural workers to flee their makeshift tents in Torbalı’s Pamukyazı neighbourhood after rumours spread that Syrians had beaten a local child. An argument between the child’s family and the Syrians escalated into a mob attack by locals armed with knives and clubs, leaving about 30 people injured.

B.Popular Perceptions and Official Discourses

Opinion polls suggest Turkish attitudes toward Syrian refugees are generally negative and may be hardening. Surveys conducted in Istanbul and Ankara in 2009 and 2015 found that negative perceptions of foreigners had increased. In Istanbul, only 15 per cent of respondents said, “absolutely not” in 2009 when asked if they viewed the presence of foreigners in their city as positive; six years later the number giving this response had risen to 34 per cent. In Ankara, the percentage responding “absolutely not” rose from 20 per cent in 2009 to 35 per cent in 2015.

Most Turkish citizens believe the influx of Syrians has had an adverse impact. An October 2017 survey found that 78 per cent of citizens believed Syrians had made their country less safe. Another countrywide survey published in December 2017 found that 75 per cent of Turkish citizens did not believe they could live together peacefully with Syrians. A survey of Turkish citizens in Istanbul published in December 2016 found that 72 per cent felt uncomfortable encountering Syrians and 76 per cent had no sympathy for the refugees.

After negative reaction to its June 2016 announcement that Syrians would be fast-tracked for Turkish citizenship, the government clarified that the process would be gradual and limited. But both the domestic opposition and Syrians seeking citizenship complain that the process for obtaining citizenship is not transparent. This issue could heat up again before the 2019 elections: the opposition has consistently warned that the government may be resettling Syrians in order to dilute the opposition vote in certain districts. Politically marginalised groups believe the government uses Syrians to advance political goals, both domestically and in foreign policy. Minorities such as the Alevis, heterodox Shiites who represent about 15-20 per cent of Turkish society, feel that Syrians are granted rights denied to other religious or ethnic groups. “We Alevis still do not have equal citizenship”, said the representative of a cultural centre. “In some cases, rights that Turkish citizens do not have are being granted to Syrians”.

Many negative perceptions are based on myths and misconceptions. Some Turkish citizens believe, for example, that Syrians receive monthly salaries without working or that they can enter university without taking obligatory exams. Such convictions generate anger that can be easily politicised. Officials downplay these tensions, fearing that acknowledging them would allow opponents to mobilise against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). So while opposition leaders and media tend to be alarmist – a neighbourhood leader in Istanbul claimed to be “waiting for a bigger incident at any moment” – public officials and pro-government media downplay tensions, depicting clashes between Syrians and locals as merely isolated incidents. This stifles potentially salutary public debate.

1.Compassion fatigue

The ruling party promotes the notion that Turkish citizens should “help Muslim brothers and sisters in need”. This concept of faith-based solidarity has been at the centre of its efforts to contain and counter negative sentiments toward refugees. “It is thanks to religion that we do not see much violence”, said an official working with an Islamist charity in Istanbul. “The concept of ‘honour’ (namus) is restraining people”.Turkish citizens in pious neighbourhoods confirm this view, but also say that over time real-life challenges overwhelm faith-based solidarity.

Even communities with religious and ideological affinity to the government, appear to be turning from compassion to grievance or impatience. Large majorities of the ruling AK Party (61 per cent) and the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party or MHP (70 per cent) find the presence of Syrians worrying as do majorities within the two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) (69 per cent), and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) (65 per cent). One local muhtar (elected neighbourhood headman) in Istanbul’s Sultangazi district lamented that the central government used the “trade of religion”, calling for sacrifice and tolerance, to stop people from complaining about the need for schools and protection of workers’ rights.

Among left-leaning or secular communities, the ruling party’s discourse of Sunni Muslim solidarity has deepened antipathy toward both the government and Syrian refugees. Alevis, as mentioned above, feel particularly vulnerable. “We perceive a systematic effort to divide society on the basis of religion, using sectarianism”, said a representative of the community in Istanbul. These groups might be drawn to a discourse focused on universal rights, though in their eyes the government lacks the legitimacy to make such arguments. Some Alevis suspect the emphasis on religious bonds between Turkey’s Sunni majority and the mostly Sunni refugee population is part of a strategy to further marginalise them:

We Alevis already feel like we do not belong. Our houses of worship are not recognised in the constitution. It is no secret that the president has no regard for our faith. … We cannot help but think Ankara is conducting demographic politics. In a place like Gazi neighbourhood that is around 50 per cent Alevi, Alevis are concerned that Syrians will be settled to reduce the Alevis to a minority.

2.Contradictory messages

A wave of negative stories about Syrians swept across Turkish media in July 2017, starting with the clashes in Ankara triggered by social media claims on 3 July that a Syrian had raped a Turkish girl. Throughout the month, outlets critical of the government described how the refugees purportedly were “invading” Turkey’s beaches, leaving mounds of trash and harassing women. A local resident told one newspaper that because Syrians do not speak Turkish, they cannot understand warnings, so “a small incident can easily spiral into an attempted lynching”.

Such reports prompted strong rebukes from leading government figures. “There is blatant public provocation”, said Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak. “People are being called to the street by strange social media accounts. These are agitations from abroad, ill-intended incitements”. He called for tolerance, prudence and common sense. “Let’s all remember that these people are only in Turkey temporarily, that Turkey is hosting them in line with traditions of hospitality”. The interior ministry released a similar statement stressing that certain media outlets and social media accounts “were misrepresenting and exaggerating the tense eruptions between Syrians and Turkish citizens and doing so with language geared at igniting reactive anger in society”. The aim of these reports, it said, was to create societal discord for domestic political purposes.

While they viewed statements suggesting refugees might soon return to Syria as counterproductive, civil society groups welcomed government efforts to correct misconceptions by explaining how Syrians contribute to the economy and debunking myths about high refugee crime rates. The government’s strong statements on behalf of refugees also encouraged local authorities to prioritise the issue of integration.A social worker in Ankara said these positive messages had helped them deal with negative perceptions in host communities. The government should not issue such statements only during periods of heightened public concern, however. They should occur regularly, acknowledging both the reality of certain problems and the rationale for official policies to address them.


Political upheaval following the July 2016 coup attempt has exacerbated the challenge of integrating Syrians. NGOs and INGOs operate in an atmosphere of heightened suspicion. Over 100,000 civil servants have been purged for alleged links to “terrorist organisations”, and nearly 1,500 NGOs were closed. The national government has also limited the ability of appointed district governors to make local decisions, diminishing the role of local authorities in policymaking.

Whether justified or not, these measures have severely strained both public sector and civil society capacity. Locally elected officials and grassroots civil society play vital roles in refugee integration: they can assess needs and defuse tensions; they can also help monitor and coordinate the district work of national entities. Trusted representatives of both Syrians and Turkish citizens at the neighbourhood level need to be empowered to mediate disputes and prevent intercommunal frictions from festering.

1.Disempowerment of grassroots

Centralisation can lead to sub-optimal results because national officials often lack the local knowledge needed to address social divisions and stabilise communities. Those with the most first-hand exposure to neighbourhood dynamics, the muhtars, have only limited administrative duties. The “granularity and local-level input that is so much needed on refugee integration and social cohesion issues gets lost at the central level”, said an EU official.

The government also has required multilateral agencies to work through central government ministries. International organisations may no longer work directly with regional development agencies, even if they have qualified personnel aware of local realities and capable of implementing projects. “AFAD [the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency] and the Ministry of Development have told us to talk to them even when we are only thinking of a certain project … and the areas covered are reduced to those that are palatable politically”, said a high-level representative.

Centrally appointed local authorities – such as the district governor, police and the district branches of national ministries – can be more effective if they coordinate with community actors. Locally elected leaders are often better placed to detect and manage frictions between host and refugee communities. “Municipalities are much more embedded with the local community”, said a district governor in Istanbul. Municipal officials