What’s next for 3,5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey?

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What’s next for 3,5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey?

Turkey is under pressure and in need of a functioning refugee policy more than at any time in its history. But recently lifted state of emergency and constant threat perception created by the political elites give more power to law enforcement, suppresses the obvious need for a functioning refugee policy. A new refugee policy should focus on the integration of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey. The objective of this study is to evaluate Turkish policies related to Syrian refugees and argues that while the crisis in Syria is now in its seventh year and Turkey is about to implement a new State system, the policies should be updated.  

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Cuneyt Gurer, PhD[1]

Adjunct Faculty, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies
Senior Expert, Global Center for Security Studies


The Syrian conflict has caused more than 11 million people to be displaced[2] — 6 million of them internally displaced ,5 million fled to neighboring countries and almost 1,5 million to the European countries (around 1 million in Germany) [3], according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).[4] As expectations fade for a rapid peaceful solution in Syria, life for Syrian refugees in the host neighboring countries becomes unpredictable, and prospects dim for a brighter future. The policies of countries hosting refugees in the region mostly focus on short-term crisis management practices while disregarding long-term integration policies. The absence of functioning integration policies causes a significant amount of anxiety and strain among refugee populations in the region. According to the official statistics, Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees and around 94% percent of the registered Syrians live outside camps and mostly in urban areas. [5]

Europe’s reluctance to accept more refugees from Turkey and the European Union-Turkey readmission agreement clearly indicate that Syrian refugees will stay in Turkey longer than the Turkish authorities predicted at the beginning of the crisis.[6] Turkey is under pressure and in need of a functioning refugee policy more than at any time in its history. But the current state of emergency, which gives more power to law enforcement, suppresses the obvious need. A new refugee policy should focus on the integration of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey. Current policies have been developed as the crisis has unfolded, as thousands of people crossed the border. The initial open-door policy and support from the international community saved lives and provided basic needs to millions of refugees. The objective of this study is to evaluate Turkish policies related to Syrian refugees and argues that the crisis now in its seventh year, the policies should be updated.

Syrian conflict and refugees 

Syrian refugees, using routes previously used for smuggling, began flowing into the neighboring countries during the very early stages of the conflict in 2011. Turkey received the largest number of refugees, with the official statistics putting the number more than 3.5 million. Among those, 46% are under 18 years old (total number between ages 0 and 18, 1.656.695). In response to initial humanitarian needs, Turkey built 26 refugee camps and provided free access to health care, education and other social services. [7]  However, as of April 2018 only 215,665, around 6% of the refugees in Turkey, stay in refugee camps; the rest live in different parts of the country, mostly in southern cities close to the Syrian border and significant number in Istanbul (around 563.000 people).[8] Syrians started to enter Turkey in May 2011, two months after the protests against the Assad regime began in March. First refugee camps in Turkey opened in May 2011 and as the conflicted escalated the number of refugees entering Turkey has increased gradually.[9] When the conflict in Aleppo intensified in July 2012, in two months nearly 80.000people fled across the Turkish border, which is only 50 kilometers from the city. [10]

The Syrian refugees in Turkey have been going through five main phases during their stay in the country. Each phase helps to understand the implications of the government policies and how Syrian refugees in Turkey perceive their future in the country, as well as what they expect from the government as well as the host communities. Failures of the policies and disappointment s of the refugees are also briefly mentioned. Identifying the phases is instrumental in analyzing the whole process in a more systematic way.

Phase 1: Mass displacement and first arrivals

When the crisis in Syria began, Turkey declared an open-door policy and established camps to provide basic needs for refugees. Regional experts[11] and studies[12] on the topic indicated that Turkey’s open-door policy was part of its plan to establish a “soft power” capacity in the region on the way to becoming a regional power. But as the number of refugees in Turkey reached a level that the country could not effectively manage, due to short term policy considerations, the government in 2014 began enacting restrictions.

According to Amnesty International, the open-door policy has been suspended multiple times. Restrictions applied to border crossings increased the smuggling of refugees and foreign fighters.[13] In a 2013 report, the International Crisis Group claimed that opposition fighters could cross the border freely, but refugees were only allowed when there was room in the camps.[14] The open-door policy was a choice made when other alternatives were limited and was later used by the government as cover for its undeclared policies of advancing influence in Syria.[15]

During the initial phases of the crisis, Turkey did not pay much attention to the registration of refugees, which created security concerns later. One reason for not registering refugees was the expectation that the crisis would not last long and that refugees would soon return to their homes. When it became apparent that would not happen, registration became a priority. But to some extent it was too late, since most of the nonregistered refugees had already traveled to different parts of the country.

Turkey approached the Syrian crisis with an assumption that the conflict would be brief, and the Assad regime would soon collapse, giving Turkey a window of opportunity to play a significant role in the reconstruction of the region. As part of this optimistic but unrealistic assumption, Turkey considered all displaced people coming from Syria as “guests” and said at every opportunity that the Syrian population in Turkey would be welcomed until they could return to their own country. The term “guest” was used in official documents,[16] but had no practical meaning in the national and international regulations. Turkey also granted “temporary protection” to Syrians from the beginning of the crisis, but the term didn’t acquire a legal meaning until Turkey’s president signed the Law on Foreigners and International Protection in 2013.[17]

Another issue preventing Syrians refugees from gaining status in Turkey, according to the international standards, has to do with the limits Turkey placed on those standards. The U.N.’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol are the main legal instruments of the international refugee policies. Turkey signed the convention and the protocol with a geographical limitation that provided full refugee status only to those coming from Europe. Therefore, Syrians coming from a non-European country can only benefit from temporary protection and stay in Turkey until finding a third country to apply for full refugee status.

Phase 2: Constructing a new life

Constructing a new life is not easy for Syrians in Turkey. After finding a place to live, economic independence and social acceptance become priorities. Syrian refugees were not allowed to work in Turkey legally until January 2016, when the government passed a regulation allowing them to obtain work permits.[18]

However, the regulation came with limitations and flaws.[19] According to an International Crisis Group report in November 2016, neither employers nor Syrians have an incentive to apply for formal work arrangements due to the complicated and labor-intensive application procedures, which require conditions and paperwork that are impossible for most Syrians to meet.[20] Less than 1 percent of Syrians obtained work permits in Turkey since then; the rest work with non-legal status and without any negotiating power for their work hours and wages.[21]

As the Syrian population appealed to the Turkish government for more stable living conditions, officials realized that the lack of a formal refugee registration process created challenges at every stage of refugees’ interactions with the government institutions. Although a registration process was technically in place at the border, the volume of refugees made it difficult to register all of them. To counterbalance the initial registration failures and to minimize future security problems, the Turkish government in 2014 began a more vigorous effort that required refugees to register before receiving free access to health care, education and other social services. While the new registration rules provided some benefits, it also limited mobility because a refugee registered in one province could not travel without a permit.

Whether refugees will return to Syria continues to be a major issue. With the Assad regime remaining in power and no short-term solution on the horizon, the Syrians have becomelong term guests. Looking at the policies of Turkish government, it is likely that the “temporary protection” introduced as a solution, will not be replaced with a comprehensive integration process providing complete refugee status in line with international standards.

According to the official statistics of Turkey, more than one-third of the Syrian refugee population in Turkey is under 18 years old. That puts the total at 1.6 million children. Having a significant number of school-age children in the refugee population poses challenges for the state. In a recent assessment, UNICEF warns about the “real risk of a ‘lost generation’ of Syrian children” in Turkey and other host countries. Despite the sharp increase compared to previous years, UNICEF warns that more than 40 percent (at least 380,000) of the Syrian refugee children in Turkey are missing out on an education.

Phase 3: Seeking alternatives

The Syrian refugees have started to realize that life in Turkey has many challenges. The open-door policy — initially a lifesaver — did not meet their evolving needs and did not offer an integration strategy. The refugees have failed to develop an attachment to the communities where they settled. At first, people were mostly hospitable, but after a while it became clear that the main reason for the hospitality was because they were considered guests.

In an interview by Human Rights Watch, a 29-year-old former journalist from Hama, Syria said he was grateful Turkey had allowed him to stay in the country, but he did not feel that his temporary protection status offered real stability.[22] He concluded, “We fled death, but we have come to a place where we have no life.” This statement summarizes the conditions for many refugees that eventually forced them to look for alternative routes out of the country. About the same time, Turkey started to see local anti-Syrian sentiments and conflicts related to some of the camps. Neighborhood protests led to the removal of Syrians to reduce the tensions.[23] In April 2017, in the southern city of Mersin, local authorities relocated 2,000 Syrian refugees because of a conflict between a Syrian group and local community members over a financial interest.[24]

The legal restrictions denying Syrians refugee status according to international standards, the administrative failure to offer long-term stays, an inability to create an attachment to host communities and negative local sentiments toward the Syrian refugees forced many of them to consider a move within Turkey or to Europe. In addition to those factors, regional security dynamics, such as the emergence of ISIS and an escalation of sectarian violence, played a role in convincing many Syrians to consider finding a way out. In 2014, Turkey was accused of doing little to stop foreign fighters from crossing its borders to join ISIS, leaving the Syrian refugees vulnerable to attacks and the ISIS recruitment efforts. Unpredictability, instability and insecurity paved a path to Europe.

Phase 4: With new hopes towards Europe

Syrian refugees with enough money to pay smugglers to cross to Greece started a mass migration in 2015, which captured international attention after multiple tragedies involving thousands of refugees, including children. To end the irregular migration, the EU and Turkey in March 2016 reached a readmission agreement that established a support system and legal channels for the resettlement of refugees to the EU. A significant provision of the agreement was that both sides agreed on the return of Syrian refugees to Turkey.

Shortly after signing the agreement, the EU reported that the number of immigrants arriving in Greece dropped sharply (around 90 percent), mainly as a result of the agreement.[25] The agreement was criticized by international organizations saying that Turkey is not technically a safe country for the Syrians because they cannot benefit from full refugee status.[26] The agreement also proposed 3 billion euros to help Turkey manage the refugees. The EU established the Facility for the Refugees in Turkey to ensure the needs of refugees and host communities were addressed. In 2017, the EU had allocated 3 billion euros and contracts had been signed for 72 projects in Turkey.[27] The Turkish politicians manipulated the issue on several occasions, claiming money has not been paid and threatening to open the doors and allow Syrians to migrate to Europe.[28] The EU-Turkey readmission agreement left no option for Syrian refugees in Turkey but to stay in the country and cope with the unpredictability.

Phase 5: Integration  

The lack of a solution that will bring stability in Syria prevents refugees from returning home, and the EU-Turkey readmission agreement blocks their hope for an alternative in Europe. Considering the circumstances created by the previous phases, Turkey, the EU and the Syrian refugees in Turkey have common interests and obligations to prevent the consequences of a failed integration. Turkey should summon the political will to work on an integration strategy for the Syrian refugees that addresses the administrative capacity building and legal changes. The EU, on the other hand, should demand long-term policies from Turkey that go beyond humanitarian aid and give the refugees hope for the future.

This final phase started as an unintentional but foreseeable consequence and a side effect of the EU-Turkey refugee deal: the integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey. However, because of domestic political priorities, Turkey is far from producing a functional refugee policy that offers long-term status for the Syrian refugees. The current state of emergency declared after the coup attempt in Turkey has only postponed a solution to the Syrian refugee crisis. As the Syrian population in Turkey lives in unpredictable legal and social conditions, their need for economic independence, social attachment and further integration grows rapidly. Failure to address and satisfy these needs only makes the Syrians in Turkey more vulnerable.


The absence of a comprehensive integration policy means almost 3 million people will remain in a state of unpredictability, instability and insecurity. The Syrian population in Turkey objects to being called guests, a term that reflects social limits and temporary status. The Turkish people in many provinces welcome Syrians as guests, but vague policies and protracted stays change the welcoming attitudes to negative sentiments. Considering that a significant portion of the Syrian refugees are young and looking for opportunities to establish a better life, policymakers in Turkey and the EU must act quickly to protect them from exploitation.

Turkey’s Syrian refugee policy started as a humanitarian response to a crisis, but policymakers were unable to create effective integration policies. Recent political developments in Turkey decrease the chances of developing a functioning refugee policy. Increasing right-wing populist parties and discourses against refugees in Europe also threaten the opportunities for the refugees to migrate to Europe. These five phases show that the Turkish policymakers are in a very delicate situation and that their failure to find a solution means more than an unsuccessful integration of “guests”; it is also a continuation, or even expansion, of the unpredictability, instability and insecurity in the region.

[1] The Author has had experiences in Turkish refugee policy making process and its implementation in Turkey.

[2] http://www.unhcr.org/syria-emergency.html

[3] http://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2017/

[4] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria

[5] http://www.goc.gov.tr/icerik6/gecici-koruma_363_378_4713_icerik

[6] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=celex:22014A0507(01)

[7] http://www.goc.gov.tr/icerik6/gecici-koruma_363_378_4713_icerik

[8] http://www.goc.gov.tr/files/files/24-gecici_koruma_kapsamindaki_suriyelilerin_illere_gore_dagilimi_05_07_2018.jpg

[9] http://www.unhcr.org/5245a72e6.pdf

[10] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24900116

[11] https://www.opendemocracy.net/north-africa-west-asia/megan-barlow/long-way-to-afrin-turkey-s-strategic-refugee-policy-aimed-at-ele

[12] https://journal.tplondon.com/index.php/ml/article/view/502

[13] https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2016/04/turkey-illegal-mass-returns-of-syrian-refugees-expose-fatal-flaws-in-eu-turkey-deal/

[14] https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/blurring-borders-syrian-spillover-risks-turkey

[15] https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/arbeitspapiere/Working_paper_Hoffmann_Turkish_immigration_policy.pdf

[16] https://www.afad.gov.tr/upload/Node/3494/xfiles/syrian-guests.pdf

[17] http://www.goc.gov.tr/files/files/eng_minikanun_5_son.pdf

[18] http://www.asylumineurope.org/reports/country/turkey/access-labour-market-0

[19] https://www.npr.org/2017/08/14/543477446/in-turkey-syrian-workers-struggle-to-obtain-official-employment

[20] https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/western-europemediterranean/turkey/turkey-s-refugee-crisis-politics-permanence

[21] http://www.passblue.com/2018/02/05/why-turkeys-model-work-permits-for-refugees-dont-actually-work/

[22] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/06/20/eu-dont-send-syrians-back-turkey

[23] https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/07/how-syrians-turkey-are-coping-polarised-political-climate

[24] https://www.cnnturk.com/turkiye/mersinde-2-bin-suriyeli-tahliye-ediliyor?page=1

[25] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36121083

[26] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/20/eu-refugee-deal-turkey-condemned-council-of-europe

[27] https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/news_corner/migration_en

[28] https://www.dailysabah.com/eu-affairs/2017/09/21/eu-has-not-kept-promises-on-supporting-refugees-erdogan-says

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