Is Erdogan's Offer to Make Syrian Refugees Citizens a Humanitarian Gesture – or Cynical Ploy?

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Children play at the Oncupinar camp for Syrian refugees next to the border crossing with Syria, near the town of Kilis in southeastern Turkey, June 20, 2016.
Children play at the Oncupinar camp for Syrian refugees next to the border crossing with Syria, near the town of Kilis in southeastern Turkey, June 20, 2016. Credit: Emrah Gurel, AP

In the heart of Fatih, one of Istanbul’s oldest and most conservative neighborhoods that has become a hub for Syrian refugees, we meet Feyral. She is sitting in a quiet, glossy new community center: the many colorful donor logos adorning the walls attest to the fact that the building was paid for exclusively by international donors. Feryal’s eyes flicker uneasily while large bulging tears form. “I don’t understand why the Turks do not love the Syrian people; we are part of the same family,” she says. 

Her prayers may have been answered. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has just laid out a blueprint of a plan to offer citizenship to the 2.75 million registered Syrian refugees like Feyral who have fled to Turkey to escape the Syrian civil war. 

Seemingly speaking straight to refugees like her, Erdogan announced last week, “Tonight, I want to give some good news to my brothers and sisters.” He continued, “I believe there are those who would like to obtain citizenship,” adding “our Interior Ministry is taking steps in that regard.” His speech concluded, “Turkey is your home, too.” 

“This is something Erdogan’s critics have long feared he would do,” explains Turkey analyst Hugh Pope from the International Crisis Group. The majority of the Syrian refugees in Turkey can aptly be described as being from the “same family” - “Sunni Muslims of conservative political leanings, very much like Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) traditional support base.” To many in the Turkish opposition, the decision was a pragmatic and opportunistic move rather than one based on humanitarian concern for the fate of the Syrians in Turkey, more and more of whom are living below the poverty line, according to a recent report by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

“The president has always used the refugees as a political asset, notably blackmailing the European Union into conceding large funds to Turkey to manage the crisis, and this is no different,” Hisyah Ozsoy, the vice-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, (HDP) the Kurdish opposition party, tells Haaretz. For Ozsoy, Erdogan is planning a “careful demographic engineering” with the potential to change the ethnic make-up of the southeast regions bordering Syria, Turkey’s Kurdish regions. He views the temporary refugee camps with suspicion, as they are clearly “turning permanent.” Kilis, the city where Erdogan's speech was made, is a symbol of the changing demographic outlook of the southeast, as one of the many towns where the local population is now dwarfed by the number of Syrian refugees. 

After the 2015 general elections, talks between the government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a movement calling for “democratic autonomy” in the provinces of the southeast – collapsed, eventually escalating into armed conflict. The war displaced more than 350,000 people and destroyed more than 6,000 buildings, as well as claiming a huge number of casualties. The latest installment of this military and political tug-of-war with the Kurds saw HDP members of Parliament stripped of their immunity and legal proceedings unleashed over their alleged connections to the PKK. This has put the HDP on hyper alert to any demographic changes that could prevent the party from maintaining the 13% threshold needed to be in the parliament or to any boost in support for the AKP, which has waged war on the Kurds. 

However, offering citizenship to Syrians is “ultimately the right thing to do,” comments Pope. While Turkey doesn’t offer conventional refugee status due to the geographic limitations of the Geneva Convention, it does offer Syrians “temporary protection.” In doing so, Turkey already covers the cost of hosting these refugees, as their status under the temporary protection legislation gives them access to all the benefits that conventional refugee status would, including education, health care benefits and now also access to the labor market. In the long run, offering them citizenship avoids creating a two-tier society and will ease current tension by enabling full integration. Above all, it legalizes their status and moves them away from society’s periphery by offering them a framework and future. 

The Turkish daily Hurriyet, moreover, highlighted how citizenship would be granted selectively, prioritizing professionals who can help refugees as well as bring Turkey the skills it lacks. The astonishing growth Erdogan delivered after the turn of the century has always been key to his popularity – annual GDP per capita has increased from less than $9,000 to almost $20.000 under Erdogan, according to data from the OECD – and his targeting of “elite refugees” shows this decision is in turn not bereft of economic reckoning. “It just makes economic sense to move this labor force from the informal to the formal sector,” says Pope “In terms of demographics, I doubt this will radically rebalance anything beyond cities such as Mersin.”

Members of the HDP who spoke to Haaretz disagreed, pointing out how fiscal and other incentives “could be enough to orientate where people live,” said Hisyah Ozsoy. For sure, concludes Pope, “these people will be grateful and will ultimately vote for him.”

This statement hints at the extent to which Erdogan is counting every single vote that brings him closer to ensuring he has a parliamentary majority to create an executive presidency. By no means can Erdogan deliver this promise instantly, but he is working to ensure he will still be in charge when the Turkish Republic celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023. By the looks of it, the Syrian refugees are not going anywhere anytime soon. 

Edith White is a freelance journalist, researcher and translator. She writes on Europe, the Middle East and Turkey.

Davide Lerner is a freelance journalist, researcher and translator. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies. He writes on Europe, the Middle East and Turkey for publications in English and Italian and has worked for AP and AFP. 

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