Half a decade into the Syrian Civil War, and with no signs of it ending well in sight, Turkey is starting to think its refugee population might be there to stay. The Financial Times reports:
Long proud of the generous welcome it has extended to the Syrians it calls its guests, Turkey is realising, after five years of war, that many will never go back — about half, according to [Governor Izzettin] Kucuk. With that acknowledgment there are signs of change evolving in how Turkey copes with the world’s biggest Syrian refugee population; a shift encouraged by an EU desperate to control migration by giving refugees a future in the region.
“Some of them are here three, four or five years, their children were born here, so they are already rooted in one or another way,” says Mr Hahn, who had come to see conditions at camps and EU-backed projects. “To support this integration, proper language skills are necessary.”
Still, the concept of long-term integration remains a political taboo in Turkey. The many Syrians in places such as Sanliurfa exist in a limbo with improving but limited education, work and travel rights and little hope of going home soon.
The refugees face serious problems integrating. Foremost among them is that few know Turkish. As the FT reports, language troubles have been a serious impediment from schooling through to employment.
Another problem the refugees are confronting is that Turkey, at least in theory, is a nation-state (though the presence of minorities such as the Kurds and Alevis already presents a challenge). Integrating members of other nations into that is tricky, and there are already indications that the Turks may take a different, less enthusiastic approach to accepting their neighbors as permanent residents of Turkey rather than as fellow Muslims and neighbors in need of temporary shelter. The future of the Syrians in Turkey may look surprisingly like the future of immigrants in France: legally welcome, but economically and socially marginalized (with the possibility of extremist violence and general discontent.)
Some numbers for your consideration:
410,000 of the 2.7m Syrians in Turkey have registered in [Sanliurfa] province, swelling the population of Sanliurfa, the main city, by a third. Yet only about 500 work permits have been issued for Syrians this year, and half of the children in the city, about 55,000, have no school place.[..]
At one extreme are the isolated camps that are home to 100,000 in Sanliurfa province. At Harran camp about 14,000 live in 2,000 converted shipping containers arranged in neat rows across a field, penned by gates and security. Conditions are wretched but by the standards of refugee camps, best in class.
These camps, however, are for the few. Largely by choice, most Syrians in Turkey live in towns, surviving off government handouts and money from black market labour.
One of the biggest questions for the future of the Middle East is what happens to the Syrian refugees. Every sign indicates that right now, the Assad Regime’s will to stay, and the Russian and Iranian willingness to prop it up by violent means, greatly outweighs Western willingness to remove it. At the same time, many refugees loathe the regime, and furthermore the Assad government is unable—and may well be for the foreseeable future—to put Syria fully back together. All of this means that every year it is less and less likely that the refugees will return; or to put it another way, each passing year makes it seem to the refugees more and more like they simply must put down new roots to get on with their lives.
Will they successfully be able to? Will they even be allowed to? The worst-case scenario here would look something like the fate of the Palestianians. For seventy years, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have remained in camps in Arab countries, unassimilated and unemployed, for complex reasons ranging from the reluctance of their host states to fully integrate them to the Palestinian nationalist stance that they will not forfeit the so-called “right of return” to the land that is now Israel. In any case, those camps are often miserable places, breeding grounds for extremism, and impediments not only to peace in Israel and Palestine, but to civil society in the Arab countries that host them.
On the other hand, the openness and genuine generosity of various neighboring nations, particularly Turkey and Jordan, to the refugees from Syria does give cause for hope. But will it last—and will it translate to integration? That is the $64,000 question.
And there is yet another shoe to drop: if the Russian-Iranian-Syrian attacks on Aleppo become a siege, then victory—which now seems somewhere between possible and probable—could send up to 2 million more Syrians streaming for the exits, mostly to Turkey. This would largely swamp what fragile provisions have been made for refugees already there, exacerbate tensions with the locals, and have serious follow-on effects for Europe. Just another thing to keep an eye on as the Syrian ceasefire continues to break down.