Turkey Can’t Host Syrian Refugees Forever

Voters across the political spectrum have become hostile toward the millions of people who fled Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his opponents are now responding with tough talk on repatriation.

Syrian children at a tent camp in Sanliurfa, Turkey, on Jan. 9, 2018.
Syrian children at a tent camp in Sanliurfa, Turkey, on Jan. 9, 2018. Rauf Maltas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As the civil war in Syria and its spillover to neighboring Iraq displaced millions of people from their homes, Turkey took on a daring political experiment from 2011 onward that made it home to the world’s largest refugee population—about 4 million registered and more than a million off the books—in the space of a few years. The courage and generosity that countries like Turkey have shown cannot be overstated: They opened their doors to millions of people in need when the rest of the world barely lifted a finger. In Turkey alone, the response to the refugee crisis cost more than $35 billion, and most of it came out of the country’s own pocket. 

Turkey has been pushed to its breaking point, and it is starting to crack. 

After almost eight years, the experiment seems to be coming to a close. In Turkey, as well as in other countries, such as Lebanon and Colombia, that have been left to carry on their shoulders a moral and practical burden that belongs to the entire world, the mood is souring, and long-bottled-up grievances are erupting. 

Ankara is between a rock and a hard place. It cannot open the path to citizenship because the public won’t vote for it, and imposing it from the top down would be a kamikaze mission for whoever attempts it. But it cannot start door-to-door raids to round up and deport millions of refugees either; doing so would be both a moral calamity and a global spectacle. 

Ankara avoided this choice by biding its time for as long as it could, but it cannot anymore. Although he is still formidable as a politician, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has his back to the wall. His opponents are making unprecedented strides, his former friends are mutinying, and his existing allies are unreliable. Famous for his strong political instincts and obsession with polls, Erdogan sees the writing on the wall: Turkey’s anti-refugee wave is now a movement waiting for a leader, and he needs to act before it finds its Matteo Salvini.

The current backlash should surprise no one because it was years in the making. Many scholars have been warning for years about the global refugee regime’s structural problems and scrambling to find ways to address them. The existing system is a prime example of organized hypocrisy: In theory, refugee-hosting countries fulfill a duty on behalf of the entire international community, but, in reality, the rest of the world free-rides on their sacrifice. 

There is a legal and moral responsibility to not expel or return refugees to their country of origin once they show up at your border, known as the principle of non-refoulement and enshrined in Article 33 of the Refugee Convention, but there is no precept against chasing them away before they could ever make it that far, as Europe does, or keeping them suspended in legal no man’s lands like Australia’s offshore detention centers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island or the U.S. migrant detention centers near the Mexican border. 

Many refugee-generating countries weaponize forced displacement as a tool to coerce their neighbors and adversaries. From Cuba’s Fidel Castro to East Germany’s Erich Honecker, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi to Uganda’s Idi Amin, many used the threat. Tufts University’s Kelly Greenhill, who undertook the first systematic analysis of weaponized displacement, found that in almost three-quarters of the cases where it was attempted, the would-be coercers got at least some of what they sought. Yet there still exists no mechanism to hold them to account. There is not even clarity over who is responsible for solving refugee crises or how their burdens are to be shared. 

Consequently, the onus is consistently placed on the shoulders of those who are often least able to carry it. Half of the world’s refugees live in just 10 countries: Along with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, their ranks include Pakistan, Uganda, Iran, and Ethiopia. All but one of them are in the developing world, and their average GDP per capita is barely more than $3,800. Britain pledged with much fanfare that it will have accepted 20,000 Syrian refugees by May 2020. Turkey’s Kilis province, one of the country’s least populous regions with 142,000 people, is home to 116,000 Syrian refugees—almost six times more than the U.K., with a population of over 65 million, has accepted. 

Turkey’s sacrifice does not excuse the grossly irresponsible policies that dragged it into the quagmire in Syria in the first place, trivialize the valid concerns about the present and future of refugees there, or exculpate those seizing on it as a boost to their political fortunes and a license for nakedly racist and unabashedly xenophobic opinions, usually based on lies and falsehoods that social media has been spreading like wildfire. Much of the current debate, however, misses the heart of what’s going on right now: Turkey has been pushed to its breaking point, and it is starting to crack. 

A 2018 study by Istanbul Bilgi University’s Center for Migration Research found overwhelming and cross-partisan support for the repatriation of refugees: more than 85 percent of Turkish people favor it. Even among the voters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, arguably the country’s most left-wing party on social issues, support is at over 75 percent. Although the party has a standing committee on refugee issues, its most visible position has been largely self-interested: The party vehemently opposes the resettlement of Syrian refugees largely out of a fear that it would transform the demographics of the Kurdish-populated regions on either side of the tborder. 

The popular explanation for this backlash is that Turkey had a deep, subterranean reservoir of racism and xenophobia that is now erupting. The numbers, however, do not lend much credence to this view. According to the respected pollster Konda, the percentage saying they would have no problems with Syrian refugees in their city was 72 percent in February 2016. Now, it is below 40 percent. These numbers are reason enough to suspect that a major shift in public opinion is underway. 

Ankara is trying to square a circle. It accepted more refugees than it could absorb, and it hosted them for longer than it could afford. There is no question that Turkey’s hospitality has gone way beyond its means. The number of people legally registered for protection status in Turkey stands close to 4 million and a million more are estimated to live off the books. This is a population almost the size of Ireland—and if the status quo continues, it is likely to remain in Turkey for generations. Kenya’s Dadaab camp has been home to almost half a million refugees for a quarter century. In Lebanon, the third generation of Palestinian refugees is coming of age. As Alan Makovsky of the Center for American Progress rightly observed, it’s perfectly possible that the same will happen in Turkey. 

Such a prospect raises several difficult questions. First, how will Turkey integrate such a large population, teach them Turkish, and bring them into the labor market? After three decades, German reunification is still a work in progress, and the then-West German government had more material resources, greater support from the West German public, and a population whose culture, language, and identity were almost identical to its own. It’s unclear how Turkey can achieve what Germany couldn’t with a population with a different national identity and language. 

Expecting that the problem will solve itself with Bashar al-Assad leaving power, the rest of the world helping with the burden, or the refugees becoming an economic dynamo once they settled is wishful thinking. None of these is likely to happen. What will Turkey do then? 

Third, even if one looks past the practical challenges, there is a political question. Contrary to the term’s common usage, most of the millions of refugees Turkey is currently hosting are not “refugees” in the legal sense. Ankara signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and its additional protocol with a rider, known as the “geographical exception,” that limits the rights and protections afforded to asylum-seekers from outside Europe. Instead, these “refugees” are legally considered as being under “temporary protection status.” 

This is why Turkey’s leaders, including Erdogan, make a point of referring to them as “guests,” not “refugees.” This is not a unique practice: Ankara imported it from the European Union, which wrote it into law in 2001. Unlike the EU, which limits it to three years, Turkey’s Law No. 6458 puts no time cap on how long a person can stay under temporary protection. But if it can last forever, voters will start to wonder if their presence is a fait accompli that violates Turkish society’s right to communal self-determination—and that frustration opens up a political space for xenophobic populist politicians to seize as they have successfully done even in countries with far fewer refugees per capita, like Sweden. 

Some critics argue that there is only one community in which all human beings belong, but the idea that our duties and responsibilities toward fellow citizens are not equal to those outside the nation—and that communities have a moral right to determine who to admit or exclude—is also a well-established philosophical tradition whose advocates include some of the most influential intellectuals of our time like Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer. In their view, a community’s members—such as a national community—can have shared values and mutual responsibilities toward each other that are exclusive of others, and this right to community is not morally trivial. 

Such a claim does not imply that there exists no duty to help those in urgent need, that some people have a lesser claim to dignity, or that states can dishonor their commitments when it suits them, but it suggests the limits of a country’s means are also the limits of its obligations. One can reasonably disagree with it, and there are many who do, but it is not a morally indefensible position as the critics of those asking for an end to Ankara’s open-door policy and opposing a path to indefinite stay claim it to be. 

It is not just Erdogan’s government making the argument that Syrians can’t stay forever. The secular opposition’s rising star, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, is already carefully needling Erdogan about the issue

And it is not just Erdogan’s government making the argument that Syrians can’t stay forever. The secular opposition’s rising star, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, is already carefully needling Erdogan about the issue: While beating up on Erdogan and his government and talking about how he will turn Istanbul into the laboratory to find the policies that will solve the crisis, he is also promising zero tolerance for illegal employment, saying that the refugees are welcome as guests but not forever and that Ankara must work to create the conditions for their return as soon as possible. 

The nationalist opposition is also at a crossroads. Meral Aksener’s Iyi Party had begun with much fanfare but has been on a plateau since its lackluster showing in the presidential race last year. The party’s convention last month was expected to be a showdown between the centrists and the populists. These predictions did not come to pass: Aksener’s convention speech made almost no mention of refugees despite her tough stance on the subject and the fact that one of the party’s foremost moderates, Aytun Ciray, is now in charge of the national security portfolio, which also includes the refugee issue. 

Meanwhile, the Iyi party’s (and perhaps the country’s) toughest hard-liner on the refugee issue, Umit Ozdag, is out the door. A former college professor and one of Aksener’s earliest backers, Ozdag is both a seasoned political operative and a premier ideologue of modern Turkish nationalism, one of whose founders was his father. This may not be the last Turkish voters will see of him. 

Indeed, opposition to the open-door policy is one of the only things that unite Erdogan’s supporters and detractors and it is likely to get worse as the fighting intensifies in Idlib, raising the prospect of another wave of refugees arriving at the Turkish border. If Ankara remains committed to continuing this policy, as President Erdogan’s chief advisor recently affirmed in Foreign Policy, it will face an impossibly uphill battle against public opinion. 

Facing such tough political terrain, Erdogan has only one way out: a Turkish-controlled enclave in northern Syria. Relocating a substantial number of the refugees across the border, as Ankara is said to be planning, hits three birds with one stone. First, it resolves Erdogan’s problem at home at a time when rumors of an early election are gaining momentum. Second, it avoids the risk of sending the refugees on another “Voyage of the Damned”—as the U.S. government did after refusing entry to a ship full of Jewish refugees in 1939—since they would be under Turkey’s security umbrella and Ankara would be responsible for ensuring their safety. Third, it might force the United States and Europe to give Ankara more space to maneuver since they would depend on it to ward off the Assad regime until normalcy returns. 

Opposition to the open-door policy is one of the only things that unite Erdogan’s supporters and detractors and it is likely to get worse as the fighting intensifies in Idlib

When it comes to solving Turkey’s refugee crisis, there are no good choices. If Ankara is to take action, this seems to be its only option, which is the worst except for all the others. No one knows what would happen if Assad tries to reclaim the territory or how long Turkey can afford to remain there. What is clear, however, is that Ankara can’t stand by and do nothing. 

Anyone can argue against Turkey’s current course of action, but those doing so also ought to be honest about what they are asking of Turkey: to absorb a population the size of a foreign country, find a way to pay for it, and do it regardless of whether your people consent or not. That is something that no government in the world, no matter how progressive, would be willing to do. 

Selim Sazak is a doctoral student in political science at Brown University. Twitter: @scsazak