Turkey’s Xenophobic Turn Targets Stateless Syrians
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is vowing to repatriate refugees ahead of an election he desperately wants to win.
With long braids and large grins, Luna and Violetta, ages 6 and 5, respectively, greeted me at their home in Antakya city in southern Turkey in late December 2022. They then skipped to the corner of the living room to finish drawing the family portraits they had been working on when I arrived. In addition to their father Mohammad, mother Rabaa, and older brother Ahmed, the pictures soon included sketches of me.
Almost everything changed for the characters in their drawings on Feb. 6, when a once-in-a-generation earthquake ripped through Antakya and shook the family’s second-floor apartment to the street below. Ahmed didn’t make it out of the rubble alive; Rabaa stood outside the wreckage for four days until her son’s body was retrieved. Mohammad has since led his family across southern Turkey on a fruitless search for new housing.
Luna and Violetta’s short-term status is in flux, and their long-term status remains equally murky. Neither girl has ever been to Syria, the country their parents and older brother fled seven years ago. They were born in Turkey but have neither Syrian nor Turkish citizenship. Like Luna and Violetta, most children born in Turkey to Syrian parents—and in some cases mixed Syrian-Turkish parents—are at risk of statelessness.
In the final days of 2022, Turkish and Syrian defense and intelligence chiefs met in Moscow for the first high-level, public meeting between the two countries in more than a decade. After the meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented, “Our aim is to establish peace and stability in the region.” But many Syrians worry rapprochement could lead to their forced repatriation. Rabaa—who asked that only her family’s first names be used, for safety—fears her daughters could be sent to a country they have never known.
Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been working to remove Syrian refugees in the lead-up to Turkey’s May elections. Anti-Syrian rhetoric and hate crimes are on the rise in the country, and voters and politicians focused on hyperinflation and a sputtering domestic economy are pointing their fingers at Syrians. “We are very careful when we go out [of] the house,” Rabaa told Foreign Policy. “My fear of us being sent back is increasing each day.”
Although it has never thought of itself as such, Turkey is a country of immigrants. Bosnians, Albanians, Tatars, and people from other ethnic groups migrated to Anatolia in the 20th century, and 100 years have passed since the catastrophic Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923. Almost 4 million Syrians fleeing war have arrived in Turkey over the last decade and today they make up nearly 5 percent of Turkey’s population.
Yet Turkey’s narrow form of nationalism ignores the multicultural history of the empire from which it descended. Turkish collective memory recalls Arabs, for example, as conspiring with the British and French to stir up revolts against Turkish imperial rulers in World War I. Though Syria formed an integral part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years—and Turks and Syrians share a common history, culture, and religion—popular Turkish spoken expressions paint Arabs as backstabbers.
Ziya Gokalp, the father of Turkish nationalism, argued in his 1925 book A History of Turkish Civilization that Turks were a people, unlike Arabs, Kurds, and Berbers, whom he claimed had not evolved from their tribal ways. Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, who served as justice minister in the young Turkish republic, said in 1930 that “those who are not of pure Turkish race have only one right in this country[:] the right to be a servant, the right to be a slave.”
Today, the almost 4 million Syrians in Turkey enjoy temporary protective status and are regarded as guests in the country—even if they have been there for over a decade. While this status does afford Syrians in Turkey access to some basic rights, such as free health care and education, the scheme also bars them from ever applying for Turkish citizenship. Foreigners can typically apply for Turkish citizenship after five years of residency.
Approximately 1.6 million Syrians in Turkey are minors, and an estimated 750,000 of this cohort were born there. They are overwhelmingly stateless. There are many reasons why these children are not—or cannot be—officially recognized as Syrian nationals. These include lack of civil documentation, barriers to obtain birth certification in Turkey, fear of visiting a Syrian consulate or returning to Syria, and Syria’s sexist citizenship laws. Syrian mothers can only pass on Syrian nationality if the child is born inside Syria; in Turkey, children are at risk of statelessness when a mother’s relationship to a Syrian or Turkish father is unclear or cannot be established.
To prevent statelessness, Turkish law allows children born in the country who cannot acquire citizenship through their parents to become Turkish nationals. But this provision has almost never been applied to Syrian children born in Turkey. One reason may be that Turkish authorities don’t define children born to Syrian fathers as stateless, because they are legally eligible to obtain Syrian citizenship if they return and claim it.
Research shows that statelessness can lead to protracted displacement, and the Turkish government has done little to address that reality. Syrian children in Turkey attend Turkish schools and are fluent in Turkish; they are not necessarily able to read and write in Arabic. But without Turkish citizenship or permanent residency, they are in a perpetual limbo of being guests—and thus cannot fully integrate into Turkish society.
The growing risk of statelessness for the generation of Syrians born in exile is not just unique to Turkey; other refugee host countries in the region are facing a similar situation. Palestinians make up the largest stateless community in the world, with Israel and Arab host governments barring most of them from being naturalized. This void has made four generations of Palestinian refugees vulnerable by depriving them of their basic rights and restricting their access to public services and livelihoods. Syrians born inside Syria but outside of government-controlled territories are also stateless. But the issue is especially salient in Turkey, which hosts the largest number of refugees in the world.
When Syrians revolted against their government in 2011, the Turkish government quickly declared itself in support of the Syrian opposition. Erdogan presented himself as a benefactor and protector of Syrians, applying an open-door policy to those escaping violence until 2015.
In 2016, Erdogan began granting Turkish citizenship to some Syrians via an extraordinary condition in Turkey’s 2009 naturalization law, which authorizes the cabinet to bestow citizenship on foreigners who provide an “outstanding service in the social or economic arena.” As of the end of 2022, 223,881 Syrians had become Turkish citizens under the policy, according to the Turkish Interior Ministry.
“There are highly qualified people among [the Syrians]; there are engineers, lawyers, doctors,” Erdogan said in 2017. “Let’s make use of that talent. … Instead of letting them work illegally here and there, let’s give them the chance to work as citizens like the children of this nation.” Opposition politicians and at least some Turks have accused Erdogan of exploiting the policy’s vague criteria for outstanding service to tip the electoral balance in his favor by effectively minting new AKP voters.
But over the years, Turkey turned against the refugees it originally welcomed. At first, Turks were cautiously compassionate toward Syrians, but the newcomers eventually became the bugbear for all negative trends in Turkey, from democratic backsliding and rising security threats to the country’s ongoing economic crisis. Anti-Syrian mobs looted Syrian shops and homes in Ankara in 2021, part of a surge in anti-immigrant violence. In September 2022, a group of Turks fatally stabbed a Syrian teenager accepted to study medicine in Antakya.
Turkish opposition candidates have used nationalist, racist rhetoric to tap into the fears of a population reeling from economic crisis and concerned about the changing social nature of their country. Nativist firebrand Umit Ozdag has largely steered the national debate on refugees, founding a party based solely on deporting them in 2021. He also funded a dystopian short film titled Silent Invasion, in which a Syrian party wins the 2042 Turkish elections and declares Arabic the country’s official language.
This campaign season has not devoted time or energy to discussing Syrians’ integration. Most political parties believe all Syrians will imminently return home, with rapprochement on the horizon.
“Don’t you worry,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party, said at a rally last year. “We will send our Syrian siblings to their homes with drums and zurnas within two years at the latest.” On March 7, Kilicdaroglu was named the presidential candidate for a group of opposition parties seeking to defeat Erdogan in May’s election. Secular Turks have been at the forefront of calls demanding Syrians’ repatriation, unnerved by what they see as Turkey’s descent into a strongman Islamist country under Erdogan.
In response to his opponents’ calls, Erdogan in 2022 vowed to send a million Syrians back within one year, despite the policy being seen as unrealistic and illegal. Co-opting the opposition’s scapegoating is one way Erdogan can cut into its support. Erdogan’s about-face on Syria’s government also appears largely motivated by domestic politics.
The Turkish president’s public overtures toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad follow years of a quieter policy seeking to drive Syrians out of Turkey. Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish authorities arbitrarily detained and deported hundreds of Syrians between February and July 2022. The 1951 Geneva Convention bars signatory states—including Turkey—from returning refugees to places where they might be put in danger. The Turkish government denies it is doing this.
Savas Unlu, the head of Turkey’s Presidency of Migration Management, said in March 2022 that 500,000 Syrians had returned to their country voluntarily since 2016. (According to U.N. data over 29,000 Syrians returned voluntarily from Turkey to Syria in 2022.) Unlu suggested the Syrians in question went to Turkish-established “safe zones.”
The February earthquake has only complicated matters. Since the disaster, nearly 50,000 Syrians in Turkey have been granted temporary exit permission to return to Syria by the Turkish government. Those Syrians who left Turkey under this temporary permission will need to return and be readmitted back to Turkey before Sept. 15, according to current government policy.
Syrians have been absent from the political discussion about if they want to remain in Turkey, return to Syria, or relocate elsewhere. According to the 2020 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Syrian Barometer survey, the percentage of Syrians in Turkey who are not considering going back to their country increased from 17 percent in 2017 to 78 percent in 2020. The issue is especially fraught for stateless Syrians: Those unable to prove that they are Syrian nationals may be at risk within Syria, and they also may not be able to inherit property and other assets. It is also unclear whether Syrian authorities would allow them to enter the country at all.
Turkey’s upcoming election would be an opportune time for the country to discuss a fresh approach to Syrians’ status in the country. If Syrians were offered a structured pathway out of their purgatory, they could contribute more to Turkey’s economy. Employment is recognized as a driver of integration. Turkey introduced a work permit system for Syrian refugees back in 2016, but employers must bear the costs and are often reluctant to do so. Hiring refugees is also an administrative hurdle. What’s more, businesses benefit from cheap informal labor below the minimum wage. The Turkish government said it granted only 91,492 work permits to Syrians in 2021; the International Labor Organization estimated around 97 percent of Syrian refugees work informally in Turkey.
Some Latin American countries have closed this informal work gap by granting Venezuelan refugees temporary amnesty. Roughly 5.4 million Venezuelans have been displaced since 2015, the region’s largest migration crisis to date. In 2021, the Colombian government granted legal status to all Venezuelan migrants in the country, offering 10-year residency permits. The International Monetary Fund has found that economic integration of Venezuelans could increase Latin American host countries’ GDPs by up to 4.5 percent by 2030.
In Turkey, moving Syrians out of the informal economy would protect them from predatory employment practices and assuage working class Turks’ concerns about Syrians stealing jobs or evading taxes. It could also be of mutual benefit as Turkey struggles to rebuild from the February earthquakes. If offered a legal employment scheme, Syrians could help in reconstruction efforts.
The issue of Turkish citizenship remains fraught, but both Turks and Syrians appear to favor more transparency in when and how it can be granted. More clarity about the naturalization process would reduce disinformation and thus the potential for Syrians to be used as political tools. Syrian adults might be more motivated to learn Turkish if doing so can lead to a tangible outcome—a residency permit, for example, or a pathway to citizenship.
Some Turkish politicians are more conciliatory toward Syrian refugees than the political mainstream, such as Fatih Aydin, deputy chairman of Turkey’s Felicity Party, a small Islamist group. “Our aim is to maximize the return of refugees and initiate an integration process for those will stay,” Aydin told Turkey recap. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, does not weaponize the refugee issue and has stated it privileges “sensitivity regarding migrant and refugee rights.” In 2016, the party’s head, Selahattin Demirtas (who has been imprisoned since November 2016), said: “Anyone who wishes to become a citizen and fulfills the necessary conditions should be able to become a Turkish citizen. Our country is their homeland.”
The scale of destruction wrought by the recent earthquakes—the initial Feb. 6 tremor and then its aftershocks—is still not fully understood. More than 1.9 million people have been left homeless and more than 48,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria. “We will rebuild these buildings within one year and hand them back to citizens,” Erdogan said in February, in an apparent attempt to project strength and nationalism ahead of looming elections. Reconstruction, however, will likely take much longer.
The Syrians of southern Turkey survived war in their own country just to face economic collapse, hate crimes, and now a natural disaster in Turkey. The earthquakes have made their prospect of return even less likely, as any solution to their protracted displacement went from difficult to impossible in the wake of the destruction.
However, Syrians can help share the burden in rebuilding Turkey if they are offered some semblance of stability in the country. After 12 years under temporary protection, Syrians should finally be made eligible to apply for medium- to long-term residency in Turkey to encourage their socioeconomic integration. This process should start with Syrian children born in Turkey who are de facto stateless. If not, then vulnerable children—Luna, Violetta, and many others—will only fall deeper between the cracks.
Joshua Levkowitz is a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs, where he writes about Syria and the Syrian diaspora.
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