New challenge for Syria’s neighbours over status of refugees

Sunday 31/07/2016
Syrian refugee Rua Sahalli, 12, from Idlib, Syria, weaves a carpet at a workshop near the town of Kilis in south-eastern Turkey.

Washington - More than five years into the Syrian war, governments around the Middle East are faced with Syrian refugees turn from “guests” into residents and, in some cases, into citizens, changing the demograph­ics of host countries and often sparking anger among the native population.

About 4.8 million Syrians are registered as refugees in countries from Turkey to Egypt, according to the UN High Commissioner for Ref­ugees (UNHCR). In Turkey, which has taken in the biggest group — about 2.7 million people — shop signs in Arabic have become com­monplace in many cities. In the Turkish border province of Kilis, Syrians outnumber Turks, result­ing in a major policy shift.

Ankara regarded Syrians as “guests” under temporary protec­tion but short of official asylum status in the hope that the refugees would eventually go home. Only two years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdog­an, now Turkey’s president, told a Turkish audience in the province of Hatay, which borders Syria, that the country’s “Syrian guests will surely return to their country one day”.

Now, however, Ankara has begun to issue work permits to Syrians and is mulling a plan to grant citi­zenship to hundreds of thousands.

Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Wash­ington who has written extensively about the effect of the Syrian refu­gee crisis on neighbouring coun­tries, said the turnaround is tacit recognition of the failure of Anka­ra’s Syria policy that centred on unseating Syrian President Bashar Assad. “It is acknowledging defeat in Syria without saying it openly,” Kirisci said. Turkish Prime Minis­ter Binali Yildirim has said he was in favour of normalising ties with Syria. “We need it,“ he said.

Some steps aimed at moving Syr­ians into Turkish society are con­troversial. The plan to offer Turkish passports to Syrians, floated by Er­dogan, was rejected by opposition leaders and polls indicate most Turks are opposed to the proposal.

Many see Syrians as competitors in the labour and housing markets and government critics suspect that Erdogan is trying to create a new voter pool for his governing Jus­tice and Development Party (AKP). Reports say about 300,000 Syrians could become Turkish citizens if the government sticks to its plan.

The opposition in Ankara is call­ing for a referendum on Erdogan’s plan. Opposition leader Kemal Kil­icdaroglu said it would be wrong to hand Turkish passports to Syrians when 17 million people in the coun­try are living in poverty. Granting citizenship to Syrians would also result in the emergence of “ghet­tos” in Turkish cities, he said.

The debate comes during height­ened tensions between Turks and Syrians. Following the death of a Syrian and a Turk during a brawl in the central Anatolian province of Konya, Turkish protesters de­manded that all Syrians in the area be kicked out. The government has not said whether the July 15th failed coup attempt would change its passport plan but delays are possible as Erdogan goes after suspected plotters and supporters with massive waves of arrests.

Other measures aimed at inte­grating Syrians have been put in place without causing much public fuss. Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Centre (IMPR), a think-tank in Ankara, said efforts to bring Syrians into the legal labour market were bearing fruit. A project run by IMPR, UNHCR and the Turk­ish Labour Ministry has produced more than 5,000 work permits for Syrians since March, Ayhan said, adding: “Turkey could become a model.”

Kirisci said the work permit scheme reflected recognition by Ankara that Turkey would have to live with a large group of Syrian mi­grants from now on.

By contrast, Erdogan’s passport proposal was “pure politics”, Kiris­ci added. “It came straight out of the blue” and appeared to be con­nected to the president’s political agenda of changing Turkey’s gov­ernment system from a parliamen­tary democracy to a presidential republic, he said.

Murat Erdogan, a professor at Ankara’s Hacettepe University and a migration expert, has long argued that Turkey should acknowledge that most Syrians would not go home. Although he said he is in fa­vour of granting citizenship to Syr­ians, Murat Erdogan, who is not re­lated to the Turkish president, said the issue should be handled with care and preparation.

“You can’t provide citizenship in a matter of days,” he told the Hur­riyet newspaper. “We need to have some kind of integration courses. This whole issue came to the agen­da all of a sudden, without proper debates.”

Other countries in the region are watching the debate in Turkey in­tensely. In Jordan, the government has won praise from the UNHCR after launching a programme to is­sue work permits to Syrians who worked illegally in the country before. Access to the legal labour market is seen as an important tool to stop Syrians from sliding into poverty as their savings dry up.

“The move will potentially put Syrian refugees on the same foot­ing as migrant workers in sectors such as agriculture, construction, service industries and food and beverages,” the UNHCR said in a statement. “This would provide a much-needed economic boost to the approximately 630,000 regis­tered Syrian refugees in the king­dom, the vast majority of whom live below the poverty line and rely on humanitarian aid for survival.”

Kirisci said the Jordanian work permit scheme was the “product of a bargaining process” between the government and Western coun­tries, whose main interest is in pre­venting more Syrians from migrat­ing to Europe.

Concerned about a possible hos­tile reaction by Jordanians to hav­ing Syrians compete with them for legal jobs, Amman wanted to “sug­ar-coat” the work permits with ac­cess to European Union funds and the bloc’s internal market, he said. Reports said the step by the Jorda­nian government was also motivat­ed by the hope of receiving a $300 million interest-free loan from the World Bank in exchange.