New challenge for Syria’s neighbours over status of refugees
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.