The Pitfall of Politicizing Syrian Refugees in Turkey’s Election

Of all the things that could hurt Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in this weekend’s election—authoritarian tendencies, a poor human rights record, and reports of rampant corruption—one of its more liberal policies may be its undoing.

Polls indicate that the AKP could possibly lose its grip on power for the first time in years, and it may have something to do with the party’s welcoming stance towards Syrian refugees. With elections approaching, the 3.9 million Syrian refugees that Turkey hosts have become a rallying point for opposition leaders, who seek to gain from increasingly intolerant public opinion towards Syrian refugees.

While the AKP has mostly maintained its position, encouraging integration through both rhetoric and policy, recent statements by President Erdogan and other party officials signal they are aware of the political danger posed by growing public resentment towards refugees. It is understandable that in a political climate such as Turkey’s, challengers to the ruling party will pander to anti-immigrant sentiment during election time. However, regardless of Turkey’s policies towards Syrian refugees, mass voluntary return is unlikely absent a meaningful political resolution in Syria. Thus once the election concludes, parties would ideally refocus on integrating Syrian refugees in order to avoid security and economic threats that would ultimately hurt all residents.

Some Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey have returned to Syria, including some 150,000 in the last 18 months, according to the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority. President Erdogan recently claimed that one goal of Turkey’s military intervention into northern Syria is to enable Syrian refugees to return to their home, and other officials have confirmed that stabilization efforts in Turkish-controlled territory have yielded returns. However, as previously mentioned, there are 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey. Their numbers grow by approximately 1,000 people daily, through births and new arrivals.

In addition to sheer scale, refugee returns are hindered by a lack of “pull” factors, and implementing policies to introduce “push” factors may have little impact. The majority of Syrian refugees oppose Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and fear violent reprisals, conscription, and persecution if they return while he remains in power. A recent study by the Carnegie Middle East Center found that the primary conditions for return among Syrian refugees are safety and security, which they do not believe is achievable without political transition. Interestingly, most Syrian refugees surveyed by the study reported they would not return without those conditions even if there were available jobs, services, and housing. Thus, adopting policies that make life more miserable for Syrian refugees in Turkey is not likely to facilitate returns. It is, however, likely to create larger problems for Turkey down the line.

Erdogan and his government are aware of the benefits of integrating Syrian refugees, as well as the costs of not doing so. Although the Turkish government supported their protection and integration into Turkish society as a humanitarian imperative, this stance is not entirely altruistic. Understanding that Syrian refugees in Turkey are not leaving any time soon, the AKP has sought to bring them into the formal economy. The goal of this policy is not only to help them provide for themselves to lessen the burden on taxpayers, many of whom bristle at the $30.2 billion the government has self-reportedly spent on Syrian refugees since 2011, but also to address public concern that cheap, illegal Syrian labor drives up unemployment among Turks.

In 2016, the government made it possible for refugees to work legally and subsequently opened pathways to naturalization. Even today, despite the public turn against Syrian refugees, Turkey’s employment agency and several multilateral international organizations are cooperating closely to prepare the legal and administrative basis for opening labor markets for Syrian refugees. The Turkish government seems to understand that labor policies based on the assumption that Syrian refugees are temporary pose a greater risk to the economy in the long run, and favors integration instead due to incentives by the international community.

In addition to the economic risk incurred by failing to integrate Syrian refugees, the potential threat to Turkish security is also a consideration. Syrian refugees are already marginalized: despite their significant presence in the country, they have no political representation; and though the government has made progress in absorbing them into the formal economy, they still face barriers to employment economic opportunity.

Now the problem is compounded as resentment grows in struggling host communities, spurred on by election-time rhetoric from opposition leaders. Syrian refugees are increasingly ostracized, and in 2017, at least 35 people died, including 24 Syrians, in refugee-related social violence in Turkey, according to a recent report by International Crisis Group.

While the vast majority of politically, economically, and socially disenfranchised people typically do not turn to violence or radicalization, some will. Others may turn to extreme groups out of necessity, to gain protection or livelihood opportunities they feel the government will not provide them. Thus, a failure to integrate Syrian refugees would be a failure in counterterrorism, as well as humanitarian response and economic policy.

The AKP seems wary of this threat, and has taken several steps to avoid such an outcome. Amidst reports of rising rates of radicalization among youth, the Turkish government has worked to expand access to formal education for Syrian children and implemented psychosocial support programs as well. In official statements, the AKP has emphasized cultural, historical, and religious similarities with Syrians and encouraged their acceptance as “Muslim brothers.”

In the political realm, the AKP recently included in its list of parliamentary nominees a Syrian-born businessman who has promised to be a champion for Syrian refugees. This week, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made a point of announcing that 30,000 Syrian who were granted Turkish citizenship will vote in the election. Despite a few politically calculated statements this week referencing refugee returns, the overwhelming rhetoric of the AKP has been welcoming to Syrian refugees. Combined with the government’s efforts in facilitating Syrian refugee employment, education, and societal acceptance, this seems to indicate the AKP’s understanding of the dangers prolonged marginalization poses to Turkey.

Despite the temptation to use Syrians as a scapegoat for economic hardships, the government would be better served to continue its commitment to the protection of Syrian refugees and develop a broader strategy for integration. Beyond being “the right thing to do” for Syrian refugees, it is in line with Turkish security and economic interests. It is no surprise that all parties sunk to using anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric ahead of this election.

But moving forward, it is crucial to Turkish interests that whoever comes away from these elections victorious ceases such divisive behavior and instead set about developing and implementing a comprehensive strategy for Syrian refugee integration. It can do so and still address Turkish public grievances, by signposting how integration will help society as whole in the long run and seeking greater burden-sharing from international partners to serve both Syrian refugees and their host communities.

Emily Burchfield is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Ibrahim, a young Syrian refugee textile worker, walks in the neighbourhood of Basmane in the Aegean port city of Izmir, Turkey, April 7, 2016. Picture taken April 7, 2016. To match Special Report EUROPE-MIGRANTS/TURKEY-CHILDREN REUTERS/Tuncay Dersinlioglu