The victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the constitutional referendum held on April 16 spurred great enthusiasm among the Syrian population in Turkey, who hoped that the AKP would use the victory to also help the Syrian refugees. However, the government has not taken any steps to improve the lives of Syrians. Recent news of a restaurant employee pouring hot water on a Syrian child standing outside a diner caused a major uproar. The child was rushed to the hospital and the employee was fired, but she was later released from the police station after claiming that she acted at the request of the customers.
Many Syrians in Turkey are miserable. They work illegally and they are underpaid—particularly in Istanbul where wages are below the standard of living—with hundreds of Syrian workers on the Asian side of the country earning less than TL 1,500 a month (compared to the average salary of TL1,800 / month in the city which is around five hundred dollars), a sum that barely provides for basic subsistence. All these workers hold a Temporary Protection Identity Card (TPID) that does not allow them to work or move without prior authorization.
The majority of the three million Syrians in Turkey carry TPID cards. The card has limited benefits, such as applying for humanitarian aid provided by some organizations to the poor, and allowing TPID holders access to hospitals and free medical treatment. But the situation of TPID holders has not changed after the referendum. They still suffer greatly from procedures restricting their movement.
The border province of Hatay hosts around three hundred and eighty thousand Syrians, most of whom live on humanitarian aid and illegal job income, which they use to pay rent. Rent ranges between TL five hundred and nine hundred per month, while many Syrians make less than TL nine hundred.
Around twenty thousand Syrian families (around eighty thousand people) have applied for Turkish citizenship. Many applications—almost half—were rejected for security reasons, per unofficial sources. Many of these Syrians are supporters of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after his statements of support for the Syrian opposition, but have become frustrated with the lack of political action.
Citizenship is awarded based on fame or wealth. Indeed, Erdogan recently granted Turkish citizenship to the family of Syrian child Bana al-Abed, while dozens of other people who were accepted were merchants or workers, even if they were loyal to the Syrian regime. This was most notable in the city of Gaziantep where a Turkish activist of Syrian origin reported that Assad supporters had applied for citizenship. Journalist Mukhtar Fateh posted on his Facebook page: “The dormant Shabeeha cells are mostly active in Istanbul’s coffee shops.” Suggesting that dozens of Assad supporters have benefited from all the procedures associated with tourism residence in Turkey, he wrote:
“The criteria for applying for Turkish citizenship are purely material. Anyone with a work or tourism residence permit, whether pro- or anti-Assad, can easily apply for Turkish citizenship. Para [Turkish for money] determines eligibility.”
Despite winter refugee programs from the United Nations and other international organizations, hundreds of Syrians in Reyhanli, Antakya, and Kirikhan still wait in line for hours in the hopes of receiving an aid carton to keep poverty at bay. Even these programs cover only a small portion of impoverished refugees.
Most Syrians supported the AKP based on the party’s claim to support Syrians against Bashar al-Assad, and because they view it as representative of the Muslim movement in Turkey. But the measures that followed the referendum remain modest at best. The government’s standard procedures seek to avoid anything that imposes financial costs on the Turkish government. TPID holders are not permitted to apply for a job at a government agency, but can are employed in the private sector for very low wages without any medical insurance.
Abu al-Hassan, a young Syrian, went to Istanbul in search of a job. He makes TL 1,400 per month, but with the rent and bills costing over TL 800, he is left with TL 600 to support himself and his young child for the rest of the month. He does not have medical insurance, and his attempts to apply for it failed because he does not qualify with a TPID. He is at loss as to where to take his family.
Syrians want to enjoy their rights as refugees not as guests. They want legal access to the Turkish labor market where they can exercise their rights and enjoy protection from exploitation. Dozens of workers head daily to Dawar al-Kaf and the Narlica bridge in Hatay province hoping to secure day labor. What they often find is low-paid, hard labor positions that Turkish employers need to fill but do not want to offer contracts or medical insurance, in which injured workers are faced with dismissal.
In the meantime, the Turkish-Syrian border remains closed. No Syrian is allowed to enter through Bab al-Hawa or Kilis border crossing, or even the humanitarian corridors in Khirbet al-Joz and Atmeh. People die trying to cross the wall that Turkey has recently built on the Syrian border. But compared to other options, Syrians in Turkey live in relative safety and dignity.
However, Turkey may be passing up a chance to help the Syrians and its economy by not helping them integrate. According to a recent UN report, Syrian refugees in Egypt contributed eight million dollars to the Egyptian economy since 2011. Their numbers do not exceed one hundred and twenty thousand and they face the same challenges as their compatriots in Turkey. This means that the integration of refugees benefits the entire country, and that Syrians, if given the chance, could play a major role in supporting Turkey and its economy.
Saleem al-Omar is a freelance journalist who has written for Al-Jazeera, Alquds Alarabi Newspaper, Arabi 21, and Syria Deeply.