Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Syrian refugees living in Turkey could eventually be granted citizenship.
“I want to announce some good news,” Erdogan said late on Saturday at a dinner to break the Ramadan fast in Kilis province, on the Syrian border.
“We are going to help our Syrian friends in offering them the chance, if they want it, to acquire Turkish nationality.”
The Interior Ministry will shortly announce how the citizenship procedure would work, Erdogan added.
The president did not specify whether all of the 2.7 million Syrians that Turkey is hosting would be able to apply, and gave no details on eligibility criteria or how long the process would take.
“We regard you as our brothers and sisters. You are not far from your homeland, but only from your homes and your land … Turkey is also your homeland,” Erdogan told a group of Syrian refugees in Kilis, a city hosting more than 120,000 refugees, which exceeds its population.
Ankara has refused to grant refugee status to Syrians who have fled the devastating war across the border since 2011, referring to them as “guests”.
Only a small group have been granted work permits and residency.
The hashtag #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliİstemiyorum (I don’t want Syrians in my country) hit the worldwide list of trending topics on Twitter on Sunday, as Turkish social media users slammed Erdogan’s plan.
‘Difficult to implement’
Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish political analyst and columnist, told Al Jazeera that the government’s plan was not easy to implement.
” In humanitarian terms, it is a positive step. But it is not easy to make it exclusively easier for Syrians to gain citizenship. There are Georgians, Armenians and other foreigners who are in Turkey for economic and other reasons. It is not clear if they will be included in this scheme or not,” he said.
“Integration of a large amount of non-Turkish speakers who come from a different culture is not going to be easy and will bring large economic burden. I t might also encourage more people to try to enter Turkey, considering the volatile geography we live in.”
Akyol added that the opposition in Turkey might see the plan as a bid by Erdogan to “import voters” who out of gratitude would support the president and help him strengthen his grip on power.
The country’s open-door policy to Syrian refugees was initially a source of pride for the country.
However, there have been reports that many refugees are not allowed to cross the border.
Life is a struggle for most Syrians in Turkey, who mainly live off odd jobs that are often insufficient to feed and house a family.
The country is also hosting about 300,000 Iraqis who have fled the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Syria has been in a civil war since 2011, when the government cracked down on pro-democracy protests.
More than 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict and more than 10 million have been displaced, according to the UN. Around four million people have taken refuge in neighbouring countries.
Additional reporting by Umut Uras