The ticking time bomb of Syrian refugees

The less frustration among Syrian refugees in Turkey, the fewer we’ll see dying on the high seas and joining ISIL.

A Syrian refugee woman covers her face as she begs with her children on the street in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul [AFP]
A Syrian refugee woman covers her face as she begs with her children on the street in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul [AFP]

Seems like every day we hear about another fatal migrant incident on the Mediterranean. Already this year, nearly 2,000 people have died attempting to cross to Europe, an exponential increase from 2014.

The reasons behind the surge are clear. The Norwegian Refugee Council says an average of 30,000 people were forced from their homes every day last year due to conflict, bringing the global total to 38 million. Combined with figures from the United Nations’ refugee agency, that means some 55 million people are now living a long way from home – the greatest displacement crisis the world has seen in 70 years.

“We are at a dangerous tipping point,” Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said last week in Kuwait during a humanitarian pledging conference for Syria.

We met the Syrian refugees living in Istanbul’s ruins

Few have responded more admirably than Turkey, which has spent $5.6bn to provide for its Syrian guests. Turkey is not only hosting the most Syrian refugees – 1.7 million according to official figures; around 2 million unofficially – it’s hosting more refugees than any country in the world. Greece grasps this better than most: It’s on pace to double the 33,000 migrants that arrived last year.

Ankara’s challenges

As the desperate continue to stream into Turkey, with many travelling further in search of opportunity, the challenges facing Ankara are of global concern. And they’re getting worse.

With the lira falling and unemployment and inflation on the rise, Ankara will be hard-pressed in the months ahead to continue its generosity. A mass public brawl involving some 200 people in Sanliurfa last week highlighted the simmering tensions between Syrians snatching up cheap housing and blue-collar jobs and the residents of southeast Turkish cities in which refugees are thick on the ground.

And with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) increasing instability across northern Syria and Iraq, the number of refugees in Turkey is set to increase to 2.5 million this year, according to Helen Clark, the administrator of the UN Development Program.

With ISIL increasing instability across northern Syria and Iraq, the number of refugees in Turkey is set to increase to 2.5 million this year…


Three recent reports take up the issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The first, from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, argues that the Syria and Iraq policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK party) have cost Turkey some $16.5bn in spending on refugees and lost export and tourism revenues. That number may not be far off.

Last year, Turkish economist Suleyman Yasar put Turkey’s cost for the Syrian war at $12.5bn, while the World Bank estimated the conflict had cost Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon some $35bn in total.

But blaming the ruling party a month before parliamentary elections seems a bit disingenuous. No AK party policy decision in recent years would have suddenly made southeast Turkey, in the shadow of Syria’s civil war, a vacationer’s paradise, or transformed war-torn Syria and Iraq into thriving, export-hungry economies.

Spending on refugees

As I argued a year ago, the one element under Ankara’s control – spending on refugees – has been one of its few foreign policy bright spots. Everyone from the New York Times to British parliamentarians and UN officials has raved about the conditions of its refugee camps.

Finally, the CHP report recommends that Syrians be registered into a national database so that cities with more refugees receive a greater allocation of government funds. In fact, Turkey began registering Syrian refugees in October, with a new law that also granted free access to healthcare and education. 

Reports from the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) and the Migration Policy Institute, both DC-based think-tanks, call for Turkey to shift its policy towards integration, as return will not be an option for refugees for a number of years. Since refugees began arriving in mid-2011, Turkey has largely taken a catch-as-catch-can approach, responding generously but haphazardly. Today more than four out of five Syrian refugees in Turkey fend for themselves outside the camps, struggling to find work and housing.

A Syrian child living in a refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey [Getty]
A Syrian child living in a refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey [Getty]

The MPI report urges Turkey to change its 1951 Geneva Convention obligations, which stipulate that only European asylum seekers can be granted refugee status. That October law allowed Syrian refugees to stay until their safe return to Syria can be ensured, but failed to provide full refugee rights. Both reports call for workforce integration. Turkey’s parliament will soon consider a bill enabling refugees to work in certain sectors, with quotas.

“This plan is to be implemented in a phased manner so as not to disturb the ‘social peace’ and generate tension,” says the SETA report, which acknowledges the June elections seem to be delaying passage of this legislation. The AK party smartly figures that a government decision to give work permits to Syrian refugees and potentially put them on the path to citizenship is unlikely to be well-received by its many working class supporters.

Once electoral politicking has past, Turkey needs to give its Syrian visitors work permits. It also needs to look abroad for assistance.

“A truly effective and forward-looking response will require more extensive cooperation and support from the international community,” writes Ahmet Icduygu, for MPI. The best solution would be for wealthier states to open their doors to more refugees.

New arrivals

Recent studies from the European Commission and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that migrants have not harmed local workers but have contributed to government revenues. New arrivals also tend to be entrepreneurial: In 2014, Syrian refugees started more than a thousand businesses in Turkey.

But if they prefer to keep their doors shut, rich countries should at least be willing to increase their aid spending. The US pledged $507m last week in Kuwait, to help Syrians, while the host pledged $500m. But other Gulf states have failed to pull their weight. Riyadh committed $60m at the conference, down from $78m last year. Consider, too, that the US economy is 20 times as large as Turkey’s, with a GDP of $16.8 trillion, yet the US has spent about 42 percent less on Syrian aid than Turkey – $3.2bn since the conflict began.

Total aid for Syria has held steady over the past year. This might be a result of disaster fatigue, particularly after the devastating earthquake in Nepal. There’s also the issue of ISIL. Since last summer, Western leaders looking at Syria have tended to focus on the terror group. But if the moral obligation of helping millions of desperate people provides inadequate motivation, the international community might view the refugee crisis as a security issue.

This week in Turkey, the US began training some 15,000 rebels to fight in Syria, part of the US-led coalition plan to degrade and destroy ISIL. While it’s in the area, coalition advisers would be wise to also help build schools and train teachers to educate some of the 450,000 Syrian refugee children out of school in Turkey. The UN has documented several instances of refugee children joining radical armed groups, with ISIL making child recruitment a key element of its strategy.

Refugees from Syria and other conflict zones aren’t shoehorning themselves on to listing boats or signing up for jihad out of boredom. They’re doing so because they see so little means of providing for their family and building useful, prosperous lives. The less frustration, insecurity, and hopelessness among Syrian refugees in Turkey, the fewer we’ll see dying on the high seas and taking up with the likes of ISIL.

David Lepeska, a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Financial Times and other outlets. His work focuses on Turkey and the Middle East. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.