Turkey’s demographic challenge

Turkey needs a realistic plan to deal with Syrian refugees.

Musicians from Syria play Arabic songs for money in central Istanbul''s Istiklal Avenue [AP]
Musicians from Syria play Arabic songs for money in central Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue [AP]

In a similar way that many in Western Europe worry about how the influx of Arab refugees might alter the social fabric in places such as Germany or Sweden, many Turks are concerned about the ever-increasing Arab minority in Turkey. 

If policymakers in Ankara pursue the correct policies now, it could save Turkey a lot of social strife in the future. Tough questions will have to be addressed to ensure that the newly enlarged Arab minority integrates into Turkish society in a positive way.

Syria’s War: Refugees flee to Turkey for safety

Turkey has a long history of welcoming Arab refugees. During World War II, almost two million Arabs from the Levant and Mesopotamia settled in Turkey. There was another huge influx during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Turkey’s Arab challenge

Estimates of the number of Arabs living in Turkey before the Syrian Civil War in 2011 vary widely from one million to more than two million. Turkey’s Arab minority is concentrated predominately in Sanliurfa, Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis and Mardin provinces – all along Turkey’s border with Syria.

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Unlike the Kurds, for the most part Arabs have not had difficulty becoming assimilated in Turkish society – not withstanding some localised issues over language and education. Most (but not all) of Turkey’s Arab population practise Sunni Islam, the predominate religion in Turkey.

Unlike the Kurds, for the most part Arabs have not had difficulty assimilating into Turkish society - not withstanding some localised issues over language and education.


In some cases many cultural traits are shared between ethnic Turks and the Arab minority in Turkey. This has made integration easier for Arabs than for other groups such as Armenians, for example.

However, with the huge influx of Arab refugees into Turkey, this could change.

The number of Arab refugees today in Turkey stands at 2.6 million. This number is made up mainly of Syrian refugees but those from Iraq number in the hundreds of thousands.

Add the number of Arabs who were already living in Turkey to the influx of refugees since 2011 and the sum quickly approaches five million – making Arabs the third largest ethnic group in the country after the Kurds.

Of the 2.6 million refugees only 10 percent live in the established camps. Many have chosen to live in the regions of Turkey traditionally home to ethnic Arabs. For example, the population in Kilis province has doubled since 2011 thanks to the influx of refugees. Even so, refugees can be found in all of Turkey’s 81 provinces.

Strain on public services

This is placing a huge strain on public services. Last year, Turkey enrolled 215,000 Syrian children into primary and secondary education. While this was a big improvement on the year before, it makes up only a small number of the more than 700,000 school-aged Syrian children living in Turkey. Since 2011 a staggering 70,000 Syrian babies have been born in Turkey. Those born in 2011 will start school this year.

A Turkish man helps a Syrian woman carrying a wounded Syrian girl to a hospital in Kilis, Turkey [AP] 
A Turkish man helps a Syrian woman carrying a wounded Syrian girl to a hospital in Kilis, Turkey [AP] 

Starting in March, all adult Syrian refugees who have been legally registered in Turkey for at least six months will be able to apply for a work permit.

This will help the refugee population to assimilate into Turkish society, give them an opportunity to earn a living, and, it is hoped, reduce the number of refugees making the daring trip to other places in Europe.

On the other hand, this move is likely to push unskilled Turks out of low-wage jobs or, at a minimum, drive down wages in unskilled labour sectors. With unemployment hovering at just under 11 percent in Turkey, this could have significant social and economic consequences.

With the increased fighting in the region around Aleppo, more civilians have been massing on the Turkish border hoping to escape the bloodshed.

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Currently, these Syrians hoping to escape are measured in the tens of thousands, but Turkey’s Turkish deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, recently claimed that as many as 600,000 refugees could flood into Turkey if the fighting continues around Aleppo. Some suggest that the estimate could be as high as one million.


Safe zone in northern Syria

For months Turkey has been calling for the establishment of a so-called safe zone in northern Syria. Beyond making public pronouncements for a safe zone, nobody has explained how this might work in practice.

Building the infrastructure to protect, house, feed, heat, educate and provide basic healthcare to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Syrians in a largely barren area along the Turkish-Syrian border for the foreseeable future is probably not feasible.

Turkey needs a realistic plan to deal with these refugees, and this will require the help and financial support of Europe and the US. Even if the fighting in Syria stopped tomorrow it is unlikely many Syrians who have settled in Turkey would want to go back to their homelands. What would they go back to?

It appears that millions of Syrians will remain in Turkey for ever. They will settle down and start families. Attend school and get jobs. How they will integrate into Turkish society and mobilise politically remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, demographics in Turkey will never be the same.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

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