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“Guests and Aliens”: Re-Configuring New Mobilities in the Eastern Mediterranean After 2011 - with a special focus on Syrian refugees

Session 3: Urban Futures

Syrians go Home: the Challenge of the Refugee Influx from the Syrian civil War in Turkey

Andrés Mourenza et Imanol Ortega

Texte intégral


1Historically, Turkey has been a country both of emigration and immigration but also a country of transit and settlement. In recent years, Turkey has become a real transit area to the West. The control of this migration, often irregular, is also a center of concern of Turkish authorities, often encouraged by the European Union (EU). The internal dynamics of the country with several military interventions in its contemporary history, the constant instability of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region with continuing conflicts and wars, as well as political or economic interests have led to the emergence of different migratory movements at different times to and from the country. Some of these movements have been regular while others have had an irregular character (Kaya and Kentel 2005).

2The migration of Turkish workers to Europe, especially Germany, and the migration of refugees from the late 1970s which continued during the 1980s and until today, are the major migration flows from Turkey to different parts of the world. The main movements of migration to Turkey include Bulgarian immigration to Turkey between 1923 and 1990 that peaked in 1989; immigration of asylum seekers and refugees from Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s; persons subject to human trafficking and entering clandestinely in the country, and irregular immigrants (İçduygu 2003).

  • 1 Accession Partnership with Turkey (2003).

3Until the early 2000s, three documents constituted the three legal pillars of immigration policy in Turkey: the Settlement Act (Yerleşim Yasası YY, 1934), the Geneva Convention on Refugees (Mülteciler Cenevre Sözleşmesi MCS, 1951) and the regulation of the Right of Asylum (İltica Hakkı İH, 1994). In the context of Turkey’s acquit to fulfill the Copenhagen Criteria and in order to shape its candidacy for full membership to the European Union (EU), Turkey initiated “real efforts” in order to make changes in immigration laws and policies. There are nevertheless areas where a gradual realignment towards EU practice is occurring. Turkey, as part and parcel of pre-accession requirements, must harmonize its legislation in areas identified in the EU “Accession Partnership” document.1 In this sense, Turkey has approved several bills related to immigrants. In 2002, trafficking and smuggling of human beings were defined as crimes and legislation was introduced as well as severe penalties for traffickers. Another example: a new law on work permits to foreigners was introduced in 2003 in order to regulate any possible illegal activity in that area. Turkey is still establishing regulations regarding the signing of readmission agreements with the countries of origin of immigrants (Çaǧaptay 2006: 82). One such area is asylum and the lifting of the “geographical limitation”. After a long period of resistance, Turkey accepted the elimination of the geographical limitation in 2004 in its national program for the adoption of the Accession Partnership document.

  • 2 A comparative review on the reform of political institutions and the Kemalist legacy can be found i (...)

4Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the kemalist elite wanted to achieve the union of all groups of people who had Turkish descent as they intended to safeguard and promote their interests. In order to accomplish this goal, they gave priority to accepting immigrants who were “either Muslims or were officially Turkish”, or belonging to ethnic groups that (it was believed) could easily melt into Turkish identity such as Albanians, Bosnians, Circassians, Pomaks or Bulgarian Muslims and Tartars of the Balkans, better known as macırlar or refugees, a term used to refer to an estimated 10 million Ottoman Muslim citizens who emigrated to Anatolia from the late 18th century until the end of the 20th century (Kirişçi 2003: 3). Meanwhile, from the perspective of Erik-Jan Zürcher (2005: 189-190), the first phase of the formation and consolidation of Turkish nationalist ideology was based on a secularization of the society’s cultural life through the transformation of the Turkish language and the construction of a historical thesis trying to prove that “Anatolia was a Turkish territory since ancient times (…) thus extending the roots of the citizens of the Republic in the territory they inhabited”, which was later continues with a secularization of political institutions, all based on ideological principles provided by the “Six Arrows” [Altı Ok].2

  • 3 Law (Kanun) n. 2510, 14/06/1934.

5According to the Settlement Act enacted in 1934 (and repeated in 26/09/2006), only people of Turkish descent and culture could migrate and settle in Turkey. As Sema Erder (2003: 158) points out, although the law is very ambiguous in what is meant exactly by ethnic identity and Turkish culture, Muslims and communities in the Balkans who speak Turkish have benefited from this law to enter in Turkey.3 Among those who immigrated there in the period between 1923 and 1997, Bulgarians were the largest group established in the country. These Bulgarian immigrants, called göçmen (emigrant) in Turkish, have received many opportunities from the Devlet, the Turkish state. An example of this can be found in 1989 when the Bulgarian government’s policy with ethnic Turks led over 300,000 Turks and Pomaks to immigrate to Turkey. That mass exodus, known as the “big excursion” [büyük gezi], was motivated by a desire to escape a campaign of forced assimilation. After the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (URSS) in 1990, a third of these Bulgarian immigrants returned home while the others remained and acquired Turkish citizenship. However, following the entry of Bulgaria into the EU in 2007 many more Bulgarian immigrants returned home to claim Bulgarian citizenship (Markova 2010: 211-212).

6The second pillar of Turkey’s migration policy is the MCS refugees and asylum of 1951 and its Protocol in 1967. Throughout history, Turkey has always been a country of asylum, as a result of its proximity to unstable areas of the world. Since then, the flows of asylum seekers arriving in Turkey have continued. During the Cold War, the country hosted large numbers of refugees from the communist countries of Eastern Europe and the URSS who were attempting to settle in third countries. Since the 1980s, it is also a country sought out mainly by asylum seekers and refugees from neighboring Middle East countries. Another important groups of asylum seekers from Europe were the 20,000 Bosnian Muslims who were granted temporary asylum during the war in the former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1995. Most asylum seekers and refugees come from Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan (Pope and Pope 2000: 328-329). This flow of non-European asylum seekers to Turkey is not a new phenomenon. In fact, between 1988 and 1991 there was a massive influx of Kurdish refugees into Turkey from Iraqi Kurdistan.

7However, what Kemal Kirişçi considered a duality in the process of political asylum in Turkey is that it is not clear what governs the status of asylum seekers from outside of Europe. If refugees from Iran or Turkic countries (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) could easily enter Turkey, this cannot be said for the massive influx of Kurdish (most of them from Iraq) refugees who entered Turkey in 1991. After this flow, Turkey began to change its policy and refused entry to many Iraqis who wished to come to Turkey. In 1994, the Turkish government introduced a regulation on the right of asylum, which resulted in a strict regulation of access to the procedures for requesting asylum. This arrangement required Turkey to introduce major changes to its asylum policy. In particular, it meant making it possible for refugees to integrate Turkish society as opposed to relying solely on resettlement and repatriation.

8A key implication of this policy is a reconsideration of Turkey’s definition of national identity and even national security. Individuals and groups who previously have not been seen as organically tied to “Turkish descent and culture and who have often been seen as potential threats to Turkish national security will need to be viewed from a very different perspective” (Kirişçi 2003: 61). In addition, ethnic, nationalistic and religious minorities claiming a link to Turkey who are not Sunni Muslims, that is, everyone from Armenians and Assyrians to Greeks and Jews, as well as unassimilated Kurds and Alevis, will find it difficult to immigrate. Such a policy will not be in harmony with the emerging EU “common” immigration policy, which increasingly emphasizes civic connections to host territory, employment prospects, and cultural diversity rather than a prospective immigrant’s ethnic or national origin as grounds for immigration (Özbudun 2012: 71-82).

I. The historical context of contemporary relations between Turkey and Syria

  • 4 See Sputniknews (22/10/2014).
  • 5 Personal interview with Ahmet İçduygu. Migration Research Program (MiReKoç), Koç Universiy, Istanbu (...)

9The Syrian refugee crisis is now almost entering its fourth year. In this regard, in a press conference last August, deputy Prime Minister, Beşir Atalay, and the President of the Turkish Prime Minister’s Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD), Fuat Oktay, jointly declared there are now an estimated 1,104,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey; 220,000 are hosted in camps, and of the remaining 880,000 only 60% are registered with the authorities. In October 2014, AFAD estimated the country’s Syrian population at 1.6m.4 According to Ahmet İçduygu, if we look both at official and unofficial figures, there were between 1.3 and 1.5m Syrian refugees in November 2014, of which 1/3 were not registered and only 25% were living in refugee camps; the rest were “urban refugees”.5

10Returning to relations between Turkey and Syria, they have traditionally been problematic, especially during the Cold War when Turkey was politically and militarily aligned with the West. Syrian-Turkish relations fit very well Christopher Hill’s (2002: 119-120) statement that there are “two sides to the politics of foreign policy [the international system and bureaucratic-domestic politics] impacting on policy-makers. It is the interplay between the two which constitutes our large, illusive but fascinating subject”. The international system has been crucial in determining the contours of bilateral relations between these two countries both during and after the Cold War. To all this was added the long-standing Syrian claims on the Turkish province of Hatay and the water dispute over resources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Özkan 2012: 122; Olson 1997). With the fall of the USSR, mutual misunderstandings continued because of the emerging network of alliances between Israel and Turkey on the one hand, and the Syrian government with the Turkish-Kurdish guerrilla of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK] on the other.

11However, a normalization of relations occurred with the signature of the Adana Agreement in 1998 and the establishment of formal channels in military and security matters. During this period interactions developed in the diplomatic and military spheres. Within this general framework however, Syrian-Turkish relations were influenced by historical memory and the ways in which the two states defined themselves and thus each other, despite systemic influences such as the end of the Cold War. Indeed, “the increasingly hostile policy of the USA towards Syria, the Iraq War of 2003 and subsequent developments in Iraq, have been filtered through a domestic kaleidoscope (Aras and Köni 2002: 48). In the period between 2003 and 2011, Turkish-Syrian relations went through a golden period characterized by constant high level meetings (important events stand out, such as the visit of Turkish President Necdet Sezer in 2005 (Hinnebusch and Özlem 2014: 2), the gradual increase in trade (with the signature of the Trade Partnership between the two countries in December 2004 during the first official visit of premier Erdoğan, the creation of the Council High Level Strategic Cooperation (HLSCC), the Visa Waiver Agreement, and Turkish mediation in Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Finally, the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement brought a number of extra benefits as a commercial platform for other markets in the region, as well as increased border trade, and a steady tourist flow to Turkey (Moubayet 2008: 3).

12Until then, Turkish-Syrian relations did not face major problems beyond the geopolitical tension caused by Turkey’s supposed intention of attracting Syria under its area of influence, and replacing Iran as a priority partner in the region (Muhammed, 2010: 91). However, the Arab Spring changed the plans of both governments. As Meliha Benli Altunışık and Özlem Tür (2006: 246) analyze:

ideational factors are constantly redefined and re-evaluated. This has been to some extent true for Syrian-Turkish relations, where actors, faced with a shifting regional and international systemic environment revisited their perceptions of each other and reconstructed their foreign policy behavior. The sustainability of such a policy change, however, is a factor of both domestic and systemic transformations.

  • 6 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Syria Regional Refugee Response”.

13Finally, at the beginning of March 2011, mass protests spread across Syria, triggering a brutal crackdown from the government and leading to an internal armed conflict and humanitarian catastrophe. More than 190.000 people died and some 10.8m people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance inside Syria, including approximately 6.45m internally displaced people. The United Nations’ Refugee Agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that around the end of October 2014, over 3.2m Syrian refugees had been registered though the real number of refugees is undoubtedly higher.6

II. Data and the problematic of Syrian refugees in Turkey

  • 7 Interview with Ahmet İçduygu.

14According to the Turkish General Directorate of Migration Management [Göç İdaresi Genel Müdürlüğü, GDMM] at least 1.6 million refugees from Syria reside in Turkey. Temporary protection status was initially conferred on refugees from Syria in October 2011. That temporary protection regime was subsequently confirmed in an unpublished Ministry of Internal Affairs circular issued in March 2012. According to Şenay Özden (2013: 5), the directive met international standards, in particular guaranteeing all Syrian residents (including Palestinians resident in Syria) access to Turkish territory and protection for access to basic services. But this circular, as well as the meaning of “basic services”, was not communicated to Syrian refugees or civil society organizations working with them. In some cases, public officials also seemed unaware of the rights to which refugees from Syria were entitled. For example, some Turkish border guards refused to let Palestinian refugees from Syria access Turkey, despite the temporary protection status that had been conferred to them on an equal basis to Syrian nationals. In the policy towards Syrian refugees, we clearly see an interplay between the “liberal factor-humanitarian approach and the [realistic] immigration policy objectives [aligned with foreign/domestic politics] of Turkish foreign policy after the Arab Spring”.7

15Turkey has built some 22 well-resourced refugee camps, accommodating over 220,000 refugees and provided them with food and access to essential services. However, the camps are operating at full capacity, which leaves the vast majority of Syrian refugees outside of the camps and having to fend for themselves, according to Amnesty International. Camp conditions are reported to be acceptable. Although most international and national Non-governmental organization (NGOs) have not been granted access to the refugee camps, Syrian refugees and other credible sources affirm that material conditions are good. Beyond shelter, all the camps reportedly have medical centers, schools, recreational facilities and vocational training programs. Refugees are able to obtain permission to leave the camps on the condition that they return at night. On the other hand, some studies have reported on camp residents’ complaints, which include allegations of food poisoning from the meals provided; the uneven distribution of goods such as soap, toothpaste and baby food; and the unsuitability of the tents for winter weather conditions (Özden 2013: 6-7).

16The Turkish government declared: “(…) we still have vacant places in our camps. Do not allow scenes like begging. Civil society organizations there can also help these [people]. But if you send them to camps, we have vacant places. We can build new camps too, we are looking for venues. We do not want such scenes for our Syrian brothers”. Yet, the social conditions of some of the refugees are desperate: some have been begging on Istanbul streets, and thus these Syrian “guests” have become increasingly visible, including women and young children with their passports in outstretched hands not only in tourist areas but also in the mainly conservative neighborhoods of Fatih or Eyüp, tapping on car windows in the overwhelming city traffic, while a growing number is living in derelict abandoned buildings or sleeping in parks such as Gezi Park, the scene of the large protests against the government in 2013. They are also agents of gentrification in the central neighborhood of Tarlabaşı.

  • 8 Amnesty International (2014).
  • 9 In these figures would have to add the last flow around 60,000 Syrian Kurds because of the emergenc (...)
  • 10 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

17As a result of the above, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees across Turkey are likely to be destitute or at serious risk of destitution, with inadequate access to housing, education and healthcare. The refugees have also reported (40) cases of abuse by Turkey’s borders guards, deaths (17) and injuries by use of live ammunition and torture and other ill-treatments (31 individuals).8 Indeed, some are so desperate that they are considering returning to war-torn Syria, especially Syrian Kurds.9 The majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey now live outside the camps. The border provinces with the highest numbers of Syrian refugees are Hatay, Gaziantep and Şanlıurfa, and an estimated 330,000 live in Istanbul. According to UNHCR, as of 2 October 2014, a total of 896,702 Syrian refugees (both inside and outside camps) had been registered in Turkey. Another source from UNHCR cites the number of residents in refugee camps across 10 provinces as 222,102.10

  • 11 See Hürriyet Daily News (01/08/2014).

18It is also claimed that “some business owners have been employing Syrian refugees as a cheap labor force” whilst the government does not issue work permits to these people. On the other hand, it is felt that “the hospitality of locals is starting to wear thin”.11 If at the beginning the Turkish population considered Syrian immigrants as their guests [misafir] under a government’s policy of “open gates”, the most recent developments (with several protests and xenophobic behavior against Syrian refugees) are consistent with the traditional and negative view that Turks have maintained over Arabs as subjects of the Ottoman Empire and the attempt, since the founding of the Republic, to break away from the association with Arab Muslims.


19To conclude, as recommendations to the international community, we could

  • 12 Amnesty International (2014).

significantly expand the number of resettlement places, humanitarian admissions and other admission programs for Syrian refugees, over and above annual resettlement quotas; expedite resettlement and admission processes to reduce the time it takes between cases being submitted and refugees leaving for the resettlement country; facilitate family reunification for refugees who have family members living abroad, applying a broad definition of family members to include extended or non-nuclear family; fully fund the UN’s Regional Response Plan for the Syrian crisis.12

20Meanwhile, Kemal Kirişçi (2003b) considers that there are five major challenges currently facing Turkey in its response to the Syrian crisis:

sustaining the Turkish response to an ever-growing number of refugees in light of widespread human rights abuses and the ongoing conflict in Syria, establishing prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into reports of abuses at the border and ensure that any Turkish officials found to be responsible for ordering or carrying out abuses are held accountable and that victims and their families are granted access to an effective remedy;
giving clear instruction to border guards that any use of force must adhere strictly to international standards on the use of force and firearms, in particular the requirements of necessity and proportionality, implement a training of police and military personnel, as well as other agents of the state operating in the border areas with Syria, to ensure they can identify and assist all persons in need of international protection and allow them to enter Turkey and
allow all civilians seeking to leave Syria to enter through official border crossings regardless of whether they have valid passports or urgent medical needs;
mobilizing international solidarity to support the state’s efforts effectively implementing Turkey’s innovative “zero point delivery policy”;
addressing security issues resulting from both the violence in Syria and the presence of an ever-increasing number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and finally recognizing that humanitarian action cannot take the place of political action to resolve the broader crisis and maintain sufficient, appropriately located, secure, and regular border crossing points open for Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict.


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(Hürriyet Daily News 01/08/2014). “Turkish deputy PM concerned over growing Syrian refugee population”. Hürriyet Daily News, 01/08/2014

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UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Syria Regional Refugee Response”. URL:


1 Accession Partnership with Turkey (2003).

2 A comparative review on the reform of political institutions and the Kemalist legacy can be found in (Landau, 2004: 107-125).

3 Law (Kanun) n. 2510, 14/06/1934.

4 See Sputniknews (22/10/2014).

5 Personal interview with Ahmet İçduygu. Migration Research Program (MiReKoç), Koç Universiy, Istanbul, 23/09/2014.

6 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Syria Regional Refugee Response”.

7 Interview with Ahmet İçduygu.

8 Amnesty International (2014).

9 In these figures would have to add the last flow around 60,000 Syrian Kurds because of the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (Hürriyet Daily News 20/09/2014). Furthermore, the AFAD website,

10 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

11 See Hürriyet Daily News (01/08/2014).

12 Amnesty International (2014).


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