How the Refugee Crisis Impacts Turkey

Syrian Refugee

Syrian Refugee

By Ilayda Ozsan

Photograph of Syrian refugee courtesy of BBC

As the world struggles to find shelter for Syrians, Turkey is drowning in economic and political unrest. Since 2013, TRY (Turkish Lira) per USD rose from around 1.80 to a record 3.04, underlining the decline in international investment in Turkey. Stories like bodies washing ashore in Turkey, boats of refugees without lifejackets drowning in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas and thousands of refugees walking to find shelter have been populating our news. Unfortunately, only a few of us really know what is happening in Syria and why these refugees are fleeing for their lives.

1970-2015 Syria: How did it come to this?

To truly understand the Syrian refugee crisis, we must analyze the root causes of the current Civil War. After a coup in 1970, Hafez al Assad and his party took power. From 1970 until 2000, Assad ruled Syria. After Hafez-al Assad’s death in 2000, son Bashar-Al Assad took power, opening up hopes for potential reform. However, this “Damascus Spring” came to an end as the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. As a result, international unrest only grew.

The Syrian Civil War started around the time of the Arab Spring in 2011. Protestors wanted Assad to resign and his party to come to an end. The country’s Sunni majority resented the continued power of Assad’s ruling Alawite sect. Since then, the Syrian government employed the Syrian Army to suppress the uprisings, though the unrest continued. Civilians started an insurgency campaign called the ‘Free Syrian Army.’ However, the rebels lacked leadership and splintered into a wide array of divergent factions.

By December 2012, the US, Turkey, France and Britain had recognized the main opposition National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution as the only legitimate representative of Syrians, dismissing the Assad state. However, the rise of radical Islamist militias, including some allied with al-Qaeda, caused a great decrease in international support for the opposition in 2013.

Currently, large areas of Syrian territory remain in rebel groups’ hands, most importantly the jihadist militants of Islamic State.

Running for their lives

In early 2012, thousands of refugees started fleeing across Syria’s northern border into Turkey. In spite of UN’s calls for an urgent ceasefire, the refugees kept coming. Turkey set up refugee camps near the border, however no accommodation was enough for the thousands, and soon millions of refugees to come.

Turkish citizens were conflicted between helping and hating the refugees. The dollar/lira went up exponentially, international investment came to a halt, and billions of dollars of Turkish taxpayers’ money went to accommodations for the refugees and aids for Syria. However, only 12% of the refugees live in Turkish refugee camps. Most of them are in major cities, either begging or in worse situations. Although protected by the government, due to their refugee status, Syrians are not able to legally work in Turkey.

As the refugees started fleeing towards the European Union, pictures of drowned children brought the issue to the front of public consciousness. Refugees view Turkey merely as a transit country. As some European countries like Hungary close their borders, the numbers of refugees not only increase in Turkey, but also live in even worse conditions As Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan stated; “a transit country is not necessarily a transit for every refugee. If 10% pass the 90% remain in Turkey.” Additionally, even if some refugees are successful in passing to EU countries, the numbers of refugees in Turkey will not decrease. On the contrary, more refugees will come to Turkey with dreams of better lives in the EU.

Syrian refugees figure to increase by millions more in the years to come. Turkish policy makers will have serious decisions to make. Expelling the refugees and blocking the border seems impractical and unlikely to succeed. However, allowing the refugees to stay would pose additional challenges. Remaining refugees would need to find a way to integrate culturally into Turkish society. How Turkey handles the refugee crisis will have a broad impact on the future of the country and the region as a whole. What is Turkey going to do? Are refugees in Turkey to stay? Is it time to start policies for cultural integration of refugees?

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