Neither here nor there

Syrians in Turkey, suspended in time

Alex Simon

Of all the countries sheltering Syrians, Turkey may have been the most generous. It flung its doors open in the uprising’s early years, and now hosts more displaced Syrians than the rest of the world combined. It also served, more contentiously, as a launchpad for Syria’s political and military opposition, and a profitable safe haven for its uprooted business class. 

And yet, for many Syrians, Turkey feels more like a form of limbo than a place to call home. Most eke out a precarious living in the country’s informal economy. Even middle-class Syrians with steady jobs often struggle to envision a future there, weighed down by rampant anti-Syrian sentiments and government policies that seem tailor-made to prevent them from overstaying their welcome. 

The resulting relationship is conflicted, even schizophrenic. As Turkey veers between embracing Syrians and rejecting them, Syrians themselves are torn between fighting to put down roots and scrambling to move on. This in-between state also tells a more universal story: The world over, growing numbers of people are stranded on the road, with dwindling prospects of reaching their destination or heading back to their point of origin. This is the tale of the globe’s uprooted. 

Brothers, strangers

In summer 2011, as the Syrian regime cracked down on peaceful protests and a nascent insurgency, Syrians in their thousands fled across their country’s northern border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to radio to proclaim fraternal solidarity: “We will always keep our doors open to our Syrian brothers and sisters.” Underlying this promise were centuries of common history, combined with widespread sympathy for Syria’s uprising within Turkey and throughout the Middle East. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) held fast to this grandiose declaration until 2016—by which point some 2.5 million Syrians had taken him up on the offer.

On the face of it, Syrian and Turkish societies have ample grounds for such camaraderie. They are bound by a border of some 900 kilometers, running from the Mediterranean coast to the Tigris river. The border itself is a novel presence, established following the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire. For centuries before that, northern Syria was far more closely connected with Anatolia than with Damascus. Aleppo, Syria’s largest trade hub and manufacturing powerhouse, owed its economic heft to ties with what are now Turkish cities: To the west, the port of Iskenderun gave the city access to the Mediterranean, and thus to Europe. To the northeast, Anatolian cities like Urfa, Mardin, and Diyarbakir were waystations to trading centers along the Tigris—notably Mosul. On Aleppo’s eastern flank lay the Jazeera region, peopled for centuries by nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes that moved fluidly across today’s borderlands.

Such connections came into play when waves of Syrians began to seek refuge to the north. Faced with rising insecurity and criminality, Aleppan capitalists headed to Gaziantep, where many enjoyed personal and commercial ties. Residents of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor found safety in the Turkish province of Urfa: a place where many had long visited their kin, or could at least communicate naturally with ethnically Arab locals. A Raqqawi journalist, now living in Istanbul with his wife and son, spoke fondly of the relationship that linked his hometown to southern Turkey before 2011:

At the time, it was very easy to cross the border; you just showed your passport. And Turks were always extremely welcoming. Syrians were beloved. The Turkish village of Akcakale and the Syrian village of Tal Abyad are so geographically and socially close to each other that many Syrians simply call Akcakale “Turkish Tal Abyad.”

Just as centuries-old ties shaped migration, they also infused the Turkish government’s open-door policy. After coming to power in 2003, the AKP had launched a campaign of political, economic, and spiritual outreach to Muslim-majority countries—not least Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. This was a deliberate break with Turkey’s post-Ottoman trajectory, which saw the government of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk shun the country’s erstwhile Arab territories and Islamic identity. Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s uprising was thus a logical extension of Ankara’s ambitions to resume leadership of the Muslim world.

The depth of such heritage is easily romanticized

The depth of such heritage, however, is easily romanticized and overstated. By the time Ankara and Damascus reopened to one another in the 2000s, nearly a century of estrangement and competition had eroded much of the familiarity that once linked the two societies. Modernizing nation states in both Turkey and Syria mostly vilified one another. “In our curriculum, Turkey was the Ottoman invader and the country that stole Iskenderun from us,” explained a Damascene filmmaker, referring to the bitterly disputed territory which French colonial powers severed from Syria in 1939.

Outside the borderlands, few gained firsthand exposure to the other side, with the exception of Syrians of Turkish ancestry and pious Turks familiar with Arabic through their faith. “Before 2011, most Turks had never heard Arabic unless they came to it through religion,” explained a Turkish-American woman whose own experience, as a secular Turk with close ties to Syria, was atypical. “I once sent an Arabic pop song to one of my Turkish friends. She responded: ‘Oh, is this the Quran?’”

This mixed, conflicted legacy still bubbles to the surface. “It feels like Turks change their attitudes toward us from one day to the next,” said a Damascene journalist who arrived in Istanbul in 2012. She is, in a sense, as settled as can be: She graduated from a local university, learned the language, gained Turkish citizenship, and has no intention of leaving. Nonetheless, a sense of otherness persists: “They don’t know if they should like us because we share a common history, or dislike us because we’re filthy Arabs and agents of destruction.”

Absorption and alienation

In the early stages of the uprising, as Syria’s armed opposition grew in strength and the Assad regime lost ground, both Syrians and their Turkish hosts hoped the war would soon resolve on terms that would allow the displaced to return. By 2016, however, dynamics beyond Turkey’s borders suggested otherwise: Moscow’s intervention in Syria had decisively turned the tide in Damascus’ favor; meanwhile, Europe had shut its borders, diminishing the prospect of refugees moving onward. 

As migration pathways narrowed, the relationship between Syrians and Turks was palpably souring. If old biases lurked in the background, most tensions were more immediate and prosaic: a steep language barrier, xenophobic politics, competition for low-wage jobs, and sporadic acts of violence (from petty crime to ISIS attacks) that galvanized anti-Syrian sentiment. Resentment festered: “Turks call us cowards,” said a young Syrian man who lives with his family in the border province of Hatay. “They say we abandoned our country, and tell us we should go back and fight for it.” Turkish landlords often refused Syrian tenants. As hate crimes multiplied, some Syrian-owned businesses started to present themselves as Lebanese to protect themselves. 

Turkish authorities, for their part, did little to bridge the gap between the displaced and their anxious hosts. Having generously welcomed Syrians across the border, Ankara stopped short of articulating a vision for how they could fit into Turkey. Rather than recognize them as refugees per se, the state framed them as “guests”: a noncommittal designation that left open the question of how long they would be allowed to stay, and what rights they would enjoy in the meantime. At first, this framework was highly permissive: Syrians enjoyed unfettered mobility and extensive freedom in making a living—whether they formally registered businesses and NGOs or worked under the table. “Turkey’s initial approach was one of tolerance rather than policymaking,” remarked a Damascene architect who moved to Istanbul in 2013. “They didn’t create a system for us; they just looked the other way.”

This easygoing approach only made sense on the assumption that this population influx—the largest in Turkey’s modern history—would be short-lived. As reality sank in, many on both sides held fast to the illusion of impending return. Ankara reframed its hopes that millions of Syrians would soon head back—if not victoriously, then at least to “safe zones” that Turkey proposed to set up across the border. Some Syrians likewise continued to nurse their longing for home. An NGO worker from rural Deir Ezzor, now living in Urfa, explained his own conflicted relationship to a place where he is comfortable, but can’t seem to settle:

When my family got here in 2014 and started looking for apartments, landlords would ask if we wanted to rent by the year or month to month. We would say monthly, because we always wanted to believe that we were about to go back to Syria. Six years later, we’re still saying the same thing: just one more month. I can’t bring myself to feel at home here—I miss my life in my village. And yet I know that there’s little chance that I could return within the next ten years: I’m not just wanted by the regime, but by ISIS and the Kurdish authorities [which control northeast Syria].

Intentionally or not, Syrians have slowly but surely put down roots: renting homes, having children, enrolling in schools and universities, and learning what Turkish they need to get by. Ankara has kept it remarkably straightforward for Syrians to set up companies, reflecting the AKP’s historically pro-business ideology and pragmatic approach to economic potential. “I got a license to open my business in about two hours,” remarked a Syrian trader, speaking at his office in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. Although his hometown lies closer to Lebanon, he chose to make the longer journey to a more promising base in Turkey. “Lebanon is an exhausting, annoying place to do business. There are few protections, and everything is about connections. Turkey has rule of law.”

Millions of Syrians reshaped bits and pieces of the local fabric

Buoyed by this environment, growing numbers of Syrians—both established businesspeople and inexperienced upstarts—found ways to sustain themselves through retail, manufacturing, and services. In some instances, this spurred competition between Syrian and Turkish shops and restaurants. In others, mutual interests drew Syrians and Turks closer together. “We learned enough Turkish to deal effectively with others in our sector,” explained a Syrian man whose workshop in Gaziantep turns textiles into finished garments. He had no prior experience in this field, but picked it up as a viable way to earn a living. He added: “Turks learn some Arabic as well, to get work done with Syrians. Sometimes our neighbors come by to ask advice on how to best do business in Arabic.”

As millions of Syrians followed their own paths to diverse corners of Turkey, they collectively reshaped bits and pieces of the local fabric. Gaziantep—the southeastern city famed for its baklava and pistachios—emerged not just as a haven for Syrian businesses, but also the de facto capital of Syrian opposition politics and civil society. “This neighborhood is just full of Syrian NGO staff,” explained an NGO worker from central Syria, as he drove past his own apartment in a leafy residential area. 

Such transformations are visible across the country. “In most Turkish cities, you see at least one area that Syrians have really made their own,” observed an Arab intellectual, who lived for decades in Damascus. He has made a temporary home for himself in Istanbul, not least to remain connected with friends who fled from Syria. He pointed out that Syrians had made their mark even in this megacity of fifteen million people: “It feels like they have reengineered the whole neighborhood of Fatih. You see stores and brands there that you wouldn’t expect to find anywhere but in Damascus.” 

Open arms, iron fists

As Syrian communities grew more deeply embedded within Turkey, Erdogan and the AKP faced a dilemma: How to graft some semblance of order onto millions of displaced people without normalizing their presence? The answer hinged on two seemingly contradictory policies. On one side, the Turkish authorities strengthened their ties to elite segments of Syrian society, through naturalization. On the other, they rolled back the freedoms that Turkey had granted to other Syrians—leaving them stranded in a gray zone shaped by increasingly restrictive, repressive policies. 

At the heart of Turkey’s ambivalent approach is the abstruse legal regime governing the Syrian presence. Having been denied refugee status, most Syrians fall under Turkey’s law on temporary protection. This framework entitles forcibly displaced persons to safe harbor, access to public education and healthcare, and pro forma guarantees against involuntary repatriation. It does not, however, allow Syrians to work without a permit, which the vast majority struggle to secure; they therefore work illegally, in the many farms and factories of the underground economy. Nor can Syrians own property in their own name, leading some to open corporate entities with the express purpose of buying a home.

Over the years, the term “temporary protection” has acquired a Kafkaesque ring: As the Syrian presence in Turkey becomes less temporary, their status also seems ever less protective. In 2015, Turkish authorities first required that those with temporary protection obtain permission before traveling outside the governorate in which they originally registered. Syrians who had relocated from one province to another, for professional reasons or to be with family, suddenly found themselves outside the law, liable to be fined and deported to their place of registration. Many therefore limit their movements for fear of a chance run-in with the police. 

Yet it was not until summer 2019 that state pressure on Syrians reached full force. Following local elections in which opposition parties attacked the AKP’s open-door policy, Erdogan sought to toughen his government’s image. The Ministry of Interior launched a sweeping campaign to round up Syrians without proper documentation. Hundreds, if not thousands, were detained and expelled back to Syria. Many were forced to sign Turkish-language agreements in which they surrendered their temporary protected status, thus “voluntarily” submitting to refoulment. “I know two guys who were deported despite having their paperwork in order,” said a university student in southern Turkey. “Their entire building, with some forty Syrian residents, was deported, for reasons no one understood. Maybe they just annoyed the neighbors, or one of them was selling drugs.”

The crackdown was part of Turkey's increasingly security-centric approach

The crackdown was part and parcel of Turkey’s increasingly aggressive, security-centric approach to managing the Syrian presence—both within the country and along its border. In 2018, Ankara had already trumpeted the completion of a concrete and razor-wire wall: Funded by the European Union, it now stretches for 764 kilometers across Turkey’s once porous southern frontier. Border guards are known to fire on Syrians attempting to cross into the country, while beating and deporting those who reach Turkish soil. In parallel, the authorities have tightened their grip over international and Syrian NGOs implementing Western-funded aid programs. Organizations are visited by the police, and sometimes shuttered for failure to comply with byzantine legal structures. “In just a couple of years, we’ve gone from a laissez-faire policy to one of almost total control,” said a Syrian NGO director, who was about to relocate his activities from Turkey to Europe.

But just as Turkey was rounding up one subset of Syrians, it was turning tens of thousands of others into Turkish citizens. In late 2016, Erdogan introduced a plan to grant nationality to “highly qualified people […] engineers, lawyers, doctors.” Ankara did so through a murky process in which the state discretionarily invites Syrians to apply for citizenship. While selection rules are opaque, every Syrian knows who stands the best chances: namely university students, business owners, and professionals from selected fields. Naturalization has thus served as a tool for absorbing the most desirable Syrians into Turkish society; it also incentivizes non-naturalized Syrians to enroll in universities or open tax-paying businesses. 

By the time deportations ramped up mid-2019, the Turkish government estimated that it had doled out over 90,000 passports. For their Syrian recipients, citizenship solved some of Turkey’s thorniest problems: enabling them to work legally, move freely, own property, and begin to plan for the future. For many, however, the procedure has proved so opaque as to feel like one more demonstration of arbitrary power. “Some people get invited within their first two years in Turkey, while others have been here for five or six years and never got nominated,” said a journalist from rural Damascus living in Istanbul. Active applications sometimes drag on for years. In some instances, Turkish authorities announced that hundreds of applications had been deleted due to vague technical malfunctions.

For Turkish authorities, naturalization is just one tactic among others for coopting Syrians they deem useful. In extreme cases, the process amounts to weaponization: Turkish security agencies cultivate a network of Syrian proxy militias who serve as agents of Ankara’s military policy in northern Syria and other conflict zones, namely Libya and the Caucasus. More banal forms of cooptation target Syrians in key spheres such as business and the NGO sector—particularly in southern cities like Urfa and Gaziantep, where the Syrian presence is densest. Many Syrians, too, actively seek to build relationships with Turkish officials. A former NGO worker described the quid pro quo he observed in Gaziantep:

The wali [governor] periodically organizes meetings with representatives of the Syrian community. I think he mostly does this to make Syrians feel they have some representation, and limit potential friction. Of course, it’s also a way of infiltrating the Syrian community. Syrians compete over access to such meetings: Connection to the wali might help with your citizenship application, facilitate your business, or assist if you run into problems with some government body.
 
Such access, indeed, has become vitally important to navigating an ever changing bureaucratic and legal environment. “The law’s implementation is all based on the individual clerk you’re dealing with,” said a Syrian consultant who knows better than most how to run the bureaucratic gauntlet, yet still faces endless obstacles in keeping his one-man business afloat. In his position, the surest path to success is to cultivate allies within the Turkish power structure: “The most successful Syrian organizations are the ones that have developed the right connections.” 

Promise and precarity

The tensions built into Turkish policy have propelled different groups of Syrians along starkly divergent trajectories. At one end of the spectrum, Ankara’s pro-business policies and naturalization campaign have enabled a minority of Syrians to settle down, and even prosper. The large majority, however, remain in a no-man’s-land with no clear-cut pathway toward stability. Many struggle even to survive, working with paltry compensation and no safety net. “Most Syrians, if they don’t belong to well-off business families, wind up working in a filthy factory,” said the Damascene journalist in Istanbul, noting that she had benefited from her father’s business ties. Turkey’s policies amplify this divide, providing opportunities to those least in need. 

For much of the underclass, Turkey is less a place to call home than one to escape as soon as possible. “Most poor Syrians are convinced that Turkey will never let them settle down,” explained a young man from Deir Ezzor, who spent five years working informally on Turkish farmland. “Such people are continuing to look for a way to Europe.” His story is a case in point: He recently borrowed from friends and family to pay off smugglers.

Even middle-class Syrians can be ambivalent: On one side, Turkey is a country that took them in, gave them space to earn a living, and which might formally absorb them through naturalization. On the other, Turkish society mostly doesn’t want them, and there is no certainty that they will ever graduate from unwelcome guests to full-blown citizens. The Damascene architect in Istanbul explained the effect of such insecurity on people’s calculations, as he himself considers migration to Europe, despite having learned Turkish and secured a stable income:

Turkish policy puts us in a position of extreme ambiguity: We have no clear criteria to know where we stand. This is part of what pushed so many people toward Europe, via incredibly dangerous channels. There’s a logic to this. I’ll get on a boat, and if I die, I die. If I don’t, then I’ll get German citizenship. People who left by sea in 2015 are now coming back to visit on their European passports.

Widespread anti-Syrian sentiment within Turkish society only intensifies this sense of precarity, peaking around elections or episodes of violence. “If a Syrian is involved in some local problem, it reflects on us all,” said a writer from Raqqa, now living in Urfa. “A few years ago, there was an incident where a Syrian killed a Turk in Urfa. For several days, all Syrians stayed home, and Syrian stores shut down.” For some, xenophobia fuels not just alienation, but outright fear: “Syrian lives are cheap here,” said the journalist from rural Damascus. “Every week or two there's a new story of a Syrian getting killed over some dispute.” 

The irony is that Syrians are inexorably becoming part of Turkey

Adding to this anxiety is the belief that Turkey’s political sands may shift in ways that further imperil Syrians. Some worry that Turkey’s 2023 general elections could unseat the AKP and usher in opposition parties that are openly hostile to refugees. “If the opposition wins, I could be sent back to Syria,” said the same journalist from rural Damascus. “And if I’m sent back, I could die.” Whether or not mass deportations will take place, the prospect looms ever larger in the minds of people who already feel vulnerable.

The irony is that Syrians are, inexorably, becoming part of Turkey, even as many strive to exit. This process of absorption is ad hoc—divorced from any governmental vision for what the Syrian presence should look like. A Syrian who works with a Turkish foundation in Istanbul explained how the hundreds of thousands of Syrian children enrolled in Turkish schools are already blending in far more than their parents:

Syrians are changing, but we’re not integrating. On the contrary, I often sense that both Syrian and Turkish societies are closing in on themselves. Syrians and Turks may live next door to each other, yet won’t say hello. Really, all we can ask is that they’re not hitting each other in the streets. That’s about tolerance, not integration. 

Many Syrians started learning Turkish, but most of us don’t do this seriously. The exception is children, who become so good at Turkish that it’s hard to distinguish them from Turks. I feel that our children will quickly become more Turkish than Syrian: A child born in rural Idlib but raised in Istanbul has far more in common with Istanbul than with rural Idlib. 

Even those who hope to leave Turkey often acknowledge the country’s selling points. Turkey, they readily admit, has adopted a far more generous posture than other states, which were quick to shut their borders or prevent Syrians from working. Many laud the sophistication of Turkish infrastructure, sometimes suggesting that Turkey is more like a European country than a Middle Eastern one. Yet if Turkey’s modernity is a boon, its geographic and religious proximity to Syria is a balm for those who fear the alienness of exile in Europe. 

As a result, even as many Syrians seek a way out of Turkey, others are searching for a way in. In Lebanon, growing numbers of Syrians eye Turkey as a more stable, less hostile host country. The Gulf’s economic downturn and restrictions on migrant labor have also triggered an uptick in Syrians shifting to Turkey. For such hopeful newcomers, it seems to offer some breathing space—which is more than other countries are willing to give. 

Trailblazing

The story of Syrians in Turkey captures broader trends unfolding within the global migration system. Perhaps most importantly, Ankara’s discretionary approach reflects a decade in which the world has all but abandoned any pretense of upholding the established moral norms and legal structures governing forced migration. In Western countries, not unlike Turkey, the response to recent waves of refugees has been dictated less by existing structures or obligations than by capricious and parochial political instincts. The result is a jigsaw of inconsistent, incoherent policies that vary wildly across states, provinces, and cities within a single country, leaving asylum seekers to navigate a system that is not just inhumane but inscrutable.

For their part, European governments have mostly sought to freeze migration in its tracks: investing in physical barriers, maintaining squalid camps at their borders, and outsourcing containment to partners closer to the migrants’ countries of origin. The result is an unspoken yet increasingly entrenched and sophisticated system in which European states fund their Middle Eastern and African counterparts to stop migrants long before they reach their destination—confining people to conditions so desperate that they often try over and over again. US policy toward its southern border follows much the same template.

This bargain has obvious Faustian implications. By treating asylum seekers first and foremost as a threat to be warded off, Western states have normalized an arrangement in which other states—from Turkey to Lebanon to Libya—weaponize refugees in order to extort European and American aid, even as they unabashedly mistreat the very people they are being paid to contain. At its most extreme, this translates into rewarding regimes and militias for detaining and torturing refugees, trafficking them as slaves, recruiting them as mercenaries, and forcing them back into warzones. This system is all the more disturbing for the degree to which it has crystallized as an accepted cornerstone of foreign policy. 

The paradox of this approach is that, by spreading more despair, it also drives growing numbers to carve out ever more costly and dangerous pathways to mobility. Western societies thus spend lavishly on programs that, rather than solve the problem, push it out of sight and allow it to fester. Doing so comes at both moral and practical costs: from the dismantling of norms to emboldening nativist politics, which fuel uncertainty and anxiety from Berlin to Washington. 

Turkish treatment of Syrians vividly illustrates the costs of this new normal. While the burden falls heaviest, in this case, upon Syrians, this in-between state also has implications for Turkey itself, where migration has become a flashpoint in the country’s bitterly divided politics. The effects ripple across to European shores, where decision-makers fear the day Erdogan might fulfill his threats to unleash a tide of emigrants toward Europe. Most insidious of all is the guarantee that these problems will endure and mutate, as long as people's urge to move proves as strong as the desire to roll them back. 

16 February 2021

Alex Simon is Syria director with Synaps. 

Illustration credits: Boris Thaser Istanbul 2015, licensed by Creative Commons. 


This publication was produced with kind support from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Its content does not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this publication lies entirely with the authors.

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