When I moved to Turkey from Brussels back in 2014, citizens of many European capitals perceived the Syrian war as very far away. On the contrary, the war’s tremendous effects were already immediately visible on the streets of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees would flood Turkish hospitals and migration centres or even turn into beggars showing their passports. This is hardly surprising. Since the start of the ongoing Syrian conflict, Turkey has been bearing the heaviest burden when it comes to hosting refugees compared to other Syria's neighbouring countries (and in absolute terms, too).
To date, there are 3,638,193 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey; as a comparison, Lebanon’s Syrian community – the second largest after Turkey’s – amounts to less than a million. Even if the Turkish government granted access to some public services (health, most importantly) to the Syrian refugees, here as well the majority of the refugees – especially the most vulnerable categories such as women and children – face the same challenges present in other countries, from child labour and exploitation to diseases and malnutrition and lack of education and training opportunities. The situation got worse due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most refugees in Turkey live outside camps or in the outskirts of big cities, with limited access to basic services such as hygiene items and personal protective equipment essential to staying healthy amidst the pandemic. Furthermore, the economic downturn prompted by the COVID-19 has pushed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into an ever more dramatic situation, exposing them to additional exploitation risks: 87% of the refugees surveyed by Relief International in Spring 2020 reported that someone in their household lost their job because of the pandemic; 71% reported that they could not access health services; and 81% reported urgent unmet needs (many stemming from unemployment and health-related issues). Under these conditions and with little prospects of returning to their war-torn homes, refugees' situation became even more fragile in Turkey, hostage to Ankara's domestic and foreign policy's recent developments.
The evolution of Turkey’s domestic narrative towards Syrian refugees
In many cases, the issue of Syrian refugees has stirred controversy in Europe from the very start of the so-called "refugee crisis". While others in Europe and the US tapped into the national backlash against immigration, the Turkish government tried to spread a different narrative. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened his country’s borders to millions of refugees fleeing Syria, asking his fellow citizens to be “compassionate” towards those who fled “Alawite Shiite tyranny” and sought shelter in their country. In particular, he and other government members made use of two terms: muhacir (religiously oppressed) to describe the refugees escaping the Bachar Al Assad’s regime; and ensar (helpers, a word referring to the people of Medina who aided the Prophet Mohammed and his followers) to describe the Turkish citizens who welcomed Syrian refugees.
However, Syrian refugees struggled to integrate into Turkish society because they are seen as "temporary guests". The Turkish asylum regime bears an anomaly dating back to 1961 when Turkey adopted the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees but declared that it would admit only refugees coming from Europe due to the volatility of the geographical region in which Turkey is located. Non-European asylum seekers, hence, are only granted temporary asylum. Even so, Umut Korkut maintains that the Turkish government used the principle of temporary protection to treat the Syrian refugees preferentially in comparison to refugees of other nationalities, since the former has "religiously, ethnically and politically acceptable backgrounds to the Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party) ideology" in power. Hence, on the one hand, Turkey adopted an open border policy for all Syrians; on the other hand, though, this policy precludes any right for permanent residence and, ultimately, citizenship.
As Turkish economy started to increasingly face challenges such as recession, high inflation, and Lira devaluation, local resentment toward the refugees grew stronger creating a nationalist backlash and forcing the government to revise its domestic narratives. Opinion polls show rising anti-Syrian sentiments and discomfort towards the open border policy, contributing to the AKP's loss in the 2019 local elections. Since then, hate speech on social media and clashes between supporters of refugees and nationalist groups began to rise exponentially. Responding to this anti-Syrian surge, Erdogan has been swapping his “compassionate Islamism” for a “Turkey first” approach; he began to stress the need of the refugees’ return to Syria in the public discourse, while tightening the screws with unregistered migrants and illegal refugees on the ground and making refugees’ relocation plans public. While these recent measures cannot address effectively the country’s refugee problem, promoting integration and devoting more economic and political resources is politically too risky for Erdogan, in a context where anti-refugee sentiments keep rising.
The “refugees card” in foreign policy
The AKP government's efforts to help the refugees resulted in international praise and a soft power boost, especially compared to the "fortress Europe” image shaped by many EU governments’ (and citizens’) refusal to welcome refugees. Nevertheless, from 2016 on, there was a growing tendency to play the "refugees card" more cynically in international politics, especially vis-à-vis the EU. After waves of refugees created turmoil in the EU and were deemed responsible for the rise of populism in many EU countries, in late 2015 Ankara and Brussels agreed on a Joint Action Plan to regulate migratory flows and cut irregular migration. In exchange, the EU committed to bringing new energy into Turkey's accession process (for instance, committing to dialogue on the visa-free regime to eventually lift it by October 2016 and provide an initial 3 billion euros to improve the situation of Syrians in Turkey). Essentially, the EU-Turkey Migration Deal consolidated the EU’s “externalization strategy” in the face of the refugee crisis – a strategy still guiding the EU’s migration and asylum strategy. However, due to growing tensions with Brussels, especially regarding the funds and Turkey’s accession process - the so-called “EU's broken promises” – Turkey started to adopt a much blunter approach, to the point of “weaponizing” refugees in its relationship with the EU. In 2016, Erdogan threatened to "flood Europe with migrants" in a quarrel over the EU aid amount. In 2019, in the middle of mounting international criticism over Turkey's military operation against a Syrian Kurdish militia, Erdogan declared: "Hey, European Union! Pull yourself together. (…) If you try to describe our operation as an invasion, we will do what's easy for us: we will open the doors and send 3.6 million refugees to you".
This trend is likely to stay in 2021, in light of an even more challenging EU-Turkey relationship: apart from the migration issue, tensions between the EU and Turkey remain over gas fields exploitation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s intervention in Libya, while Ankara's membership process looks dead to many in Turkey and the EU alike. In the meantime, the EU-Turkey deal is set to expire in a year or two upon the completion of the EU financial assistance transfer; however, the revamping of the deal would require resuming membership talks or, at least, upgrading the customs union – both being not popular options at the moment. The urgency of the refugees' issue will also depend on the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially brought to an abrupt halt of asylum applications in Europe - reaching a historic low of 9,000 in April (an 87% reduction compared to January 2020). With a vaccine-driven improvement of the situation, though, it will not be long before new refugees waves and even COVID-induced migration will become an emergency again, forcing the EU and Turkey to sit – like it or not – at the negotiation table.