Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: What Went Wrong and What Needs to Change?

Eight years into the Syrian conflict, reports from the United Nations Refugee Commission state that there are more than 3.5 million Syrian persons of concern* residing in Turkey. With a total of 3.6 refugees, Turkey is the world’s largest refugee-hosting country. Yet Turkey’s foundational structure for admittance of refugees was not designed with such a large scale crisis in mind; this becomes clear when examining the socio-economic and political atmosphere in Turkey, especially in the months leading up to highly significant elections, such as the First Presidential Election in June 2018, which followed the abandonment of a parliamentary system of governance. This calls for two important questions: what went wrong, and what needs to change?

What went wrong?

The influx of refugees from Syria to Turkey began in the aftermath of a crackdown on antigovernment protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria in June 2011. (Stack, 2011) Considering the 820 km long border the two countries share, and the history of cooperation and family ties stemming from the Ottoman Empire, it was understandable why Turkey would be preferred as a host for refugees. When asked, several Turkish officers expressed their condolences for their Syrian neighbors, welcomed them into Turkey, and repeatedly stated that they were ‘guests’, who would leave once tensions in Syria de-escalated. (Stack, 2011) This – the nonchalant treatment of incoming refugees – was Turkey’s first mistake- and perhaps the one that perpetuated a cycle of administrative errors.

The following extract from a report organized by the Turkish Grand National Congress serves to explain the insufficiency of Turkey’s immigration and refugee policies.  

“One of Turkey’s important misfortunes is that the main institution [regarding the issue of refugees], GIGM (Göç İdaresi Genel Müdürlüğü), was established by a law passed in April 2013 and begun its functions in April 2014. By the time GIGM had started its functions, the number of refugees in Turkey had exceeded 1 million.” (Translated from original) (Ombudsman, 2018)

Added to this was the problem of bulk entry, which made the process of administration much more difficult. In an effort to respect the sensitivity of the refugees’ status, officials did not press to carry out the necessary checks to ensure validity of information that was provided. (Ombudsman, 2018) For the refugees that were administered, all information, bar biometric photographs and biometric records, were based on verbal declarations. (Ombudsman, 2018) This means that Turkey does not have an accurate and complete record of refugees within its borders.

Once refugees have crossed the border and entered Turkey, the issue of communal and societal integration comes to the fore. Data from the Migration Centre confirms that more than 80% of refugees in Turkey have moved from small border provinces to bigger urban communities like Istanbul and Izmir. (Migration Centre) As refugees travel into various parts of the country, ethnic and sectarian compositions in Turkey have inevitably begun to change. 3.5 million refugees, compared to Turkey’s population of 80 million, may appear small; but cities such as Kilis show otherwise. Kilis is currently home to more Syrian refugees than Turkish citizens. (Kirisci et. al. 2018) Although the government has been very welcoming of refugees, the same cannot be said for Turkish citizens. This is due to increased Turkish nationalism and often skewed media coverage. This, in turn, leads to communal disorder.

One final issue remains the ‘temporary’ status of refugees. The naturalisation of Syrian refugees is part of a long-term integration plan, not part a scheme for refugees more generally. So far, 50,000 Syrians (including refugees), have been granted citizenships under Article 12* of the Naturalisation Law, with the administration promising to grant citizenships to 300,000 more in the upcoming years. (DHA 2018) The Turkish Constitution grants voting powers to all citizens over the age of 18, meaning that neutralized Syrian refugees are eligible to vote as well. The issue then turns from a matter of legality to a question of political legitimacy, as it is foreseen that naturalised citizens are more likely to vote for the political party in power. What then needs to be asked is: how healthy of a decision is it to give citizenships to temporary refugees? This is a particularly relevant question, as naturalised citizens were able to vote for what was arguably the most important elections in modern Turkish history, in June 2018. (Al-Jablawi, 2018)

It is clear that there are several other issues regarding refugee policies that need to be addressed. However, the ones addressed here are specific to Turkey.


What needs to change?

Containing a high number of undocumented refugees within borders is a major breach of national security, especially for a country like Turkey, which has been combatting terrorist threats from multiple directions. Turkey’s first priority should be administering everyone who has entered Turkey as a refugee since 2011. While GIGM has been maintaining a record of refugees, it admitted itself that their information was not confirmed. By creating and publicising incentives such as access to free healthcare, more refugees could be encouraged to register themselves as refugees instead of illegally trying to settle and find job opportunities. By administering refugees legally, confirming their identity, and running background checks, several security risks can be eliminated. Perhaps if this had been done earlier, it could have prevented the terrorist attack in Ankara 2016, perpetrated by Abdulbaki Somer, a TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Hawks) militant  who had entered Turkey under the name Salih Neccar as Syrian refugee. (Letsch, 2016)

Secondly, the Turkish government should reevaluate integration policies with regards to Syrian refugees. The number of refugees that have lost their lives in the Mediterranean and Aegean have exceeded thousands and continues to increase day by day. It is important to ask why this is so. In this regard, the sole responsibility does not lie in Turkey, but also in the European Union, and other countries neighbouring Syria. Within the scope of this paper, we propose only two recommendations. The first of these is to ensure that the economic aid that was promised by the European Union reach the refugees and their families in its entirety, and to all those that need it. The second, and perhaps more complex suggestion, would be to work towards overcoming hostile attitudes towards Syrian refugees. This would involve media campaigns reemphasising that refugee status is temporary, and that as a neighbour, Turkey has a moral responsibility towards Syrians. Additionally, encouraging more Syrians to learn how to speak Turkish could make way for more dialogue. Interviews conducted by the Atlantic Council confirm that while it is true that Syrian refugees are given relatively free movement in Turkey, they remain reluctant to learn Turkish. (Al-Jablawi, 2018) Existing Turkish language courses organised by municipal governments can be supported by government funds, made more accessible, and operate with the help of volunteers.

The final recommendation made by this paper is the cessation of the practice of giving citizenships to refugees, unless they are married to a person with Turkish citizenship, in which case they are eligible for citizenship under Article 16 of the Turkish Nationality Laws. The granting of citizenships to refugees violates their status as refugees. Aside from the legal implications of such actions, the political influence must be considered. Though a percentage of 50,000 people is close to nothing in national elections, the same cannot be said in municipal elections, in which ex-refugees who were granted citizenships are likely to have swaying power. The matter of citizenship is very sensitive and should not be exploited to garner votes. This paper encourages that the actions taken by the government demonstrate the value of nationality and understands the long term commitment being made by granting citizenships.



This study should not be interpreted as a summary of the refugee crisis in Turkey and its solutions. It is important to repeat that the problems and suggestions pointed out are those specifically relevant to the case of Turkey. Refugee crises bring with them a plethora of problems ranging from economic difficulties to health problems, and is a difficult situation for both host countries and refugees.

Turkey’s weak foundation for the administration of refugees in 2011 has resulted in a breach of national security by allowing thousands of unidentified refugees into the country. Furthermore, the integration process of these refugees was not undertaken to its full potential, with additional policies such as granting citizenships to refugees contributing to undermining the legitimacy of the political system. Though these faulty policies are irreversible, it is not too late to take make some changes, namely by adopting three policies: (1) establish a detailed and accurate record of refugees in Turkey; (2) focus on the integration of refugees into society in an attempt to stabilize the currently polarized community; and (3) cease the granting of citizenships to refugees under the context of Article 12. If implemented, these policies will help to ensure increased security and stability within Turkey.


By Rania Mohiuddin



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* A person of concern is considered to be a refugee, internally displaced person, asylum seeker, stateless person, or those within exceptional circumstances.

* Article 12 allows for citizenship to be granted in extraordinary instances, or when outstanding services have been made to the country. 

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