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January 20, 2013, Sunday

What do the Syrian refugees tell us?

As has occurred in previous regional crises, thousands of people fled their homes as the critical situation in Syria worsened. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians escaped to nearby countries like Turkey and Lebanon. In the absence of any serious Western contribution, Turkey is bearing the cost of hosting thousands of Syrians on its territory. According to President Abdullah Gül, Ankara has spent more than $400 million on the needs of its Syrian guests in various provinces, among them Gaziantep, Kilis and Hatay. Current Syrian refugee numbers in Turkey amount to more than 150,000.

The Syrian refugees issue should be subjected to a two-level analysis. One level is on the basic understanding of the refugee situation that is cognizant of the need to house them and provide them with health services and food. Generally, the international community, influenced largely by the media, focuses on this level. However, there is another, more serious level: The refugees are not homogenous. Among them are different types of people, from diverse backgrounds who have various roles in society.

Educated people like teachers, journalists, doctors and other white-collar workers need special attention. Like in other post-crisis countries, reconstructing Syria will require the contribution of these professionally qualified people. If they refuse to return to Syria when the crisis is over, their absence will leave gaps that will become the receptacles for non-moderate political ideas.

Unlike others, it is difficult to persuade professionally qualified people to return to their homes even once a crisis has ended. Since their livelihoods depend on their professions, they need more security and a sophisticated infrastructure. For instance, hundreds of doctors and university professors did not return to Iraq even after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, and similarly doctors who leave Afghanistan rarely return to Kabul.

However, professionally qualified people are a "must" in a post-crisis society. Other groups, mostly local, ethnic and tribal, can put the reconstruction process in Syria at risk if they are free to fill the gaps left by the professionals. Therefore, the international community -- as part of the general task of helping Syrian refugees -- should develop an independent strategy to guarantee the safe return of professionally qualified Syrians to their hometowns. People in certain professions, like doctors, teachers, university professors, journalists, artists, and lawyers, are especially critical groups in this assignment.

There are some informal reports to the effect that professionally qualified refugees are heading mainly to Gaziantep or Beirut. Small towns or camps are the worst-case situations for them, and thus they prefer to take shelter in big cities.

In fact, Turkey has devised a comparatively successful strategy to manage professionally qualified Syrians. By and large, they were not put into big camps, but left to become socialized in neighborhoods in the larger Turkish community. Many Syrians have rented houses in cities like Kilis and Gaziantep. Seeing Syrians shopping with Turks has become normal in daily life in Gaziantep, for instance. Turkey softened its relevant laws to ease the Syrians' ability to survive. A prominent example of this is that all Syrians who enter Turkey with passports are allowed to stay in the country for an extended period of time without further bureaucratic formalities. Despite their not having the relevant official papers, Syrians are allowed to use their cars in Turkey. There was even the quite rare event of Ankara appointing a coordinator governor to handle the Syrian refugee issue. The coordinator governor for refugees in Turkey is responsible for all procedures that concern Syrians in Turkey, including public services like health and education.

However, Turkey's supportive policies towards Syrian refugees, particularly those concerning professionally qualified Syrians, are not enough. A wider international strategy is required, one that is specifically geared to guaranteeing the return home of professionally qualified Syrians. The return of those people is vitally important in the post-crisis period; otherwise, the gaps they leave will increase the likelihood of multiple kinds of radicalism settling into those gaps.

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