Syrian refugees take toll on urban Turkey

Syrian refugees take toll on urban Turkey

(Photo: Sunday's Zaman)

May 17, 2014, Saturday/ 17:00:00/ GÜLTEN ÜSTÜNTAĞ | ANKARA
Turkey has been grappling with the socioeconomic effects of the ongoing war in neighboring Syria as it adapts to being a new home for more than 1 million Syrian refugees, some of whom have been involved in criminal activities due to the growing number living in urban areas.

The humanitarian crisis has not only displaced Syrians but has also caused logistical problems for Turkey, such as how to shelter the large number of people in the southern and southeastern provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep and Kilis, as well as those in metropolises such as İstanbul and Ankara.

The influx of so many Syrian refugees to Turkey has brought social and economic tension since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, as millions of Syrians fleeing violence in the country have sought refuge in Turkey. In provinces where Syrian refugees are densely sheltered inside camps or on the streets outside, an increase in criminal activities such as theft, begging, fraud and prostitution has been reported, especially among Syrians who have moved into urban areas.

The Prime Ministry's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) has reported that approximately 600,000 Syrians are living outside of refugee camps in certain provinces. According to official data, there are currently over 800,000 Syrians in Turkey, 210,358 of whom live in 15 tent cities, one transitional reception center and six container cities that have been established in Turkey.

Although official data suggest there are 800,000 Syrian citizens in Turkey, the number has actually surpassed 1 million, according to unofficial data and reports. Syrians in Turkey are hosted under the status of "temporary shelter" in the country, but civil unrest has continued in Syria, obstructing refugees from returning to their homes.

A large number of refugees in İstanbul and Ankara survive by begging on the street, usually sitting with children nearby and their passports visible, in an effort to evoke empathy from passersby and to prove that they are truly needy. It seems like one can come across a Syrian beggar on several street corners in Ankara.

Recent media reports said a group of people in a district of Ankara threw stones and set fire to a building housing Syrian refugees late last Wednesday because a Syrian had allegedly beaten a local resident. This incident is just one example of the kind of reports causing fear among the local population about the potential for similar incidents to occur in the future.

Another scary incident came to light in a report of a Syrian mother who allegedly attempted to sell her 3-month-old baby, revealing the severity of the poverty and hardship among refugees.

In the current atmosphere, Syrians are facing shelter and food shortages, making them more prone to committing crimes. Reports written by civil society organizations and specialists have called on the government, local authorities and international organizations to try to meet the basic needs of refugees. Especially in the border provinces, locals are uneasy with increasing crime rates among Syrians in incidents of theft, murder, prostitution and smuggling.

Another problem facing both local people and refugees is an increase in the number of Turkish men in second or third marriages with Syrian women, most of whom are much younger than their Turkish husbands. This has caused social tension, especially with regard to an increase in cases of depression reported among local women in Hatay and Kilis and reports of divorce.

Specialists and reports on Syrians in Turkey emphasize need for a comprehensive accommodation strategy, including giving refugees the option of integrating into Turkish society through jobs, access to social care, language training and education.

According to official figures, approximately 150,000 people have died in Syria. Almost 3 million people have fled to neighboring countries and approximately 6 million people have abandoned their homes and sought refuge within Syria. Therefore, almost 10 million Syrians have been directly affected by the conflict. Considering the fact that Syria's population before the crisis was 23 million, the numbers add up to almost a half the country being plagued by the crisis.

The civil conflict in Syria, which has been going on for over three years, has political, economic and social consequences for the Middle East. Furthermore, the Syrian crisis is especially important because of its humanitarian dimension; according to official data, women and children comprise more than 75 perfect of the refugees living under harsh conditions outside of the camps.

Speaking to Today's Zaman, Mustafa Paksoy, a professor of economics, said he wrote a report examining the Syrian refugee case in terms of its economic dimension, saying that many refugees have used up all their money and that a lack of sustainable income opportunities in Turkey has made them more prone to commit crime.

According to Paksoy, there are problems facing the Turkish government in terms of providing necessary services to the Syrians; furthermore, refugees face several difficulties as well: “Safe shelter, food aid and health services for Syrians are not the only responsibilities that Turkey has to deal with. The international community and nongovernmental organizations should contribute more [towards finding] solutions to the problems.”

"Local authorities should take steps towards finding solutions to the language barrier facing refugees. Local language courses should be established to teach Turkish to Syrians, to allow them to express themselves in daily interactions with Turks, to [help] prevent misunderstandings,” Paksoy noted.

In another solution-seeking proposal, Paksoy emphasized the importance of making legal amendments concerning refugees, such as permitting them to establish private companies in Turkey and creating organizations made up of Syrian sociologists, psychologists and religious leaders under the local authorities.

Paksoy stressed that the current problems will remain the same as long as the conflict in Syria does not find its resolution in the near future, and suggested that Syrian refugees should be employed in Turkish companies with insurance and temporal documents allowing them to work, in an effort to avoid a social crisis in Turkey. According to Paksoy, a comprehensive legal framework that expands the current law on foreigners and immigration should be among the top priorities.

Ankara needs to find sustainable arrangement with int'l community

Challenges that both Turkey and Syrians face are also being discussed by international think tanks. A report published on Monday said that almost 515,000 refugees are living in cities. According to the report, the presence of growing numbers of Syrians in Turkey is having a deep impact on host communities economically, socially and politically.

A report by the International Crisis Group in 2014, titled “The Rising Costs of Turkey's Syrian Quagmire,” pointed out that the humanitarian, political and security costs continue to rise in Turkey.

Praising Turkey's humanitarian outreach, which it finds to be morally correct and in harmony with international principles, the report draws attention to the fact that Turkey should seek a sustainable and long-term arrangement with the international community to care for the Syrians who arrive daily.

Recalling that the international community also has the responsibility to share the growing burden shouldered by Turkey, such as maintaining emergency shelters, the report said that the influx puts pressure on local infrastructure and creates social tension, and points out that many of the Syrians arrive in Turkey illegally.

The report suggested the government make the necessary amendments regarding the temporary protection regulation to fill the gaps in Syrians' social rights, as well as providing more places for Syrian children in schools and more Turkish language classes.

On the topic of the problem of Syrians outside camps, the report said that there is much to do to assess the needs of Syrians, including full registration, paperwork for vehicles, longer-term assistance programs, legal aid, special attention to vulnerable groups and action to prevent forced marriages and violence against women.

Most refugees undereducated and belong to low-income groups

Oytun Orhan, a specialist from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), said the refugees living in Turkey are predominantly undereducated, from low-income groups and from rural areas.

Also overseeing the preparation of a report titled “The Situation of Syrian Refugees in the Neighboring Countries: Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations,” Orhan drew attention to a new wave of migration by refugees towards the western provinces of Turkey, as many Syrians prefer not to reside in refugee camps because of tight control and camp rules.

Speaking to Sunday's Zaman, Orhan noted that AFAD should focus more on the refugees who live outside the camps in order to meet their needs for better health care, education and food.

“International assistance is very limited and insufficient when we consider that the total number of refugees is approaching 1 million in Turkey. Unofficial figures indicate that Turkey has spent almost $3 billion since the humanitarian crisis broke in 2011. The data reveal that the amount of international assistance is only $150 million. This amount of money by the international community is insufficient to meet even a small part of the Syrians' needs,” Orhan said.

Suggesting that better camp conditions and mechanisms regarding the functioning of the camps are needed, Orhan said: “Additional refugee camps might be established to make them more attractive to the Syrians. Limitations and rules on camp conditions might push people to leave these camps. Through more flexible rules in camps, Syrians might be encouraged to stay there. Problems increase when they live out of the camps. Apparently, most of the refugees will not return to Syria during the ongoing conflict. So, the state should make long-term plans regarding the Syrians.”

Drawing attention to the increasing negative reaction to the refugees by local residents, especially in the border areas where the number of Syrians exceeds that of the locals, Orhan emphasized that a bigger reaction does not seem likely in the near future.

Joost Lagendijk has stressed in his Today's Zaman column that the main issue involves those Syrians who are not admitted to the camps and have moved to urban areas.

According to Lagendijk, many refugees are spreading to the western provinces. Some 120,000 refugees are living in İstanbul, and the growing number of refugees has led to discomfort among local residents.

Another report by AFAD from December 2013 gives some statistic about the Syrians who have come to Turkey. According to the report, about 36 percent of the Syrian refugees to Turkey are located in 20 camps in 10 cities, while about 64 percent are located in cities, including the 10 cities where there are camps. These 10 cities are located in the south and southeast of Turkey, close to the Syria-Turkey border.

More than half of the refugees in the camps and a quarter of refugees out of the camps entered Turkey without passports across an official border crossing point. However, a substantial number entered Turkey via unofficial border points.

Close to 70 percent of the individuals are over 15 years old. About 17 percent of the household heads in the camps and 22 percent of the same out of the camps are women.

Not all the refugees outside the camps have legal status or have been registered. As mentioned earlier, the total number of refugees out of the camps is not known with certainty.

(Collagea: Cihan)