Today's Zaman, Turkey
Sept 1 2013

Turkey debates citizenship for Syrian refugees

1 September 2013 /İREM KARAKAYA, ANKARA

The status of Syrian refugees, which has been uncertain for over two
years and may remain in limbo for some time to come, has become a
topic of discussion in Turkey, which could continue to host them as
guests or turn the situation to its advantage by granting them

As an intervention by foreign countries seems likely after the Bashar
al-Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, the future of the Syrian
civil war is moving into unknown territory, and thus Turkey has begun
to consider how it will handle the approximately 500,000 Syrian
refugees, a number that is expected to reach 1 million by the end of
this year. While some believe that the refugee situation can be turned
to Turkey's advantage by granting them citizenship, others fear that
this may result in the troubles in Syria being transferred to Turkey.

`This change will provide great benefits for Turkey and can be called
a 'remarkable development.' The generosity of Turkey will be proved in
the international area,' Cengiz Aktar, head of Bahe?ehir University's
European Union Affairs program, told Sunday's Zaman, underlining that
the transition process will not be simple, but that the refugee issue
is not only about feeding them but also providing for their
educational, work and accommodation needs.

The Syrian refugees' country became a battlefield of escalating
violence between the Syrian opposition and regime forces. A recent
chemical attack that hit the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus killed more
than 1,700 people and wounded many others on Aug. 21. As a result of
the violence, Syrian refugees have been living in host countries since
the beginning of the war in March 2011. Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon
and Turkey have been hosting around 2 million Syrians in total, and
182,000 have been waiting on the borders awaiting safe shelter. Since
the civil war became a long-term crisis, the number of refugees has
been increasing by the day, and host countries are struggling to cope
as their refugee camps are already crammed to overcapacity. Turkey,
one of the host countries carrying a large part of the refugee burden,
has already spent $2 billion on the Syrians, whose situation became a
cause for concern with the onset of winter and the uncertainty of the
civil war.

Aktar agreed that Turkey has done a lot but also believes that it can
provide better conditions, as the Syrian civil war doesn't seem likely
to end in the near future.

`Turkey's refugee policy is open-handed but shallow at the legal
level. The problem with Turkey is that it is not categorizing Syrians
as refugees but as guests. It is necessary to change this definition.
It should recognize them as refugees first, since this will grant them
more rights. We should start to think from now on that they can't stay
in those camps forever.'

Aktar predicts that Syrian refugees' adaptation to Turkish life should
be easy, as most of them are Sunnis, and Turkish Foreign Minister
Ahmet Davuto?lu recently welcomed Armenians from Syria. Saying that
the government has also been paying attention to Syriacs, Aktar notes
that Syrian refugees' acquisition of Turkish passports is not a
possibility that has been mentioned by the Turkish government, but
this doesn't mean that it is improbable.

Approaching the issue from a sociological perspective, Yakın Ertrk, a
member of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT),
said that granting citizenship to refugees is not a common act at an
international level and added that there can be negative aspects to
this decision around relations with the local inhabitants, social
integration and employment.

`The Syrian war created polarization in Turkey. Clashes across the
borders from time to time led people to react against refugees across
Turkey. Although it is not spoken loudly, there is a religious
perspective to this issue. This kind of decision will probably draw
Turkey, which has already taken a side in the conflict, into the war,'
Ertrk told Sunday's Zaman.

People living in border cities such as Hatay, ?anlıurfa and Kilis have
already experienced a few small-scale terrorist attacks since the
beginning of the Syrian civil war in mid-2011. However, the casualties
of the Reyhanlı bombing have continued to haunt people. On May 11, a
car bomb exploded outside the town hall while another went off outside
a post office in Reyhanlı, the main hub for Syrian refugees, leaving
50 dead and as many as 100 injured.

Rather than granting Syrians citizenship, Ertrk advised Turkey to
provide accommodation in which refugees can live in safety and secure
their education and healthcare until they return home.

`Many of the refugees only expect good living conditions [from the
government], meaning that their main aim is to return to their
homeland,' Ertrk maintained and suggested that for those who request
to be Turkish citizens, the usual process should be followed according
to the law.

Many believe that if Turkey grants the Syrians citizenship, Turkish
economic welfare will improve, as there are skilled Syrians such as
doctors and engineers among the refugees. However, a transition
process has vital importance for both sides, Oytun Orhan, Syria expert
for the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), believes.

Stressing that the civil war doesn't seem likely to end in a short
time, Orhan noted that the integration process will be painful.

`Syrians will be pleased if citizenship is granted to them. If Turkey
gives the Syrians citizenship rights, there must follow an integration
process of vocational training and Turkish-English education for
Syrian children. A skilled workforce can be turned into an advantage
for both sides,' he said, but noted that this may also disturb the
socioeconomic balance of border cities, and that Syrians holding a
Turkish passport could influence the election results.

Even if Syrians are seen as a fresh, cheap workforce by Turkish
industry, half of the refugees in Turkey are under the age of 18,
which makes them more dependent on the Turkish government.