Refugees as assets in Turkey’s political arena

When hosting an iftar dinner in the border town of Kilis on July 2, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a big surprise up his sleeve for the nearly three million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.


“I want to announce some good news to my brothers and sisters here,” Erdoğan said, speaking to the Syrian refugees at the event. “We are going to help our Syrian friends in offering them the chance, if they want it, to acquire Turkish nationality.”

The president’s surprising announcement immediately caused a major stir. Opposition parties let it be known they firmly opposed the president’s plans, and within 24 hours #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliIstemiyorum (“I don’t want Syrians in my country”) became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter.

Accusations at the President’s address ranged from political populism to attempts at manipulating regional demographics for personal gain. Regardless of the public outcry, Erdoğan appears to be set on implementing his plans, and over the past week new details have come to light.

Of Benefit To Turkey

In the immediate wake of the president’s comments, a government official hastened to add that no detailed plan had yet been drafted, and that Erdoğan’s comments had to be seen as a “statement of intend”. Nonetheless, the leader’s minions were put to work to come up with a decent plan to answer the many questions that followed the announcement of the controversial plan.

While stressing that “our Interior Ministry has not yet completed its work on [offering] citizenship to Syrians”, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş assured reporters on July 11 that not all three million Syrian refugees will be offered citizenship.

“Studies are being conducted on how those Syrians who can be of benefit to Turkey, who have never been involved in acts of terror, and who could serve as a bridge between Turkey and Syria, could become Turkish citizens,” Kurtulmuş said.

So far, it appears that this unique opportunity will only be available to a select group of highly educated or wealthy Syrian nationals whose skills and resources could be a potential asset to Turkey’s troubling economy.

Moreover, upon returning from a NATO summit in Warsaw on July 11, President Erdoğan clarified that Syrians could apply for dual citizenship only if they met a number of criteria.

A Political and Economic Asset

The Turkish government’s motivations for such an unexpected turn in its refugee policy are unclear. Few observers suspect the President to have been moved exclusively by humanitarian considerations. After all, Erdoğan stressed on multiple occasions that he intends for Turkey to “benefit” from this regulation.

It is probable that, in the eyes of the AKP leadership, the “benefit” these carefully selected Syrians bring to the table extends beyond their wealth and knowledge. One year after receiving citizenship rights, naturalised Syrians would also be granted the right to vote, and chances are slim that by that time anyone will have forgotten to whom they owe their newly-won fortune.

On a national scale a few hundred thousand extra votes would make little difference, but tactically distributed across several key municipalities these votes could possibly tip the scales in the AKP’s favour.

Besides a potential electoral asset, the Syrian refugee community is also believed to be responsible for the unexpectedly high economic growth figures in the past year. In 2015, Turkey had an overall growth rate of 4%, with a peak in the fourth quarter when the economy grew by a surprising 5.7% – the third-highest growth rate of all G20 countries.

In early May, a report published Standard & Poor’s suggested that “refugees are spurring Turkish consumption by spending their savings as well as any wages they earn in the grey economy.” The report showed that especially in consumer spending – the current engine of the Turkish economy – contributions of the refugee community have been significant.

A Tool of Domestic Politics

Objections to the plan have been fierce, both from the political opposition and society at large. Incidents between Syrians and locals have led to violent confrontations, which, in turn, sparked a series of anti-Syrian street protests.

Devlet Bahceli, leader of the nationalist MHP vowed “object to [the plan] until the end”, while the leaders from both the leftist HDP and the republican CHP parties suggested to hold a referendum on the issue. “You always talk about the ‘national will,’ so let’s ask the people,” CHP-leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu suggested, addressing the President indirectly.

While each party has its own, particular reasons to object to the plan, what they have in common is a fear that in some way or another it will serve to further entrench the power of the AKP. Fearing that the plan could “ignite further racism” against Syrians, HDP-leader Selahattin Demirtaş added that “they are using Syrians as a tool of domestic politics.”

With an unemployment rate of 10% and people generally waiting for many years to be eligible for social housing, many ordinary Turks fear a further depletion of their living conditions if they have to start competing with hundreds of thousands of Syrians for the already limited jobs and resources available.

Fallout From a Failed Deal

This latest development in the regional refugee crisis comes at a time when the dubious results of the much-criticised EU-Turkey refugee deal have started to confirm suspicions Turkey will have to bear the brunt of burden with only minimal EU support. The amount of refugees arriving to Greece by boat has decreased to a few dozen daily – compared to thousands this time last year – but at the same time, only several hundred people have been granted access to EU countries from Turkey via legal channels.

Turkey has come to realise that the large majority of the nearly three million Syrian refugees won’t be going anywhere any time soon, and has grown increasingly reluctant to send the best and the brightest of the refugees off to Europe.

It is of course laudable that Turkey is trying to improve the lives of those millions of people that entered the country with little more than what they could carry, but using these people as tactical assets for political gain has justly raised many eyebrows.

There are other, less politicised, ways in which the future prospects of Syrians in Turkey could be improved. One way is by lifting the geographical limitation to the Geneva refugee convention which currently withholds official refugee status from non-Europeans in Turkey.

The only difficulty with such a measure would be that it is much harder to reap any short term political benefits – which might be just the point.

This article was originally published by Al Araby English.

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