Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Istanbul

22:18 Aug 31 2016 Istanbul, Fatih, Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

[Summary, by Professor Ayhan Kaya]

According to the latest figures, Istanbul is at the top of the list of Turkish cities hosting highest number of Syrian refugees. It is estimated now that there are more than 500 thousand Syrians in Istanbul. Support to Life Association (HDD, Hayata Destek Derneği) conducted a field research in late 2015 and early 2016 to find out about the needs of Syrian refugees residing in Istanbul. The research team was composed of the experts working for the HDD as well as the Syrian-origin field researchers supervised by Prof. Ayhan Kaya (Istanbul Bilgi University) and Aysu Kıraç (HDD). Ayhan Kaya and Aysu Kıraç later prepared an extensive report, which was also used by the HDD as a guide to establish a Community Centre in Küçükçekmece district of Istanbul, offering various services to the Syrian refugees.

This report provides an overview of Syrian migration to Istanbul since the eruption of the civil war in Syria in March 2011. It is reported that the number of Syrian refugees residing in Istanbul is almost 500,000. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 182,621 Syrian refugees were living in Turkey mid-February 2013. Today, it is reported that there are more than 3,000,000 displaced Syrians living in Turkey. With the migration of greater numbers of Syrians into Turkey, anti-immigrant, anti-Arab, racist and xenophobic discourses have surfaced among the Turkish public. Furthermore, due to the Turkish governments’ openly hostile position to the Syrian regime, and sometimes due to the oppositional political parties’ discriminatory discourses, Syrian migration became closely linked with Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy.

The field research conducted with the locals in six districts of Istanbul (Küçükçekmece, Bağcılar, Başakşehir, Fatih, Sultanbeyli and Ümraniye) depict that many individuals have already begun scapegoating the displaced Syrians for the ills of the contemporary urban space. This study utilized qualitative and quantitative research methods, conducting structured surveys with the Syrian households in these six districts, open-ended interviews with local populations, muhtars, NGO representatives, school administrators, hospital administrators, as well as the representatives of the Syrian associations established in Istanbul. Focus group discussions were also held with the members of the Syrian communities residing in these districts. The surveys, interviews, and focus group discussions were structured to make a needs assessment of the Syrians in Istanbul.

The major problems of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are as follows: Exploitation in the labour market, the lack of Turkish language, discrimination in everyday life, lack of empathy among the locals towards their sufferings, stereotypes and prejudices generated by the locals, the lack of education facilities for the children, the lack of a proper legal status, the lack of the right to work legally, the lack of the right to health services, the lack of the right to housing, the lack of future prospects in this country, the lack of integration policies at central and local level, the lack of social and political recognition, respect, and acceptance, and the ways in which they are framed by the central state as “guests” are some of the problems they face in everyday life. It is exactly these problems which in the end prompt some refugees to leave Turkey at the expense of risking their lives at the border.

Framing of the refugee reality by the state actors as an act of benevolence and tolerance has also shaped the public opinion in a way that has led to the exposure of some racist and xenophobic attitudes vis-a-vis the refugees. This is why it is not a surprise that Turkish society witnessed several lynching attempts, stereotypes, prejudices, communal conflicts other forms of harassments performed against the Syrians. The massive increase in the number of refugees outside camps and the lack of adequate assistance policies toward them has aggravated a range of social problems. Refugees experience problems of adaptation in big cities and the language barrier seriously has complicated their ability to integrate into the Turkish society. There are several problems the Syrians have been facing in everyday life. There is growing concern about underage Syrian girls being forced into marriage as well as fears that a recent constitutional court ruling decriminalizing religious weddings without civil marriage will lead to a spread of polygamy involving Syrian women and girls. The sight of Syrians begging in the streets is causing particular resentment among local people, especially in western cities of Turkey. There have also been reports of occasional violence between refugees and the local population. In turn, this reinforces a growing public perception that Syrian refugees are associated with criminality, violence and corruption. These attitudes contrast with local authorities’ and security officials’ observations that in reality, criminality is surprisingly low and that Syrian community leaders are very effective in preventing crime and defusing tensions between refugees and locals.


Global governance: There seems to be a lack of coordination between different state actors such as AFAD, Directorate General of Migration Management, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, and Ministry of Labour and Social Security. These actors should be coordinated more efficiently. The efforts of the Turkish Prime Minister’s Office to act as a coordinating body is appreciated.
Legal surveillance in the Labour Market: Turkish authorities should increase the level of legal surveillance in the labour market to control if the employers employing Syrian refugees are complying with the legal regulations. Granting the Syrian refugees the right to work may also prevent them from being exploited by their employers in the labour market.
Collaboration with INGOs and NGOs: Turkey should move from a completely government-controlled process to a better partnership with UN agencies and NGOs. The Turkish state has been very generous and very effective in providing protection and assistance to the refugee camps. However, as part of formalizing its temporary protection program under the new law, it should give more space to humanitarian agencies to expand their service delivery and broaden the availability of protection and assistance to non-camp refugees.
Integrating Refugees: Turkish state should prompt the central and local state actors to spend time and energy on preparing the legal frameworks for better integration of the refugees to social, economic and even political spheres of life in the urban space. Such an attempt to integrate the refugees may also contribute to the creation a positive atmosphere in the public sphere with regard to the disapproval of prejudices, stereotypes and xenophobic acts performed against the refugees.
Geographical Limitation: Turkey should lift the geographical limitation clause inserted in the 1951 Geneva Convention on Protection of Refugees, and should be ready to grant the refugees all the rights deriving from international law. Then, the refugees may be freed from the limitations of the “guest” status, or temporary protection status, which makes them subject to the benevolence of the receiving state and society.
Engaging Municipalities: Local municipalities often neglect the refugees as they are not considered to have electoral power in local elections. However, they are key actors for the resolution of the problems of the refugees. Local municipalities should be more engaged in dealing with the problems of refugees in everyday life.
Collaborative action: International organizations and local and/or national NGOs should collaborate more efficiently with the central and local state authorities in order to serve better for the needs of the refugees. In doing so, best practices may be transmitted to other municipal regions so that refugees and local communities can benefit better from such practices.
Engage Private sector: Private sector remains unattached to the problems of the refugees. There should be ways of engaging them in the process of resolving refugees’ everyday problems such as unemployment, housing, health, education and psychological support.
Providing refugees with venues to speak out: Academic institutions and relevant NGOs concentrating on migration-related matters should engage migrants in their conferences, workshops, and other scientific activities to let them express themselves openly to the outside world. The refugees should always be given venues to speak out in order to express their concerns better, if possible through their own language. Academia has such a potential, and should act as a mediator between the life worlds of the refugees and that of the local communities.
Some are likely to stay: Agenda setters should prepare the public for the reality that at least some Syrian refugees are likely to stay in Turkey. This could decrease the potentiality of conflict between the refugees and the local communities.
Launching Information Campaigns: The central state and local municipalities should launch an information campaign to better inform Syrian refugees about their rights, services, available assistance.
Embarking a comprehensive needs assessment work: The central state actors as well as the local municipalities should urgently embark on a comprehensive needs assessment with special focus on the education of Syrian refugee children and recognize the importance of education as an important step to assist the integration of refugees into Turkish society.
Learning the mother tongue: Best practices of integration of migrant and refugee origin people in the Scandinavian countries reveal that one of the preconditions of successful integration is that the refugees should be given the possibility to prosper their mother-tongue since the very early ages. Hence, the Ministry of National education should be prompted to find ways to provide the Syrian children with the possibilities of learning their native language.
Health services: Turkish state should revisit and strengthen circulars concerning the provision of health services for Syrian refugees and seek avenues for burden-sharing with the international community.
Formal economy and Vocational training: Official efforts should be expanded by the central state to draw Syrian refugee labour into the formal economy and encourage vocational training.
Recognition of diplomas and certificates: Primary and Secondary school diplomas as well as Higher education diplomas, and occupational certificates should be recognized to help the refugees integrate easily to the relevant sectors of life in Turkey.
Political Parties’ discourses should be more refugee-friendly: All the political parties should be more receptive towards the refugees and their problems as they are very decisive in setting the tone for the public.
Potential power of the refugees: Receiving society and state should be aware of the fact that refugees have the potential to resolve their problems if they are given the right and opportunities to organize themselves along with political and civil collectivities. Community centres may be instrumental for the materialization of such a constructive capacity among the Syrian refugees.
Integration Policies: Most importantly, it is now the time to come up with a comprehensive set of integration policies for regular migrants as well as for those who are subject to the Temporary Protection Scheme. It is appreciated that the Directorate General of Migration Management is now working with the International Organization for Migration to prepare a draft on integration policies.
Professor Ayhan Kaya, Istanbul Bilgi University International Relations Department

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