Amnesty International data reveals that Turkey tops the list of the world’s most refugee-accepting nations. Up until 2015, under its declared “open door” policy, Turkey accepted virtually every refugee from Syria. To put the effect of the policy in perspective, the number of refugees in the entire European Union (EU) is 1.4 million; Germany hosts 600,000 of those. In comparison, there are 3.7 million refugees in Turkey alone!
From a demographic standpoint, the majority of Turkey’s refugees are Syrian, although some from Afghanistan and Iraq have also found their way there. Of those, 1.7 million are under the age of 18. Approximately 550,000 refugees live in Istanbul, roughly 3% of the city’s population. A fraction of Turkey’s refugees—less than 90,000—live in the camps. About 53,000 of Turkey’s refugees have received Turkish citizenship.
Initially, most refugees considered Turkey merely a stopover toward their ultimate destination, Europe. The refugee influx grew larger, however, as DAESH began to spread into Syria in 2015. The images of women and children sailing to Greek islands from Turkey, some drowning, and many finally proceeding to Western Europe, startled the European public, who began to prop up far-right, xenophobic parties. Consequently, the EU rushed to strike a deal with Turkey to halt the refugee flow.
According to the deal, Greece was to return “all new irregular migrants” as of March 2016 to Turkey. In exchange, visa requirements for Turkish citizens to the EU’s Schengen Zone were to be lifted at the latest by the end of June 2016. $6.6 billion was also supposed to be granted to Turkey in support of refugees’ needs, and Turkey’s EU accession process was to be re-energized.
Yet, the EU neither granted Turkey a visa liberalization nor did it fulfill its pledged financial assistance. Although the EU-Turkey deal considerably reduced the refugee influx into Europe, as of June 2019, only $2.4 billion of the promised $6.6 billion had been disbursed. Nevertheless, Turkey continued to accept refugees.
As Turkey’s refugees grew in number, so did their impact on Turkey’s society, economy, and politics.
As Turkey’s refugees grew in number, so did their impact on Turkey’s society, economy, and politics. The fact that more than 90% of the refugees live in urban areas has magnified their impact on the Turkish society. Turks’ view of refugees coincides with the political fault lines of the country. Whereas most conservative, pro-Erdogan Turks welcome the Syrians as guests or ‘muhagir’ (مهاجر), referring to prophet Muhammed’s forceful migration from Mecca to Medina, the liberal, and secular opposition, particularly the proponents of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) tend to see the Syrians through xenophobic lenses, depicting them as a growing social menace by highlighting the crimes they have been involved in.
In contrast, President Erdogan has warned about the declining birth-rates in Turkey, and he sees the high birth-rates among refugees as a benefit to the economy. The opposition, however, blames the refugees for “stealing Turks’ jobs,” while also fearing that more Syrians means more “Islamization.” Furthermore, there is a perception in the anti-refugee political camp that while healthy, strong Syrian men are having fun at night clubs, Turkish soldiers are dying for their country. Paradoxically, at the same time, they criticize Turkey’s use of the rebel Syrian National Army as a proxy in military incursions in Syria.
Aware of the potential repercussions of the refugee influx at home, and its humanitarian aspects within Syria, President Erdogan began in 2013 to appeal to the international community, particularly to the US, for a no-fly-zone along the Syria border. However, under the Obama Administration’s ambiguous Syrian policy, Erdogan’s proposal was never implemented.
In 2015, the US began to heavily arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of Turkey’s arch-foe, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey and the State Department have both listed as a terrorist organization. Turkey’s repeated pleas to cut ties with the YPG were never listened to in Washington, so in 2016 and 2018, Turkey conducted Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch respectively, which dislodged the YPG from Afrin, al-Bab, and Jarablus along the Turkish border.
In 2018, Tayyip Erdogan was elected president of Turkey by 52% of the popular vote. Erdogan’s win by only a slight margin emboldened the “anybody but Erdogan” opposition that if united, could eventually win against him. Previously unable to defeat Erdogan’s AK Party in the parliament, the opposition, began to coalesce for the 2019 local elections. Just as the “Mexican immigrants” debate took the center stage in the American presidential elections in 2016, in Turkey’s 2019 local elections, the main topic was “the Syrian refugees.”
In light of the deteriorating economy (the result of Trump’s sanctions in 2018 due to Pastor Brunson’s imprisonment) the opposition used the refugee issue skillfully against the AK Party. For the first time in 30 years, the main opposition CHP, with the help of other opposition parties, won Turkey’s five biggest cities Ankara, Izmir, Adana, and Antalya. This raised concern for Erdogan, who is expected to seek a second term in the 2023 presidential election (although, it might be held sooner).
With the European Union dodging the financial responsibility of the mounting cost of the refugees, and apparently the refugee issue greatly impacting the election results, Erdogan introduced the Safe Zone Plan.
With the European Union dodging the financial responsibility of the mounting cost of the refugees, and apparently the refugee issue greatly impacting the election results, Erdogan had to do something to address it. He introduced the Safe Zone plan at the United Nations in September. According to the plan, Turkey would create a 440km by 32km “safe zone” along its Syria border in which up to 2 million Syrians would return to their country in newly built settlements. The most serious problem for Turkey’s plan, however, is that the proposed Safe Zone was controlled by the US-backed YPG, which had declared its autonomy and was on a fast track to establishing a hostile statelet—a top national security concern for Turkey.
The refugee situation at home and the growing YPG influence along Turkey’s border thus created an urgency for Ankara in effect requiring that the Safe Zone be created “at any price,” even if it meant confrontation with US troops. The last thing Trump would want of course is to start a war with the second-largest member of NATO on the eve of his re-election campaign. So, given the exigency Turkey faced, Trump ordered the withdrawal of American military personnel, thus opening space for a Turkish incursion.
Turkey initiated Operation Peace Spring on October 9, 2019, “in line with the right of self-defense as outlined in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations,” as stated in the letter sent by Turkey’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. While the international community criticized Turkey’s operation on the grounds that the YPG did not pose an immediate threat, the Turkish authorities cited YPG’s ties to the PKK, which has waged a bloody insurgency that has cost the lives of more than 40,000 Turks and Kurds. Furthermore, the American fight against DAESH in Syria and France’s anti-terror operations in sub-Saharan Africa were also cited as a precedent for Turkey’s incursion, since neither America nor France faced any immediate threat from those areas.
Although the immense international pressure has forced Ankara to revise its Safe Zone plans for now, it must be expected that Turkey is going to push to finalize it, in stages.
The domestic impact of the refugees along with the growing perceived threat from the YPG in Syria prompted Turkey’s Syria incursion. Although the immense international pressure has forced Ankara to revise its Safe Zone plans for now, it must be expected that Turkey is going to push to finalize it, in stages. The acquisition of the Russian S-400 missiles and the initiation of Operation Peace Spring taught Ankara that with enough persistence, it could persuade Washington. In the near future, its continuing push for refugee resettlement and ensuing military engagement with the YPG will shape Turkey’s relations with the US, Russia, and Syria.