Writing a story that will never end: Policy recommendations for Syrian asylum seekers and local community

Yasin Duman


The number of Syrian asylum seekers who came to Turkey in April 2011, right after the Syrian civil war, and were registered under the ‘temporary protection’ status through the Temporary Protection Regulation introduced after the Law on Foreigners and International Protection which was adopted in 2013, exceeded 3.7 million as of April 2022 (Mülteciler Derneği, 2022). Although there was initially a supportive attitude towards the first groups of asylum seekers from Syria, this attitude was replaced by an explicit and comprehensive ‘anti-Syrian sentiment’ over time. Factors that lead to this shift include the rapidly increasing population of asylum seekers, the inability of the central government and local administrations to respond to and manage the migration, increasing conflicts in different cities and regions, the outcomes of military operations of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in northern Syria, and the local and international public’s perception of Syrians’ presence and migration that considers it as a socioeconomic and security problem.

The AKP government exploited the refugees’ situation to achieve their ambitions both in Turkey and international context and to legitimize comprehensive military operations conducted in 2016, 2018 and 2019 against the autonomous regions controlled by SDF in North and East Syria. So much so that the government officials threatened European countries with letting millions of asylum seekers into Europe in case they take a counter action against the violation of human rights in Turkey and military operations against North and East Syria. On the other hand, according to the claims of the government officials, the military operations would create safe zones in Syria which would make two million Syrian asylum-seekers in Turkey return. Contrary to this claim, the number of Syrian asylum-seekers registered in Turkey rose from 2.5 million in 2016 to 3.7 million in 2022 and the number of those who returned or repatriated to Syria was only 484,000 as of February 2022 (Mülteciler Derneği, 2022).

The main goal of the report is to understand the foundation of the hostility perceptions and attitudes of political groups and social circles which increasingly alienate and ostracize asylum seekers, how these attitudes and perceptions threaten the lives of asylum seekers and social peace, and discuss why it is necessary to develop a new policy. While doing this, the report examines the dilemma in the discourse and policies of the parties (and their representatives) that are represented in the Grand Turkish National Assembly (TBMM) concerning asylum seekers. Then, the report recommends a series of policies to the government, local administrations, political parties and nongovernmental organizations to have a multi-faceted response by taking into consideration the conditions, needs and expectations of both refugees and citizens.

Main arguments

  • The terms used to describe asylum seekers (such as ‘guest’, ‘ansar[1]’) and the temporary protection status granted to them legitimize the government’s arbitrary practices of and are not well received by the public.
  • The EU-Turkey deal which was signed six years ago and stipulates that asylum seekers stay in Turkey, instead of facilitating the migration process of the people who want to migrate for any reason or are forced to migrate, has brought a management approach which is against the international laws and applies restrictive and security orientated border and asylum policies and ignores humane conditions.
  • The government uses asylum seekers for its own interests in both domestic and international politics. The government portrays asylum seekers as a source of threat, especially against the EU countries, in order to reduce the reaction of the international public’s reaction the government’s pressures on the opposition and especially the military interventions against North and East Syria and to prevent possible sanctions.
  • Anti-asylum seekers sentiments is one of the rare areas that supporters of all parties represented in the TBMM (AKP, CHP, HDP, MHP and İYİ Party) agree on. The media, political discourse and campaigns, and polarization in Turkey play an important role in this.
  • Racist and dehumanizing tone of the discourse on asylum seekers that expresses hostility towards them by especially mayors and politicians is considered to be significantly related with the increasingly violent acts against asylum seekers. This threatens the living conditions of asylum seekers and long-term peace in the country.
  • Although its theoretical foundation claims the opposite, the integration policies of the government have an understanding that prioritizes assimilation in practice. In that sense, the ‘host-guest’ equation, as in the ‘muhajir[2]-ansar’ equation, is far from being sustainable as it is based on emotional and religious bases.
  • Despite supporting the access of asylum seekers to some basic rights, the local community only provides ‘conditional support for temporary integration’ and demands that they are either returned to Syria or send to another country.

Based on the above-mentioned arguments, the report provides suggestions for policies concerning the following six main areas: right based approach, legal regulations, political and media discourses, social relationships and participation in the socioeconomic life, change in policy towards Syria. The main purpose here is to contribute to both eliminating the policy mistakes made so far and making the next process more effective and manageable by presenting as comprehensive a set of policies as possible.

Right-based approach

  • Ideological and religious approach towards asylum seekers’ stay in Turkey should be abandoned and the needs of asylum seekers should be approached from a rights-based perspective. While doing this it is very important to consider the principles of right-based approach: universality, indivisibility (human rights are indivisible and protected with a holistic approach), equality and non-discrimination (prohibiting and preventing discrimination by law and giving priority to those facing greater barriers), participation (involving those affected by the decisions to be made in the decision-making process), accountability (the operation of the monitoring and inspection mechanism through legal means in the provision of rights),  dignity (it should be treated as a legal responsibility, not a favour), and empowerment (everyone knows, demands and exercise their rights).
  • A right-based approach should be adopted in the policies implemented for asylum seekers by the central and local governments and all public officers participate in workshops and training that introduce right-based approach and how it is implemented. Policies implemented in their regions should be regularly monitored for accountability by the government(s). In this process, the capacity of duty bearers who need to respect, protect, promote, and exercise human rights should be strengthened.
  • The right-based approach should be included in the curriculum of all levels from elementary school to post-graduate education and students should be introduced in accordance with their age groups and academic abilities about what human rights are and how the right-based approach addresses all kinds of differences.

Legal regulations

  • The government should grant ‘refugee status’ to all asylum seekers in Turkey removing the geographical limitation imposed on 1951 Geneva Convention with the support of the opposition parties and all rights granted to refugees in the international law should be granted to all asylum seekers in Turkey. While this step will help to put an end to attitudes and practices such as calling asylum seekers as ‘guests’ that have no reference in international law and lead to arbitrary policies, on the other hand, it will enable a better understanding of forced migration and its consequences, which are confined to the emotional field as in the ‘guest-host’ dilemma and are contrary to social reality.
  • In the case of Syrian refugees, the temporary protection regime should be terminated, and asylum seekers should be allowed to transfer to one of the international protection statuses such as refugees. In addition to that, by amending the relevant legislation, a time limit for temporary protection status should be introduced, as is the case in the EU, and the international protection regime should be determined as a priority.
  • Necessary legal arrangements should be made in order to end violations of rights and migrant smuggling, to ensure safe travel for asylum seekers and refugees, and to ensure safe border crossing between Turkey-Syria and Turkey-Greece.
  • By referring to international laws and conventions with the EU countries, fair, implementable and auditable action plans based on right-based approach and with reference to EU countries and international laws and conventions should be developed for asylum seekers and refugees to reach their destination safely.
  • These plans should include articles related to ending repatriation and increasing resettlement capacities (number of asylum seekers to be relocated) in the destination country. While this helps relieve the responsibility that Turkey feels as the country having the highest number of refugees in the world, it will support asylum seekers and refugees who do not want to stay in Turkey and/or cannot return to their countries, to start a new life in another country.
  • Legal regulations should be made for the recognition of all public rights to all asylum seekers and refugees, including the procedures to apply for and acquire citizenship. The rights and the legal regulations should be shared in different languages ​​in a way that is accessible to everyone. Thus, inequalities arising from the different rights granted to asylum seekers and refugees can be eliminated and everyone can have the same rights and responsibilities. For those who do not want to benefit from their right to citizenship, including Syrian refugees, they can retain their asylum or refugee status in Turkey or immigrate to another country.

Political and media discourse

  • Political party leaders and representatives should stop using a language that frames asylum seekers as a threat in their election campaigns and propaganda activities for their personal and party interests.
  • Political party leaders and representatives should develop and implement solution-oriented policies and propaganda by adopting the right-based approach without polarizing, accusing, and hostility towards asylum seekers. 
  • Political parties should consider ‘right-based politics and governance’ training as an indispensable part of their party program and include all employees in this training process so that all party cadres do their work in accordance with the right-based approach.
  • Actions should be taken to ensure that shows, articles, news and posts in local and national media (TV, newspapers and social media) adopt the principles of right-based approach. Regular workshops should be organized to support individuals and groups working in the media to encourage them to adopt the right-based approach and good practices should be supported with prestigious awards. Regular workshops should be organized to support individuals and groups working in these fields to publish rights-based, and practices in this direction should be supported with prestigious awards.
  • Political party representatives who use a language that targets and marginalize asylum seekers and express hostility towards them in the media should be identified and prevented by implementing preventive measures.

Social Relationships

  • With the support of academic institutions and local, national and international non-governmental organizations, a long-term ‘harmonization’ (or integration or adaptation) strategy which is appropriate for the context in Turkey should be determined.
  • What is meant with the ‘harmonization’ (or integration or adaptation) process in this strategy should be clearly defined, responsibilities of the parties should be clearly identified, and necessary legal regulations should be made for this.
  • In the ‘harmonization’ (or integration or adaptation) process, both asylum seekers and refugees and citizens of Turkey should be given opportunities to create common social, cultural and economic platforms to express themselves comfortably, get to know one another and provide support to each other when needed.
  • Legal regulations should be made to plan and create these platforms and ensure their continuity. Local administrations should support this process with the council decisions.

Participation in socioeconomic and sociocultural life

  • Policies that take into consideration and respect needs and diversities of asylum seekers, refugees and citizens to ensure their safe participation in socioeconomic life should be developed. Local (neighbourhood) culture centres where they can create joint sociocultural programs which allow interaction within and between groups should be built; any barrier that prevents access to available culture centres and create such programs should be removed. 
  • Equal, inclusive, fair administrative decisions and mechanisms that take into account diversities and needs should be encouraged to carry out sociocultural activities that are unique and/or common to groups.
  • Right-based, safe, sustainable and inclusive employment policies should be implemented taking into consideration the economic crisis in Turkey and the anxiety caused by this crisis in asylum seekers, refugees, and citizens and the anger towards each other due to polarization. 
  • To do this, employment projects should be initiated through employment offices in coordination with local administrations and local, national and international non-governmental organizations and institutions.
  • Cooperatives that are open to everyone’s participation, egalitarian and fair, owned by their members and managed in a democratic manner, independent, observing the interests of society and nature, auditable and accountable should be established.
  • Preventive measures should be taken for asylum seekers who are seen as cheap labour and work in precarious conditions. Compelling conditions of asylum seekers who are employed without social insurance, whose labour is exploited, whose salaries are not paid or who are paid late should be removed with new legal regulations.

Change in policy towards Syria

  • For the solution of the asylum seeker and refugee problem, the current Sunni-Islamic centred policy integrated with military interventions and constructed on the calculation of the overthrow or fall of the Assad government in Syria, should be abandoned. Based on international law and conventions, solution-oriented policies that will support the process of creating the conditions for the safe return of those who want to return to Syria should be implemented.
  • Diplomatic negotiations should be conducted with the Syrian government and local actors to create conditions for security and safe return across the border.
  • Under the financial and diplomatic support and supervision of international stakeholders, gradual reconstruction and return projects should be initiated with mechanisms that will contribute to social peace and reconciliation, taking into account the needs and expectations of both those who will return and those who live there. Steps that can cause violation of rights in resource sharing, forced demographic changes and transfer of assets which cause conflicts between groups should always be avoided. In doing so, actions such as forced demographic changes, violations of rights in resource sharing, and property rights violations that will lead to conflicts between groups in the future should be strictly avoided.

The treatment of Syrian refugees as a tool of interest and pressure in domestic, regional and international politics, the expansionist policy towards Syria, including North and East Syria, and all kinds of military interventions that cause casualties, forced migration, serious human rights violations and material damage should be abandoned.

[1] The Ansar were the local inhabitants of Medina who, in Islamic tradition, took the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers into their homes when they emigrated from Mecca during the hijra.

[2] A person who accompanied prophet Muhammad in his emigration from Mecca to Medina.