© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Turkey's Migrant Policy: They Can Come, But They Can't Settle

A young girl is among many migrants, most of them Syrian, resting at a sports stadium near Turkey's western border with Greece on Sept. 22. Turkey has taken in some 2 million Syrians fleeing war in their homeland. But Turkey rarely allows the migrants to work or receive citizenship, and many of the Syrians say they want to move on to Europe.
Emrah Gurel

With thousands of migrants showing up at European borders daily, the EU is pressing Turkey to keep Syrians and other migrants in Turkey. The EU is pledging more than $3 billion in aid for Turkey to do things like cut down on human trafficking.

But what about the migrants themselves, the ones risking their lives to get to Europe?

First, a couple of important facts about migrants in Turkey:

  • Relatively few migrants are in camps. Most are living in Turkish cities and towns, coping as best they can, with some state help with health care and education.
  • Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and other large migrant populations are not allowed to apply for asylum here. Only Europeans can. That's one of the quirks of Turkey's asylum laws.
  • At the same time, Turkey has been extraordinarily generous when it comes to temporary humanitarian protection. It has spent billions of dollars, taking in some 2 million Syrians so far, and is expecting another wave in the wake of Russian airstrikes in Syria.

    By way of comparison, Turkey is sheltering more Syrian refugees than all of Europe and the United States combined.

    As a result, many Syrians in Turkey are grateful to their hosts. At Pages, a Syrian-run bookstore in Istanbul, children's book author and illustrator Gulnar Hajo says moving to Turkey was not a huge cultural leap. In many ways, Istanbul reminds her of Damascus.

    "I love the mix of East and West in Istanbul," she says. "The atmosphere is not strange for me."

    The Difficulty Of Finding Work

    Hajo knows she's been lucky. Unlike Syrian engineers, doctors and other professionals who fled the conflict at home, she's not only kept her job but is thriving as her books are being translated into Turkish.

    But there are moments of doubt, and they have to do with the future.

    "You feel that you are living here, but you cannot say 'I will live here forever,' you know?" she says, adding that it's harder when you have children to think about.

    "I have two girls. You are always thinking about the future: What could happen?" she says. "It's the most difficult thing for me."

    Bookstore owner Samer al-Kadri says if only the EU-Turkey negotiations were focused on providing a future for migrants — easier access to work permits, a path to obtain a Turkish passport and citizenship — very few people would be pushing on to Europe.

    As it is, he says three of his Syrian employees have already left for Germany, despite the fact that they all liked living in Istanbul.

    "But (here) there is no future," he says. "If you speak about the moment, Istanbul is very good." But with no hope of asylum, no path to permanently settling here, Kadri says many Syrians see only two choices: Go back to the chaos in Syria or try to get to Europe.

    "If the world (could) fix this with the Turkish, I think a few, just a few people, will (go) to Europe or to another country," he says.

    Uncertain Status

    For migrants in Turkey, work permits are extraordinarily difficult to come by. Many of those who do find under-the-table jobs have to accept substandard pay and can expect to be fired without warning if someone else is willing to do the job for less.

    Turkey's failure to clarify the status of Syrian migrants has soured the mood of Syrian author and blogger Aboud Dandachi. He says he doubts he can spend another year in Istanbul.

    "I think that Syrians have every right to be pessimistic about their long-term prospects in Turkey," says Dandachi. "We are not refugees, we are not residents, we are under the heading of "guests" — God knows what legal status a guest has."

    Dandachi is author of an e-book called The Doctor, the Eye Doctor and Me, a highly personal account that finds links between the BBC science fiction series Dr Who and the British-trained ophthalmologist who leads Syria, Bashar Assad.

    Dandachi still believes that Turkey's open-door policy for Syrians stands far above the European response. But recently Turkey has imposed new restrictions on the movement of Syrians within the country, another sign for him that doors are closing here.

    What happens, he asks, if it turns out that they can never return to Syria? Do they want to be stuck in a country that won't allow them to integrate?

    "No refugee in the world wants to find themselves or their children stateless down the line," he says. "We would like clarity. If there are rules, tell us what the rules are, we will be happy to cooperate with whatever regulations our host countries feel they need to implement."

    "But this is a very large-scale crisis," he adds. "You have to have a plan equal to the crisis, and that has been lacking so far."

    One fear among many migrants here is that the EU and Turkey will negotiate a migrant aid package that focuses on their own interests, leaving Syrians and other migrants to pay the price.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
    KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
    Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.