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Why Syrians in Turkey are Not “Refugees” and Why it Matters
Mark A. Grey
Half a million people have fled the Syrian civil war and now live in Turkey. Thousands live in camps built by the Turkish government but camp administrators refuse to label Syrian occupants as “refugees.” Instead, Syrians are “guests” who don’t deserve the stigma associated with refugees in the rest of the world. Syrians refuse to call themselves refugees because they are not fleeing a civil war. Instead, they were forced to leave Syria because the United States and other western powers didn’t support their rebellion against the al-Assad regime. The result is that refugee camps in Turkey are major breeding grounds for anti-U.S. sentiment. The United States and other western powers need to move quickly to counter these anti-American sentiments and fill a void that is being filled by the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia. Allowing this anti-American sentiment to ferment has important implications for our future security. By not backing up the Syrian rebellion when we had a chance to, we are creating the next generation of terrorists and thousands of them will live in a NATO nation.
Syrian Refugees in Turkey
Turkey has publically maintained an “open door” policy for Syrians escaping the brutal war between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. At first, these refugees trickled in. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated the number of Syrians crossing into Turkey in May 2011 was only about 250. More than two years later, in August 2013, the Turkish Foreign Ministry estimated the total number of refugees who had registered--or who had appointments to register--reached 458,837 with 200,551 living in camps and about 243,985 living in apartments, with friends or relatives, or in informal camps set up in Turkish border towns. With no end in sight for the war, the UNHCR projected the displacement of 3.5 million Syrians by the end of 2013 with as many as 1 million seeking refuge in Turkey.
Turkey’s response to the massive influx of Syrians is admirable. Principally through the work of the Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish Disaster Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), 20 camps have been established at a cost of $1.5 billion. Turkey has paid most of the bill. In April of this year, the International Crisis Group (ICG) referred to the refugee camps in Turkey as the “best refugee camps ever seen.” I visited several of the Syrian camps in Turkey and as well as refugee camps in many other countries and I have to agree with the ICG assessment. Indeed, some of the Turkish “camps” more closely resemble small cities with families living in pre-fabricated “containers” complete with running water, sewage and electricity. Food is available in large, well-stocked stores operated by the World Food Program. Mosques, health services, playgrounds, and schools are also established in the camps. Elbeyli, the most recently opened camp, has more than 3,300 containers and the capacity for 30,000 residents. The Elbeyli camp director is not a refugee specialist but a city planner.
The high quality of Turkey’s refugee camps (and the accommodation of Syrians in cities) does not solve the nation’s long-term refugee problem. By any definition, the Syrian newcomers are “refugees.” They clearly fit the United Nations definition as people who have "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” they have crossed an international border, and they are unable to return home. Despite this legal description of the Syrians in Turkey, the Syrians—and many Turks—reject the label. There are many reasons for this and more importantly, there are short- and long-term consequences for the Turks, Syrians, and American foreign policy.
I met several Turkish AFAD leaders, camp directors, and educators and they did not like the term “refugee” for a few reasons. One issue is that the word “refugee” translates into Turkish (mülteci) not as one who seeks refuge but as “one who dwells.” The Syrians are not refugees but guests and given the cultural pride Turks take in hosting their guests, AFAD leaders feel an obligation to host Syrians in the best facilities they can provide. As one AFAD director told me, the nicest room in the house is always reserved for providing hospitality.
As a Muslim nation, Turkey also has an obligation to welcome fellow Muslims who are never strangers but fellow members of the same Ummah or community of Muslims. Less often expressed, but underlying the motivations of many relief workers, is Turkey’s obligation as a predominately Sunni nation to welcome the predominately Sunni flow of Syrians. The majority of Syrians in the camps are Sunni. In order to avoid conflict in the crowded camps, those who are not Sunnis either claim they are Sunni or they don’t identify themselves. Anticipating problems with large influxes of Alawite Muslims and Christians in Sunni dominated camps, AFAD is building two new separate camps for these two special populations.
Despite the Turkish investment in refugee facilities and its “open door” rhetoric, the country has probably met its capacity to help Syrians. Turkey has offered to airlift refugees to European. So far there have been few takers, although Canada announced its willingness to resettle 1,500. There are more ominous signs: This summer Human Rights Watch claimed Turks are now refusing to admit all but a few Syrians, leaving thousands stranded in make-shift camps along the Syrian side of the border.
Although AFAD camps directors may claim an obligation to welcome the Syrians, popular Turkish resentment against the influx is growing. In towns near the border, there are complaints about how much public funding goes into building, securing, staffing and maintaining the camps. The electric bill for the Kilis container camp alone runs about 1.5 Million Turkish lire (about $900,000) per month. With limited contributions from other nations, all of the Turkish money spent on Syrian camps, schools, clinics, and personnel is money that is not spent on Turks and their children.
Syrians are registered by the Turkish government but the majority of them are not allowed to work. As more of them live in towns and are desperate for incomes, employers are taking advantage of them with long hours and at wages lower than those expected by Turks. Many are paid in cash. Some camp dwellers are also allowed to work on occasion as temporary farm workers. Turks also complain about a shortage of housing and upward pressure on rents. And there are persistent—although unfounded—rumors that Syrians are also involved in prostitution, human trafficking, pick-pocketing, and human organ trafficking.
Turkish fears that the conflict in Syria may spill over the border are augmented by growing recognition that the refugee camps are used as bases by members of the FSA where they rest, visit family, receive health care, and obtain supplies. Turkish border guards allow their free flow back and forth across the border. Security at camp gates varies in terms of the quality of personnel and security procedures. Persistent rumors that the camps are used as rebel bases were confirmed in the April 2013 International Crisis Group report, noting that allowing the use of camps as bases threatens to exacerbate “sensitive ethnic and sectarian balances, particularly in Hatay province” where a significant proportion of the population are Alawites who share more ethnic and cultural ties with fellow Shia Alawites in Syria than with Sunni Turks.
The use of refugee camps as military bases also strikes at the very principles upon which services for refugees are provided: Refugees don’t go back and forth to their home country to fight; they seek refuge in another nation and hope someday they can go home. Using camps as military bases also stirs fears among ordinary Turks that the war will cross into their territory. In light of how camps are used as bases, ICG’s recommendations to the Turkish government are direct and leave no room for doubt: “Minimise border crossings by Syrian opposition fighters; do not allow them to use refugee camps as rear bases; ensure there is no pressure on young camp residents to join opposition militias; and establish new refugee camps well away from the border.”
Don’t Call Us Refugees
AFAD Camp directors and common Turks are reluctant to call Syrians “refugees” and the Syrians I met also deeply dislike the label. This point was driven home several times when, through an interpreter, I used the word “refugee’ and was immediately admonished. Some Syrians do not want to be wrapped up in the same negative status as refugees in other parts of the world, especially in Africa. Their resistance to the “refugee” label also reflected their beliefs that Muslims are not refugees in the nations of other Muslims but “guests.” Some preferred the term “temporary asylum seeker.” At the request of camp education directors, I provided training for camp teachers on refugee trauma. Many Syrians rejected the existence of trauma in their population because only true refugees suffer from trauma and admitting that Syrians experience trauma would make them refugees, too. In other instances, Syrians described behaviors among their children and parents that are clearly linked to their war and migration experiences, but they argued devout Muslims do not need to treat for trauma because all the treatment they need is found in the Quran and Hadiths.
There were other reasons why Syrians reject the refugee label. Many Syrians in the camps said they were not refugees because they are not like the refugee populations living in Syria. The Palestinians, Iraqis and Lebanese who live in Syria were true refugees because they were victims of civil war. The Syrians in Turkey, on the other hand, are not victims of civil war but rather a revolution for freedom: a righteous rebellion, an uprising of oppressed peoples much like those experienced throughout the Arab Spring. The only reason they had to leave Syria and seek temporary asylum in Turkey was because the United States and other Western powers failed to support their uprising. In other words, they are not truly refugees because the lack of U.S. military support forced them to leave Syria. When the armed rebellion began in March 2011, the Syrians I met expected rapid and decisive U.S. intervention like that provided in Libya. When that didn’t happen, and as losses of life and property mounted, people fled Syria not because they had started a civil war and found themselves losing, but because the Americans didn’t show up when they were supposed to.
The resulting anger and resentment against the U.S. and other Western powers ferments in the camps and grows deeper with each week the U.S. doesn’t intervene. It is exacerbated by what the refugees see as western double standards and how the “red line” drawn by President Obama to intervene if the Assad regime used chemical weapons has moved several times.
They also readily dismiss as an “excuse” the reluctance of Americans to provide heavy and sophisticated weapons to the Syrian rebels because of concerns about arming more radical Islamist elements. Most of the Syrians I talked to, including many who have or continue to fight, told me the percentage of rebels aligned with al-Nusra or other groups associated with al Qaeda was really only two or three percent, much lower than claimed by the United States. The U.S. is exaggerating to avoid living up to their moral commitment. Many Syrians also discount American concerns about infighting among factions of the FSA—as well as posted YouTube videos of rebels beheading Catholic priests—as a stalling tactic.
Their anti-American sentiment is at times as harsh as their feelings for al-Assad and it is very personal. They have lost their homes, careers, and family members and find themselves living in crowded camps in a country where they don’t speak the language and can’t work. Being called “refugees” is the last straw.
Whatever aid was provided by the United States prior to August 2013 is shrugged off as piece-meal or meaningless. Even though I believe most of the Syrians I met are grateful to the Turkish government for building camps and providing safe sanctuaries for themselves and their families, they also deeply resent having to rely on the Turks for historic and cultural reasons. They are unhappy with the Turkish practice of mixing genders in classrooms and workplaces. And, after all, the Turks have also talked about ousting Assad but the Turks have not backed the FSA with anything other than logistical support, medical supplies and light arms.
Why It Matters
There are two principal reasons why Syrians long-term status as “refugees” matters to Turkey and U.S. foreign policy. The war is very likely to rage on and a half-million or more Syrians in Turkey may not be going home for years or ever. For Turkey, there are potentially devastating consequences. Already pushed to its limits, AFAD and the Turkish government have recently asked for more foreign aid and they will make it easier for foreign Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to work in Turkey. This will help with the present crisis but the long-prospects for Syrian settlement do not bode well for the country. In effect, it would mean that several hundred thousand guests would become permanent residents, the bulk of whom don’t speak Turkish. Many professionals from Syria like doctors, professors and engineers will not have their licenses accepted by Turkish authorities. Students from Syrian schools and universities won’t have their curricula or diplomas recognized. Schools provided in the camps don’t have curricula officially sanctioned or recognized by Turkish education authorities. To make matters even worse, several hundred thousand people would come onto the Turkish labor market where many Turks already fear high unemployment and downward pressure on wages.
The thousands of Syrians who may end up living in Turkey for years to come will also harbor lingering anger at the U.S. and other Western powers for their inaction during the war. Many may also blame the Turks for their own inaction. What is clear is that the refugee camps in Turkey are becoming breeding grounds for anti-U.S. sentiment. Living in crowded camps and unemployed, Syrian men and women have little to do but watch political events on satellite television and debate their meaning. (Many of individual tents and containers in the camps have satellite dishes and televisions. There are also separate rooms where men and women gather to watch Arabic-language television networks.) They also have a lot of time to discuss why the west has failed them. The result is a number of conspiracy theories that, in the absence of facts to the contrary, explain U.S. dithering.
Here are two of the prevailing conspiracy theories in the camps. The first is that when all is said and done, the United States and the E.U. powers will give up on the rebellion and side with al-Assad whom the west and Israel see as the lesser of two evils: a fractured Syria ran in part by Islamists or a whole Syria, returned to the control of a dictator, but one on whom the West can rely to stabilize the region. The second major theory proves the first: The U.S. has officially designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization for quite some time but when Hezbollah joined the al-Assad forces to capture Qusair from the rebels in May 2013, the U.S. and Europe gave them a pass. So, as goes this narrative, it must be true that the U.S. was never going to properly back the rebels in the first place and they will give in to Russian pressure to keep al-Assad in power. One man I met in the camps put it this way: “I just wanted to make a better world for me and my children. But now I’m the terrorist and Hezbollah gets to march through Syria and the U.S. does nothing!”
In the final analysis, the United States and other western powers need to move very fast to counter these anti-American sentiments by providing direct aid in the camps and filling a void that is already being filled by other nations, including several from the Gulf States but in particular Saudi Arabia. The consequences of allowing this anti-American sentiment to ferment were made very clear to me by some Syrians in the camps: By not backing up the rebellion when we had a chance to, we are creating the next generation of terrorists and thousands of them—unemployed and unemployable—will live in a NATO nation.
 UNHCR Turkey Syrian Refugee Daily Sitrep, 26 August 2013.
 International Crisis group. Blurring the Borders: Syrian Spillover Risks for Turkey. Europe Report N°225, 30 April 2013, p. 8.
 Human Rights Watch, Iraq/Jordan/Turkey: Syrians Blocked from Fleeing War: Border Closures Leave Thousands Stranded in Dangerous Border Areas. 1 July 2013. http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/07/01/iraqjordanturkey-syrians-blocked-fleeing-war
 International Crisis group. Blurring the Borders: Syrian Spillover Risks for Turkey. Europe Report N°225, 30 April 2013, p. 19.
 Ibid, p. 6.