On the 10th anniversary of Syrian refugees in Turkey; challenging the status quo

Published 18 June 2021 / By Emre Eren Korkmaz

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2021 has been an important anniversary for people studying migration in Turkey. 2021 marked the 60th anniversary of the start of  labour migration from Turkey to Germany, the 10th anniversary of the arrival of refugees from Syria to Turkey, and the 5th anniversary of the signing of the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU. In this post, I will discuss how a status quo is established in labour market integration of refugees.

Allowing migration to provide cheap labour while at the same time denying them the legal right to work is a deliberate policy followed in the last decade. A great majority of refugees work as labourers in the informal economy, without formal work permits. Up to four million people have been granted temporary and international protected status, but one must also add the hundreds of thousands of labourers coming from Central Asia, the Balkans and the Black Sea region with tourist visas who work in agriculture, tourism, and the service sector as irregular workers,

Over the years, various projects have been implemented in Turkey to support refugee participation in the labour force. Priorities regarding how this is to be achieved change over time. In the early years, the emphasis was on jobs in the textile sector; later, there were projects to teach coding to refugees; and now there are efforts to create “entrepreneurs” out of refugees. Because the level of capitalist development in Turkey is higher compared to other countries in the region, providing employment to refugees is not really a big issue. Most refugees and migrants already have jobs. However, they work in informal jobs with no social security, little pay, and long working hours.

These projects are run by various civil society organizations (CSOs)and many associations and cooperatives undertake work to help refugees participate in the labour force. However, despite these efforts that have taken place for almost a decade and at the cost millions of Euros, there are no organizations in which refugees can represent themselves. Efforts do not evolve in this direction. Training is provided, aid is delivered and that is it. The most tangible outcome is job placement.

This is because the CSOs in question are not genuine social organisations. The so-called associations are not really associations, and so-called cooperatives are not cooperatives. In an environment where many associations contact thousands of refugees, providing seminars and training, the natural outcome would be the widespread advocacy of refugee rights, emergence of representatives among refugees, and some sort of self-organization, right? But this is not the case because almost all CSOs are in fact project management firms. They are non-profit associations only on paper. Some of them are in fact very large companies, with CEO-like executives, well-paid upper management, a hierarchical organisation to carry out certain tasks, and salaried employees. There is no general assembly, no right to elect the president, and no accountability for the budget. Donor organizations from many countries use these associations to distribute the funds they allocate with the strategic goal of keeping refugees in neighbouring countries.

What is missing here is powerful, and genuine organisations with real members based on membership fees that would protect the rights of migrants and refugees, give them representation, and make efforts to improve their living conditions.

Pro-status quo forces

The status quo that formed regarding migration management and the tasks of “stakeholders” in the last decade creates a very narrow, and limited legal environment for migrants and refugees.

In this division of labour,

* It is particularly important for the Turkish government which emphasises security concerns, to give only limited legal rights to migrants and refugees, which can be taken back at will, and use as bargaining chips in negotiations with the EU.

* From the perspective of Capital, this division of labour allows them easy access to cheap labour without legal protections.

* For a significant proportion of the CSOs, the continuation of this deadlock means new projects and more revenue.

One could argue this status quo also facilitates the spread of racist and discriminatory rhetoric, physical assault, targeting, and fake news. In other words, the status quo not only turns people into bargaining chips in foreign policy, it also poisons domestic politics, allowing society to let off steam by targeting refugees and migrants and subjecting them to racist and fascist arguments. Moreover, it strengthens control over the working class, weakens the labour movement, and lowers wages.

Reasons for ending the status quo

Pro-status quo forces and the benefits they derive are huge, and overcoming them would be a daunting task. However, it is equally difficult to fit Syrian and other migrants into this narrow mold. Syrian refugees are already part of the Turkish society by now. Even if a permanent peace were to be established in Syria, it would be impossible for all the people who have been living in Turkey for the last decade to go back, especially if a significant number of them have grown up, went to school, and started working in Turkey. Also as members of the new generation of refugee workers who grew up and went to school in Turkey enter the workforce, they may look for ways to challenge the status quo.

From another perspective, thousands of young local people took part in projects run by CSOs within the last decade, meeting with refugees, delivering aid, and providing training. Despite all the problems with CSO managements and the project-oriented approach, most people who actually work with the refugees are  young workers employed with short-term contracts. It is not difficult to assume that these young people who apply for these positions sympathise with refugees.

There is potential for thousands of activists and others such as academics to make a significant contribution in terms of establishing a dialogue between communities, and finding common ground. In other words, we are not starting from scratch when it comes to inter-communal dialogue and solidarity.

In the 10th year of the Syrian conflict, it is becoming ever more important to establish dialogue, solidarity, and integration between these long-term migrants and local society. This would also offer solutions to answer the aspirations and solve the problems of a large population of young people who were brought up, educated and employed in Turkey and have at this stage weaker ties to Syria.


Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz is a departmental lecturer in migration and development at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development, and teaches on the MSc in Migration Studies.






Syrian migrants working in a bean field in Turkey