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

Oct 22, 2015
Originally published on October 22, 2015 6:33 pm

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 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For most of the people showing up on Europe's borders, Turkey is the immediate departure point. And the EU wants Turkey to keep more of the Syrians and other refugees it's hosting. The refugees, though, don't want to stay there under present conditions. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been speaking with Syrians in Istanbul to find out why.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: First, a couple facts about migrants in Turkey that you may not have heard about - relatively few of them are in camps. Most are living in cities and towns, fending for themselves as best they can. And crucially, they are not allowed to apply for asylum here. No non-European is. 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 taken in some two million Syrians. That's one country sheltering more than Europe and the U.S. combined.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).

KENYON: So it's no wonder that some of the Syrians gathering at Pages, a Syrian-run bookstore in Istanbul, are deeply grateful to the Turks. Children's book author and illustrator Gulnar Hajo says in many ways, Istanbul reminds her of Damascus.

GULNAR HAJO: Also, I love the mix between East and West in Istanbul. I love this. And the atmosphere - it's not strange for me.

KENYON: Hajo knows she's been lucky. Her books are being translated into Turkish, and she's thriving. But even so, there are moments of doubt.

HAJO: But you feel that you are living here, but you cannot say, I will live here forever, you know? It is difficult, especially when you have kids. I have two girls.

KENYON: Samer al-Kadri is a co-owner of the book store. He says three of his Syrian employees have already left for Europe despite the fact that they all liked living in Istanbul.

SAMER AL-KADRI: But there is no future. If you speak about the moment, Istanbul is very good. But just give him hope - in the future, they will take passport, or they will normal permission to work or something like this. This is the problem for all of Syrians.

KENYON: For migrants, work permits are extraordinarily difficult to come by, and some of those who find under-the-table jobs have to accept sub-standard pay. 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.

ABOUD DANDACHI: We are not refugees. We are not residents. We are under the heading of guests. God knows what legal status a guest has.

KENYON: Dandachi still believes that Turkey's open-door policy for 2 million Syrians stands far above the European response. But new restrictions on the movement of Syrians and a failure to grant work permits tell him that doors are closing here. What happens, he asks, if refugees can't go home and wind up stuck in a country that won't allow them to integrate?

DANDACHI: No refugee in the world wants to find themselves or their children stateless down the line. We would like clarity. If there are rules, tell us what the rules are, and we will be happy to cooperate with whatever regulations that our host countries feel they need to implement. But this is a very large scale crisis. You have to have a plan equal to the crisis, and that has been lacking so far.

KENYON: One fear among many migrants here is that the EU and Turkey will negotiate over their own interests and the Syrians will be left to pay the price. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.