Security Challenges Faced by Syrian Refugees in Turkey

As of March 16th 2016, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had registered 4,812,851 Syrians as refugees. Of these⎯ 490,837 (around 10%)⎯lived in camps while the other 90% is considered “Urban, Peri-Urban and Rural population” (United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 2016).

Turkey’s importance in the international refugee flows is not new to the Syrian War. According to İçduygu & Keyman (2000) Turkey no only has a “triple role as a sending, receiving, and transiting country in East-to-West and South-to-North migratory flows” but also has been vocal in the need to create better security measures regarding migratory movements. However, when the Syrian War erupted, refugees that crossed into Turkey escaping the war where received as “guests” of the Turkish governments and where allowed to circulate freely through the country is they had a passport or faced complications if they had no papers.  

Little more than two years after the beginning of the Syrian War, the Brookings Institution released a report in about an investigation into the conditions of Turkey’s management of the Syrian refugees. The report highlighted Turkey’s first approach to the crisis, which was to provide aid and shelter to the Syrians refugees and to deem them as “guests”, but noted the collapse of Turkish efforts and capacities as the influx of refugees consistently and continuously arose as the conflict got more aggressive and involved more parties.

This report presented five challenges for Turkey. First, the necessity for the Turkish government to provide more camps and/or adequate urban settling for refugees. Secondly, the mobilization of international aid to share the economical burden of receiving the refugees. Thirdly, the much-needed cooperation between the Turkish authorities and international relief agencies to provide aid to both refugees in Turkish soil and to people in Syria through the common frontier. Fourth⎯and mostly pertinent to this investigation⎯ is the need for the Turkish government to increase security for refugees and its own citizens in the light of reports that armed groups are constantly crossing the border for numerous reasons, including using refugee camps as resting places . Also this recommendation included looking after the security of refugees in more urban spaces where due to ethnic, gender and economic differences⎯among others⎯ the communities’ harmony could be at stake.

These recommendations become relevant in the light of a 2013 report by Şenay Özden for the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute that describe numerous complaints from Syrian refugees in Turkish camps regarding access to food, basic hygiene products and health care. The complaints made reference to the quality of the food received, its uneven distribution through the camp, the lack of specialized health care and pertinent access to medications. This situation responds to a remark made by Özden about the legal status of Syrian refugees in Turkey “Not being granted refugee status is an important factor that increases the vulnerability of Syrians who have fled their country for political and humanitarian reasons. Many Syrians have stated that their major complaint about the Turkish government is that they are not being granted refugee status and that ‘guest’ status implies unpredictability about their presence in Turkey”.

Furthermore, regarding the third and fourth recommendations made by The Brookings Institution, Fargues (2014) posed the question of “Through which actors should humanitarian aid be channeled in order to best serve the refugees themselves and at the same time prevent their presence generating social and political tensions?” to what he added “In addition to the usual recipients —international organizations, NGOs and governments— municipalities and local administrations should be targeted, for they are tasked with helping the daily lives of people and are ideally placed to bridge the gap between refugees and their hosts”.

Finally, as part of The International Migration Review’s edition for the 50 years of UNHCR in 2001, Guy Goodwin-Gill published an article where he discussed the challenges attained to the protection of refugees from diverse areas, such as legal and organizational, and pointed that one of the International’s Community biggest challenges is its  “'traditional' approach to solutions to the problems of refugees as the direct consequence of the basic constitutional structure of the United Nations, premised on the principles of sovereignty, sovereign equality, and the reserved domain of domestic jurisdiction” (2001, pg. 140). He further called the reactions by the International Community as reactive and criticizes the policies taken up until that year in refugee assistance and resettling.

Among these readings and several others reviewed but not quoted ⎯specially health-related⎯ the problems this investigation faces are related to updated academic information on the topic; the constant change of conditions the Syrian refugees endure from the international community, especially the European Union, that relates to the apparent lack of consensus between policy makers and experts on how to handle the situation; the approaches of the International Community to other refugee crisis; and the lack on a holistic investigation on the security-related challenges Syrian refugees face.

Written by: Gabriela Benazar Acosta