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Syrian Refugees May Hold the Key to Turkey’s Economic Development and Geo-political Ambitions

Since the founding of the Republic under Kemal Atatürk, the political crisis in Syria has thrown up one of the most fundamental constraints ever faced by any Turkish GovernmentThis does not imply in any way that the presence of asylum seekers or refugees in Turkey is a new phenomenon, but perhaps what is new, is the wave of refugees from Syria and the expectations of the migrants.In this article, the authors’ aim is to re-articulate the domestic psycho-cultural attitude that stymies the integration efforts and the imperativeness of policies by Turkey that will leverage the economic impact of Syria’s diverse group of migrants/refugees in the creation of a modern economy based on trans-migrant inclusion and interpenetration.  

The migration of Syrian refugees into Turkey, just like the Syrian conflict itself constitutes a complex matrix for Turkey’s international migration management policy and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s geopolitical ambitions. This (Syrian) crisis represents one of the many dogged and deeply entrenched refugee crises in the Middle East, which are contesting for international attention, resolution, and resources. Seven years into the crisis and “Syrian refugees remain in exile as their country continues to face a protracted conflict and an overwhelming humanitarian crisis.”[1]This is disappointingly so, as it is the expressed desire of President Erdoğan to have Syrian refugees return to their motherland. The number of refugees has reached over 3.7 million, making Turkey the country with the highest number of refugees in the world. About 94 percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey remain outside of camp settings with limited, but growing access to basic services.[2]

Arguably, “Turkey is going through its worst economic crisis since 2000, and it is at risk of a significant economic meltdown if appropriate emergency policies are not adopted soon.”[3]This much-articulated crisis is attributable to a number of factors including the overheating of the economy due to expansionary fiscal policies and the plummeting of the Turkish Lira in excess of 42 percent since the beginning of 2018. Some economists and financial experts point fingers at the crisis-prone antiquated pro-growth economic model adopted by the Turkish Government. 

However, what cannot be disputed is the fact that the presence of a large contingency of Syrian refugees or should we say the Syrian diaspora, sits uncomfortably amongst the various political actors and the general citizenry especially by certain particular minority communities, who have for years felt marginalized and denationalized by the political establishment. Thus, this unplanned and massive inflow of displaced Syrians into Turkey is having a significant impact not only on Turkish domestic politics, but also on its geopolitical posturing. A narrative has been put forward that Turkey’s open-border and temporary protection policies, have engendered new tautness, and have aggravated pre-existing ones. But whilst the Turkish Government has been: 

…generous in providing emergency care for Syrians with its open door policy and extension of the temporary protection regime, it is now faced with the challenge of developing a long-term integration policy approach that takes into account the multidimensional and dynamic nature of integration.[4]

Against such background, this article aims to articulate some of the existential challenges that bedevil Turkey in its effort to simultaneously integrate and unlock the economic and human potential of Syria’s refugees for the primary benefit of the Turkish society. Our analysis of Turkey’s conundrum has been framed into four thematic dimensions: challenges in integrating the Syrian diaspora is the first thematic section; from a policy of geographical limits to permanence is captured in the second section; the third examines the leveraging of Syrian crisis for domestic gains and the fourth section concludes the article. 

Challenges in Integrating the Syrian Diaspora 

The phenomenon of forced migration and the existence of close to four million Syrians in Turkey has now been articulated and re-articulated from below and above as an intractable burden on the Turkish people. Süreya Martha Köprülü captures the conundrum faced by the society in a recent editorial, by explaining how the integration of Syrian refugees into Turkish society is fuelling grievances among segments of the population over labor force competition, contributing to the rise in tensions be­tween host communities and Syrian refugees in Turkey’s major urban centers.[5]The mounting pressure from domestic constituencies has found expression in the form of territorial nationalism and the necessity of preserving society’s “Turkishness” or what it means to be “Turkish.” Iterations of “Turkishness” is constitutive of socio-cultural, ethnic, and linguistic signifiers or what Adib-Moghaddam calls “psycho-nationalism.”[6]In Turkey’s case, an imagination or psycho-nationalismindoctrination continues to linger. As one publication headline noted: “The Ottoman Empire may long been dead, but the discrimination and oppression it inflicted continues.”[7] Thomas Seibert is not surprised, as he noted that this remnant of The Kemalist State has kept xeno­phobia alive through the popular adage “The Turk has no friend but the Turk.”[8]The genesis of this adage “emerged from the ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire after World War I. France, Great Britain, Italy, and Greece invaded the territory of what is now Turkey after the collapse of the Ottomans; the Turks drove them out in a war of independence.”[9]The relevance of this adage in modern Turkey, is the lingering dislike generally for foreigners, as captured in the 2015 poll by “the Pew Research Center.”[10] 

Since the founding of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Atatürk, Turkey had displayed a general “indifference toward the Middle East, which again is reflected in an old Turkish proverb: “Neither sweets from Damascus nor the face of the Arab.”[11]As such, one question that arises is: Can Syrian refugees who cannot be deemed just as “temporary guests,”[12]be fully integrated into Turkish society?  Put differently, how can the realities of Turkey’s guests from Syria change from a state of what is turning out to be permanent temporariness? The answer to such a question conjures up a number of other inter-related questions such as, how can you integrate a diasporic community when first, “the main aim of the vast majority of refugees passing through Turkey is to reach the more developed European countries”?[13]Second, can a holistic integration occur when there are major challenges between the indigenous population and communities that experience the lived realities of having Syrian refugees amongst them? Third, does the Turkish State have the absorptive capacity at the national and municipal institutional levels to facilitate the refugees; given that when one becomes a refugee, the loss suffered is not limited only to material items, but involves deeply entrenched social networks and other matrices/dimensions of life, such as their politico-cultural networks. But given the exclusivist ontology of “Turkishness”, the basis has been laid for Turkish nationalism to be mutated into xenophobia targeted at Syrian refugees. This is due in part to the fact that the imagination of Turkish national identity sees “multi-ethnicity in the new Turkish state as a threat demurred the idea of a homogeneous Turkish state.”[14]This explains in part why: 

…the idea of granting citizenship to Syrian refugees, proposed by President Erdoğan has triggered heated debate and further xenophobia, leading to physical violence between locals and Syrians.[15]

For Emre Gönen, “the immigration issue in Turkey is fuelling xenophobic attitudes and sentiments with more and more stories emerging on social media of so-called “assaults” on Turkish citizens by Syrians because of the intransigent attitude of the government concerning the future of these refugees.”[16]The discrepancy between legal and public discourses on integration, coupled with systematic discrimination in Turkey’s dual labor market[17]are constitutive intersected social pathologies that agonize Syrian refugees in their endeavor to be integrated into their host society. All spheres of government in Turkey are at the coalface of some of these challenges that require a paradigm shift, in the discourse on the “otherness” of the refugees by political elites and the society at large. The increasing incidences of xenophobic attacks have at least facilitated the mainstreaming of migration, coupled with the seemingly fragmented policy approach. With the stakes so high “the success or failure of integration can reverberate for many years, influencing whether second-generation immigrants become fully participating citizens or what is regarded as pseudo-citizens who can reach their full productive potential or remain in a poverty trap.”[18]The success or failure of integration carries tremendous social, political and economic implications. 

Radical Shift: From a Policy of Geographical Limits to Permanence

In the past, refugee status was considered a short-term conse­quence of conflict. However, as observed in the cases of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, protracted refugee situations have be­come the norm rather than the exception.[19]This influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey, has undeniably transformed the country’s demographic structure. For example, “Turkey's Arab constituency now numbers anywhere from 4.5 to 5.1 percent of the population. Put another way, with nearly four million Arab inhabitants, Turkey has more Arabs than some Arab-majority countries, including Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.”[20]Essentially, for those fleeing conflict, Turkey has become the quintessential safe haven destination. With such a challenge on the Turkish state, the government was forced to radically pivot away from its general psycho-cultural indifference towards the Middle East and not only has to accept sweets from Damascus, but also extended a hand of assistance to its Arab neighbor.

In 2014, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Turkey issued a regulation on temporary protection, as per Article 91 of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP).[21]The regulation on temporary protection defines

“temporary protection” as a protection status granted to foreigners, who were forced to leave their country, cannot return to the country they left, arrived at or crossed our borders in masses or individually during a period of mass influx, to seek emergency and temporary protection and who international protection request cannot be taken under individual assessment.[22]

The law also now grants full refugee status to those coming to Turkey from Europe, and provides for the establishment of a new civilian body called the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) which will oversee refugee applications, a process currently handled by the police, who are often untrained.[23]Legal scholars, asylum experts, and human rights advocates alike cite the LFIP as the first of its kind that regulates the asylum process and ensures the international protection of refugees in Turkey.[24]As what previously existed, was the imposition of a geographical limit (which denies non-European asylum seekers full refugee status) to the 1951 Geneva Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees Agreement of which Turkey is a signatory.  

Turkey’s new legislative and regulatory paradigm in relation to refugees and asylum seekers is a by-product of regional and global dynamics that has fed into a much broader geopolitical ambition of the Turkish Government which, includes ascension to the European Union. From another perspective of the Turks, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led government seemingly has demonstrated a politics of solidarity in accommodating the never-ending arrival of Syrian refugees, or is it simply a part of Erdoğan’s grand plan in which he is re-articulating his “Neo-Ottomanist” ambitions? Irrespective of the political agenda, the promulgation of the LFIP and the launch of DGMM represent ground-breaking changes in the protection of migrants, especially for those who are non-European. 

The enactment of this piece of legislation (LFIP) will not systemically lead to what Neocosmos calls the “denationalization of citizens,”[25]an attempt by the Turkish Government to increase the ethnic plurality of the population by diversifying the national identities of foreigners among its people. Neither is there the risk of political change and disruption to the Turkish process of modernity and nation building. Thus, in order for Turkey to extricate itself out of a crisis which, is not of its own making, an expansive radical shift is required beyond legislation as discussed above. But going forward, in the short to medium term, the government should consider a post-national citizenship model that would necessitate the revision of Turkey’s classical concept of national citizenship. The proposition here is that the Turkish Government can draw on the “economic construct deployed by the Government of the United Arab Emirates, in which foreign business owners are allowed to govern migrant populations and act in some ways as unofficial citizens.”[26]This would go a long way in the formation of a much broader national integration system of refugee/asylum seekers, without posing a threat to the historical depiction of “Turkishness” as Turkey’s “efendior master identity.”Turkishness, is arguably a canon of thought that  through the reproduction of an asymmetrical colonial type matrices of social order, has been used as the fountainhead to construct and maintain an ethnic hierarchisation and subalternization of identities within the society.

Attempts at Leveraging the Syrian Crisis for Domestic Gains 

Longitudinal research on the long term impact of refugees and migrants in Germany, Australia and Rwanda generally have mapped a positive growth trajectory. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has made the point that “immigration can bring substantial benefits to advanced economies, in terms of higher per capita GDP and standards of living. These gains are broadly shared by the population. But the key to reaping these benefits is to address the challenges posed by migration in the short term and, in particular, to ensure that migrants are integrated into the labor market.”[27]This is even more profound given Turkey’s recent challenge to its economic sovereignty by international currency traders inter alia

Against this backdrop, Syrian refugees should be seen as possessing the ability to contribute to Turkey’s Eleventh Development Plan[28](2019 to 2023) and beyond. Migrants of all skill levels can contribute to Turkey’s stated ambition to diversify its’ economic development program with a focus on digital transformation and technology-intensive industrial production, through innovation entrepreneurship and partnerships, and through collaborationsbetween Turks and individuals from within the Syrian refugee community.The national government and the various regional cities need to leverage the presence of refugees and the concomitant public expenditures and contributions from the EU as building blocks for further economic growth and development. Spatially and demographically, “Syrianrefugees are changing the local labor market. For example, as of late 2014, some 86 percent of Syrian refugees who had left their camps moved mostly to the provinces near the Turkish-Syrian border (62 percent) and to Istanbul (21 percent).”[29]It has been articulated, how the more fortunate amongst the refugee population quickly became economic actors in the Turkish economy:    

…not only with their labor supply decisions, but also with their entrepreneurial skills. A total of 1599 new companies were founded in 2015, from a mere 157 in 2012. The share of Syrian companies in total foreign partnerships reached 26 percent in 2015.[30]

This figure has been dwarfed in 2017, “in which there were over 8000 multi-sectoral companies that have been incorporated in Turkey under the foreign capital status, with over 100,000 employees under their employment.”[31]Importantly, “Syrian refugees, especially in locations where their concentration is high, have an economic impact on the regions they are residing in. They create demand for goods and services, they channel public funds to the region which may, in turn, generate local jobs, they found companies, they engage in trade, and join the labor market.”[32]Syrian owned entities have contributed to Turkey’s increased exports to the wider Middle East. Similarly, expenditures on consumer goods and services by Syrian refugees has “boosted consumption growth in the economy that relies heavily on consumption. That is one reason why Turkey’s GDP grew by 2.9 percent in 2016”[33]and could stand to grow even further if the business environment is able to efficiently absorb the entrepreneurial class and those with the ability to access investable funds. Inadvertently, at a macro-level, this increases Turkey’s overall attractiveness to investors as a destination with tremendous growth based on the demographic make-up of the population. 

In terms of labor market sectoral analysis, the revelation is that there are relatively high rates of employment amongst Syrian refugees in the informal economy. For example, “it is estimated that close to one million Syrians refugees presently work in the informal sector of the economy.”[34]A possible explanation for this is arguably borne out by the fact that Syrians still face systematic discrimination in Turkey’s bifurcated labor market (consisting of Turkish citizens and non-Turkish citizens)policies and practices. It is quite unfortunate that “the 2014 migration reform that granted refugees temporary protection status, and the provisions that allow them access to the formal local labor market,”[35]have experienced operational glitches. Thus, for now, a significant percentage of the refugee population has been predominantly constricted to the informal sector. This is coupled with language barriers, and the inability of Turkish officials to verify Syrian academic credentials. 

The International Crisis Group 2018 Report notes how “those who remain in Turkey, instead of moving onto Europe, tend to have little education and few skills, which pose one of the greatest challenges integrating Syrians into the formal labor market.”[36]Such concerns have been discounted by labor experts who noted the fact that the “gains migrants bring are not exclusive to high-skilled workers with specific knowledge and diverse skills. Low-skilled migrants also have a significant impact on overall productivity by complementing the existing skill set of the population.”[37]Thus, on basis of the centrality of the informal sector in the employment of Syrian refugees, agency must be given to the logic of survival in terms of endeavoring to formalize informal activities within the domain of legitimate regulatory systems. 

In view of the fact that the gravity and duration of the Syrian political impasse on the Turkish political economy is still unfolding; a vision for the medium to long term economic integration is needed. The Turkish Government in conjunction with other stakeholders will need to disrupt the status quo in terms of the established financial and commercial architecture to facilitate Syrian refugees as new economic players in the Turkish economic landscape. As a starting point, policy adjustment will be needed to ensure the following: 

  1. Giving access to legitimate Syrian small business owners to credit through targeted programs.
  2. Provisioning tax incentives for Syrian start-ups.
  3. Establishing training programs sponsored and undertaken by the EU, Syrian entities and regional Chambers of Commerce. 
  4. Providing Syrian entrepreneurs with assistance where necessary to service commercial networks that are still accessible in Syria.
  5. Targeting more highly skilled refugees for deployment in regions when there are skills shortages. 
  6. Integrating low-skilled individuals into areas that Turkish workers may deem unattractive. 
  7. Making information to the domestic labor market more accessible.

Literature on the economics of immigrants is increasingly showing that successful economic integration of refugees or asylum seekers using the signifiers of income, employment, and property ownership add benefits to host society. Thus, it is imperative for Turkey to take advantage of the economic gains and opportunity costs of hosting Syrian refugees.

The increasing presence of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey is not without its own complexities and challenges. The Syrian crisis has undoubtedly imposed a multifarious equation of costs on Turkey, and when taken together they include: impact on local food and housing prices, loss of trade and investments in Syria, and the creation of an adverse investment climate for the whole region. The concomitant flood of unskilled workers presumably had mixed effects, as an influx of this magnitude (over three million refugees) would naturally provide a reservoir of cheap labor that would both undercut wage levels and services for low-paid and jobless Turkish citizens, while depressing the costs of unskilled labor for the economy overall. 

Summative Thoughts

The mass influx of Syrian refugees has become an issue of particular concern due to the complex interplay among security, humanitarian and socio-economic dimensions and the multifaceted relationship between the growing number of state and non-state institutions. Thus, Turkey is caught up in a monumental juggling act as it tries to meet the demands of being a key actor in the global refugee crisis and simultaneously ensuring that Turks do not become what Michael Neocomos describes as “native foreigners”[38]in their own country.  

Notwithstanding, the historical legacies between modern Turkey and Syria, the decision to pursue a new legal and regulatory refugee and asylum paradigm for Syrian refugees is a prelude or a tacit acknowledgment that there is no quick political solution to the Syrian crisis. In conjunction with the international community, the Turkish government has adopted a policy of integrating displaced Syrians in Turkey as opposed to repatriating them to safe areas in their homeland. This puts an end, in part, to Turkey’s historical aloofness from momentous developments in the Middle East. It is with this in mind that the authors of the paper have taken the position that in spite of the complex issue of socio-cultural integration and acculturation of Syrian refugees in Turkey, there is an urgent need to capitalize on their economic presence and participation within society as it may just hold the key to Turkey’s economic developmental ambitions. 


[1]Jordan INGO Forum,“Syrian refugees in Jordan: A protection overview,” Relief Web, January 2018,

[2]European Commission, “Syria Fact Sheet,” European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, 12 March 2019,

[3]Nader Habibi, “Can Erdogan's New Powers Help Fix Turkey's Economy?,”The National Interest, 26September 2018,

[4] Ahmet İçduygu and Eleni Diker“Labor Market Integration of Syrian Refugees in Turkey: From Refugees to Settler,”Journal of Migration Studies,Vol. 3, No. 1, January-June 2017, p.15.

[5]Süreya Martha Köprülü, “FromThe Desk of The Editor,” Turkish Policy Quarterly Volume,15, No.3, December 2016,

[6]Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, “Psycho-nationalism: Global Thought, Iranian Imaginations,” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[7]AlanaKalanaian, “The Ottoman Empire may long been dead, but the discrimination and oppression it inflicted continues,”  28 April 2012,

[8]Thomas Seibert, “Xenophobia alive and kicking in Turkey,” The Arab Weekly,23 October 2015,  

[9]  Berivan Orucoglu,“The Turk Has No Friend but the Turk,” Foreign Policy  Weekly,14 November 14, 2014,

[11]Michael B. Bishku, “Turkish-Syrian Relations: A Checkered History,” Middle East Policy Council,Volume. XIX, No.3, 2016,

[12]  The legal status and context  is discussed further on in the article

[13]Violeta Stratan, “The refugee crisis: a new uproarious episode in EU-Turkey relations saga,” Mediterranean Affairs, 16 September 2016,

[14]Elizabete Aunina, “Perpetual Conflict of Turkishness: The Turkish State and its Minority Groups,” E-International Relations Students, 4November 2018,

[15]“Is Xenophobia Against Syrian Refugees on the Rise in Turkey?” Saudi Gazette,2 August 2016,

[16]Emre Gönen, “Confronting the threat of xenophobia,” Daily Sabah,8 August 2017,

[17]Gülay Uğur Göksel,Integration of Syrian Refugees in Turkey,inIntegration of Immigrants and the Theory of Recognition,(Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). p.145.

[18]Jonathan Woetzel et al. “Global migration’s impact and opportunity,” McKinsey Global Institute, November 2016,

[19]Zoe A. Bowman, Adapting to a Protracted Refugee Crisis: Analyzing the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan,” Macalester College Political Science Honors Projects,Spring 2016, http://digitalcommons.

[20]Soner Çağaptay, Oya Aktas, and Cağatay Özdemir, “The Impact of Syrian Refugees on Turkey,” The Washington Institute,25 August 2016,

[21]UNHCR, “Syrian Refugees in Turkey Frequently Asked Questions,”

[22]UNHCR (2015) 

[23]Jonathon Burch, “Turkey has new law on asylum, but sets limits for non-Europeans,” Reuters, 12April 2013,

[24]Elif Sarı and Cemile Gizem Dinçer, “Toward a New Asylum Regime in Turkey?,” Movements,Vol. 3, Issue 2ö 2017,p. 64

[25]Micheal Neocosmos, From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Citizenship and Nationalism, Identity and Politics(Dakar: Codeasria Books, 2010) p. 26.

[26]Neha Vora,“Business Elites, Unofficial Citizenship, and Privatized Governance in Dubai,” Middle East Institute, 2 February 2010,

[27]Florence Jaumotte, Ksenia Koloskova, and Sweta Saxena“Migrants Bring Economic Benefits for Advanced Economies,” IMF, 24 October 2016,

[28]Turkey’s 11th Development Plan encompasses the period from 2019 to 2023; which focuses primarily on: controlling inflation, reformation of Turkey’s employment policies, increasing gross domestic product (GDP) the plan, reduction in the level of unemployment and to increase Turkey’s GDP to US$2 trillion by 2013. 

[29]Shekhar Aiyar et al., “The Refugee Surge in Europe: Economic Challenges,” IMF, January 2016, file:///Users/Work/Downloads/_sdn1602.pdf

[30]Oğuz Esen and Ayla Oğuş Binatlı, “The Impact of Syrian Refugees on the Turkish Economy: Regional Labour Market Effects,” Social Sciences,28 October 2017,p. 2.

[31]Yeni Şafak, “Over 8,000 Syrian companies established in Turkey,” 20 October 2017

[32]Oğuz Esen and Ayla Oğuş Binatlı (2017) p. 2. 

[33]Güneş A. Aşık,“Turkey Badly Needs a Long-Term Plan for Syrian Refugees,” Harvard Business Review, 13 April 2017,

[34]International Crisis Group, “Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tension,” 29 January 2018,

[35]Shekhar Aiyar et al. (2016). 

[36]International Crisis Group,“Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions,”,29 January 2018,

[37]Florence Jaumotte, Ksenia Koloskova, and Sweta Saxena (2017). 

[38]Michael Neocosmos (2010).

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson

Dr. Paul Thompson is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

Henry Wissink
Henry Wissink

Henry Wissink is a professor of Public Governance in the School of Management, IT and Governance at the University of KwaZulu- Natal in South Africa.=

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