Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Turkey hosts the highest number of people forcibly displaced from Syria and local municipalities can struggle to meet their basic needs, leaving much-needed integration programs de-prioritised. A lack of data concerning the numbers of refugees in specific areas, and a lack of additional funding or local staff, are clear barriers to implementation, even where policies provide a framework for integration. Focusing on the case of Bursa, in this piece, Meltem Ozturk explores how historic and contemporary laws effect local policy and the ability of municipalities to meet the needs of Syrian refugees.

If you find this piece of interest, please also see the suggested readings at the end of the piece.

The blog was posted on 18th February 2019

Municipal-level policies towards Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

by Meltem Öztürk, BA in Arts and Cultural Management

Approximately 5 million Syrians have left their country as refugees since 2011. Turkey hosts the highest number of people forcibly displaced from Syria, and, whilst some still live in camps, the majority live in Turkey’s main cities.

Considering the large number of Syrians that have the potential to stay permanently in Turkey, both refugees and local citizens must learn to adapt to living side by side. This is where local governments play a crucial role in supporting the social and cultural integration of migrant and local communities. However, when the services provided at a local level are closely examined, it is clear that they are sporadic, lacking in regularity and consistency. Much research has previously been undertaken regarding these issues (see here and here).  For example, Erdoğan highlights that in Istanbul, there were isolated areas of services provided by local municipalities. However, studies mainly focus on Istanbul, and, in contrast, there is very little academic or policy-oriented research on the integration work of other local governments.

Local municipalities are the first place where immigrants, refugees and local people come together and meet. With more than 90% of refugees from Syria settling in urban areas, this emphasises the importance of urban local authorities and the role they have in integrating the community together.

This blog is based on a research study carried out with help from the municipalities of Bursa’s metropolitan and central districts, and has aimed to understand how the local municipalities of Bursa – which have a high ratio of refugees from Syria to local population – have responded to the flows of Syrian refugees into Turkey since 2011.

The research was based on semi-structured interviews, which were conducted in May 2018, with municipality members, and on municipality data collection. My research indicates that not enough has been done to accommodate and integrate Syrians into the local community of Bursa.

Bursa is one of the largest cities in Turkey, with the Bursa Metropolitan Municipality recording that by 30 May 2018 almost 3 million people were living there and hosting many local and international migrants including a large number of Syrians. Due to growing job opportunities in its developing industry, Bursa has become a preferred location for Syrian refugees who need to work to survive. It is also well-located in the centre of Turkey as well as close to Europe, which makes it an ideal location for those Syrians who aspire to eventually relocate to Europe.

A brief history of Turkey’s refugee policies and legal frameworks

Two historic legal frameworks have governed Turkish refugee policy. The 1934 Settlement Law only recognized migrants of Turkish descent and aimed to turkify the country by homogenising the population to build the “new Republic.” Turkey is also a conditional signatory of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. This Convention defines who state signatories such as Turkey should legally recognize as a refugee. Prior to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, this definition included geographic and temporal restrictions, i.e. refugees would be recognized only if they were fleeing from European countries before 1951. However, the 1967 Protocol removed both geographic and temporal restrictions on the recognition of refugees.

In 2014 the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LRIP) came into effect in Turkey. The new 2014 Law does not include a limitation for migrants who want to settle in Turkey to be of “Turkish descent and culture”. However, it did not fully ratify the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which means that geographic limitations on the recognition of refugees from outside Europe remain in place in Turkey. Although Turkey can grant limited protection to those migrating from Syria, including conditional refugee status, a humanitarian residence permit or temporary protection, long-term settlement arrangements are expected to be found outside Turkey. This leaves little scope for integration into Turkish society.

The history and maintenance of Turkey’s policies and legal framework for immigrants throughout current and previous decades of mass migration indicates an intention for Turkey to remain steadfast in its efforts to prevent the perceived dilution of its cultural identity by incoming non-European and Muslim migrants. After the General Directorate of Migration Management was established in Turkey, it became responsible for the implementation of the policies and managing refugee integration processes. However, these policies have been difficult to implement.

The Case of Bursa’s Municipalities

When we look at the case of Bursa in this context, we can begin to understand the difficulty in implementing these policies. In spite of the large numbers of refugees, there are no integration policies implemented by the municipalities. Indeed, Bursa Metropolitan Municipality and the central municipalities of Bursa do not carry out any specific programs to engage with Syrian nationals living in their areas. Syrian refugees often go to the municipalities to request basic social and economic support; nonetheless, the local municipalities currently struggle to meet their basic needs.

During interviews with municipal officials, each municipality specified that they help Syrians by supplying food and clothes and referring them to relevant institutions. Yet, they did not share any data on the services they provide. Apart from meeting basic needs, they do not provide any psycho-social or language support, additional education or health services. Also, the number of Syrians they have been able to reach thus far remains unknown. Despite the fact that the workload and the financial burden rapidly rose after Syrian refugees moved to the neighbourhoods of Bursa, there has been no additional budget or increase in the number of municipal staff.

The interviews conducted highlighted that one of the main problems faced by Syrians in Bursa is the language barrier. However, municipalities do not provide any support such as language courses or translation services. This barrier also causes problems in accessing basic services like healthcare and education. However, it would be possible to address some of these barriers with the following actions.

Firstly, Central Government should prioritise providing municipalities with valid data and information regarding the number of refugees from Syria within their boundaries. With verified data, it is possible to accurately forecast a required budget, as well as develop an adequate programme of activities to assist with the integration and harmonisation between locals and refugees. To add to this, new arrangements must be made in Municipal Law No. 5393, which does not clarify the degree to which services should be provided by local municipalities to refugees. Indeed, Law 5393 does not currently differentiate between Turkish citizens and non-citizens, rather referring to the latter as “fellow-citizens”. Revisions are thus needed to give both the power and direct obligations to municipalities to better manage integration policies.

As part of the developing role of the municipalities, a specific department should be established, along with additional staff and budgetary provisions to accommodate the increase of the workload as well as the financial burden the municipalities are inevitably coping with. Without these additional provisions, it is likely that municipalities will instrumentalise such structural deficiencies to abdicate their own responsibilities.

Furthermore, education should be regarded as a foundation for driving the integration of refugees from Syria into their local communities. Learning the Turkish language and culture can help break down barriers and promote the integration of Syrians on many different levels, including in social and economic terms. The process can be further strengthened by introducing a harmonisation programme with activities such as those implemented in Sultanbeyli Municipality, that encourage the whole community to come together and interact. This can help Syrians gain social acceptance by making cultural contributions and social connections, and giving them a chance to affirm themselves in Turkish society. These might in turn minimise potential confrontations and conflicts between locals and refugees, and facilitate the social integration process.

In conclusion, Bursa municipalities have not designed any programs for the integration of Syrian refugees settled in their districts since 2011. Syrian refugees approach local municipalities to ask for basic assistance, which the municipalities are currently striving to provide. Yet, the number of Syrians in the districts continues to grow: demographic growth, in turn, inevitably adds further strain on the quality and adequacy of the services provided by local municipalities.

Emphasising the role of municipalities in the integration process, making the legal framework clearer and defining a strategy for the duties of municipalities to cope with the presence of refugees from Syria will help foster pathways to integration and minimize the risk of future potential conflicts arising.

Suggested reading:

If you have found this piece of interest, we recommend reading the following blogs:

Carpi, E. (2018) ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon

Carpi, E. (2018) In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative

Delioglu, F. (2019) The ‘Al Shami Kitchen Project’ – Solidarity amongst Syrian Refugee Women in Izmit, Turkey

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Wagner, A.  (2018) “There are no missionaries here!” – How a local church took the lead in the refugee response in northern Jordan

About the author: 

Meltem Ozturk completed her BA in Arts and Cultural Management at İstanbul Bilgi University. During her years at university, she gained professional experience working at a variety of art institutions and organizations including IKSV, Mixer, Rem Art Space and 5533. She currently works at Flint as Junior Account Executive.

Featured image:  ‘Dignity box’ distributed by Palestinian refugees to refugees from Syria now living in Baddawi refugee camp, Lebanon.  E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, (2018)

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