Taking refuge in time, space and place: The case of Syrian refugees in Turkey

This blog post explores the evolving relationship between Syrian refugees and their host communities within the physical and social space of Turkey, and within the context of Turkish history. Influencing these relations are changes in the Turkish economy, historical changes in Turkey’s social and cultural structures, and the impact of Turkish immigration, employment, housing and other policies on perceptions of Syrian refugees. This blog is the first of two pieces by Selma Akay Erturk examining how economic, historical, and contextual circumstances influence multi-scalar responses to forced displacement from Syria in the case of Turkey: in this case, focusing on encounters in urban areas, and in the second piece, focusing on refugees residing in rural areas of Turkey. If you find this piece of interest, please visit our recommended readings at the end of this piece.  

Taking refuge in time, space and place: The case of Syrian refugees in Turkey

by Selma Akay Erturk, Associate Professor of Human Geography in Istanbul University and Visiting Fellow at the UCL Migration Research Unit

From 2011 to 2016, Turkey applied an open-door policy for Syrians fleeing the war and by the start of 2020, the country was officially hosting 3,576,659 refugees, a significant increase from the 14,237 Syrian refugees recorded in Turkey in 2012. Turkey provides for the basic needs of Syrians in the country, including housing, food, education, health and protection. 98.25% of Syrians in Turkey live outside refugee camps, with the largest number, 549,216, living in Istanbul, where they make up 3.64% of the city’s total population. As such, and as I discuss with reference to research I have conducted in Turkey since 2014, Syrian refugees have become more visible in Turkish cities and towns than in the past and, of course, diverse social, economic, cultural and spatial changes have occurred in the areas where Syrian refugees have settled.

Socio-Economic Changes  

Local municipalities have provided services to many Syrian refugees who have settled in the areas they serve, although these local authorities had not planned to do so and had not allocated a separate budget for this purpose. Therefore, municipalities have tried to meet the needs of Syrians with their own resources. In order to manage this situation in a planned way, some municipalities have established a separate unit related to migration, and some Turkish NGOs, associations, foundations, faith-based actors and agencies started to support Syrian refugees in cooperation with selected municipalities (on these themes, also as part of the Southern Responses to Displacement project, see here and here).

Instead of granting refugee status, temporary ID cards are given to registered Syrians in Turkey. Healthcare, education and social services are provided free of charge to registered Syrian refugees. The World Food Programme (WFP) in partnership with the Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish Government, with funding from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), continued to deliver assistance through the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN), the world’s largest humanitarian multi-purpose cash programme. “KizilayKart” debit cards are issued for food and non-food expenditure by the Turkish Red Crescent (Kizilay in Turkish) to the most vulnerable registered Syrian refugees. 1.7 million cards have been issued on a monthly basis since 2016.

Not all Syrians, of course, are in receipt of such cards, and many Syrian refugees have entered both the formal and informal Turkish labour market. Syrians in Turkey work in various sectors such as the textile (Akbaş and Ünlütürk Ulutaş, 2018; Korkmaz, 2018), food, construction (Çınar, 2018) and agriculture industries (Erturk Akay, 2016), as well as in the service sector, such as domestic services. Around 392 Syrians also work in academia in Turkey.

Over time, Syrians living alongside Turkish host communities and wishing to open businesses increased the demand for housing and shops to rent. This has led to an increase of between 50% and 100% in rental costs in cities like Istanbul, Izmir, Gaziantep, Bursa, Adana, Mersin and Sanliurfa, where large numbers of Syrians are living. For example, during our interviews with real estate agencies in the Fatih District of Istanbul, we were informed that rents had increased by at least 70% due to increasing demand for housing from Syrians and ongoing urban transformation process in Istanbul. The high rent sometimes leads to more than one Syrian family sharing the same house and some Syrians with insufficient income have had to live in spaces reserved for shops, in basements or in abandoned houses. Some Syrians have also started living in socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods, particularly in Istanbul (Tarlabasi, Suleymaniye, Bagcilar), Ankara (Altindag), Izmir (Basmane) and Bursa (Carsamba).

In turn, our interviews with local residents in the Fatih District of Istanbul confirmed that some former residents decided to leave their neighborhood by selling or renting their homes and moving to other neighborhoods where the number of Syrian refugees is low. Indeed, while people who rent properties to Syrian refugees may benefit from their income, a downturn in Turkey’s economy, the depreciation of the Turkish lira, rising inflation, rising prices, also increased unemployment due to failure to create new jobs, and the length of stay of Syrians of up to eight years, mean that a negative attitude towards the Syrian refugees has developed in many parts of Turkish society. For this reason, it can be said that there is a rise of “anti-refugee” and nationalist discourse in Turkey (Saracoglu and Beelanger, 2019).

Against such a backdrop, in Turkish cities where the economy is developed and job opportunities are high, barriers are being introduced to prevent the increase of the number of Syrian refugees. For example, in Istanbul, where over half a million Syrians are living, no ‘new’ Syrians are able to be registered in the city. This is significant because, legally speaking, Syrians in Turkey have to live in the provinces where they have been registered: they cannot leave the province and they can only benefit from free health and education services in the province where they are registered. Therefore, due to restricted movement and registration, and difficulties in obtaining a work permit, many Syrians are forced to accept lower salaries and to work as undocumented labourers in poor quality and difficult jobs, to achieve an income.

Social, cultural and spatial changes

Some Syrian entrepreneurs have established their own businesses (according to the Ministry of Trade of Turkey, the number of businesses established by Syrians was 15,159 by February 26, 2019) including their own factories in some industries, and others have opened restaurants, cafes, kiosks and markets that sell Syrian products, barbers, sweet shops, water-pipe cafes and perfume shops. Evidence suggests that self-employment through entrepreneurship is often chosen rather than entering the wage market as it offers a higher income and more independence. Indeed, around the world, immigrants rely on unique social and human capital to set up businesses, including through relationships formed and utilised before, during and after migration, that can be linked to both solidarity-based and refugee-refugee humanitarianism.

Syrian entrepreneurs often use Arabic writing on their shop signs, especially when these are gathered on the same street. However, on the 3rd July 2019, the Istanbul Governorship stated that at least 75% of any given sign’s content must be written in Turkish. The use of the Arabic script in signs, menus and receipts significantly reflects not only the spatial changes in local communities, but also the cultural changes in some areas where Syrians have settled. In my ongoing conversations with Turkish citizens about the ongoing presence of Syrians, a theme that has regularly emerged is the idea that Turkey has been “lost” or “Arabized.” In my opinion, this is one historically- and politically-grounded reason why some Turkish citizens, especially those who identify as secular, have become more intolerant of Syrian refugees and tensions have begun to emerge: the Arabic script was replaced with the Latin script in Turkey in 1928 as one of the many reforms of the modern Republic of Turkey.

Although it is often the case that such shops (especially those in Istiklal Street) are in fact catering for Arabic-speaking tourists from the Gulf, and may in fact have little or even no connection to Syrians per se, there is a belief amongst some citizens that ‘modern’ Turkish culture is suffering as a result of this perceived Arabization, and this is at times manifested through tensions between members of host communities and Syrian refugees. It is possible to see the traces of this cultural change reflected in the space and place of Istiklal Street (the famous touristic avenue in Istanbul), in Ordu Street (in Sultanahmet – the most touristic place in Istanbul) and in Aksemsettin Street and Fevzi Pasa Street which are located in the Fatih District in the Historical Peninsula in Istanbul.

Side street of Istiklal Street with signs in Arabic
Side street of Istiklal Street with signs written in Arabic. © S. Akay Erturk, July 6, 2019
IMG_E7143 for blog
Water-pipe shop in Aksemsettin Street in Fatih District. © S. Akay Erturk, July 5, 2019
IWMGE5518 for blog
Spice shop in Aksemsettin Street in Fatih District © S. Akay Erturk, July 5, 2019
IMG_E7133 for blog
During Friday Prayer, Aksemsettin Street in Fatih District, © S. Akay Erturk, July 5, 2019

Moving Forward

It has been widely acknowledged that at times of economic downturn, a negative attitude towards immigrants and refugees often develops in the receiving countries (Kirişci, 2014; Nielsen, 2016; Danış and Nazlı, 2018). Today this situation is observed in many parts of Turkish society, and recently, a discourse regarding the return of Syrian refugees living in Turkey to Syria has been used frequently by the authorities and by the media. Many people in Turkey – including in the government – believed that by constituting a population of over 3.6 million Syrians as “guests” (misafir in Turkish) rather than as refugees, Syrians would return to their country once the war ended. However, after over eight years, the war in Syria has still not ended, and Syrian refugees cannot safely return to Syria. According to the results of a study, 60% of Syrian refugees want to stay in Turkey, even when the war is over (Erdogan, 2018). Turkey is a country that has been home to immigration and immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers dating back nearly a hundred years (Kirişci, 2000; Erdogan and Kaya, 2015), and yet tensions and rejectionism have emerged for different reasons since 2011. This dynamic process has had serious and multifaceted effects on Syrian refugees and on different groups within Turkish society, and a major challenge remains to ensure that members of Turkish and Syrian communities alike are able to plan for their futures in dignity, including in Turkey’s cities, towns and rural areas.


If you found this piece of interest you may like to access the suggested reading below:

al-Mehdi, D. (2019) ‘The Tribulations, and Deportations, of Syrian Guests in Turkey’

Berg, M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) ‘Hospitality and Hostility towards Migrants: Global Perspectives—An Introduction

Carpi, E. (2017) ‘Localising Response to Humanitarian Need’

Carpi, E. (2019) Syrian Faith Leaders in Displacement: Neglected Aid Providers?

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

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Representations of Displacement Series: Introduction’

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Syrian Refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon Face an Uncertain 2017’

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

Greatrick, A. (2018) ‘Hearing Marginalisation and Agency in Istanbul: Sounds from Istiklal Street

Greatrick, A. (2017) ‘Photo Gallery: Istanbul’

Hamadmad, D. (2020) ‘Objective Enough to Tell the Truth’

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017)‘Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey’

Nimer, M. (2019) ‘Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective’

Ozturk, M. (2018) ‘Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Refugee Hosts (2018) ‘Local Faith Community Responses to Displacement in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey: Emerging Evidence and New Approaches

Rowlands, A. (2018) ‘Turkey – Crossroads for the Displaced

Featured image: Aksemsettin Street in Fatih District in Istanbul. (c) S. Akay Erturk, July 5, 2019


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