Responding to Syrian Refugees in Turkey

15 Apr

I have spent the past few days in Turkey speaking with those who are responding to Syrian refugees, and to a few refugees as well. Over 1.5m Syrian refugees are now registered in Turkey but the true figure is thought to be higher. On any scale, the Syria crisis is a massive humanitarian emergency that has spilled over the borders. It connects directly with a range of topics in the Companion to Humanitarian Action book that I edited with Jen Peterson: altruism, the framing of disasters and war, the capacity of humanitarian structures, the coordination between international, national, transnational and local humanitarian responses etc.

Turkish mobilisation in the face of the Syria crisis has been impressive. A large number of camps have been established near the Syrian border. But many Syrians leave or avoid the camps. Not surprisingly, they are depressing places that offer few prospects. This means that Syrians are appearing, in significant numbers, in Turkish towns and cities far from the Syrian border. Again, Turkish mobilisation has been impressive with local governments having to arrange accommodation, schooling and healthcare. What is on offer differs enormously from municipality to municipality. In some healthcare is on offer. In others it is not. The Diyanet, or the official mosque system, has been very active in providing assistance and organising existing social networks to help the incomers.

This is not to give an overly-rosy picture of the situation. Problems abound with tensions and suspicions between incomers and hosts. Syrians are accused of ‘stealing’ Turkish jobs by working for lower wages, of criminality, of abusing the welfare that is on offer, and of many other things. There are even suspicions among some Turkish women that Syrian widows may tempt their husbands. But overall, in among the suspicion and the shortfall in assistance on offer to Syrians, there are good stories to tell. These stories get to the heart of humanitarianism: they show empathy, human ingenuity, tolerance and getting practical assistance to those who need it most.

Two points are worth teasing out. The first is how negotiation (defined broadly) is central to the story of the accommodation of Syrian refugees. The second is to highlight the social purpose of religion, a point often overlooked in commentary on religion.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the story of Turkish mobilisation are the spontaneous local level actions to help Syrians who appear in city neighbourhoods. This involves individuals and businesses rallying around to find accommodation, food, furniture and services for Syrian families. These efforts do not involve state agencies, INGOs or NGOs. Instead, they stem from community members noticing new facing in the neighbourhood and seeing the need. In part this reflects the religious-cultural notions of hospitality that are linked with Islam. But it goes further than that and connects with a very human empathy with those who are suffering. These local level mobilisations often depend on charismatic individuals (‘social entrepreneurs’ in the corporate language) who mobilise others in the area. Their activities require delicate negotiations: with landlords who must be persuaded to rent out apartments to refugees, with truck owners who can move white goods into apartments, with fellow altruists to make sure that there is no duplication, or with refugees to explain what is and what is not possible.

Some of the most delicate negotiations will occur at the intra-community level. For example, members of the host community might be suspicious about outsiders moving into their area. The incomers are often young men (some traumatised by violence). Landlords have to be persuaded to offer them rooms and employers face criticism that they are favouring ‘cheaper’ Syrian labour thus undercutting Turkish workers.

The refugees themselves are engaged in processes of negotiation as they navigate their way in a new society and attempt to find food, shelter, employment, education, healthcare and other services. This negotiation is likely to go on for some time. Many commentators suspect that the Syrians are here for the longer term. For a start, there is no obvious end to the Syrian civil war. Even if Assad is ousted, cases such as Iraq and Libya suggest that regime change can usher in extreme violence. In the second place, will prove an attractive long-term refuge for many Syrians. It has a growing economy, and offers relative freedom. Children will be educated in Turkish making it harder for them to return ‘home’ the civil war find a resolution.

In totality, these negotiations can be regarded as a complex and highly devolved system of conflict management. It relies on multiple actors engaging in tolerance and accommodation, often without any involvement of the state or other authorities.

The social purpose of religion
Religion is often overlooked by social scientists. Many see it as an anachronism in a rational world. In this view, it is somehow backward and illiberal – only relevant to those who have not enjoyed the fruits of cosmopolitanism. Where religion is a focus of study, it often occupies distinct niches. The most obvious of these is in relation to fundamentalism and extremism. In many such studies, religion is viewed as incendiary – a way of mobilising communities and individuals towards intolerance and possibly violence. Religious extremism and sectarianism does, of course, exist and wreak terrible consequences. Yet, often overlooked is the mundane social capital that accrues in faith communities.

In part this social capital (admittedly a contested term, but one that resonates here) may be linked to the theological message of particular faiths. Most of them (with the possible exception of some new age varieties) have messages of empathy, caring for others and good deeds. But there is also something to be said about the communities that develop in localities and among groups of people who worship together. These faith networks might be reinforced by overlapping educational, business and socio-cultural networks. People who worship in the same mosque, church, temple etc. may send their kids to the same school or trade with each other. This faith and neighbourhood social capital is much in evidence in response to Syrian refugees in Turkey. Prior existing community networks have proved to be extremely adept at providing for refugees.

It is worth ending with a note of caution. The situation of Syrian refugees is dire and there are signs of compassion fatigue among some Turkish people. There is little sign of the flow of refugees ceasing. While many people have responded to the needs of Syrians with compassion and generosity, not everyone has answered the call. There are signs of tension between incomers and host communities. And the peculiar nature of the Turkish state (for example, its state sponsorship of religion, mandating of one ‘official’ languages, and traditional sensitivities around minorities) may make Turkey a cold place for many Syrians. But there are precious few good news stories emerging from Syria. As a result, it is worth highlighting how individuals and communities – often with little assistance from the state – have mobilised in the face refugee needs. This has involved complex negotiations of the sort that we often readily associate with the ‘sophisticates’ of the diplomatic and financial worlds. It has also involved the mobilisation of faith communities – communities that are often side-lined by the social sciences, or regarded as breeding grounds of intolerance.


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