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Erdoğan’s third term: Strengthening EU support for Syrian refugees in Türkiye

Anastasia Karatzas

Date: 12/06/2023
Against the backdrop of the 2023 national elections in Türkiye and the upcoming Syria Conference, the EU should re-evaluate and recalibrate its migration cooperation with the country. As anti-refugee sentiment grows, the EU must affirm that returns to Syria cannot happen safely and strengthen its support for Syrians' long-term integration prospects in Türkiye.

Following a hotly contested election that saw the future of Syrian refugees in Türkiye take centre stage, Erdoğan won his third presidential term on 28 May. Although significant efforts have gone into integrating Syrians in Türkiye, anti-refugee sentiment in the country has continued to rise.  

Capitalising on this situation, election promises emanated from across the political spectrum to return refugees to Syria. However, given Syria’s security situation, strengthening labour integration and social cohesion in Türkiye remains the best possible durable solution.

On 14 and 15 June, the Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region (the Syria Conference) will address the political and security situation in the country, as well as critical humanitarian and resilience issues affecting Syrians in neighbouring states.

Crucially, it presents an opportunity for the EU to reassess the current state of its migration cooperation with Türkiye and encourage the long-term integration of refugees into Turkish society as an alternative to their return. Continued EU support for these efforts will also be key amidst a growing shift to normalise relations with the Assad regime as a precursor to facilitating returns.

Reassessing migration cooperation to this end is in the EU’s interest and can benefit refugee protection in Türkiye. For example, Erdoğan’s government previously used migration for political gain by encouraging movements toward Greece in 2020. This resulted in violent clashes at the external border and the suspension of the asylum system in Greece.

The incident highlights the need for predictable and sustainable migration cooperation to safeguard the EU’s internal migration architecture, which could also assist in preventing a scenario whereby the future onward movement of persons hosted by Türkiye becomes an object of power politics.

Amid integration efforts, growing anti-refugee sentiment ahead of the 2023 elections

Since 2016, EU-Türkiye cooperation on migration has occurred primarily in the framework of the EU-Turkey Statement – a political agreement devised with the overarching aim of stemming irregular migration to the EU. Under the agreement, Türkiye agreed to accept the return of irregular arrivals from EU countries and financial support for refugee integration in the country. In exchange, the EU committed to increasing the resettlement of Syrians to the EU, furthering progress on the accession process and visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens, and upgrading the Customs Union, among others.

Implementation has fared better for some elements of the statement than others. For example, the EU considers the decreased number of irregular arrivals in the years following 2016 a success. However, widespread concern exists for the negative impact its operationalisation has had on migrants’ rights in Greece and Türkiye.

Generally considered, one of the statement’s more successful features is the provision of financial support for integration programmes under the EU Facility for Refugees in Türkiye (FRiT). Comprising the majority of refugees in Türkiye and benefitting from a dedicated temporary protection scheme, Syrians have stood to benefit most under the facility. Among others, they enjoy access to healthcare and schooling. However, their integration outcomes vary. For example, only half of all working-age Syrians were employed in 2022 – mostly in the informal sector. Many still struggle to meet their basic needs and depend on assistance, raising questions about their ability to become self-reliant in the long-term.  

Meanwhile, rising inflation and a cost of living crisis in Türkiye have increased Syrians' precarity, leading to growing local resentment, tensions and several violent incidents in recent years. Syrians are often used as scapegoats for Türkiye’s economic and governance woes. This also became evident after the 2023 earthquake, when they were accused of looting and stealing in its aftermath.

These events have acted as an incubator for anti-refugee and anti-Syrian sentiment, with a rising share of Turkish citizens supporting the possibility of their return to Syria. Further feeding this climate of hostility, both contenders in the 2023 elections mobilised these sentiments to garner public support.

Adopting a particularly hard-line stance on returns, the rhetoric adopted by opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu played a key role in placing the issue centre stage. For his part, Erdoğan reaffirmed his government’s commitment to previous promises to pursue the return of one million Syrians. Both candidates, therefore, contributed to growing uncertainty regarding Syrians’ future in Türkiye.  

The Syria Conference: Return to Syria not a durable solution

Given that EU-Türkiye cooperation on migration is predicated on the latter not returning persons to places where they could be in danger, the increasing rhetoric around returns calls for a reassessment of EU support for Erdoğan’s new government. This must start by recognising that Syria is not a safe country and that the best solution for Syrians is their long-term integration in Türkiye.

Syria remains unsafe for return, with widely documented human rights abuses, indiscriminate violence against returnees, and a protracted humanitarian emergency further exacerbated by the recent earthquake.

Despite this, NGOs have periodically reported on forced deportations to Türkiye. At the same time, Erdoğan’s government has long touted establishing ‘safe zones’ to facilitate Syrians’ return. However, the EU previously expressed doubts about the safety of persons returning to these zones.

In the wake of the election in Türkiye, the Syria Conference, therefore, comes at an opportune moment for the EU to unequivocally state that no part of the country can be considered safe for return.

The Syria Conference is also set to occur amid a regional shift toward normalising relations with the Assad regime. Erdoğan’s government has signalled an initial openness to doing the same. Expressing concern for the human rights situation in the country, the EU reiterated that normalisation remains off the table in the absence of a political solution to the conflict. In this context, the EU should also re-affirm its support for the UN roadmap for the peace process in Syria.

Increased integration for Syrians through renewed EU-Türkiye cooperation

Given that a return to Syria is not viable in the short-term, the EU must use the occasion to pledge and encourage increased support for Syrians’ self-reliance and longer-term prosperity in Türkiye.

One of the primary ways it can do this is through financial assistance. In 2021, the European Council recognised the need for continued EU support to refugees and host communities in Türkiye. This led to an additional €3 billion in support, which will end in 2023. FRiT funding, meanwhile, will end in 2025.

Against this background, concerns have been expressed for the subsistence of programmes supported by the FRiT and the potential for Syrians’ continued integration. Extending the facility to preserve and continue its positive impact should therefore be made an EU priority at the Conference.

Similarly, the less successful endeavours of the facility, particularly regarding access to the labour market, should be effectively addressed. Among others, to maximise the impact of future programmes, greater flexibility should be introduced to allow for faster disbursement to a wide range of actors, prioritising non- and intergovernmental organisations. To specifically support projects facilitating formal access to the labour market, certain funds should be earmarked for that purpose.

At the same time, the EU must elicit support from Erdoğan’s government to relax the conditions for Syrians to obtain a work permit and enter the job market. For example, this could be achieved by removing the geographical limitation that refugees can only work where they are registered. Second, the EU must encourage dismantling structural barriers in Türkiye, which facilitate easier access to the informal labour market over the formal one. Relatedly, language barriers and low skills and education levels can pose difficulties, but they are obstacles that can be addressed through programmes under the FRiT.

The viability of other fiscal measures with a long-term outlook, such as the use of trade concessions linked to labour market access for Syrians, should also be considered.

Prioritising the continued integration of Syrians in this way would make it harder for the newly installed Turkish government to try and exploit Syrians’ onward movement to the EU for political gain. It would reflect a human-rights-based approach to the needs of displaced Syrians in the region and contribute to better social cohesion in Türkiye during a time otherwise marked by growing economic difficulty.

Anastasia Karatzas is a Junior Policy Analyst in the European Migration and Diversity programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
Can Erok / AFP

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