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Why They Keep Risking Their Lives: Syrians Under Temporary Protection in Turkey

Umut Pamuk wrote “Why They Keep Risking Their Lives: Syrians Under Temporary Protection in Turkey” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship

On September 2, 2015 the world shuddered as pictures surfaced of three year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi’s dead body on a beach on the Western coast of Turkey. He drowned after the boat, in which his family had attempted to cross to Kos, capsized. In 2015, more than a million refugees embarked on the same risky journey, whilst 806 are known to have lost their lives along the way.(1) Despite arduous weather conditions with increased patrol measures, the number of refugees using the same route in 2016 illustrates a continuous trend toward Europe. As of February 28, 2016, the number of arrivals to Europe by sea topped 120,000, with arrivals in Greece making up the majority. Furthermore, 418 individuals have been reported dead/missing. (2) Turkey currently hosts the largest refugee population in the world, with 2.68 million registered Syrian refugees and approximately 300,000 refugees from other countries as of February 28, 2016. (3)

In spite of firm Turkish policy initiatives, many Syrian refugees are at serious risk of poverty, with insufficient access to housing, education, and social services. Even though further initiatives have been undertaken, most refugees encounter severe challenges in fulfilling their essential needs, first and foremost in housing. (4) The economic situation for refugees of other nationalities is equally troublesome. he Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP), which came about in 2014, has not been entirely implemented, resulting in a high number of vulnerable refugees. The worrisome conditions for a significant number of refugees in Turkey certainly contribute to their irregular movement to the European Union (EU).  Refugees who are not able to sustain their lives in Turkey have been moving irregularly to the EU in large numbers. The number of crossers was only 8,500 in October 2014. (5) In 2015, 851,319 people arrived in Greece by sea. [6] In October alone, approximately 160,000 people traveled from Turkey to Greece despite hazardous sea conditions. Syrian refugees have made up the majority of the 2015 arrivals with 476,378 individuals. (7)  

After seemingly endless negotiations, the EU and Turkey signed a migration deal to hinder the flow of Syrian and other refugees into Europe. The EU pledged to give Turkey EUR 3 billion to help it host Syrian refugees, take back “irregular migrants” who have entered the EU, and block off the migration route to the EU by strengthening its surveillance and patrols, including cracking down on human smugglers. (8) In return, Turkey has been promised not only monetary compensation, but also other rewards as well, such as visa-free travel for Turkish nationals and “re-energizing” the process of Turkish accession into the EU. The accord has been hailed by officials from both parties and considered a “win-win agreement.” (9) While Turkey is obligated to prevent irregular migrants from crossing into EU territory, Turkey is able to publicize the agreement to the domestic public as a “victory,” since they have obtained visa-free travel to the EU. What is highly questionable is whether refugees are also winners of this agreement.

By arguing that vulnerability and lack of hope for the future will continue to lead Syrians’ hazardous exodus, despite the recent agreement between the EU and Turkey, I aim to highlight the vulnerabilities and main concerns of Syrians in Turkey.


2.6 Million Vulnerable Lives


In the aftermath of the pictures of Aylan Kurdi, thousands of refugees under Temporary Protection (TP) in Turkey or coming from neighboring countries poured into Edirne, a Turkish city on the EU border. A popular social media account “Crossing, no more!” led this action and all protesters demanded that Turkish officials open the gates to Europe to enable them to walk into Bulgaria and Greece. Their forceful slogan, “We will cross, we will cross. Even in the coffin,” illustrated their determination to reach the EU, even at the expense of their and their children’s lives.

Working for an NGO that strives to protect refugees in Turkey, I have spent sufficient time in border cities providing social and legal counseling to refugees and specifically in Edirne observing the refugee crisis. Most of them responded to my questions in a similar manner: “We have no other choice but cross as we don’t see any future in Turkey or back in Syria. Europe is the only hope.” In hearing several different but similar stories of refugees in Turkey, I have identified several legal and socioeconomic reasons for taking high risks attempting to reach to Europe.   


Legal Obstacles: “Temporary Protection to Our Guests”


When the first group of Syrian refugees, consisting of 252 people, entered Turkey in 2011, they were settled in the refugee camp in the city of Hatay. Since then, every Syrian seeking refuge in Turkey has been identified as a “guest” by officials and the media. Despite calls from academia and NGOs to do otherwise, government officials and state agencies have continued to use the term “guests.” Even the title of the recent AFAD report provides a concrete example of this: Population Movements from Syria to Turkey: Being Guests in Fellow Territories. (10) In 2014, in a circular letter issued by the prime ministry, these Syrian refugees were reported to be under “temporary protection.” 

The Geneva Convention, signed in 1951, defines refugees as individuals who escape persecution and conflict, and are unable or unwilling to return to their home countries. (11) Furthermore, people will be granted refugee status in the country where they find asylum. Nevertheless, since Turkey opted for geographical restriction in 1968, it has only awarded refugee status to citizens of the member states of the Council of Europe. (12) Citizens of countries outside the Council of Europe are granted TP in Turkey, until they are accepted as refugees in a third country. Thus, Syrians seeking asylum in Turkey are not considered refugees due to geographical restriction. (13) The fact that they cannot be granted refugee status, and hence become ineligible for resettlement to a third country, impedes on their rights and security (with little exception: 883 Syrians were resettled to a third country in 2014 while the number in 2015 was only 253). Ineligible for resettlement and unable to return to Syria, the majority of Syrians in Turkey remain in limbo, trying to survive. This “indefinite waiting, limited knowledge,” and unforeseen future of temporary protection fits under the umbrella term of what Kristen Biehl considers a normalized “protracted uncertainty” that accompanies temporary asylum. (14)

Even though the LFIP and the Temporary Protection Regime (TPR), which were implemented in 2014, propose a legal framework to provide basic needs and security for the Syrian refugees, they don’t offer solutions to problems of rights and living conditions. [15] Even if it was stated in the LFIP that Syrians would be provided with health and education services, access to the labor market, social assistance, and services with a foreign identity, malpractice and shortcomings are still common in fulfilling their needs. (16)

Furthermore, it is also worth noting that Turkey, which used to be an emigration and not an immigration country, has only recently started to change its migration and asylum system. (17) The common belief that the conflict would soon be solved coupled with its immature migration and asylum system led to Turkey being overwhelmed by the large influx of refugees in such a short period of time. (18) Despite serious efforts to provide a set of regulations pertinent to Syrian refugees’ acquisition of the fundamental rights, the presence of Syrian refugees is still considered a temporary situation in Turkey, hence why the approach is not entirely based on rights and freedoms.


Major Push Factors Stemming From Guest Status To Leave Turkey


The most pressing obstacles that Syrians encounter are related to the issues of housing, education, and unemployment/underemployment. (19) Furthermore, due to the ambiguity of legal status and despite a recent initiative for work permits, most of them are often obliged to work informally along with being exposed to exploitation, discrimination, and racism.

Among several Syrians with whom I spoke in Edirne, the first problem they emphasized, when I asked them about the problems they encounter in Turkey, was shelter and housing. According to the Directorate General of Migration Management, only 274,078 people among 2.68 million Syrians under TP in Turkey reside in 24 refugee camps in ten cities. This means 90% of all Syrian refugees live outside of the camps. (20) Although camps that were set up by the Turkish government were highly praised by local and international media in 2012, the conditions are no longer favorable, as these camps were constructed at a time when the Turkish government expected the regime in Syria to be overthrown and that Syrian refugees would return to Syria in a short amount of time. (21) The lives of those not living in the camps are not easier than those in them. With an influx of millions of refugees, a great housing shortage has emerged, resulting in a significant increase in rent across the country. Many Syrians that I interviewed, either in Edirne or during visits in refugee-populated cities, have to live in extremely small shanty houses with around ten other refugees, or on the streets of big cities. 

Aside from inadequate housing and shelter, Syrian refugees’ introduction into the labor market and education is complicated as well. Until very recently, the number of Syrians that were granted work permits was only 7,300. In the absence of legal work authorization and legal status, most urban refugees were forced to work in the informal economy. According to research, more than 250,000 Syrian refugees have already been working illegally, exploited and paid well below minimum wage. (22) Meanwhile, the resulting wage deflation aggravates and ignites hostility among host populations as more and more Syrian refugees enter the labor market. Politicians were very cautious in granting work permits. (23) Nevertheless, after two years of debate about whether Syrian refugees in Turkey should be eligible for work permits, the Turkish government issued a new decree through which some Syrians will be given permission to work. In order to be eligible, Syrian refugees must be registered with Turkish authorities, must be in the country for at least six months, and must apply for a work permit in the province where they were first registered. The number of refugees holding a work permit must not exceed 10% of the total number of employees at any workplace. (24) Given that many refugees work illegally to make ends meet and are often paid very low wages, this is an important step, yet implementation is the key.

Questions of how long the process of applying for and issuing permits will take and how many Syrians will benefit, based on the 10% quota in a workplace, remain unanswered while serious doubts remain. Refugees doing seasonal work in agriculture and stockbreeding will be exempt from this regulation. This is worth noting, as these are the two areas in which most Syrians work informally. This means that labor exploitation cannot be easily eradicated in these areas. Furthermore, the mandate that Syrians can only work in the city where they are registered may decrease the possibility of finding jobs, since some parts in Turkey lack sufficient industry and job market. Another question is whether the mandate requiring companies to pay Syrian refugees minimum wage will diminish the attraction of Syrians to employers. In addition, the recent announcement of the Labor and Social Security Ministry claiming that “no more than 3 per cent of 1.4 million working aged Syrians have been identified as ‘qualified’ because 80 per cent of Syrians’ professions are not known since they fled from war without their documents,” (25) coupled with the manifestation of employer expectation that Syrians will do jobs unwanted by Turks, (26) proves that the impact of this work permit decree has yet to be seen.

Child labor is also common in refugee communities, as low wages push all family members to work to pay for accommodation and food. This, in turn, raises questions about education, which is another problematic issue for Syrians. During my visits in Edirne and other cities where high number of refugees reside, concern about access to education was also voiced as one of the main reasons why they want to leave Turkey. According to UNICEF, 663,138 school-age Syrian children are in Turkey. (27) Nevertheless, 86 percent of primary school aged children outside of camps are not enrolled in school. A recent report from Human Rights Watch noted that 400,000 of the 700,000 school-age Syrian children in Turkey are not receiving formal schooling. (28) Registering at Turkish schools is legally possible, but for various reasons a vast majority are not receiving this basic service. In order to register at schools or temporary education centers, one has to submit a residence permit, a temporary protection identity document, or a foreigner identification document. This prevents unregistered refugees from gaining access to education services. Considering that most Syrians encounter housing difficulties along with severe financial problems, a majority of the children cannot attend school. Besides, language is a significant barrier in education. Even though Syrians have the right to go to school in national primary schools or Syrian schools, the latter are very scarce and most children must go to Turkish schools where the language of instruction is Turkish. Since a majority of Syrians do not speak Turkish well, parents encounter problems in communicating with schools and teachers, while Syrian children are disadvantaged in comparison to native children.

All in all, only a small portion of Syrian children have access to education in Turkey. A report published by the Brookings Institute in 2014 warns of "a lost generation of Syrians," and calls for a concerted effort from the Turkish government, civil society, and international community to implement a long-term education plan for Syrian refugees. (29) Otherwise, this potentially lost generation, without access to education, could fall into the trap to being victim to radical and terrorist groups. Given that 70,000 Syrian babies were born in Turkey since the civil war began in 2011, providing education to Syrians under TP must be the priority for Turkish officials. 


“Normalized Others” Cannot Integrate into Society


Perhaps the greatest challenge refugees encounter in Turkey is the inability to integrate. Syrians who are still considered as “guests” benefit from TP in Turkey, yet their access to the labor market and education is quite problematic. Additionally, as the governmental and societal discourses of “guests” suggest, Syrians are expected to be “hosted” by the Turkish government and society and subsequently return to their country of origin. This guest status that contains legal gaps and lacks international validity also leads to discriminatory and racist behaviors against Syrians under TP. Several accusations such as causing rent, unemployment, and crime to increase describe ways that Syrians under TP have been exposed to attacks by local communities. For instance in May 2014, a large group of people in Ankara protested Syrian refugees and set fire to their their houses. (30) In Gaziantep on the other hand, following the murder of Turkish landlord by his Syrian tenant, the local community attacked the Syrians in the streets with knives and sticks and injured ten Syrians. (31) Similar physical attacks occurred in other cities such as Adana, Kahramanmaraş, and Izmir.

Due to the disdain toward them, a majority of refugees do not feel secure. Moreover, most of the Syrians with whom I communicated have stated that they cannot earn a place in society nor feel like part of it. Considering the worsening public opinion and increasing hostility towards them, this is not surprising. According to a recent study, the local community is increasingly concerned with rising rent, housing costs, unemployment, and economic competition.(32) In cities near southeastern borders with Syria such as Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep, and Kilis, where a majority of Syrians reside, rent prices doubled or tripled and even surpassed the minimum monthly wage. 

Therefore, local communities in those cities often blame Syrians for making their lives more difficult.  On the other hand, one recent poll found that 70% of the local population in southeast Turkey believed that Syrian refugees are a security threat (33) and based on other surveys’ findings more than 75% of respondents perceive Syrians to be damaging to the economy and they are opposed to aiding Syrians when there are Turkish citizens living in poverty. (34) These negative opinions reflect the danger: as the protracted situation of Syrians remain in Turkey, in other words they consider to be overstayed, public opinion becomes more unwelcoming, even hostile. As the conflict in Syria continues, refugees find themselves in a distressing position in Turkey.

One could also raise the question of why those Syrians have decided to move into the EU in 2015 and not before. First and foremost, the war in Syria shows no sign of ending. Although the United States and Russia agreed on a temporary ceasefire with the consent of many others, Syria seems far from a peaceful resolution. Thousands of Syrians continue to flee daily and those in Turkey have started to lose their hope of returning to their countries. In addition, as the war enters its fifth year, refugees in Turkey are running out of resources and falling further into poverty. Without an income, they are forced to spend their savings, take on debt, and are eventually at risk of eviction from their places of shelter.  

Furthermore, the widespread use of social media and other communication tools among Syrians seem to have impacted in increasing the number of attempts to cross into Greece through the Aegean Sea. Once it became clear that the Eastern Mediterranean route is much safer than the Central Mediterranean one, it was used by Syrians and the news broke of the 800,000 Syrians arriving in Germany. More and more Syrians took the same route, as they also fear that the gates will soon close. In a nutshell, the dream that they could seek asylum in a country that offers a combination of safety, work prospects, and education is now worth taking a risk at the hands of smugglers.


Ever Increasing Vulnerabilities of Syrians: EU-Turkey Migration Agreement


Although refugee policies differ from one country to the other, nation-states concentrate on controlling their borders and protecting their national identities and citizens, while restricting the services of sheltering, health, and education provided to the refugees. (35) Unfortunately, neither Turkey’s protracted approach nor the increasingly worrisome reaction of the EU to the refugee crises is different than this. The migration agreement between the EU and Turkey undeniably has the potential to alleviate the crisis. The financial aid to be allocated to Turkey, if both parties keep their promises, can ameliorate refugees’ lives if it is spent wisely. Nevertheless, I have some doubts about this agreement and believe that the migration deal fails to offer concrete solutions to two essential problems. First, it lacks the clarity to eliminate the already high level of vulnerability of Syrians. Of all registered Syrian refugees, only 11% are housed in camps, while most of the others live in slum dwellings or on the streets of big cities. They are then much harder for aid programs to find. Plus, it is still very unclear how EUR 3 billion will be spent and how much of it will be allocated to strengthening border patrol on the Aegean Coast. Considering that Frontex and NATO will intensely increase their impact in Turkey, (36) it would not be unfair to anticipate that the biggest part of that aid will be used to security forces to stop migrants crossing.   Second, it fails to offer any reliable, safe, and legal routes for people in need of international protection to enter the EU with the intention of seeking asylum, the absence of which is a primary factor of irregular migration. This, in turn, will eventually strengthen the already powerful hands of human smugglers. More and more people are forced to embark on hazardous journeys to Europe. European policies that include strengthening border security in order to prevent an influx of refugees, do not stop refugees from attempting the journey; people keep trying and many will die. What is essentially necessary is that states, by recalling that the right to asylum is a human right, implement more human-centric policies that focus on the social and economic integration of refugees instead of concentrating on national security and the protection of borders.  

Without eliminating vulnerabilities of Syrians and giving them hope for the future, this proposed cooperation between the EU and Turkey to police borders and prevent irregular crossings is likely to result either in more people risking their lives at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers or once more switching to more dangerous routes to reach Europe. All in all, these policies will not stop them from trying. As refugees quite simply put it in Edirne, they would rather try and put their lives at risk than remain in limbo and in need.


About the Author


Umut Pamuk works at Research Turkey, a Turkish think-tank in London, as the Publication Officer. Prior to this position, he worked at Yasar University European Union Center as the EU Project Expert. Umut received his MA in war studies from King's College London as the Jean Monnet Scholar and his undergraduate degree in international relations from Middle East Technical University in Ankara. Umut has recently won a full PhD scholarship that will allow him to obtain a second PhD in Brazil. Following his PhD, he intends to join the academic team of Ankara University, where he is currently completing his doctoral work. Born and raised in Turkey, Umut has worked at several local and international civil society organizations that focus on democratic governance and youth participation.


1. IOM Missing Migrants Project, “Over 3,770 Migrants Have Died Trying to Cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015”, 2016, http://missingmigrants.iom.int/over-3770-migrants-have-died-trying-cross-mediterranean-europe-2015, accessed on January 24, 2016.

2. IOM Missing Migrants Project, “Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals in 2016 Pass 76,000; Deaths Top 400”, https://www.iom.int/news/mediterranean-migrant-arrivals-2016-pass-76000-deaths-top-400, accessed on February 28, 2016.

3. Ministry of Interior Directorate General of Migration Management, “Geçici Koruma (Temporary Protection)”, http://www.goc.gov.tr/icerik6/gecici-koruma_363_378_4713_icerik, accessed on February 28, 2016.

4. N. Aslı Şirin Öner, and Deniz Genç, “Vulnerability Leading to Mobility: Syrians’ Exodus From Turkey”, Migration Letters, Volume: 12, No:3 (2015): 253-4.

5. IOM Missing Migrants Project, “Over 3,770 Migrants Have Died Trying to Cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015”, http://missingmigrants.iom.int/over-3770-migrants-have-died-trying-cross-mediterranean-europe-2015, accessed on January 24, 2016.

6. UNHCR Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response, http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php, accessed on January 27, 2016.

7. UNHCR Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response, http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php.

8.  “Migrant crisis: Turkey and EU strike deal to limit refugee flow”,BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34957830, accessed on December 17, 2015.

9. Kemal Kirişçi, “How the EU and Turkey can work together on refugees”, Brookings.edu (blog), December 3, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/12/03-turkey-eu-deal-on-syrian-refugees-kirisci, accessed on January 4, 2016.

10. AFAD (The Disaster and Emergency Management Authority), “Suriye’den Türkiye’ye nüfus hareketleri: Kardeş Topraklarındaki Misafirlik (Population Influx from Syria to Turkey: Being Guests in Fellow Territories”, 2014, https://www.afad.gov.tr/Dokuman/TR/79-20150209111636-webformatisuriyedenturkiyeyenufushareketleri.pdf. accessed on January 19, 2016.

11.  1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html, accessed on January 19, 2016.

12. Kemal Kirişçi, “Syrian Refugees and Turkey’s Challenges: Going Beyond Hospitality”, Washington DC: Brookings Institute. May 2014., http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2014/05/12-turkey-syrian-refugees-kirisci/syrian-refugees-and-turkeys-challenges-may-14-2014.pdf, accessed on January 24, 2016.

13. Ahmet İçduygu, “Syrian Refugees in Turkey: The Long Road Ahead”, Transatlantic Council on Migration, April 2015.

14. Kristen Sarah Biehl, “Governing Through Uncertainty: Experiences of Being a Refugee in Turkey as a Country for Temporary Asylum”, Social Analysis, Vol. 59, Spring 2015, pp. 57-75.

15.  Öner and Genç, “Vulnerability Leading to Mobility: Syrians’ Exodus From Turkey”, pp. 255.

16. Doğuş Şimşek,“Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Unheard Voices” Vol. V, Issue 1, pp.6-13, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), London, Research Turkey (http://researchturkey.org/?p=10340), accessed on January 12, 2016.

17. Rebecca Kilberg, “Turkey’s Evolving Migration Identity,” Migration Policy Institute, July 2014, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/turkeys-evolving-migration-identity, accessed on January 26, 2016.

18. Murat Erdoğan, “Syrians in Turkey: Social Acceptance and Integration Research”, 2014, Hugo Report

19. İçduygu, “Syrian Refugees in Turkey: The Long Road Ahead”.

20. Ministry of Interion Directorate General of Migration Management, “Geçici Koruma (Temporary Protection)”.

21. Erdoğan, “Syrians in Turkey: Social Acceptance and Integration Research”, p.18.

22. Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, “Suriyeli Sığınmacıların Türkiye’ye Etkileri (Impact of Syrians to Turkey)”, Report: 195, January 2015, p.17.

23. Öner and Genç, “Vulnerability Leading to Mobility: Syrians’ Exodus From Turkey”, pp. 258

24. UNHCR, “High Commissioner welcomes Turkish work permits for Syrian refugees”, http://www.unhcr.org/569ca19c6.html, accessed on February 27, 2016.

25. “Only 3 pct of Syrian refugees in Turkey ‘qualified’ labor: Ministry”, Hurriyet Daily News, February 2016, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/only-3-pct-of-syrian-refugees-in-turkey-qualified-labor-ministry.aspx?pageID=238&nID=94718&NewsCatID=347, accessed on February 27, 2016.

26. “Syrians could fulfill jobs unwanted by Turks, says employer rep”, Hurriyet Daily News, February 2016, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/syrians-could-fulfill-jobs-unwanted-by-turks-says-employer-rep.aspx?pageID=238&nID=95487&NewsCatID=347, accessed on February 28, 2016.

27. UNICEF, “Syrian Children in Turkey”, September 2015

28. Human Rights Watch, “Turkey: 400,000 Syrian Children not in School”, November 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/11/08/turkey-400000-syrian-children-not-school, accessed on February 22, 2016.

29. Kirişçi, “Syrian Refugees and Turkey’s Challenges: Going Beyond Hospitality”.

30. “Syrian tension in Ankara”, Al Jazeera Turk, May 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com.tr/haber/ankarada-suriyeli-gerilimi, accessed on January 22, 2016.

31. “Syrian tension in Gaziantep”, Hurriyet, August 2014, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gaziantepte-suriyeli-gerginligi-26993691, accessed on January 22, 2016.

32. Erdoğan, “Syrians in Turkey: Social Acceptance and Integration Research”, p.20.

33. ibid, p.28.

34. Hacette University Migration Center, “Syrians in Turkey”, October 2014, p.11.

35.  Liza Schuster, “Common sense or racism? The treatment of asylum-seekers in Europe”, Patterns of Prejudice, 37, 3: 236-8.

36.  “Migrant crisis: NATO deploys Aegean people-smuggling patrols”,  BBC News, February 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35549478, accessed on February 28, 2016.




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