Northern Exodus

How Turkey Can Integrate Syrian Refugees

A Syrian refugee looks out from a bus as he arrives near the Turkish border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province, August 9, 2012.
A Syrian refugee looks out from a bus as he arrives near the Turkish border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province, August 9, 2012. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)

In February, following the peace conference in Geneva between the Syrian opposition and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Syrian government helicopters dropped round after round of crude “barrel bombs” -- metal drums filled with explosives -- on Aleppo. The devastation set off what aid workers called one of the largest waves of refugees out of Syria since the beginning of the civil war. Syrians could soon surpass Afghans as the largest refugee population in the world: nearly 2.6 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Turkish government expects nearly 1.5 million of them to be in Turkey by the end of 2014.

Turkey is already home to some 800,000 Syrian refugees, making it the world’s sixth-largest refugee-hosting country last year. Although Jordan hosts nearly as many Syrians, and Lebanon significantly more, the Turkish government, unlike its Arab neighbors, has never opened its borders to refugees from the Middle East in this way. Since 2011, the Turkish government has built well-ordered refugee camps. It has offered free health care and, for some refugees, education and also provided them with legal status and protection for the first time. Last year, Ankara passed a new migration law that created a government agency to take over the management of the Syrian influx and process applications for individual asylum seekers.

Turkey deserves praise for its generous open-door policy, which was equal parts charity and opportunity for the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to project influence in Syria and throughout the Middle East. But it cannot afford to maintain its refugee policies indefinitely. Its camps are now filled to capacity, Assad has dug in, diplomatic progress has stalled, and the opposition that Turkey so staunchly supported has all but frayed. As refugees continue to pour into the country, with no sign that Syrians will voluntarily go home amid the current chaos, Turkey must address the long-term status of Syrians within its borders, especially the majority of Syrian refugees who are not registered with the UNHCR or the government and are not living in refugee camps.

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