An AKP supporter waits for the start of Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's speech in front of the party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey November 2, 2015.
An AKP supporter waits for the start of Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's speech in front of the party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey November 2, 2015.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

After four elections in 20 months, Turkey’s seemingly interminable campaign season has finally ended, with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) claiming a surprise victory and regaining single-party rule after losing it this past June. Many fear the AKP’s new mandate will enable further attacks on free speech and democratic rights, but others see a silver lining. “One of the positive consequences of this very broad mandate,” says Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “will be that the government will now have a margin to maneuver and tackle important policy issues, like the refugee issue.”

In recent years, the collapse of several states across the Middle East and beyond has resulted in the greatest displacement of humanity in recorded history. Some 60 million people have left their homes, and millions more may be on the way out. Thus far, no country has welcomed more of the displaced than Turkey, which first opened its door years ago.

In 2000, Turkey hosted just 234,000 immigrants, or registered foreign-born residents (0.37 percent of the population), according to the country’s statistical agency. By 2011, that number had leapt to 776,000. Then two million desperate Syrians surged across the border, along with waves of asylum seekers from elsewhere in the region.

Today Turkey is home to as many as four million foreign-born people, or about five percent of the population. This figure still falls far short of those of immigrant-friendly Australia (approximately 25 percent) or the United States (15 percent), but it’s akin to those of Finland (5.4 percent) and Argentina (4.6 percent). And like those states, Turkey has everything it needs to integrate waves of new arrivals.

An election official holds a ballot during a count at a polling station in Diyarbakir, Turkey November 1, 2015.
An election official holds a ballot during a count at a polling station in Diyarbakir, Turkey, November 1, 2015.
Sertac Kayar / Reuters
Under the AKP, Turkey might have backtracked on the rule of law, human rights, and free speech, according to a forthcoming European Commission report. But the region has no better haven. “As an island of stability, Turkey has become a sanctuary for people escaping from terrorism and violence in the region,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in August.

Even with a recent uptick in violence, Turkey remains more peaceful than most of its neighbors. It’s hosting the G–20 this month; its economy is the world’s 17th largest, and still growing. It has a liberal visa regime, offering citizens from 55 countries visa-free or e-visa entry. And it shares a religion with the majority of the region’s displaced.

At the same time, “Turkey hasn’t made up its mind about whether it is an immigration country,” says Franck Duvell of Oxford University’s Center on Migration, Policy, and Society. It wasn’t always so. For centuries, the Ottoman Empire operated under a millet system (from the Arabic word meaning “nation”), which enabled Armenian, Jewish, and other minority groups to live largely as they wished, as long as they accepted Ottoman rule. This fostered remarkable diversity: in the mid-nineteenth century, Constantinopolitans got their news from some 300 foreign-language newspapers.

The empire crumbled in the early twentieth century, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk scrambled to unite the people of his new republic under a single identity: Muslim Turk. Nationalist fervor took hold, and by the 1960s, it had led to the often violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and other outsiders.

Taking power in 2002, the AKP, led by current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, invoked the Ottoman Empire, stressing its Islamic nature, global influence, and openness to outsiders. Domestically, this translated into themes of Islamic ambition and achievement. Internationally, it meant rolling out the Ottoman-era welcome mat.

Buoyed by strong economic growth, Turkey became a net immigration state in 2007–08, according to the World Bank. In 2011, the AKP government was among the first to stand firmly against the Bashar al-Assad regime. It thus felt duty-bound to welcome and care for displaced Syrian citizens, not to mention other troubled Muslims. Turkey encouraged humanitarian groups and the Syrian opposition to set up shop in the country and allowed anti-Assad rebels to freely cross the border—including, observers believe, many who ultimately joined the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

Syrian refugee children are seen during a lesson at Fatih Sultan Mehmet School in Karapurcek district of Ankara, Turkey, October 2, 2015.
Syrian refugee children are seen during a lesson at Fatih Sultan Mehmet School in Karapurcek district of Ankara, Turkey, October 2, 2015.
Umit Bektas / Reuters
Thus far, Turkey has welcomed some 2.2 million refugees from Syria, 400,000 from Iraq, and more than 100,000 from Afghanistan. But refugees don’t make up all of its foreign population. More than a million residence permit holders hail from 176 different nations, and include hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians, more than 150,000 Germans, and thousands of Azerbaijanis, Greeks, Iranians, Macedonians, and Nigerians.

The new arrivals are practically ubiquitous. Arabic signage dominates certain neighborhoods in Istanbul, Izmir, and Gaziantep. So many Russians and citizens of former Soviet states have snapped up homes along the Mediterranean coast that locals have taken to calling Turkey’s Antalya province Little Russia. In July, Iraqis bought more properties than any other group of foreigners in Turkey, ahead of Saudis, Russians, and Brits. Gay and transgender Syrians and Iraqis have found a home in Istanbul’s lively Beyoglu district. And every evening in the Mediterranean city of Mersin, the Syrian national soccer team in exile takes to the practice field.

Although most immigrants are relatively well off, refugee life in Turkey is no walk in the park. Ankara has spent some $8 billion on well-run refugee camps, free health care, and education. Yet fewer than ten percent of Turkey’s refugees live in the camps. Few speak Turkish, and most have great difficulty building a new life. In Izmir, 80 percent of refugees are poor, only 16 percent work, and groups of families cram into tiny living spaces. With less than 15 percent of Syrian refugee children in school, according to the UN refugee agency, child labor is on the rise. In Kilis, near the Syrian border, hundreds of Syrians as young as ten work up to 90 hours a week for as little as 12 cents an hour.

Turkey, the best bulwark against a tsunami of humanity, seems to have Europe over a barrel.
The main problem is Ankara’s legal dodge. Although it is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, Turkey maintains a restriction that awards refugee status, which comes with universal education and steps toward integration, only to Europeans. Ankara registers arriving Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians not as refugees but as temporary guests. They cannot legally hold jobs, their mobility is limited, and they are subject to deportation at the government’s whim.

Refugees in Turkey generally work off the books for low pay, mostly in fields and on construction sites. Many cite the difficulty of finding work as a reason for leaving, which is why a key element of the Turkey–EU draft plan on Syrian refugees has Turkey enabling refugees to enter the labor market. Ankara did draw up right-to-work legislation earlier this year, but it languished in parliament due to its potential political toxicity. Turks widely oppose giving Syrians the right to work, which is understandable in a country where a third of people see unemployment as the biggest problem, far above second-place terrorism at 14 percent. In the wake of the AKP’s victory, Ulgen expects the law to pass.

The EU is also urging Turkey to secure its borders to curb illegal immigration, enact full refugee status, trim its visa regime, and accept returned refugees. In return for these commitments from Turkey, Europe has suspended the publication of a report denouncing Turkey’s human rights violations and attacks on free speech, an apparent gift for the AKP. It has also offered to push visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens, speed up Turkey’s EU-admission process, and hand over three billion euros.

The euros will surely help. Turkey’s economy has slowed from nine percent growth, when Syrians started arriving, to maybe three percent this year. And as of October, it had received a little more than $400 million—a twentieth of its own spending—in international assistance for refugees. Meanwhile, funding for aid organizations such as the World Food Program and the World Health Organization has fallen sharply. All this curbs relief for Syrians, leading to more migration.

This explains why a record 50,000 migrants reached Greece in a single week last month. And the flow may continue through the winter. Renewed violence in Syria has displaced some 120,000 people already and reports suggest that many are headed for Turkey. The migrant wave has European leaders bickering, building walls, and fretting about parasites, disease, and the future of the 28-nation bloc.

Turkey, the best bulwark against a tsunami of humanity, seems to have Europe over a barrel. Yet many, including Duvell, believe that the EU plan, precisely because it is focused more on keeping refugees out of Europe than integrating them into Turkey, is likely to fail. “The EU ambition to turn Turkey into a de facto immigration country falls short,” says Duvell. “Turkey should accept that it’s an immigration country, which would involve giving these people rights, access to jobs and services, and integrating them … [and] experienced immigration countries like Germany and Sweden could provide advice and expertise and help design policies. But none of that is on the table.”

Turkey has taken some steps on integration. Last year Ankara established the Directorate General of Migration Management to oversee the government’s response. Turkey’s religious authority, the Diyanet, has teamed up with local charities to train thousands of Syrian women professional skills and Turkish, hoping to create job opportunities. Recently, the government launched an initiative to attract and train more Syrian teachers and build more schools for refugees, and it announced that Arabic will be taught as a foreign language in all primary schools.

Just last week, Ankara presented a plan to create “new settlements for refugees.” Turkey has long sought to develop its industry and climb out of the middle-income trap. And its economy could certainly use a boost, particularly in the refugee-heavy southeast, where renewed conflict has choked economic activity. With its new refugee settlements, Ankara could shepherd more skilled refugees into special economic zones, set up in less developed areas and backed by the international community.

Refugees and migrants disembark the Eleftherios Venizelos passenger ship at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, November 1, 2015.
Refugees and migrants disembark the Eleftherios Venizelos passenger ship at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, November 1, 2015. The death toll from drownings at sea has mounted recently as weather in the Aegean has taken a turn for the worse, turning wind-whipped sea corridors into deadly passages for thousands of refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece.
Michalis Karagiannis / Retuers
Academics Alexander Betts and Paul Collier propose a similar solution for Jordan in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, labeling it a “Syrian economy in exile.” The concept worked for a million-plus Greeks forced out of Turkey a century ago. In their own special zones, they embraced modern farming practices with help from their government, the League of Nations, and the International Labor Organization.

Syrians in Turkey have already shown an entrepreneurial spirit. They are responsible for a third of new businesses launched by foreigners, more than any group of foreign nationals. They’re opening bakeries and bookstores, managing radio stations and starting fast-food franchises. On the backs of these businesses, Turkey’s exports to Syria have more than tripled over the last three years, returning to pre-war levels despite the continuing conflict. Integrating Syrians better could keep Syrian professionals—dentists and doctors, nurses and engineers—from leaving in search of greener pastures.

Most of Turkey’s refugees will be around for some time. Murat Erdogan, director of Hacettepe University’s Migration and Politics Research Center, estimates that up to four of every five Syrians in Turkey will become permanent residents. Integrating them would dovetail with the AKP’s supposed Ottoman ideals, but Ankara has yet to have a serious discussion about it. In campaign mode for most of the past two years, Turkey’s leaders have focused on caring for Syrian refugees without alienating voters.                                                                                                                 

Now the government has an opportunity to move boldly. In the coming days, Ankara is expected to move toward peace with the PKK and crack down on ISIS to improve security and restore stability. It might also begin to reassesses its approach to foreign arrivals, and consider working with the EU to shape a comprehensive policy of integration that provides autonomy and opportunity while minimizing the nativist backlash.

“As Turkey starts to think more deeply about what it needs to do and what it is prepared to do in relation to improving the prospects of Syrian refugees,” Ulgen says, “that can lead to an assessment of Turkey’s broader immigration policies.”

Observers foresee desperate peoples of all stripes continuing to flee failed and conflict-torn states across the broader Middle East for the next couple of years. As a melting pot, rather than a way station, Turkey could provide much-need sanctuary and slow the tide of migrants overwhelming the West, as well as repair its reputation and spur its flagging economy.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now