Can Turkey Assimilate Its Refugees?

Lessons from History

A woman takes photographs in front of the New Mosque by the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul, Turkey, January 12, 2016. Murad Sezer / Reuters

The neighborhood of Bağlariçi is some six miles north of Ankara’s city center. Like most of its suburban quarters, its apartment blocks and high streets are neither distinct nor very old. Superficially, the neighborhood is a testament to the city’s rapid growth over the last decade. Recent events, however, have shown that Bağlariçi is emblematic of a profound new trend in Turkish society.

Since 2011, this modest neighborhood has become home to more than thirty thousand Syrian refugees. The sheer size of this community of newcomers has brought considerable attention to the district, making it synonymous with the contemporary struggles and tensions that confront refugees and natives alike. On the one hand, the municipal government has by no means ignored the personal and communal hardships of Syrians living in Bağlariçi. Local schools have spent vast sums trying to educate Syrian-born children and to help them to integrate into their new surroundings. On the other hand, the neighborhood has been a flashpoint for violent confrontation and attacks on Syrian residents. In May 2014, police forcibly dispersed a mob threatening to stone and burn a building housing multiple refugee families. Local news reports later claimed that rumors of Syrians burning a Turkish flag had ignited the incident.

The troubles in Bağlariçi point to a deep existential crisis that will haunt Turkey over the next several decades. Since the start of the Syrian civil war, over two and half million refugees have taken up residence in Turkey. A relatively small number of those refugees, perhaps no more than 300,000, are scattered among the 26 camps that Ankara has established within close proximity of the border. The majority have chosen instead to settle in urban centers throughout the country. Poor living conditions, as well as unemployment and the lack of physical and mental health facilities, make life difficult for the Syrians residing in many neighborhoods like Bağlariçi. Looking to the future, there are many unanswered questions about

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