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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 the number of Syrians who will stay in Turkey and what the effect will be on Turkish society, culture, and politics.
Here, history offers some lessons. Migration crises are not new to Turkey. In fact, refugee politics have played an integral role in contemporary Turkish history, although the current influx of immigrants is more dramatic than previous cases. It is clear that Ankara has a tough road ahead, as does Turkish civil society at large. How Turkey manages the settlement and integration of Syrian refugees, in the medium and long term, may end up transforming the country in profound ways.
The Republic of Turkey may rightly be called a nation of immigrants. Anatolia, from classical times forward, has seen travelers, merchants, pilgrims, conquerors, and outcasts coming in search of safety or better fortunes. The flow of migrants into the lands now comprising Turkey were arguably at its highest during the course of the nineteenth century. As millions of Irish, Italian, Polish, and Russian migrants streamed across the Atlantic looking for a better life, equally large numbers of people from the Balkans and the Caucasus arrived to Ottoman Anatolia fleeing violence and oppression. The sheer size and magnitude of this mass transfer of humanity is still evident in Turkey today. It is not inconceivable that more people of Albanian, Crimean Tatar, or Abkhaz descent reside in Turkish towns and villages than live in their original places of origin. Yet today there is only limited communal recognition of these communities within Turkey. Although descendants have formed cultural groups in the hope of bringing greater visibility to the history of these old diasporas, most Turkish citizens do not recognize or celebrate their roots as the descendants of nineteenth-century migrants.
The ascendancy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as founding president of the Republic of Turkey occurred in the midst of another, far graver refugee crisis. In finalizing a peace between the young Turkish government and the victors of the First World War, Ankara agreed to accept over a half a million displaced Muslims from Greece as a part of a formal exchange of populations. The integration of these former Ottoman citizens, as well as the expulsion of over a million Greeks, was beset by difficulties.
The growing permanence of the Syrian diaspora represents a fundamental challenge to the basic dynamics of Turkish nationalism and national politics.Turkey’s economy was in shambles as the postwar era began. Efforts to settle refugees from Greece came on top of ongoing efforts to deal with people displaced during the course of the Balkan Wars and the First World War (a refugee population that numbered well over a million). Many of the displaced persons spoke no Turkish and possessed inadequate skills or no familiarity with work or life in their new homes.
Ankara was especially sensitive to the cultures of this generation of migrants and devoted considerable resources to assimilating the newcomers. A number of factors contributed to the general success of this policy. Since most migrants were illiterate and heavily dependent upon the government for land, employment, and education, the vast majority of those who arrived and settled in Turkey during the postwar era readily accepted Turkish identity and citizenship. They had no choice. Although many of those “exchanged” from Greece (mübadils) still retained aspects of the language and culture from their hometowns, refugees from the postwar era by and large never constituted a distinct political or social element within Turkey as a whole. Mübadils generally became Turks without qualification.
Turkey would go on to experience several other severe refugee crises in the aftermath of the Second World War. In 1950, the government of Bulgaria compelled over a hundred thousand ethnic Turks to flee across the border (an act that was replayed in 1989 in the waning days of the communist regime). Formal and informal pressures from Belgrade similarly induced tens of thousands of Muslims to leave Yugoslavia between 1945 and 1991. The outbreak of war in Bosnia and Kosovo induced steep spikes in Muslim migration to Turkey. Many of the Balkan refugees, as well as the tens of thousands of Kurds that fled northern Iraq in 1991, returned home or relocated elsewhere with the conclusion of the fighting.
The victims of these conflicts did not seem to much shape the contours of Turkish politics and society. Yet with the onset of the current migrant crisis in Turkey, there are indications that Syrians currently residing in the republic may, in fact, have had a lasting impact upon their new surroundings. According to the Turkish government’s own accounting, over 150,000 babies born to Syrian refugees have been registered within the country’s borders since 2011. Although these children do not automatic receive Turkish citizenship, ministers and commentators do readily suggest that a significant number of these children, let alone their family members, will never return to Syria. Signs found throughout Turkey affirm this conclusion. News reports, as well as government data, have suggested that Syrians have founded thousands of formal and informal businesses in town and cities near and far from the border. In the country’s major cities, as well as provincial towns like Konya, migrants have started publishing Arabic-language newspapers and other forms of media for the benefit of their displaced kin.
These trends seem to suggest that a new era has begun in the history of Turkey’s relationship with immigration. Syrians are not simply settling in Turkey; they are beginning to make an imprint upon Turkish society as a whole. Unlike the mübadils who arrived in the 1920s, many Syrians arrived to Turkey with capital and skills that have immediately made an impact on the economy. According to one government study, the number of businesses owned by Syrian partners rose from 30 to 1599 between 2010 and 2015. Scores of Arabic-language schools have opened; thousands of restaurants and other businesses catering to local Syrians have opened as well. Whereas past migrants tended to settled in areas predominantly Turkish-speaking villages or towns, a discernible number of Little Syrias can now be found throughout Turkey.
Ankara has been far from passive in its management of the refugee influx. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration has spent millions of dollars in providing housing, education, and food for displaced peoples residing in camps along the border, as have civil society groups. Yet Turkey’s current leaders have offered mixed signals about Syrians’ long-term future in the country. Recently, Erdoğan suggested that Turkey might construct an entirely new city in northern Syria in order to house displaced civilians from the fighting. (He did not offer ideas about where it would be located, how it would be funded, or who would build it.) This suggestion, along with reports that Turkish security forces have recently turned away refugees at the border (at times using deadly force), indicates that there are limits to the Turkish government’s openness toward housing unlimited numbers of Syrians.
Turkish society is losing patience as well. Violent incidents like the attack in Bağlariçi have been reported elsewhere in the country. Earlier this month, three Syrians in Şanlıurfa were injured when a crowd of men set upon them with cries of “We don’t want Syrians.” In April, a crowd demonstrating against the construction of a tent settlement in Kahramanmaraş threw rocks and clashed with police. Although some migrant groups in Turkey, such as Albanians, have historically been unfairly stereotyped as prone to violence and crime, it is difficult to find similar examples of anti-immigrant violence in Turkey’s past.
Meanwhile, representatives from the country’s largest opposition party have voiced their own discomfort with such large numbers of Syrians in the country. The right-wing Nationalist Action Party, meanwhile, has raised concerns that the flow of refugees into provincial communities could contribute to the breakdown of law and order and undermine the ethnic integrity of the Turkish nation. One prominent member of the center-left Republican People’s Party has suggested that Syrians could soon constitute an important voting bloc within Turkey if and when they were permitted to become citizens. The influence of this potential constituency, the representative suggested, could not only ensure the perpetuation of Erdogan’s government but also counterbalance, or weaken, the power of Kurdish voters. If true, the effect of the Syrian migration may be unprecedented. No major political party ever catered to one diaspora or another. At no point has the influx of migrants served to reshape Turkey’s political culture.
It isn’t clear to what degree officials in Ankara have begun to plan how to manage the long-term effects of the influx of Syrian refugees. With the civil war in Syria still raging, the evolving crisis may render any planning moot. Yet there are several conclusions that can be stated with some confidence. It is highly likely that Syrians will constitute a more visibly active element in Turkey for some time to come. Unlike past immigrants to Turkey, Syrians tend to be more educated and more forthright in their ethnonational identity. The end result will undoubtedly be the creation of a discernible new Syria-focused, Arabic-speaking subculture in Turkey.
The emerging culture will extend beyond the proliferation of new varieties of music, cuisine, and mass media. The growing permanence of the Syrian diaspora represents a fundamental challenge to the basic dynamics of Turkish nationalism and national politics. As partisan as the country’s politics tends to be, most members of Turkey’s main parties, as well as many Turks, continue to see Turkish citizenship in ethnic, rather than civic, terms. For many Turks, the notion of considering Syrian Arabs (or Kurds, for that matter) as an equal cultural or social group would sully the Turkish nation. In turn, the basic contours of the country’s domestic and foreign policy are bound to change dramatically. A large Syrian diaspora in Turkey would naturally compel Ankara to have an even greater role in Syria’s postwar future. Issues regarding Kurdish national and cultural rights may lead to similar debates. And if Syrians become citizens, it could mean that they, as well as their descendants, will become Turkey’s present and future communal and national leaders. In short, the final outcome of the wave of refugees could be a Republic of Turkey totally transformed, inside and out.