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Syrians in Turkey | Türkiye |

Syrians in Turkey Facts, Discourses, Challenges, and Prospects

Ayhan Kaya

/ 8 Minuten zu lesen

Turkey hosts more than three million Syrian refugees. For a long time, the official political discourse was rather welcoming. However, this has changed in recent years.

Since the Civil War erupted in Syria in 2011, more than 13 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety and security. According to the United Nations, more than 6.8 million Syrians remain internally displaced in their own country where 70 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and 90 percent of the population live below the poverty line. 6.5 million Syrians have fled the country; of these approximately 5.3 million reside in five countries in the geographic neighborhood — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Germany is the largest non-neighboring host country: Since the outbreak of the civil war, the number of Syrians living in Germany has risen to over 830,000, of which a total of 611,400 Syrians were recorded as "protection seekers" in the Central Register of Foreigners in August 2022.

Protection framework

Syrians who fled to Turkey are subject to the Temporary Protection Regulation that was Interner Link: introduced in 2014 following the example of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive, which was issued in 2001 as a follow up of the refugee crisis in the Balkans in the 1990s. Turkey is one of the signatories of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, however, it only grants refugee protection to asylum seekers from Europe, implementing the geographical limitation clause (as do Congo, Madagascar, and Monaco). The Temporary Protection Regulation grants all the rights to the Syrians emanating from international law in a similar way to the rights the refugees are granted. The only difference is that temporary protection is given for a temporary period while refugee status grants long-term protection. The Temporary Protection Regulation guarantees the right to access health services and education services for all Syrians. Although the Regulation does not make it possible for Syrians to apply for Turkish citizenship, more than 223,000 Syrians had naturalized as of the end of 2022 in accordance with the principle of exceptional citizenship of the Turkish Citizenship Law. According to Article 12 (exceptions in acquiring Turkish citizenship issued in 2009) of this Law, “those persons who bring into Turkey industrial facilities or have rendered or believed to render outstanding service in the social or economic arena or in the fields of science, technology, sports, culture, or arts” can acquire Turkish citizenship.

Refugee population

There are around 3.4 million Syrians under Temporary Protection living in Turkey as of May 2023, making Turkey the world’s number one refugee hosting country. The majority resides in Istanbul as well as in the south-eastern provinces Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Hatay, Adana and Mersin. In the first years of massive forced migration from Syria, many Syrians were accommodated in Temporary Accommodation Centers located in Turkish cities in the border region. However, these centers are almost completely dysfunctional now since there are only nine of them left that accommodated around 63,000 refugees as of May 2023. 98 percent of the Syrian refugees reside outside these shelters, mostly in urban areas. Many of these urban refugees live under precarious conditions. Already before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 64 precent of urban Syrian households lived below the poverty line. Although the Turkish government in 2016 made it easier for Syrian refugees to obtain a work permit, access to formal employment remains limited. Only 91,500 work permits had actually been issued by the end of 2021. According to estimates, between 500,000 and one million Syrians work in Turkey, most of them in informal jobs predominantly in the textile and apparel sectors, but also in construction, services, and agriculture. They are perceived as cheap labour by small and medium-sized business circles and are prone to exploitation. Most of the working Syrian refugees earn less than the minimum wage per hour.

The massive increase in the number of refugees in the urban space and a lack of adequate assistance policies toward them has aggravated a range of social problems. Refugees experience problems of adaptation in big cities and the language barrier has seriously complicated their ability to integrate into Turkish society. One third of Syrian school-age children do not attend school.

Table 1: Changing number of Syrian refugees in major cities

CityNovember 201421 July 20172 August 201923 March 2023CityNovember 201421 July 20172 August 201923 March 2023
Istanbul330,000495,027547,943531,782Batman 20,00020,18122,39212,260
Gaziantep220,000336,929445,748452,493Şırnak 19,00015,08015,01910,969
Hatay 190,000397,047432,436337,508Kocaeli 15.00034,95757,74552,701
Şanlıurfa 170,000433,856429,735356,234Izmir 13,000113,460145,123144,158
Mardin 70,00096,06287,50785,547Osmaniye 12,00046,15750,29538,016
Adana 50,000165,818240,376244,003Antalya10,0004581,7864,622
Kilis 49,000127,175116,31781,661Kayseri9,50062,64579,16180,601
Mersin 45,000153,976201,887237,529Diyarbakır5,00030,40533,24521,808
Konya 45,00079,139108,419117,944Adıyaman2,50027,08425,54921,494
Kahramanmaraş 44,00093,40890,07390,575Samsun 1,2304,5405,8529,047
Bursa 20,000114,498174,865183,347Aydın1,0008,8067,9228,312

Source: Ministry of Interior, Presidency of Migration Management, Externer Link: (accessed 05 May 2023).

Changing attitudes, discursive shifts

Since the early days of mass migration of Syrians, the AKP government has framed Syrian refugees as “guests”, a political discursive frame, which was later complemented with the religiously-loaded discourse of the “Ansar Spirit” to prepare the ground for the Turkish public to welcome the Syrian refugees. As a metaphor, Ansar (Arabic for “helpers”) refers to the people of Medina, who supported the Prophet Mohammad and the accompanying Muslims who migrated there from Mecca, which was under the control of the pagans, in the year 622 CE. The metaphor of Ansar originally points to a situation of temporary reception as the Muslims later returned to Mecca after their forces recaptured the city from the pagans. Hence, the Turkish government has used Islamic symbolism to legitimize its acts regarding the resolution of the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey. Framing the Syrian refugees within the discourse of Ansar has elevated public and private efforts to accommodate Syrian refugees from a humanitarian responsibility to a religious and charity-based duty.

However, after twelve years of hosting millions of Syrians, the political discourse of cultural intimacy, Ansar and temporariness is no longer socially reciprocated by the majority of Turkish citizens. The depiction of the refugee situation as temporary stands in sharp contrast to the lasting high visibility of Syrians in urban neighborhoods and nourishes resentments against the refugees. The increasing economic and financial crisis in Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016 has created further societal and political divides and polarization in a way that has led to the scapegoating of Syrian refugees by many native groups as well as to overt Arabophobia, the origins of which may go back to World War I since the Turks, in general, blamed the Arabs of having collaborated with the British against the Ottomans. Syrian refugees face rising hostility as opinion polls and reports of violent attacks on Syrians demonstrate. They are blamed for Turkey’s economic crisis and social ills. According to the Syrians Barometer 2021, up to 80 percent of the Turkish society wants Syrians to be sent back to their country.

Under pressure from the public but also the political opposition, the AKP government has changed its stance on Syrian refugees, especially in the aftermath of the local elections held on 23 June 2019, when the ruling party lost metropolitan cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Antalya. Demands to repatriate Syrian refugees have become more pronounced. In spring 2022, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the government’s intention to return one million people to the territories in northern Syria under Turkish control. In addition, the AKP government has been working towards normalizing its relations with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, the government’s approach is twofold: On the one hand, it maintains its discourse on the temporary nature of refugee reception and seeks to significantly reduce the number of Syrians hosted by Turkey, mainly by pushing for repatriations and preventing more Syrians to seek refuge in Turkey. On the other hand, the government seems to have accepted that many Syrians will remain in Turkey as measures that allow for their social integration indicate: the introduction of work permits in early 2016, the incorporation of pupils into public schools, the creation of quotas for Syrian students in higher education institutions, and the granting of citizenship to Syrians (at least in expectational cases as shown above).

Despite growing resentment towards the Syrian refugees in the Turkish population, Syrians for many years have reported that they are relatively content with their residence in Turkey. Recent studies reveal that ethno-cultural, religious, and historical ties between Syrians and native Turkish citizens have been reported by Syrian interlocutors to be the main source of comfort for their stay in Turkey. However, the increasing resentment and threat of removal Syrian refugees are faced with are leaving their marks: The Syrians Barometer 2021 observed that “Syrians are increasingly worried about their future in Türkiye and their search for moving to a third country is getting stronger”.


In the first few years of the massive arrival of Syrians fleeing Civil War in their home country, the Turkish government provided Syrians with temporary protection consisting of three elements: an open-door policy for all Syrians; no forced returns to Syria (non-refoulement); and unlimited duration of stay in Turkey. The official political discourse welcomed Syrians as “brothers and sisters” and, referring to the Ansar spirit, made refugee reception a religious and charity-based duty. However, more than twelve years after the outbreak of the war in Syria in the spring of 2011, there is not much left of this welcoming discourse. As Turkey grapples with a grave economic crisis, soaring inflation and a collapsing currency as well as the repercussions of the latest devastating earthquake (6 February 2023), which has dislocated at least 3.3 million people, calls for return and a significant reduction of the Syrian population in Turkey have become louder. All candidates running for president in the presidential elections in May 2023 have made the return of the Syrian refugees part of their electoral campaign.

Both President Erdoğan and his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu advocated during the election campaign for a significant reduction in the number of Syrian refugees living in Turkey. Kılıçdaroğlu promised to set the conditions for a 'voluntary return' of all Syrian refugees within two years if he won the election. During the election campaign, Erdoğan emphasized his government's efforts to establish “safe zones” in northern Syria to facilitate the voluntary return of Syrian refugees. Unlike his opponent, however, he refrained from making concrete promises regarding a time horizon for the return of Syrians who had fled to Turkey.

The presidential elections resulted in the victory of Erdoğan who won around two million more votes than Kılıçdaroğlu. There are strong indications that the difference mainly comes from the extra votes that Erdoğan received from two particular groups. The first group is composed of the foreigners who have been recently granted Turkish citizenship through property purchase and the Syrians who were granted ‘exceptional citizenship’ on the basis of their social, economic, and cultural contribution to Turkish society. The second group is the conservative members of the Turkish diaspora communities in Europe, mostly in Germany and France, who supported Erdoğan for various economic, cultural, religious and psychological reasons. Then, one could argue that migration, citizenship and diaspora communities have been decisive factors in the election results. In the months to come, deepening economic crisis, societal and political polarisation, anti-refugee sentiments, Arabophobia, and emigration of highly-skilled young population to Europe and the Americas may continue to increase. And it is likely that pressure will grow on Syrian refugees to leave Turkey.

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is Professor of Political Science and Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics of Interculturalism at Istanbul Bilgi University, Turkey. He does research on Ethnicity, Migration, and Politics. Among his most recent publications are the anthologies Externer Link: Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Between Reception and Integration (2023, co-authored with Zeynep Şahin-Mencütek, N. Ela Gökalp-Aras, and Susan Beth Rottmann) as well as Externer Link: Nativist and Islamist Radicalism: Anger and Anxiety (2023, co-edited with Ayşenur Benevento and Metin Koca).