OZAN SERDAROGLU: Turkey’s open door policy saved millions of Syrians

Analysis by Dr Ozan Serdaroglu, Institute for Security & Development Policy, Sweden.

While the vast influx of Syrian refugees alarms European capitals, Ankara’s ongoing “open border” policy draws a sharp contrast, turning Turkey into the country hosting the world’s biggest refugee population.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the number of Syrians has been increasing incessantly to reach the current figure of 2.2 million. This makes up the highest refugee population in any single country and the Turkish AKP (Justice and Development) government seems to be at ease with it.

As opposed to the political clamor in Germany for instance over the 758 000 Syrian refugees currently settled there, Turkey’s extraordinarily high refugee population did not so far represent a serious challenge neither to the AKP nor to its unofficial leader President Erdogan, who overtly expresses how he is proud of the open border policy.

According to Dr.Murat Erdogan from Hacettepe University of Ankara, the lack of clear domestic opposition stems mainly from Turkish people’s tolerance, but at the same time, the Syrian refugees have also been kept away from the country’s general political agenda by the AKP government.

Indeed, life seems to continue normally in Turkey amid the world’s biggest refugee crisis. Among those 2,2 million refugees only 260 000 reside in refugee camps. The rest is dispersed all over the country like the 400 000 Syrians living in Istanbul or 700 000 living in southern cities like Mersin, Gaziantep and Hatay. Nearly 2 million Syrians remain obliged to find their own way for establishing themselves in Turkey without residence or work permits. Being merely allowed to work for the humanitarian tasks dedicated to the refugee community, some hundreds of thousands Syrians work illegally, a couple of times cheaper than the national work force. 

According to the office of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the situation of children is the most acute aspect of the refugee crisis. 20% of Syrians in Turkey are 0-4 years old, which makes 420 000 children under the age of 5. An additional 70 000 Syrian children were born in Turkey during the last 4 years and have no citizenship or legal status. Over 75% percent of Syrian children, around 400 000, cannot go to school as they have no residence permits. According to official numbers, only 68 000 children receive some sort of tutoring in refugee camps. Unfortunately young Syrian children bagging in the streets of Turkish cities has become a habitual scene. 

Yet, such tragic side effects of the open border policy do not incite a strong reaction from the general public opinion. Moreover, AKP’s recent success in obtaining 49,5 % of the votes in the November 1 elections can be considered as an approval of the way the government is handling the crisis. As the Turkish side welcomes, the Syrians are thankful, feeling safe and taken care of.

On the other hand this current status quo may well be unsustainable. First of all, it is very unlikely that the situation of the Syrians will improve as Turkey does not have an established immigration policy meeting the international standards. Although fleeing war in their homeland, the 2,2 million Syrians cannot be granted “asylum” status as the Turkish asylum law favors only refugees coming from European countries. This is because the law was elaborated according to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention designed to help the displaced Europeans during and after the World War 2.  Within this juridical framework the Syrian refugees can only be given temporary “conditional refugee” status without permanent residence or work permits, resulting in an absolute dependence on governmental aids and very limited discretion in planning a future in Turkey.           

Secondly, while the Syrians are not able to provide their own living the Turkey faces a high cost in satisfying their basic needs. The AKP government has so far spent 8 billion dollars and additionally provides free medication and health services. Such supporting mechanisms may well be essential but their long term sustainability is questionable in an upper middle country with 10 billion dollars of budget deficit and where 16% of the population lives under the poverty line. Although not meeting so far a strong opposition, it may before long become more crucial for the government to limit such public expenditures and find the just balance between the refugees and citizens.

AKP expects further international cooperation

Turkey’s open door policy was essentially based on the presumption that the Syrain civil war would come to an end in the short run. However the ongoing conflict is likely to drive more Syrians to flee their homes, maybe one million more according to the Turkish government.

Moreover, the situation of 680 000 Syrians who made it to the EU, via Turkey, is still unclear. There already was a strong European reluctance to grant asylum to such a high population. This reluctance may now mutate into a clear rejection after the Friday night’s Paris attacks taking 132 lives, as it was reported that one Islamic State linked suicide bomber had sneaked into the EU as a refugee from Syria.

The EU’s security based preoccupations may well prevail over humanitarian imperatives, resulting in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of refugees back to Turkey and taking additional measures to prevent the entry of further refugees.

All these factors are likely to urge the AKP government in contemplating new solutions to manage the upcoming episodes of the Syrian refugee crisis. Since the start, the Turkish government has aimed for international cooperation and action. In this regard a first step seems to be taken. The government is now preparing to engage in close cooperation with the EU on the basis of an action plan where it will be granted financial aid for keeping the refugees and controlling their movements.

Such an agreement may well relieve Ankara economically for some period, but the AKP’s main priority remains to incite the international community in creating safe zones in Northern Syria through eliminating both the IS and Assad forces. Thereafter, an important refugee population could be transferred to camps constructed in the region. So far the international community has been reluctant and it is very unlikely that Ankara would opt on its own for such a heavy engagement, by military and economic means. However, the increased security threats linked to the IS and Syrian civil war, as manifested by the recent Paris attacks, could drive the international community towards more field action.

The AKP is generous to its Syrian neighbors. However, according to the government’s current policies, it seems unlikely that it can improve their conditions without receiving international sympathy and cooperation. The fate of millions of refugees depends on to what extent the AKP and international community will have the ability to bring closer their visions.


Ozan Serdaroglu received his MA and Ph.D degrees from “Institut d’Etudes politiques” of Aix-en-Provence. Before joining the ISDP he was working as Assistant Professor and Director of Vocational School at the “European University of Lefke”. He has also been affiliated with “Institut de recherches et d’études sur le monde arabe et musulman”, UNESCO and the European Commission.

Dr.Serdaroglu is specialized in issues of political and economic development, collective action, regional integration, EU affairs and Euro-Turkish relations. Additionally he has research experience in voting behavior, intercultural communication, Turkish polity and entrepreneurship.