The Price of Approval for Erdoğan


Last week, President Recep Erdoğan authorized the Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria. The invasion followed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region and global condemnation of Turkish advances. 

While Turkish-Kurdish tension is an all too familiar conflict, the most recent offensive emerges as the result of a particular political agenda.

While the Turkish defense ministry asserts its actions are meant to create a safe zone for the resettlement of around 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey, it is a domestic economic and political maneuver for Erdoğan’s benefit.

How did a legal loophole pertaining to refugees institutionalized in the 1970s create the conditions which led to the perceived economic pressure informing Erdoğan’s military offensive? And will this plan solve the financial challenges native Turks face, as he claims? 

Refugees on boats
Image Source: Al Jazeera

Mounting internal pressures seem to be motivating the Turkish president to take action on the issue of the growing resident Syrian population. The Turkish economy is fighting inflation and rising unemployment and The President’s party faced political embarrassment in the elections this past year. Turkish citizens look to the Syrian population as a barrier to employment and opportunity. By pursuing a refugee resettlement strategy through military offensive, Erdoğan is validating public opinion positioning the Syrians as a scapegoat for natives’ financial hardship.

Following the outbreak of civil conflict in 2011, the UNHCR estimates approximately 5.6 million Syrians fled violence across international borders. Another 6.6 million people are displaced internally in Syria, not formally categorized as a refugee.  

A mass influx of asylum seekers in Europe garnered global attention and international policymakers quickly labeled this migration as “the crisis in Europe.” Approximately 1.2 million people attempted resettlement in Europe between the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and 2015.. To curb these efforts, the EU struck a deal with Turkey that offered economic support to the popular transit state in exchange for its reception of Syrians turned away from European entry via Mediterranean channels. 

This achieved the intended results in Europe, with around one million arrivals in 2015 dropping to under 200,000 in 2017.  Simultaneously, however, violence and displacement in Syria did not subside.

Turkey is now host to 3.6 million registered refugees, the vast majority having fled home in neighboring Syria. While these individuals are recognized as refugees by the UNHCR, Turkey does not technically consider them to be refugees. 

The 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, an international agreement and now cornerstone legal document defining refugee status and rights, was the product of massive displacement in Europe following World War II and the revision of geopolitical boundaries. This agreement was ratified by Turkey in 1962 as a response to the needs of European refugees and adopted in national law—but not without a crucial qualification. 

refugees in turkey
Image Source: The New York Times

Turkey would recognize the status and rights guaranteed to European refugees, but only those originating from Europe. Those arriving from countries outside Europe and seeking protection would be considered for Temporary Protected Status. 

This distinction is important because, under international law, those with refugee status are guaranteed a right to protection and are expected to be treated as any other legal resident-this includes the ability to access shelter, healthcare, education for children, and the other life-sustaining provisions that are necessary for human dignity.

In contrast, Temporary Protection Status provides no such guarantees.

Most notably, it does not permit them broad allowance to work. To combat these restrictions, many Syrians have established small businesses. Erdoğan has made attracting foreign investment a priority for his economic development plans but in recent years, he may have tapped into a surprising source.

In 2013, 122 registered Syrian-owned businesses attracted 39 million Turkish Lira in outside investment. This does not account for the engagement of the Syrian population with the informal sector, an attractive alternative for entrepreneurship in economic conditions restrictive for foreign nationals.  

Now Turkey is pursuing its long-term solution for displaced Syrians: sending them back to Syria.

The Trump administration, along with the United Nations and European Union, rebuke Erdoğan’s plan– warning that the intended military operation is “off-limits.” But these external pressures do not seem to be dissuading the Turkish president from pushing forward with this offensive.

syrian refugees
Image Source:  Brookings

There are consequences for Turkey if Erdoğan sees his plan for resettlement through. As millions of people are deported to Syria, their spending power, as provided by engagement in the informal economy and distributed humanitarian assistance, is deported with them. There are serious economic implications of deporting millions of people who have established businesses, clients, and investment networks.

The perception of the displaced Syrian population as the source of Turkish economic hardship echoes a familiar rallying cry of anti-migrant, native-first sentiment heard around the world. Erdoğan’s plan to deport the displaced population is short-sighted and politically motivated rather than an adequate valuation of the potential benefit of providing an opportunity for civic, and formal economic integration into the Turkish system. 

The legal restrictions placed on employment for the Syrian population created conditions in which the displaced population would find it very difficult to compete with natives in the formal sector. So while Erdoğan may win his battle by perpetuating cycles of displacement, the long-term development of the Turkish economy is a war Turkey will not win, not while displacing refugees. 

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