Syrian refugees in Turkey and the changing concept of Turkish citizenship

Granting citizenship to Syrians in Turkey is a topic of discussion today more than ever before. So far, more than 50,000 Syrians have acquired Turkish citizenship. This has ignited debates among the Turkish public, primarily due to the provocative media coverage of the topic and increasing nationalism in Turkey.

 Granting citizenship to Syrians in Turkey is a topic of discussion today more than ever before. So far, more than 50,000 Syrians have acquired Turkish citizenship. This has ignited debates among the Turkish public, primarily due to the provocative media coverage of the topic and increasing nationalism in Turkey.

Citizenship is considered a pillar of any long-term integration process. In this regard, there have been two major undertakings regarding the naturalisation of Syrians in Turkey: the change of discourse about Turkish citizenship and the change in practices of granting citizenship to Syrian refugees.

The changing discourse of Turkish citizenship

Since the early days of the republic, Turkish citizenship has been conservative and limited in nature. The Republic of Turkey built its notion of the nation-state and citizenship through a single ethnic, religious and cultural identity. Although non-Muslim groups were given legal status as minorities and therefore excluded from the ideal Turkish national identity, there were attempts to assimilate non-Turk Muslim groups – for example, the Kurds – into the ideal Turkish national identity.

The very definition of Turk is problematic, with the multi-ethnic imperial roots of the country giving “Turk” a religious definition rather than an ethnic one. Therefore, in the early republic, being a Turk wasn’t solely an ethnic identity but rather an ethnic and religious concept that represented the ideal national identity. Different political parties and political agendas have since challenged this conceptualisation. After years of ignoring the existence of ethnic minority groups, the former President of Turkey Süleyman Demirel was one of the few politicians to acknowledge “the Kurdish reality”. Demirel acknowledged the fact that Kurds in Turkey were not solely “mountain Turks”, as was claimed in the early republican period, but a non-Turk ethnic group which lives in Turkey.

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