Turkey hosts the highest number of refugees globally. While various economic sectors and cities prosper through the workforce of asylum seekers, some local mayors have adopted hostile rhetoric.
AK Party victories in previously HDP-led areas, including Bingol, Sirnak, Bitlis, and Agri in the Turkish local elections in March 2019 was a significant moment signalling the political and ever-changing dynamics in Turkey.
These wins were attributed largely to significant investments in the development and infrastructure in these previously underdeveloped regions. These investments by the central government indicated strongly the benefits of having inclusive governance.
Increasingly, however, there has been heightening rhetoric against one minority in particular which has been perpetuated by opposition parties during multiple elections, particularly when it comes to the Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Given that many Syrian refugees now call Turkey their home, and will continue to stay and rebuild their lives in their newly adopted country this strategy doesn’t bode well. Representing fear as fact, opposition politicians’, particularly CHP and IYI Party politicians’, rhetoric is not informed by evidence that clearly reveals economic benefits gained by Turkey for hosting Syrian refugees.
During the Turkish local elections in March 2019, opposition politicians, particularly from the CHP and IYI Party, implied that money directed toward the rehabilitation of Syrian refugees was a misuse of funds, potentially aimed at winning favour from Turkish voters. While this is not to say that Syrian refugees, or any other refugees for that matter, are not without cost to any government in the world, research pertaining to Syrian refugees in Turkey points towards growing investments, trade and entrepreneurship by Syrian refugees that have given back to Turkish society.
Turkish businesses have been able to benefit from employing skilled Syrian workers. And Syrian workers, according to research, have contributed to increased consumer spending power in regions with a high number of them. Unfortunately, opposition politicians choose to instead emphasize the negative consequences of hosting Syrian refugees as part of the workforce, framing them either as victims or freeloaders who rely on the Turkish taxpayers’ money.
They have not left their rhetoric on the campaign trail alone. After winning the local election, Tanju Ozcan, the CHP mayor of Bolu province said that he had “told voters that this aid has reached an unbearable level. We have cared for them [Syrian refugees] for seven years, giving them our children’s livelihood. After this, I won’t give a single penny to Syrian refugees from the Bolu Municipality budget.”
Ozcan also plans to refuse business licenses to Syrian refugees, another one of his campaign promises. Unlike the CHP mayor in Bolu’s plan of cutting aid to Syrian refugees and planning to cancel business licenses for them, developing and implementing policies that encourage integration and promote a win-win approach, could actually benefit Turkish society.
Syrian businesspeople have transferred considerable capital, physical and financial, to establish new businesses in Turkey, and they have contributed to significant employment opportunities for both Syrians and Turks. By 2017, in the formal sector alone, the businesses of Syrian refugees had invested $334 million in the Turkish economy. By cancelling Syrians’ business licenses or not facilitating them at all, any economic gains made or to be made in the future will be lost.
Additionally, Turkey’s demographic window of opportunity, as per projections, began in the 2000s and was expected to last until 2030. However, due to the arrival of Syrian refugees, this window has been extended to at least 2040; as approximately 60 percent of Syrian refugees are of working age, while only two percent are of retirement age. The rest are below 18, with 1 million children below the age of 10.
To fully benefit from the expanded demographic window of opportunity afforded by the arrival of young Syrian refugees though, instead of partaking in divisive rhetoric, it is vital that politicians adopt policies and programs that promote shared prosperity and community integration. For example, teacher training can be provided to Turkish citizens who can then be gainfully employed while teaching Syrian refugees, which would enable them to be a productive member of their communities in turn.
Another way forward could be microenterprise training for vulnerable refugee women without education or capital, to become childcare providers, which will not only enable refugee women to support themselves, but it will also help the Turkish government to integrate more Turkish women into the workforce by offering subsidized childcare services in underserved areas.
If newly appointed local government officials such as Tanju Ozcan continue to view Syrian refugees as a burden and not as the opportunity they present, they most likely will not only lose out on the economic benefits that are on offer but also risk losing the next election.
There is a reason HDP did not win southeastern Turkish provinces. It focused on playing the divisive ethnic identity political card and not on ensuring economic progress, and consequently, community development.