It has been a year since the February 6th earthquakes ripped through southern Turkey and northern Syria. The 7.8 magnitude quake and several tremors directly affected more than 9.1 million people in Turkey, among them 1.7 million Syrian and numerous other refugees. The next day found the country shaken by a wave of anti-refugee policies and rhetoric never seen before. What is the situation today in Turkey, which continues to be the world’s largest refugee-hosting country?
It has been a year since the February 6th earthquakes ripped through southern Turkey and northern Syria. In Turkey, a political response came in the wake of the natural disaster, with waves of anti-refugee policies and rhetoric emanating like aftershocks. This led to a tumultuous presidential and parliamentary election campaign where refugees were put in the spotlight, as nativist parties and frustrated residents pushed the dominant parties to canvass on an aggressively anti-migrant platform.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) eventually won reelection. While many refugees were hoping that the election aftermath would clip the political vilification that had been levied against them, unfortunately, the opposite has happened. Turkish authorities have increased arrests, detentions, and deportations of refugees. With nationwide municipal elections in March, where Istanbul and other urban hubs are at play, the situation for refugees will likely go from difficult to even worse off.
From open-door policies to major restrictions
Despite these developments, Turkey continues to be the world’s largest refugee-hosting country. It is home to over 3.3 million Syrians under temporary protection, over 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers, 1.3 million foreigners with residence permits and an unknown number of irregular migrants.
Turkey’s location has long made it a transit country of irregular migration enroute to Europe for millions of migrants from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and more. However, it first became a country of positive net migration when President Erdogan ushered in an open-door policy that led to Syrians escaping war that broke out in 2011. They were first called “guests” similar to the the Gastarbeiter in post-war Germany. The Turkish government passed the 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection to regulate asylum practices, and subsequently made a 2016 agreement with the European Union, committing to assist their efforts to prevent irregular migration to the bloc. In return, the European Union established a fund that has spent 6 billion Euros so far on supporting refugees in the country. There was also meant to be international facilitated resettlement, which has proven slow (only 64,444 Syrians under temporary protection have emigrated as of this year).
Other nationalities, including Iraqis, Afghans, and Iranians, also do not have official refugee status in Turkey. With only international protection, they face the same challenges but have even less rights and guarantees than Syrians. There are also undocumented people who are completed unprotected.
Turkey struggled to accommodate the unprecedented number of refugees, especially as the population experienced an economic crisis starting in 2018, which led to an uptick in social tensions. Research found in 2020 that only 23% of Turkish citizens would accept a Syrian bride or groom into their family, or consider having a Syrian as a business partner, and only 31% would want to have their child educated in a class with a Syrian in it. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the then-leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), said after the 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which led to between 500-2,000 Afghans arriving each day to Turkey:
The real survival problem of our country is the flood of refugees. Now we are caught in the Afghan flood.
Both unable to fully integrate refugees, as well as facilitate voluntary repatriation, the government offered some the pathway to Turkish citizenship. The government announced in December 2023 that 238,000 Syrians under temporary protection have been naturalized. All the while, the government also enacted policies to make life harder for refugees and migrants. For example, Turkey began restricting how many foreigners can live in specific neighborhoods. Such polarization only increased following the destructive earthquakes in early 2023.
The 7.8 magnitude quake and several tremors directly affected more than 9.1 million people in Turkey — 1.7 million of whom are Syrian refugees under temporary protection — and left widespread destruction of buildings and infrastructure. It killed more than 50,000 across the country — including more than 7,300 refugees. Those displaced sought shelter in anything left standing, until humanitarians could setup camps.
Aid was slow to reach victims, as well as it was inequitable. In one of many events, displaced Syrians being housed in a dormitory in the Mediterranean city of Mersin were forced to leave overnight to make way for Turks. NGOs later reported that refugees did not receive mobile container homes until displaced residents received them first. Organizations found that women outside of a family did not receive their own tents. Needs assessments found that women limited their food consumption to ensure others were fed and “preferred” to drink less water to avoid the toilet, underlining both health and security concerns. Refugee women and girls experienced violence in container camps and anti-migrant rhetoric notably blocked some from seeking assistance and accessing services. The disaster deepened the suffering of millions of refugees in Turkey, and left those affected in isolated Northwest Syria to fend for themselves.
The majority of refugees had to relocate. Typically, those under temporary or international protection status couldn’t move outside their registered province without government travel permits. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the government, however, temporarily lifted this travel ban for those registered in the six most affected provinces, leading many to relocate to urban hubs elsewhere in Turkey as well as some travelling to Northwest Syria, taking advantage of an offer to return back within a stipulated time. Most faced rent increases, physical damage to their homes, ongoing economic challenges, and rising discrimination.
Deportations and pushbacks
Post-disaster grief immediately gave way to an ugly presidential and parliamentary election campaign in Turkey where refugees were in the spotlight. A month after earthquake, the main opposition presidential candidate, Kılıçdaroğlu, traveled to the Turkish-Syrian border, where he vowed to send Syrian refugees back within two years. He also said he would send Afghans to Iran. President Erdogan announced a plan to repatriate one million Syrians to northern Syria. The xenophobic Zafer party spread rumors that Syrians looted shops in the badly-damaged Hatay province. Anti-refugee sentiment and hate crimes rose throughout the country, and voters and politicians blamed them for hyperinflation, a sputtering domestic economy, and even the cause of the earthquake itself. The AKP, which was seen as the least anti-migrant of the main contenders, did win, a key takeaway from the election was that refugees were no longer wanted.
Shortly after, the Turkish government started a major crackdown of those residing and working without proper permits. Authorities started to intercept undocumented migrants and refugees found outside their respective province without permission. Previously, those found outside the province they were registered in would be returned there. However, there are increasing reports of detainment and deportation. This includes refugees who relocated from the earthquake-affected provinces, as the government poorly communicated the relaxed travel permissions. Syrian refugees are now increasingly being deported from detention centers directly to Northwest Syria. At least one Syrian at a removal center died while in detention. Such raids happened prior to the election, but they are being reported with increasing frequency, as refugees, especially those displaced by the earthquake, are increasingly vulnerable.
In the second half of last year, Turkey also became the latest country, following Pakistan and Iran, to step up deportations of Afghans back to their country. From October-November 2023, approximately 3,900 Afghans were deported to Kabul through charter flights. Other evidence suggests that Afghans have been pushed back to Iran over the land border. This comes after Turkey deported some 50,000 Afghans back to their country in 2022.
The Turkish government states that such deportations are voluntary, but there are first-hand accounts and reports that detainees are coerced into signing such voluntary repatriation documents. The 1951 Geneva Convention bars signatory states — including Turkey — from returning refugees to places where they might be put in danger. For example, previous refugees who have returned to Syria have since disappeared, which is one reason why those in Turkey do not feel safe returning.
The fear of deportation and potential disappearance has pushed thousands of refugees to try to seek asylum in Europe. Last year saw the highest number of apprehended smugglers on record in Turkey, according to official government statistics. In October 2023, the European Union Agency of Asylum reported 123,000 asylum applications, the highest since the 2015-16 refugee crisis — with Syrians lodging by far the most applications.
Proposals for the future
Turkey will hold nationwide municipal elections next month, and the refugee topic will likely play into candidates attempts to attract voters. All eyes are on Istanbul, which represents a quarter of the Turkish population and nearly half of Turkey’s GDP, and which is the hometown of Erdogan and, is controlled by CHP, the main opposition. Erdogan’s mayoral candidate, Murat Kurum, started on the campaign trail by going to Fatih, the district with the highest number of refugees in Istanbul, and said “We've to manage the problem of [Syrians]”. He vowed to make the streets safe again, rhetoric that taps into anti-migrant sentiments. Istanbul’s CHP mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, won the municipal elections back in 2019, calling out Erdogan’s earlier open-door policy that made Turkey the largest host of refugees in the world. The mayoral candidate for Zafer, the most xenophobic of Turkey’s parties, said he would make Istanbul so unbearable for migrants that they would leave. Although immigration policies are primarily crafted at the national level, the upcoming elections will only put additional stress on refugees, who are dealing with racism, raids, and a rise in the cost of living.
This year will also see further cuts to the Syrian humanitarian sector as well as with other refugee communities, with concurrent crises in Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine, and counting. Strains on resources will put additional pressure on host countries like Turkey, who will pass the burden on to refugees, who are squeezed by the country they are in, unable to return home, and may be pushed to make the trip to Europe. But additional international aid can expand support for refugee programs and help reduce the weight being place on them. This should focus on initiatives providing legal awareness education and Turkish language training. Donors should continue to support efforts to move out of the informal market, where they face exploitation from employers and accusations of stealing jobs and evading taxes from employees, and into legal employment, where they can help in post-earthquake reconstruction efforts and in their own integration. Donors should also revise the current restriction that moving into formal employment makes refugees ineligible for cash assistance programs, especially in their first year due to uncertain job security. For their part, the Turkish government should allow more flexibility for refugees to work in a province that best matches their job prospects, as opposed to pinning them to where they are registered. Moreover, legal pathways for refugees to reach a third country safely — including resettlement, family reunification, employee visa schemes and more — can help provide relief to those betwixt and between.
The upcoming year will not be easy for anyone. In January, 50% more refugees as compared to this time last year tried to escape from Turkey by sea and 160% more tried to leave across the western land border. For refugees, better support and a more stable footing is needed now to help them stand on their own. If not, the steady decline in their fortunes will only continue.
 Turkey has a geographical limitation relating to refugee status, so Turkey is not obliged to grant refugee status to asylum seekers coming from outside Europe. An applicant for international protection who does not originate from Europe and is recognized as a refugee on the basis of the 1951 Convention is granted conditional refugee status. This provides less protection compared to that available to refugees coming from Europe.
This article first appeared here: gr.boell.org