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Syrians' varying views of Turkish citizenship

Kürsat Akyol, Istanbul / po
July 14, 2016

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's announcement that Syrian refugees living in Turkey could receive citizenship sparked controversy. Syrians themselves hold mixed views on the matter.

Türkei Lina und ihr Sohn Aras in Istanbul
Image: DW/K. Akyol

Lina is among those pleased by Erdogan's announcement earlier this month that Syrians in Turkey could be granted Turkish citizenship "if they want it."

"From now on, for me life is here," Lina, a 29-year-old housewife, said while meeting with friends at the Social Aid and Solidarity Association in Istanbul.

Lina came to the association with her 9-year-old son, Aras. The group helps nearly 500 families, around 400 of which are Syrian, by providing food and clothing, helping children register for school and assisting them with homework.

Aras' father, a textile worker, cannot find a job and the family cannot pay their monthly rent of 600 TL ($207, 186 euros). Financial struggles are a common problem among the 2.75 million Syrian refugees officially in Turkey, though some estimates put this number at more than 3 million.

Turkey, which has taken in a record number of refugees, grants Syrians "temporary protection," and within the terms of the 1951 Geneva Convention, Turkey does not grant refugee status to those coming from outside of Europe.

Infografik Wo Flüchtlinge Asyl fanden (Ende 2015) Englisch

Erdogan's announcement that Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey would receive citizenship sparked a major controversy in the country. According to a recent poll, 90 percent of Turks are against it, but that hasn't stopped Erdogan from defending his proposal.

"There are many very qualified people. If we don't take them, they will go to the UK or Canada," Erdogan said .

Few skilled workers

But many of the refugees in Okmeydani were not among this group of "qualified" refugees. Apart from Lina, a middle school graduate, the others had only an elementary school education. According to a study from Ankara's Hacettepe University, just 5 percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey are skilled workers while nearly half are illiterate.

Ibrahim Alus, 50, was a marble worker in Syria, and works in the same trade now in Turkey. He has lived with his wife and six children, two of which are disabled, in what was formerly a small shop in Okmeydani for the past two years. He earns TL 300 a week, more than a third of which goes to paying rent. Alus said he was pleased by Erdogan's plan, believing it would enable him to get state aid for his disabled children.

Türkei Ibrahim Alus in Istanbul
Alus hopes citizenship could get his family help from the stateImage: DW/K. Akyol

Deljin, 25, came to Turkey three and a half years ago from the city of Qamishli and has two children, both born in Turkey, and said she see benefits to receiving Turkish citizenship.

"Citizenship is very good, it means work and ID cards for the children," she said. Official figures indicate that more than 150,000 Syrian refugee children were born in Turkey.

Türkei Deljin in Istanbul
Deljin sees benefits for her children if they have Turkish citizenshipImage: DW/K. Akyol

Textile worker Muhammed from Aleppo, however, did not look as favorably upon what the prospect of citizenship could mean for him, especially since a period of military service is mandatory for able-bodied male Turkish citizens.

"I'm 26, I escaped from the war, and I won't serve in the military here,” he said.

Gulistan Hasan had similar fears for her husband.

"I want citizenship, but if my husband goes to the military, it will be a problem," the 31-year-old woman said.

Citizenship criteria

Based on similar movements of migration, a number of experts have predicted that between 60 percent and 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey will permanently remain in the country. For this reason, experts have said measures should be taken assuming Syrians are in the country to stay. However, the most concrete step Turkey has taken so far came in February when it granted a limited number of work permits to Syrians.

"Citizenship will be granted initially based on criteria such as employment, education level, wealth, and urgency of one's situation," Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak said last week.

Muhammad Hasan said he is against this approach.

Türkei Muhammed Hasan in Istanbul
Muhammad Hasan said he doubts unskilled workers will receive Turkish citizenshipImage: DW/K. Akyol

"They will give citizenship to doctors, engineers, and those who are wealthy," said the 25-year-old chemist who works behind the counter of an Istanbul clothing store in the Istanbul district of Aksaray.

Many of the neighborhood's restaurants are owned by Syrians. The clients are Syrian too. "Apart from our languages, we're the same," said 22-year-old restaurant manager Ahmed Ibrahim.

Ibrahim's relative, 17-year-old Ali Izzedin has spent the last five years of his life as a refugee. He first went to Beirut, and has been living in Istanbul for the past three years.

"I went to classes and learned Turkish," Izzedin said. "Our family has a packaging factory in [the neighboring province of] Gebze, and we have three cars. I will do my military service."

One computer engineer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he believed the offer of citizenship was a political maneuver. When asked if he would take up the offer of citizenship if offered, the engineer took out the credit card-sized ID card that was given to him by the state: "This isn't even plastic. It's made of paper. This is a question I've never thought about. It will never happen, I'm 100 percent sure."

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