Syrians in Istanbul: Pawns in Chess

Since the breakout of the civil war in Syria in March 2011, 465.000 civilians have lost their lives, more than a million got injured, and over 12 million people, accounting […]

Since the breakout of the civil war in Syria in March 2011, 465.000 civilians have lost their lives, more than a million got injured, and over 12 million people, accounting for half of the country’s pre-war population, fled their homes as Al Jazeera reports. Casualties of the civil war have affected not only Syria but its neighbours as well. And Turkey is one of the primary countries carrying the burden of the Syrian civil war.

As we are through the seventh year of the civil war, official numbers released by the immigration office of Turkish government indicate that Turkey currently hosts 256.971 refugees in twenty-six temporary refuge centres located in ten Turkish cities close to the Syrian border. Outside these centres, there are over 2.5 million Syrians registered by the immigration office who receive health, education and food aid.

Almost one in five of 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey, about half a million of them, are living in Istanbul. Some Syrians have succeeded to start businesses, mostly restaurants. For instance, Fatih district of Istanbul is abundant in Syrian restaurants, and a lot of them have been met with approval. Yet many of them are struggling to make a living and either panhandle or work at temporary jobs illegally.

One of those many Syrians is a fourteen-year-old boy with an unknown name. He tells his story on 140Journos’ series titled “Now, Here:”

My father was working, and I was studying. Life used to be beautiful. Since we came here, my father hasn’t been well. So, I must work. I would now be studying if I were in Syria. Still, life is beautiful here. My father had a textile business, but it fell through. We would not be able to make a living if I didn’t study. A person needs a little bit of money. When we fled our country due to the war, there were guns. When we went home, there were dead people inside. When we entered the place, some man instantly took us. He left us at a silent place in Bursa. We worked there for a month. Since my uncle was here [in Istanbul], we came here later. Thanks to them, my life is beautiful. But I must work. My father is handicapped. Yet, life is beautiful. I wake up early in the morning. It is difficult for me because I must go to work. I don’t want to get up at all, but I get up at 8 a.m. Then I go to work. Some people over there yell at me. One regular workday of mine is very difficult. In the evening I come home, have a shower, spend some fun time with my family and go to bed. I work until half-past eight or nine. Even when I do something slightly wrong at work, they start yelling. They are never silent.

You can listen to the original recording here:

Just like this little man not utterly happy with his life in Turkey, many in Turkey also feel disturbed regarding the existence of Syrian refugees in the country. As more and more of them came to Istanbul over the course of the civil war, there sparkled a debate among local residents. Most people have argued that existence of this many Syrians in Istanbul without any firm state control has caused discrepancies in the city. A couple of such discrepancies are as follows:

In a dispute between Syrians and Turks in Mehmet Akif Neighbourhood, people took to streets to attack the Syrians in the area. (Milliyet, September 14th, 2017).

In Istanbul, Başakşehir, there erupted a serious fight between Turks and Syrian refugees in Ziya Gökalp neighbourhood. The Syrians in the neighbourhood had to run away from the district. Some people gathered in the district square to protest the government policy on Syrians (Habertempo, June 13th, 2014).

One can easily get access to dozens of such news through a simple Google search. They range from murder to rape, from robbery to kidnapping. However, the problematic part about most of the news circulating online regarding Syrians in Turkey is their credibility. Indeed, quite a few of such news are simply fake and are published for attracting more viewers. For instance,, a Turkish website dedicated to verifying the online news, has published a report of thirteen popular and false news stories:

Syrian refugees in Istanbul

Most of these stories are centred around the government aid Syrians have been getting. The Internet is actually full of false news claiming that Turkish government has been granting a wide range of rights to Syrians that are not granted to even Turkish citizens. For example, it has been claimed that Syrians in Turkey can get into whatever university they want without any examination. Or, that Syrians in Turkey are being paid a certain amount of wage that is higher than minimum wage in Turkey.

Syria refugees are aided by a few organizations in Turkey like the Red Crescent, AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Aid Agency), and Ministry of Family and Social Policies. Nonetheless, the claimed amount of aid is nowhere near the actual amount of aid Syrians have been getting.

Contrary to those who are not pleased with the Syrians in Istanbul, some, mostly conservative, argue that it is no less than a duty for Turkey to help ‘its Syrian brothers.’ However, the reason behind Turkey keeping this many Syrians within its border does not seem so much to be out of religious brotherhood. The current, much-debated President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once threatened the UN to ‘open the doors’ and let the Syrians in Turkey move towards Europe if sufficient funds, namely €3 billion, were not granted. Accordingly, it would not come as a surprise that Erdogan has been keeping Syrians as a leverage against Europe. And more importantly, Syrians might become the game-changers of the next presidential elections if enough of them are given citizenships, which Erdogan said he has been thinking about.

Syrians in Turkey are described in different ways by different groups. For some, they are fat and happy; some others think they are just poor Muslims trying to survive. And apparently, a few people think they are pawns in chess.

Yet, there is one thing true for sure: with the Syrian civil war far from an end, and Syrians in Istanbul growing in population, more turmoil and discrepancies await Istanbul.

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