When a Refugee is more than a Refugee: The Economic and Intellectual Strengths of the Syrian Refugees in Turkey

*Source: Mika Kraft – Tumblr ©

When a Refugee is more than a Refugee: The Economic and Intellectual Strengths of the Syrian Refugees in Turkey

The Syrian refugee issue has come to the spotlight all over the world, particularly since the body of a young Syrian boy washed up on the shore of Turkey, and on to social media. Unfortunately, these kinds of incidents are occurring on a daily basis, however not a single country in the world has sincerely proposed a viable solution for the prolonged misery of the Syrian people. Since 2011 Turkey has hosted the highest number of Syrian refugees, with the number believed to be between 2 to 3 million people. With growing anti-Syrian sentiments amongst the Turkish population and the impending switch from UNHCR control to police mediation over this crisis, it is more important than ever to discuss what Syrian refugee communities are contributing to the country.

The economic strengths of Syrians

The Syrian migrants in Turkey are not just people seeking asylum and waiting for help from the Turkish government. Among the millions migrants, thousands of them are businessmen who brought a great amount of capital with them to Turkey. The amount of US dollars in the Turkish banks from the Syrians is believed to be higher than 4 billion. The report also indicates that cooperation between Syrian and Turkish economic elites can lead to a win-win game, alleviating the so-called economic or social burdens from the Syrians. The Syrian businessmen register companies or factories in the Turkish cities, and are mostly working in regional or international trade. This flow of capital from Syria to Turkey lends economic strength to the Turkish economy. In addition of the establishment of the more than 10,000 Syrian companies, the living expenses which spent by the Syrian refugees in Turkey and the cheap labor forces provided by Syrians are two other main economic contributions Syrian refugees give to Turkey.

Consequently, although people are highly critical of the settlement of Syrians inside the Turkish cities, the living expenses paid by the Syrians and the cheap labor forcers provided by Syrian workers cannot be ignored. “We work longer, and we got paid less. We also spend money on the living here in Turkey. We do not ask money from other people,” one Syrian worker in Istanbul argued.

Syrians living in Turkish cities either use the money they have brought with them from Syria, or work in any kind of labour-intensive work, such as porters, in order to support themselves. “I work 12 hours a day, and I paid only half of the salary of the local people. My brother is also working, too. And I need to use this money to rent a place to stay, not only for me, but for my family,” said Ahmed, a 22 years old Syrian who is working in a Turkish dessert shop. This is just one case out of the millions of Syrian workers in Turkey, many of whom are working just as hard as him, earning their money in Turkey and spending it in Turkey.

The intellectually potentials of Syrians

As well as laborers, hundreds to thousands of Syrian refugees are doctors and engineers, similarly many are youths who are passionate in knowledge seeking. These Syrian youths are the new blood and future pillars of the Syrian community. The professional skills, potential, and knowledge are the intellectual capital possessed by this group of Syrian refugees should not be negated.

Although the Turkish government provides a fairly decent medical system for the Syrian community; however, this has an impact on the medical budgets for the Turkish side. Although a viable solution to this would be integrating skilled Syrian medical professionals into the healthcare system, this is not being done. Syrian doctors who were forced to move to Turkey due to the war have complained that they are not allowed to work in Turkey. “Before the war, I used to be a gynecologist in Syria. Now, even though I still have the medical skill for doing a surgery, but the Turkish government does not allow me to do so. I want to help, I am not a beggar, I am a doctor,” said Mustafa, who used to be a gynecologist in pre-war Syria. Syrian engineers are facing the same situation.

Finally, the majority of the youth Syrians are desperate to continue their university studies in Turkey. “I want to complete my university study in Turkey, and my family is supporting me for doing this. I do not need a scholarship, I just need a place to complete my study,” said Mohammad, who is registered at an English institute in Turkey, learning English for 3 months and already speaks near fluent English. Thousands of the Syrian youths are like Mohammad, who have the intention of completing their studies and paying tuition fees in Turkey, however, for many reasons need to flee Turkey for Europe.

Who is coming to Turkey? And who are leaving? Why?

The cooperation between the Turkish government and its Syrian businessmen is a crucial and fundamental policy which the government should pay attention to as everyday there are new Syrian investors, with full pockets, coming from other countries to begin investing in Turkey. However, at the same time, many Syrians are also risking their life and paying hundreds of thousands of US dollars to the human smuggling syndicate. The payment for smuggling is not an affordable price for many Syrians, which means that the ones who choose to leave Turkey to Europe are comparatively in a much better economic condition than most. For instance, six interviewees who have recently made the treacherous journey to Europe, they came from a background as businessman’s son, engineer’s son, high school teacher’s son, a doctor, and the other two have worked in Turkey for 2 years in order to save enough money to pay illegal smuggling rings. The migration of some Syrians to Europe superficially seems to be an alleviation of the refugee pressure on Turkey, however, unfortunately, most of the one who choose to leave Turkey are the one who are comparatively better educated and from better economic conditions. So why they are leaving?

I asked Mohammad this question. Since Mohammad is from a middle class family in Syria he was well educated in the pre-war era. He stated, “I really like Turkey, but the problem is, my Syrian passport is going to be expired. And I cannot renew it from the Syrian consulate in Turkey. What should I do? Go back to Syria? I don’t see a future for me here in Turkey, even though the Turkish government is helping us.” There are thousands of people like Mohammad who come from a decent economic background with professional skills, and are the intellectual elites of the Syrians refugees in Turkey.

In addition to Mohammad, Majid is another young guy in his yearly 20s, who recently sneak to Sweden. He has worked in a café in Turkey for 2 years. The reason for him to flee Turkey is similar as Mohammad, “I wish to complete my university study here in Turkey, so I work hard every for 10 hours, and I also learn the speaking Turkish from the people. However, after two years of working and living here in Turkey, I did not see a future. All the salaries I earned I need to send a portion of it back to Syria to my family, and the rests I need to pay for the house rent and living here. It’s impossible for me to study in the university here, rather just working everyday routinely, without knowing the end. I’m hopeless to stay in Turkey,” said Majid, who also forced to leave Turkey because he couldn’t complete his study here in Turkey.

The Turkish government has already provided far better policies towards Syrians, compared with the rest of the world. However, these policies can be improved upon in a manner by which both the Turks and Syrians can be benefited. First of all, new policies regarding Syrians legal status in Turkey is imperative since most of the people fleeing Turkey to Europe are doing so because of the expiration of their legal documents, or because they do not see a clear future for them to stay in Turkey without working permission. Secondly, it is possible to transform the economic drain of Syria into an economic gain if there is mutual cooperation between the Turkish government and Syrian business people. This can boost the local economy, create job opportunities for the people inside Turkey, and attract other Syrian businessmen who are based in other countries to invest in Turkey. Thirdly, the provision of working permission for the Syrians is a regulation for pacifying the Syrians regarding their uncertain stay in Turkey, who are currently working hard in the country. Especially for the doctors and engineers, the recruitment of them into the Turkish professional sectors can also help the shortage of medical resources and enhance the Turkish construction field. Finally, the facilitation of the Syrian youths to continue their studies in Turkey is another way to keep this new generation of Syrian brains to stay calm and stay inside Turkey.

Syrians are not merely the resourceless and disadvantaged people the media has portrayed, but they can be integrated into the Turkish society and contribute to the local economy and social infrastructure that is if a more complete policy towards Syrians inside Turkey can be constructed. By encouraging Syrian investments in Turkey, giving work permission to Syrians (especially to highly skilled workers such as doctors and engineers), facilitating Syrian youths entrance into Turkish universities, and by considering concrete and a complete solutions regarding Syrian legal documents, the Turkish government can promote a better environment for both Turkish citizens and Syrians living in the community.

Ching-An Chang, PhD Candidate, Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh

Chang, Ching-An, “When a Refugee is more than a Refugee: The Economic and Intellectual Strengths of the Syrian Refugees in Turkey” Independent Turkey, 16 November 2015, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: http://researchturkey.org/?p=10038

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