The Politics of Syrian Refugees in Turkey: A Question of Inclusion and Exclusion through Citizenship

Sebnem Koser Akcapar and Dogus Simsek

Social Inclusion, Volume 6, Issue 1 (2018), Pages 176-187


This article explores the changing concept of citizenship in Turkey following the arrival of Syrian refugees, and evaluates the conditions and rationale for extending Turkish citizenship to Syrians. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians under temporary protection (excluding unregistered Syrians and those with residence permits). An important turning point in the legal status of Syrian refugees was the amendment to the citizenship law to permit naturalization. The authors argue that this was a direct outcome of recent migration flows and pressures to successfully integrate migrants into Turkish society. The law remains selective, targeting Syrians with cultural and economic capital, and those from a Sunni background, to facilitate their acceptance by the host society in the context of rising tensions in many major cities in Turkey. They argue that citizenship is used both as a reward for skilled migrants and a way to engage them in the integration of unskilled and uneducated migrants. It also reflects other social, political and demographic concerns of the Turkish government, e.g. shrinking population, fear of losing qualified Syrians to the West, possible backlash if unskilled masses are given citizenship, etc.

Using a recent ethnographic study of Syrians and local populations in two main refugee-hosting cities in Turkey, Istanbul and Gaziantep, the authors identify the successes and weaknesses of this strategy by exemplifying the views of Syrian refugees on gaining Turkish citizenship and the reactions of Turkish nationals. They find that Syrian refugees in Turkey prefer dual citizenship because it would give them increased mobility and access to rights, retirement options and business opportunities in two countries. Most Turkish people (86 percent), regardless of their political affiliations and voting behavior, would like Syrian refugees to repatriate when the war is over. The authors caution that citizenship alone is not enough to foster integration or eliminate discrimination and social exclusion in society, and integration policies are urgently needed.