Turkey’s Education Policies towards Syrian Refugees: A Macro-level Analysis

K. Onur Unutulmaz

International Migration, Volume 57, Issue 2 (2019), Pages 235-252



This study discusses the transformation of Turkey’s education policies towards Syrian refugees. The author analyzes education policies towards refugees in countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees and identifies five common challenges: (1) the language barrier is an impediment to accessing education (except in Jordan where the schools teach in Arabic); (2) bullying, discrimination and hostility towards refugee children are obstacles to children enrolling/staying in school; (3) resource gaps, including funding, physical infrastructure and human resources; (4) coordination problems due to multiple state and non-state actors at the local, national and international levels; and (5) the unique context and dynamics in each situation which militates against the application of a single policy in all contexts.

Turkey’s approach to the education of Syrians in the country has evolved from one characterized by almost complete neglect and a laissez-faire attitude with respect to education provided by various civil society actors to one defined by a state strategy of full integration. This happened in three overlapping stages:

  • A laissez-faire attitude towards community-based education, shaped by a vision of temporariness (2011-2014). Education provided to Syrians was in Arabic, and therefore did not create any language barrier. The curriculum and teaching materials were not centrally controlled.
  • A mixed education model under strict government control with extensive involvement from local, national and international NGOs, shaped by growing security concerns about the increasing number of Syrians and by the emerging realization of the strong likelihood of their long-term presence in Turkey (2014–present).
  • A strategy aiming to fully integrate all Syrians into the Turkish formal education system, shaped by the growing realization that at least a significant part of the Syrian population in Turkey will be permanent (2016–2018/2019 onwards).

In explaining why such a radical transformation has taken place in the education policies towards Syrians, three factors appear to be the most significant: (a) the general perception of and political vision for Syrian refugees by the Turkish state—education policies are both a manifestation of and an instrument through which this political vision is materialized and declared; (b) the recognition of the close relationship between education policies and the prospects of integrating Syrians socially, culturally and economically into Turkish society; and (c) security concerns at national as well as local levels.

While the current strategy of complete integration of Syrians into formal education system is positive, it also brings about a number of significant challenges including: the difficulty of securing the necessary additional human resources, physical infrastructure and finances; the structure and existing problems of Turkey’s national education system; the dominant emphasis on cultural homogeneity in building a national identity and its mistrust of ethnic and cultural diversity; the lack of a comprehensive immigration and integration policy; the increasing securitization and politicization of the issue of Syrian refugees; and resistance on the part of Syrian refugees arising from fears of assimilation and the importance they attach to the Arabic language.


Syria | Turkey