Turkey is home to more than four million refugees and even more could be added to that number if the situation in Syria deteriorates further.
Since 2011, the country has provided sanctuary to millions of Syrians in addition to around 500,000 asylum seekers fleeing oppression and war in other countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
These people amount to about five percent of Turkey’s population - a dramatic increase considering the number of refugees stood at just 58,000 before the Syrian crisis began.
The country also serves as a transit point for refugees and migrants trying to reach EU states, although the Turkish government has dramatically curbed the flow of those trying to cross over into the bloc since 2016.
Historically, Turkey’s location at the nexus of Europe and Asia, with North Africa not far away, has made it an ideal haven for those seeking safety.
Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and in the preceding decades, the country attracted Muslim communities from the Balkans, Crimea, and the Caucasus, who were fleeing persecution on account of their faith. The descendants of these refugees, who numbered close to two million at the time, are now integrated Turkish citizens in all aspects of society.
A sanctuary for Syrians
More than 6.7 million Syrians have fled their country and with 3.6 million living within its border, Turkey is the largest single destination, amounting to 51 percent overall.
According to Dr Frank Duevell of the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research (DeIZM), this trend was largely explained by a humanitarian element within Turkish culture.
“What is surprising is the social and political silence and the lack of collective panic in the face of the influx of refugees,” he told TRT World.
According to Turkish Interior Ministry statistics, Syrians are mainly based in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa - and Turkey’s industrial cities close to the Syrian border.
“Turkey and its people are dedicated to doing our best for peaceful coexistence with all asylum seekers,” said Fatih Mert Demira of the Turkish Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants.
But beyond a welcoming attitude in the aftermath of the 2011 conflict, there are characteristics of the Turkish economy and society that have allowed Syrians to settle easily in the country.
In an interview with TRT World, Professor M. Murat Erdogan of the German-Turkish University’s (TAU) Migration and Integration Research Center outlined several characteristics that made Turkey well suited to handle the influx of refugees.
One of these was the solidarity shown by working class Turks to the Syrians fleeing their country, and the other was a culture of mobility ingrained in the lives of many Turks.
“With over five million Turks living abroad, and millions of Turkish citizens moving around the country, [our] people are used to migration and do not feel estranged from different cultures,” Professor Erdogan said.
Erdogan explained further that the benefits of the refugee influx were two-way and that host countries also stood to gain from the skills, capital, and manpower.
“Turkey and other countries hosting large numbers of refugees rely on academics, scientists and intellectuals among the refugee community to build an internal mechanism for building bridges between the majority society and those who sought refuge,” Professor Erdogan said.
Costs of hosting refugees
The hosting of refugees is much more than just opening the gates and considerable investment is required on the part of the host state to ensure refugees are integrated properly.
According to UN calculations, Turkey has spent $37bn on the well being of refugees by ensuring their healthcare needs, education, and housing needs -at 22 refugee camps- are met.
Around 30,000 Syrian refugees attend Turkish universities and as of January 2019, this year 645,000 Syrian refugee children attend primary and secondary schools as well.
Such conditions, have in part, prevented Syrian refugees from feeling the need to move beyond Turkish borders to the EU.
Despite the refugee crisis of 2015 to 2016, and the global focus on how many refugees were arriving in the EU and Western states, the number is still pale in comparison to the number living in Turkey.
Besides Germany, which took 770,000 refugees and Sweden, which took 116,000, the numbers of Syrian refugees individual EU states have taken lie in the tens of thousands.
Further refugee flow into Europe was stemmed after an agreement between Turkey and the EU to the tune of $6.63bn, under which Turkey agreed to step up prevention of refugees moving out of its border towards Europe and in return got funds to help secure its borders, as well as a promise of visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens to visit Europe. The latter promise, however, has not materialised and talks are still ongoing.
In the meantime, Turkey finds itself having to deal with a new potential crisis alone. As Russian and Syrian planes bombard opposition-held Idlib, Syrian civilians could seek refuge in Turkey and further afield.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayipp Erdogan has cautioned that in the event of a new crisis, his country would let them go from Turkey to “wherever they want”.
According to researcher Enes Guzel at TRT World’s Research Center: “Turkey has already fulfilled its responsibilities more than enough and yet, the EU still free-rides on Turkey’s sacrifice and treats the country as a refugee depot.”