Refugees in Turkey need more assistance

By Elif Naz Guvenis and Joris Voorhoeve


There are about 70 million refugees in the world. Half of them are children. Most of them lead a precarious life in which their physical survival is at stake, not to speak of their right to a happy future. Every human being has the right to survival, but this is only guaranteed in rule-of-law democracies that truly apply national and international law.

Many of the lucky people who live in safe and prosperous states do not really want to receive more refugees in their countries. They are critical of so many newcomers, particularly if they are from very different cultures and have religions and political convictions which deviate from their own and from basic human rights. The return of nationalism in recent years to developed countries and perhaps more discrimination on race and religion, as well as fear or dislike of foreigners make it hard to let in very large numbers of refugees.

But where should these people go? Back on to sea? Back into a war zone? Back to a country destroyed or ruled by a violent dictator or criminal gangs? Or into a life in the EU as an illegal person, prone to fall into the hands of criminals and employers who exploit their weak position by paying extremely low wages?

In the Netherlands as in other EU states, there is some willingness to assist refugees. But not too many in The Netherlands itself. Furthermore, the populist rightwing parties agree that it would be good to assist refugees, but in their own region, or as close to that as possible. It is politically and economically practical indeed to search for such solutions, given the very large number of people in need and the probability of rising numbers due to inadequate government policies, war and environmental decay in the world.

Part of a solution is to better assist those countries that receive large numbers of refugees, such as Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Libya.  The Sen Foundation is doing some research on the questions these countries are faced with, starting with Turkey, as it has the largest number of very needy refugees. Amongst the many countries that host many refugees relative to the size of their population, three stand out: Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. Turkey approximately hosts 3.6 million [1] registered Syrians, over 157.000 [2] registered Afghans and around 300.000 refugees from other nationalities. The estimated total, including the non-registered migrants and refugees, is over 5 million [3]. Relative to the Turkish population this is almost 5%. One person in twenty is a refugee or an immigrant in Turkey. (A recount on the number of refugees has not taken place during the last year due to the pandemic.)

Such a large number in Turkey is a heavy task for a country that is not rich. The average income per capita in Turkey is half that of the Netherlands [4]. Turkey is also a country with serious social tensions between the “old school” nationalists, Kurds, and factions of conservatives. It has a Sunni Muslim majority, a new generation of seculars or reformists, including non-Muslim religious minorities. Turkey also has a wavering economy and maintains complicated relations with several of its neighbors: Greece, Armenia, Syria, and Iran.

The Turkish government is often criticized by members of NATO and the EU for its actions in  human rights and  foreign, defense and other policies. But let us be fair and not blind to what the Turkish government and population have to deal with: Turkey officially takes care of more than 3.6 million refugees and asylum seekers, in areas where living conditions are far from ideal. Many refugees have not found employment and many of the refugee children are not attending school. Returning to Syria or Afghanistan is not an option at this time. Most want to cross borders to the EU, Greece and other EU neighbors of Turkey make such a trip very dangerous, if not impossible.

In the deal between the EU and Turkey concerning refugees, concluded 18 March 2016 [5]. The EU promised Turkey financial assistance of 6 billion USDs to be paid by the end of 2018. This consisted of placing and integrating Syrians in Turkey’s border areas, while reassuring that the borders to the EU would be shut. It is not clear if all of the $ 6 billion was paid. Presenting this as a false promise, Turkey used the refugees as a bargaining tool and tell the EU “we will open the borders If you do not give us the promised amount of money.”

The EU did not keep its promise of abolishing the visa duty for Turkish citizens. According to some accounts, a certain confusion on the question if the full 6 billion euros were paid by the EU to Turkey might be due to a failure of the Turkish government to use the funds properly. The Turkish government is also criticized for violating human rights and basic rules of democracy and its use of the refugees for political pressure. After 33 Turkish policemen were killed in Jabal al-Zawiya, just before the corona pandemic broke out in 2020, the Turkish government decided to open the borders to the EU. Over 75,000 refugees went to Greece and a large portion of it still is stuck at the borders (though due to the scarcity of information fueled by the pandemic, these numbers might not be accurate at the moment).

The Turkish economy is overwhelmed by the large mass of refugees. This may increase further if violence in Syria and Afghanistan increases again. The Turkish Lira has dropped in value. Many Turkish citizens blame the government for raising taxes and increasing inflation. Presumably, the Syrian refugees are the scapegoat in the eyes of the public. The economic crisis is not directly caused by the refugees, but they make the downfall, much of which is due to improper economic and financial policies, more severe. Living conditions of refugees are poor. Refugees who were received in camps flock to cities, as there is no work and little income in camps. There is a mass of internal migration amongst refugees in Turkey, mostly from the rural to the urban. The living conditions for refugees in urban areas are inhumane compared the life standard Turkish manual workers have.

There are many international organizations operating Turkey trying to assist refugees. There are also Turkish NGOs. All try to improve the well-being of refugees, the education of their children and their health and social integration. These organizations deserve praise for their efforts. Local NGOs and humanitarian individuals are significant contributors to primary education and to learning Turkish and Arabic. The financial help provided by EU which reaches these organizations is not enough to cover the costs of basic education.

The Turkish government deserves that its efforts to host so many refugees are well supported by the EU and other international aid sources. That is also in the interest of those EU countries and political parties that want to keep immigration in the EU low. It is not credible and consistent to blame Turkey for its shortcomings in the treatment of refugees, demand that it should not send the refugees on to the EU, and at the same time not assist the Turkish people adequately in their care for refugees.

If inadequate policies of the Turkish government make it difficult for the EU to render more assistance to the government, the EU and its member states and NGOs can increase assistance to those Turkish NGOs and international agencies which have a proven record of good care. There is no excuse for not increasing aid to the refugees in Turkey to give their children proper education and health care. Otherwise, the problems of millions of uneducated and unemployed refugees will come to haunt not only Turkey but also the member states of the EU.

Living Conditions and Deportation

Living in the large city of Istanbul, which has a bigger population than the Netherlands, is extremely expensive for Turkish manual workers and other low-income earners. For Syrian refugees it is not maintainable. Many Syrian families who want to survive in Istanbul have to make their kids work. Instead of getting an education, which is offered by several NGOs situated in Istanbul, many Syrian kids are forced to work [6]. Plus, the high number of Turkish students in school classes makes it impossible for many Syrian kids to register in a school.

In 2019, the average pocket money Syrians got per month was 120 TL, which now equals less than 12 Euros. In Turkey, the minimum monthly wage  in 2021 is 2.825,90 TL (282,6 Euro).Thus, the pocket money refugees receive is very low. An undemanding person can find food for just a week at the max. Rents are up in the cheap suburbs where they live [7], and with the costs of food and clothing the monthly living costs to survive are way above 120 Turkish Liras that is provided by the EU’s promised trust fund. There is a lot of hearsay and misinformation about the EU trust fund and how the budget was distributed; according to our sources, a lot was spent on high administrative costs of national and international civil society organizations. It is not clear to us how much reaches the refugees. [8]

A Syrian woman reports that in the factory she is working, Turkish citizens get 400 Turkish Liras per week while she gets 200 [9]. It is sometimes easier to stay in the refugee camps near the Syrian border, as they get more help from relief institutions [10]. But when living in camps, refugees can’t go look for work. Many Syrian children are deprived of education due to lack of classrooms and teachers. According to the 2019 Syrian Barometer, Syrian kids’ attainments of education, compared to Turkish children, is significantly below average. [11]

Next to some important organizations like UNICEF, there are local donors and benefactors (mostly in the Eastern parts of Turkey) that participate in creating spaces for Syrian children to get education and learn Turkish. Syrian refugee children were mostly attaining education in TECs (Temporal Education Centers) which provided education only for Syrian kids (most probably in Arabic). These TEC’s were supposed to be abolished after 2020, in order to integrate all Syrian children to Turkish education and classrooms, but this is still to be achieved.

According to this Syrian Barometer 2019, Syrians work mostly in agriculture, service sectors and manual industrial production. The author points out that there is ghettoization in Gaziantep (a Eastern city in Turkey close to the Syrian Border with Arabic majority). Many registered Syrians who “illegally” migrate to Istanbul have to go back to the cities in which they were registered initially to avoid conflicts [12]. In some Eastern cities the number of Syrians surpass the Turkish. In big cities like Istanbul there are many jobs but low in pay. Istanbul is the gateway to Europe. It is not a surprise that many Syrian refugees go to Istanbul illegally even though internal migration is prohibited.

According to the report given by BBC Turkish (2019), 371.000 Syrian Refugee were deported back to Syria under the false name of “Voluntary Return.” Syrian Refugees were made to sign Turkish documents that agreed to “voluntary return [13]” by locals. The authorities behind the “voluntary return” documents remain uncertain. There are personal accounts about people being deported, [14] though the government states this is not the case. There is a market for smuggling those who have been illegally deported and want to be smuggled back to their family in Turkey.

Integration and Reception

Despite the horrible living conditions and unemployment, there are Syrians who have chosen to stay in Turkey due to cultural and religious familiarity. There are many who cannot go to Europe or were given forced citizenship to stay in Turkey. There are accounts that, because of the common Kurdish language, Syrian Kurds have a better environment with Turkish Kurds in the Eastern Border (like Diyarbakır or Antep) and they share a common culture (PBS). There are Syrians who claim that they are better suited for a Muslim environment and that they can’t integrate in European societies.

There have been several instances since 2018 (approximately around the commencement of the economic crisis) in which groups of people have attacked shops or houses of Syrians living in Turkey [15]. In poor neighborhoods, some Turkish citizens complain that “they feel like immigrants in their own country” due to the pressing number of Arabs and the ratio of Arabic speaking people vs Turkish speaking people.  People are worried that the government is looking after the Syrians and that Syrians are the reason for the increased tax rate in Turkey. In short, Syrian Refugees are the culprit of Turkey’s economic crisis. A lot of Turkish citizens want them to leave, or the more educated want Europe to donate more money. A big portion of the less religious and less conservative Turkish citizens have a tendency to fear that Syrian refugees participate in the transformation of Turkey into a Muslim state and want them gone as well. Presumably, with these negative attitudes of blaming Syrians for the inflation and the harsh living conditions, many Syrians were ready to leave Turkey in 2019 when the prime minister decided to open the borders to the EU in 2020, before the corona pandemic.

A big proportion of the poor in Turkey who share their neighborhoods with Syrian refugees believe that Syrians live in better conditions, pay less tax and get more benefits from the government than they do [16]. Some people claim that “the Turkish government has thrown Syrian Refugees in front of the Turkish society” meaning they get more health benefits and find jobs. Presumably, this is false. For instance, 85 percent of the university scholarships granted to Syrians are paid by the EU budget. Some governmental news portals have released articles contradicting the idea that Syrians are in a more beneficial position in Turkey compared to low-class Turkish citizens.

There is a common saying in social media and in the Syrian Barometer 2019: “If Syrians weren’t lazy, they would have fought their war, defended their country.” This stems from the Turkish Nationalistic discourse, and Turkish children are being brainwashed in every public school in Turkey to go fight for their country. This nationalistic discourse gives some Turkish citizens an attitude to Syrians who fled their country.

Many Turkish people believe that Syrians are culturally very different from them. Some people who are critical of the  Middle East and of Arabic dialects believe that Syrian refugees should go to Saudi Arabia, since they speak the same language. Common complaints are that Syrians do not work enough, are mostly active at night, open the night falafel shops or “party,” “smoke hooqa”, etc. But there are also Turkish who believe that the Syrian participation in the economy is positive, especially in jobs that demand the kind of harsh labor that Turkish citizens do not like.

According to an Economist article (2020), Syrians are gradually integrating and transforming into Turkey’s society (mostly in conservatist neighborhoods and cities). [17] But others believe that the well-educated Syrians have migrated to Europe, and the less educated Syrians have stayed in Turkey [18].                    

Afghan refugees in Turkey

Many Afghans have fled to Turkey since the 70’s. It started following the communist take-over of the government, then the Soviet intervention and its withdrawal, followed by the Taliban victory, the long civil war and the military interventions by the US and the UN.  The ongoing violence, suppression and uncertainty for the population still makes many people flee.

In 1982-1983 the Turkish government invited Afghans from the warzone. The Turkish prime minister Özal, who initiated this, wanted a good relationship with the US. Turkey was on the verge of economic privatization after the 80s coup in Turkey.  Afghans were cheap labor for the growth of the Turkish economy. Most of the Afghan migrants who were invited to Turkey by Özal during the 80s got Turkish citizenship. According to Ghosts of Istanbul, a report of 2020, the generation that came in the 80s consisted of relatively privileged Afghan migrants. They could purchase property, received Turkish citizenship and became fluent in Turkish. These Afghans make up the network for the settlement of other Afghans.

There are many unregistered Afghans in Turkey. According to a relief-web report, Konya, Adana and Istanbul are the hubs for Afghans in Turkey. Zeytinburnu, one of Istanbul’s biggest neighborhoods, where many Syrian refugees, Afghans, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Kurds live is a large Afghan center. Many old-generation Afghans own houses and apartments. The Eastern city Adana is “a travel hub” for the industrial and agricultural job market for Afghans in Turkey [19]. Adana is one of the biggest cotton production sites in the world.

Registered and unregistered Afghans are an important group in the cheap labor market. The Ghosts of Istanbul report mentions a Turkish saying “Where there is work, there are Afghans”. Turkish industrial and agricultural workers, when they want to complain about migrants in general, say “Afghans are not like Syrians or Pakistanis, they work.” But the report shows that the work the Afghans do is insecure and often unhealthy. According to the 2020 report, some work for 12 to14 hours a day to survive. Afghans in Turkey are regarded as maintaining an ascetic [20] status: living without basic rights or refugee status.

The Ghosts of Istanbul report defines five kinds of Afghan migrants in Turkey [21]. The first one consists of Afghans who came 25-30 years earlier. They came to either work as “skilled migrants.” Most of those have citizenship and are seen as the elite of the Afghan migrants. The second group consists of Afghans who apply for asylum. A part of the asylum seekers either stay in the city they were registered, if they find a job, and many other migrate to Istanbul, without a legal status, and find work there. The third category are the undocumented Afghans who pass the mountains, cross the border into Turkey at night, are very poor, and have no insurance or security. They accept the hardest jobs. There is also a minority of educated and highly skilled Afghans who manage to get a Turkish visa.

It appears that the Turkey authorities unofficially decline the applications of single Afghan men who seek asylum. The main reason for this unofficial policy seems to be that the Syrian refugees are already a large political and economic weight on Turkey’s shoulders. The unregistered Afghans do find low paying jobs in construction and factories. They seem to enjoy fewer rights than Syrians. They do not have access to education, nor the EU funds dispersed monthly for Syrian Refugees. Living in fear of being deported, they are considered as the most vulnerable group in Turkey [22].

In Relief Web report on immigrants, it appears that Afghans are viewed as different from other migrants. They work in Istanbul’s harshest, most exploitative jobs.  Most Afghans are not registered and seen as illegal; they were born into a war zone, a harsh environment, and they work to survive no matter what the conditions are. Single, young Afghan men are no longer considered (since 2017) eligible to have any conditional migrant status in Turkey. Some report that the DDGM (Legal Authority for Migration to Turkey) directly rejects single, young Afghan men’s applications to migrate.  Notwithstanding these conditions, 170.000 Afghans entered and got registered to Turkey in 2019, according to UNHCR. The entire number of Afghans in Turkey is hard to estimate, since Afghan migration has taken place since 1980’s in an irregular manner.

One might expect that the continued unrest in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of Amarican and other external support for the Afghan government, the Taliban will gain power step by step in Afghanistan and many more Afghans may flee to Turkey.

What needs to be done

The high number of refugees, the vulnerability of the Turkish political, economic and social situation and the location of the country in-between the Balkans and the Middle East which are areas full of tensions with a high propensity to violence, combine to make the future of the refugees and their children very insecure. It is very urgent to provide for better living circumstances and especially primary and secondary education, including teaching democratic, peaceful and tolerant values and behavior. If these needs are ignored, the tensions will sooner or later explode in the face of Turkey and the EU members states.

The children of Syrian refugees who are under “temporary protection” of the Turkish government have in principle access to the Government’s Educational System MEB. But many do not or cannot enroll in school. There are also non-governmental Turkish institutions that offer education, notably:

Uluslararası Mavi Hilal Vakfı
Yuva derneği
İnsan Kaynağı Geliştirme Vakıf
Malumat Toplum Bilgilendirme Merkezi
Hayata Destek Derneği
Mavi Kalem Derneği

Other institutions that might be interested to add extracurricular educational projects are:
Halkların Köprüsü Derneği
Başak Kültür Sanat Vakfı
Amara Kültür Merkezi
Hamiş Suriye Kültür Evi
Amnesty International
Mazlum Der

Our first impression is that SGDD is  a good institutions to begin cooperation with and identify how their work can be supported from the side of The Netherlands.

For obvious reasons, it can be expected that girls and women are in the most vulnerable position in Turkey. One can also expect that the birth rate amongst Syrian and Afghan people will be high in the coming years, as poverty and suppression tend to lead to a high birth rate. [23] That could lead to more and more tension with the local Turkish populations in many areas. The newborns among the refugees face a very unhappy and future in which most human rights are not guaranteed and basic needs are not provided for. This points to the importance of basic health care integrated with parental and sexual counselling and other measures to improve the autonomy of women, such as birth control services, especially the young ones.

There are projects of the UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities) that support an active group within Turkey, working with Syrian refugees in the area of empowerment of Syrian girls. UNFPA is focused on ameliorating situations related to gender, sexuality and women’s rights.

In 2019 UNFPA opened in Eskişehir a “safe space center” for Syrian women and children. The center does workshops to provide skills, educate immigrant women in crafts and other skills. The aim is to integrate Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan people women into the economy. The center provides primary health care and psychosocial services to refugee women and girls. The center is run by the UNFPA’s implementing partner Eskişehir Osmangazi University and financed by the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO). 

In Ankara in 2019, UNFPA with the heads of the relevant departments of the Turkish Ministry of Health set up a joint technical workshop with the scope of the “Project for Improving access of Rural Refugees to Health and Protection Services in Turkey.” This too was funded by ECHO. The project aims to provide emergency responses to the health needs of the people and refugees living in the rural areas of five provinces of Turkey, through mobile service units. A bigger and more inclusive “Women and Girls Safe Space Center” (WGSS Center) was established in Ankara in 2019. The Center also does research on the well-being, psychological status (PDSD) and access to education of women refugees in Turkey.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR can be considered the institution that has the biggest impact on the topic of integrating refugees and migrants into the economy in Turkey. It cooperates with the ministries of education, of economics and the immigration/integration authorities. It has a “Livelihoods and Economic Inclusion Program” in collaboration with the private sector for skill building programs and entrepreneurship.

UNCHR also provides counseling services to refugees and legal support on humanitarian rights and on matters related to temporary protection. UNCHR is also occupied with child protection, prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence. In addition, UNCHR is engaged in cross-border assistance to people who are still stuck in Syria.

UNHCR also provides support to activities of the UN’s Children Fund UNICEF concerning mother and child care, basic and vocational education. UNICEF helps to fund the aforementioned Technical Education Centers. UNICEF has built “Kid Friendly Zones” to provide children with PTSD psycho-social guidance.

According to UNICEF records (2019), 400.000 Syrian kids still have no access to education. The number probably has increased due to COVID.


It is recommended that the Sen Foundation seeks cooperation with Dutch NGOs that are working in Turkey, especially in the spheres of education and women’s rights. The Sen foundation lacks the money for aid projects, but it could try to cooperate with other aid agencies in putting together additional projects and raise money for them among Dutch and European donors.


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[2] This is the approximate number published in June 2020. The number of Afghans in Turkey is way higher since there are many unregistered Afghans as well as people who pose as Syrians to benefit from the advantages of the temporary protection status. URL:


[4]Index Mundi, 12 April  2021.

[5]For the full deal e.g. ‘Refugee Deal’ URL:

[6] “Okula gidemeyen mülteci çocuklar,” +90, May 9, 2020. URL:

[7] “Syrian Refugees in Turkey gripped by fear and hunger,” VOA News, 25 May 2020. URL:


[9] “Deporting Hope: The Syrian Refugee Struggle in Turkey,” Red Fish. 1 November 2019. URL:

[10] This is a condition that presents the situation in 2016, though we doubt it has changed. PBS NEWS, 2016. URL:

[11] “Syrian Barometer,” 2019. URL:

[12] Al Jazeera English, 28 July 2019. URL:

[13] “Suriyeli Göçmen: ‘Zorla Suriye’ye gönderildim, Türkiye’ye kaçak döndüm,’” BBC Turkish, December 17, 2019. URL:

[14] “Syrian Refugees in Turkey live in fear of deportation | Focus on Europe” DW News, 2 October 2019. URL:

[15] AFP News, 10 July 2019. URL:

[16] Girit, Selin. “Türkiye’deki Suriyeliler: Gidenler ve Kalanlar ne düşünüyor, onları istemeyenler ne diyor?” BBC Turkish, 2019. URL:


[18] Mengü, Nevşin. “Suriyeli Krizinde Sorumlu Suriyeliler değil Devlet (the Government is the culprit in The Syrian Crisis, not Syrians,” Diken, 2019. URL:

[19] “Destination Unknown: Afghans on the move in Turkey – Middle East Research Report June 2020.” June 23, 2020, pp 33. URL:

[20] In Turkish it is “Çileci beden örneği” which means a body that is in survival mode and works in any condition as more than survival is not known to these people.

[21] “Ghosts of Istanbul: A Report on Afghans on the Margins of Precarity.” URL:

[22] Ghosts of Istanbul: Afghans in the Margins of Precarity.

[23] There seems to be no government program occupied with sexual counseling and birth control. According to one of our sources100.000 Syrian kids are born in Turkey each year.