The Syrian Civil War erupted over three years ago against the backdrop of Arab Spring revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, and claimed over 100,000 lives. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2.9 million Syrians fled to neighboring countries, while the conflict internally displaced another 6.5 million people. The same agency reports that the number of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey exceeded 800,000 this month. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in turn, stated that the country hosts over 1 million refugees, for whom his government reportedly spent $3.5 billion of taxpayer money. With no end in sight for the Syrian civil war, however, the refugee population's involvement in illicit activities, most notably aggressive panhandling, begins to evoke widespread discontent and requires immediate attention.
"The government granted citizenship to Syrian refugees in order to win the mayoral race here," a retired teacher told me during a research trip in the secularist stronghold of İzmir last year. During subsequent trips through the country, conspiracy theories from self-identified opposition voters involved rumors about late-night flights carrying bearded men to the border and jihadists planning attacks against the Alevi community. Invariably, conspiracy theories blossomed in small communities where the influx of refugees entailed rent hikes and refugee-owned small businesses meant more competition for locals.
Most recently, a controversial statement by presidential candidate Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu brought the question of Syrian refugees to the forefront of media attention. Having encountered a local resident complaining about the influx of Syrians at a campaign event in Istanbul, İhsanoğlu said that "Turkey must not have opened its doors [to refugees]" and stated that this was one of the main reasons he decided to run for president. Last week, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız challenged İhsanoğlu's remarks and reiterated that his government would not tell people to die in Syria rather than come to Turkey. "We are aware that some of our Syrian brothers and sisters engage in inappropriate behavior and the security forces will take necessary measures to address such cases," he added. Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu made a similar point during a press conference on July 15 in response to an NGO representative's question about the rising number of Syrian beggars in his jurisdiction and said that they were working on necessary legal arrangements to relocate the refugees in camps without necessarily obtaining their consent. The most recent statements from public officials thus indicate that discontent among the population has been duly noted.
The image of Syrian refugees breaking the law to survive, though, hardly presents a complete picture of their experiences. Aboud Dandachi, a native of Homs who escaped the war, raises the point that a number of Syrians have become business owners in Turkey. According to the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey, Syrians led foreign investment in the country in 2013.
News reports about Syrian-owned shops being targeted by locals, most recently in Adana, also attest to the diverse experiences of Syrian refugees.
International refugee organizations and other observers have long sung praises of the extraordinary quality of services that Turkey's various refugee camps offer to their residents. The prolonged stay and increased visibility of Syrian refugees in major cities, however, not only give rise to misconceptions about the refugee experience but also put strains on supporters of the government's conscientious take on the civil war. We must, therefore, divorce our position on the Syrian civil war from the pressing issue of the largely unmonitored influx of Syrian refugees into metropolitan areas and the perceived shortage of law enforcement regarding illicit activities. This is the only option within our means to prevent a disgruntled public from losing sight of the righteous cause of the Syrian opposition and the tragedy that our impromptu neighbors have suffered in their native land.