Turkey's decision to grant citizenship to skilled Syrian refugees needs a professionally organized plan
In a speech to refugees in the southern town of Kilis earlier this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Syrian refugees in Turkey will have the chance to become Turkish citizens. The announcement provoked an intense public debate on immigration, whose sides have been talking broadly about Syrian refugees due to the unavailability of solid details about the government's plan.
Over the past week, supporters of the president's initiative to grant citizenship to Syrian refugees maintained that Turkey can and should take additional steps to help them get their lives back on track. Opposition leaders, however, have been furious. While many critics argue that Erdoğan just wants to add 3 million new voters to his base, others, including fashion designer Cemil İpekçi, have faced criticism for resorting to outright bigotry and discrimination against Syrians.
But what are steps that the government will take? I reached out to government officials in an attempt to learn more about the proposal, which is overseen by the Interior Ministry even though both the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) leadership and the president's office are closely monitoring the developments, according to a senior government official.
Meanwhile, both high-ranking members of the AK Party and presidential sources maintain that the "core principles" have already been identified even though the plan to grant citizenship to Syrian refugees remains "a rough draft."
A senior government official told me last week that the historic decision reflects Ankara's strategic priorities and humanitarian obligations.
From a strategic standpoint, the government's proposal is a direct response to the European Union's approach to illegal immigration and, more specifically, Syrian refugees. In March 2016, the EU and Turkey signed an agreement to stem the flow of migrants to the continent and prevent future casualties at sea. Within months, the number of arrivals to the Greek islands dropped from 6,000 to zero, which is why there are no more heart-breaking stories about children drowning in the Aegean Sea.
With illegal migration under control, however, the European Union started to backtrack on its commitments. Even though Brussels promised to admit refugees from Turkey, European leaders have been reluctant to take concrete steps to get the ball rolling. Here is how bad things are at the moment: In an interview with Turkish reporters in Rome last month, Turkey's EU Minister and Chief Negotiator Ömer Çelik said Italy was the third-largest recipient of refugees from Turkey, resettling a total of 64 people.
But the EU's hypocrisy has not been limited to the number of refugees resettled. In recent months there have been tensions between Turkey and the European Union due to efforts by member states to pick and choose candidates with higher qualifications instead of helping the most vulnerable. Concerned that refugees will end up unemployed and homeless in Europe, EU officials have reportedly been pressuring Ankara to move what they consider the cream of the crop to the top of the resettlement list.
By creating a legal path to Turkish citizenship for Syrian refugees, the government wants to prevent the European Union from treating people like fruit. Over the past six years, it has become clear that Syrian refugees who were trained as doctors, jurists, engineers, athletes and business people could contribute to their host society. "By making it possible for skilled individuals to obtain Turkish citizenship, we would like them to settle here permanently - that's why education will factor into eligibility decisions. Another benchmark will be language proficiency and social integration," an official said.
Turkey's plan, however, does not just cover skilled individuals and people with advanced degrees. According to government officials, the country will create an additional path to citizenship to respond to humanitarian emergencies. Refugees who fall in this category include Syrian children with no surviving relatives back home or in Turkey.
When asked whether the plan could pose a threat to Turkey's national security, officials maintain that applicants will be vetted thoroughly before they can enter the pool. "We will run background checks to make sure that candidates haven't been engaged in illegal activities in the past," a senior government official told me. "If red flags pop up during the investigation, the individual in question will be declared ineligible to continue with their application."
Finally, it would appear that Turkey will not set an official quota for Syrian refugees applying for Turkish citizenship. But multiple sources argued that opposition leaders were distorting the facts by claiming that millions of Syrians will obtain Turkish citizenship overnight. "We estimate that 8,000 to 10,000 refugees will be immediately eligible for Turkish citizenship," a government official said. "The number might go up due to humanitarian emergencies and other developments, but it is safe to assume that the plan will never result in the admission of hundreds of thousands of people, let alone millions."