- Selda Dudu
What Will the Upcoming Turkish General Elections Bring for Syrians?
Author: Selda Dudu
May 9, 2023
After escalating civil war broke out in Syria in March 2011, we witnessed a devastating humanitarian crisis. Countless Syrians lost their homes and loved ones. Fearing for their lives in Syria and facing uncertainty of the future of their country, Syrians sought refuge in neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. Today, Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, with over 3.6 million (USA for UNHCR, 2023).
In 2011, Turkey took a stand on international law and universal human rights principles by opening the borders for those who were escaping war and persecution. The first group of Syrians, 252 people, arrived in Turkey on April 29, 2011 (Erdoğan, 2018). Turkey gave temporary protection status to the arriving Syrians in October 2011, which became an official status in 2014. From 2011 to 2017, the number of Syrians in Turkey reached over 3 million (see Graph 1).
Graph 1: Number of Syrians with Temporary Protection Status in Turkey (by year)
Unfortunately, Syrians in Turkey lived without a work permit for a very long time because they were considered “guests”. The regulation about their rights to work was entered into force in 2016. However, meeting the requirements to obtain a work permit is not an easy process, with only 91,000 Syrians receiving work permits in 2021 (Ministry of Labor and Social Security of Turkey, 2021). Considering that around 1 million Syrians worked in the Turkish labor market in 2021 (Erdoğan, 2022), more than 90% of Syrians work informally in Turkey.
As of 2021, at least 535,000 Syrian children have been born in Turkey, and roughly 680,000 Syrian children are enrolled in Turkish public schools, with an additional 33,000 Syrian students at Turkish universities (Erdoğan, 2022). According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, more than 31,000 Syrian women married, while only 6,000 Syrian men married in Turkey between 2012 and 2022. It should be noted that these numbers are those officially reported and there are likely more unreported marriages or partnerships. Moreover, several newspaper articles (Letsch, 2014; Oppenheim, 2020) warn us of the visibly increasing number of Turkish men illegally marrying Syrian women as second or third wives, indicating human rights abuses like forced marriages for their underage daughters with Turkish men, due to Syrian families’ economic difficulties. We do not know the exact numbers because having a second spouse violates Turkish law. Therefore, there are also no publicly available statistics about children born out of these intermarriages.
Syrians Barometer* indicates that, as urban refugees, Syrians live alongside the Turkish people all around the country. According to Syrians Barometer findings, although Syrians have gotten deeply involved in Turkish society, an increasing number of Turkish people think that “Syrians should be sent back” (Graph 2). Thus, the statement “Syrians should be sent back” became a populist tool for political parties as an election promise.
Graph 2: Percentage of Turkish Respondents who Think that Syrians Should be Sent Back
The upcoming general election will be held on May 14, 2023 in Turkey. As of April 27th, voters who live abroad have been voting, and the political parties are already declaring their election manifestos. Two alliances of the political parties have become prominent in this election: the People's Alliance and the Nation Alliance.
The People’s Alliance comprises the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the former opposition Nationalist Movement Party. Since the AKP has been the ruling party of Turkey for the last 20 years, its manifesto for the 2023 election is the main focus. For the 2023 election, the AKP declared briefly that it prioritizes preventing new migration waves and ensuring that Syrians under temporary protection return to their homeland voluntarily and safely in accordance with international law. Conversely, in the manifestos for the previous elections (in 2015 and 2018), the AKP underlined the importance of the “open door” policy by standing with the Syrians and explaining the details of its work for the Syrians in Turkey, which improves their living conditions regarding education and health services.
The Nation Alliance comprises six political parties: the Republican People's Party (CHP), the Good Party, the Future Party, Democracy and Progress Party, the Democrat Party, and the Felicity Party. The secularist CHP is the de facto leader of this alliance, and the rest of these parties are the representatives of more nationalist, religious, and socially conservative portions of the populace. The joint election manifesto of the Nation Alliance reflects the same approach as the People's Alliance for the Syrians in Turkey. These six political parties compromised on sending the Syrians back to Syria. This approach is not new for the CHP. In the previous election manifestos in 2015 and 2018, within the framework of respect to international law, CHP declared that it would work to restore the necessary peace and safe environment in Syria for Syrians in Turkey to return to their home country.
In contrast, the Party of Greens and the Left Future (Green Left Party), which supports anti-capitalist green politics, does not have a specific statement about the future of Syrians in Turkey. The Peoples' Democratic Party (a left-wing party with a strong emphasis on participatory democracy, feminism, LGBT rights, and minority rights) will enter the election along with the Green Left Party due to the party closure trial.
The 2023 election rivalry is expected to take place primarily between the People's Alliance and Nation Alliance. Whoever wins this election, even though voluntary repatriation is mentioned in the election manifestos, destructive policies sending Syrians back may emerge, as there is a lack of an explanation in the manifestos of what will happen if Syrians do not want to return. Turkish and Syrian people who have lived together for more than a decade, and some of whom are related by marriage, may have to watch the forced return of their relatives. Moreover, we may witness the separation of children born from these intermarriages from their family members, as happened in Trump's America.
*Syrians Barometer is an extensive study conducted by Prof. Dr M. Murat Erdoğan and his team since 2017 based on annual surveys and focus group interviews with Syrians and Turkish people to understand better how to establish social cohesion between these two groups.
 Erdoğan, M. M. (2018). Suriyeliler Barometresi: Suriyelilerle Uyum İçinde Yaşamın Çerçevesi. İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları.
 Erdoğan, M. M. (2022). Syrians Barometer 2021. Ankara: UNHCR.
 Letsch, C. (2014, Sep 08). Syria's refugees: fears of abuse grow as Turkish men snap up wives. Guardian. Retrieved May 02, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/08/syrian-refugee-brides-turkish-husbands-marriage
 Ministry of Labor and Social Security of Turkey. (2021). Work Permits of Foreigners. Ankara: Ministry of Labor and Social Security of Turkey.
 Oppenheim, M. (2020, July 08). Syrian families in Turkey marrying off ‘underage daughters for money amid coronavirus crisis’, campaigners warn. Independent. doi: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/syria-underage-daughters-marriage-coronavirus-turkish-men-a9606706.html
 Presidency of Migration Management. (2023, April 19). Temporary Protection. Retrieved May 01, 2023, from Republic of Turkey Ministry of Interior Presidency of Migration Management: https://www.goc.gov.tr/gecici-koruma5638
 USA for UNHCR. (2023). Syria Refugee Crisis Explained. Retrieved May 01, 2023, from USA for UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees): https://www.unrefugees.org/news/syria-refugee-crisis-explained/