The Status of Syrian Nationals Residing in Turkey



I have written this blog post about three weeks ago and have been sitting on it, reflecting about it since then, I was not sure if I wanted to write yet another piece on the “Syrian refugees”. But yesterday, we all woke up to the images of two young children lying on the beach lifeless around Bodrum, Turkey, and having read some of the posts available, I felt the need to post this. This is not a happy or “cool” post. This is a post about dire conditions and technicalities on the status of Syrian nationals living in Turkey, and it should be seen as a plea for assistance, and action.

The children in the pictures were Aylan Kurdi, 3 years old, and his brother Galip Kurdi 5, who drowned along with their mother Rehan Kurdi, on their way to Kos, Greece. They were from Kobane, trying the irregular route after their application for private sponsorship was refused by the Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), and presumably the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada this summer.

As an expectant father, and a human being, those pictures are too brutally heartbreaking for me. They are too real, yet unfortunately they are not exceptional or extraordinary. I was unable to look at the pictures for more than a second, and I don’t think I can ever get to share them or look at them again. Elsewhere on the Visual Cultures Blog, @MarcoBohr makes the point on how we can only confront the inhumanity of the situation by confronting such pictures directly, but I just can’t get myself to look at them again, so I am not posting them or really talking about them in this post. Instead, I look at some of the reasons (structural, institutional, situational) that pushes people to seek such a risky route out of Turkey. The images, in tandem with all those individuals dying in the Mediterranean, en route to Europe, represents a moral/humanitarian crisis and demonstrates the hollowness of the so-called “normative power Europe.” The European Union, US, Canada, Australia, and every other capable country – including the Middle Eastern countries – must be ashamed of their actions, or the lack thereof, in addressing this crisis. As scholars, individuals, and human beings we must not just read about these deaths, we must whatever we can stop others from dying the same way. 


Each day we read about the inhumane crimes committed in Syria, and migrants drowning in the Aegean and Mediterranean on their way to Europe. To understand this on going humanitarian crisis, we must also pay attention to what is going in Turkey and the fate of Syrian nationals living t/here. There is an ever-increasing anxiety and uncertainty felt by both Syrian and Turkish communities over the future of Syrian nationals’ official status, living conditions, and basic services provided to Syrian nationals around the country in general. Syrian nationals have become as regular of a conversation topic as the summer heat these days in Turkey. Taxi drives, storeowners, students, all (mistakenly) talk about “the Syrians” as a uniform group; there are many different groups of Syrian national living in Turkey. Different ethnic, financial, educational backgrounds are all bundled together in these everyday conversations. Yet, the reality is, as always, much more complex. Some Syrians have an easy life in Turkey, opening up businesses, integrating into the social fabric of the country seamlessly. But they are a minority; they are the “success” story. Many more are barely surviving in bus terminals, city parks, or live in crammed apartment units in suburban government housing projects outside big cities like Ankara, or Istanbul.

Currently, Syrians living in Turkey are considered to be “guests” with temporary protection status provided by the Turkish government, but they are not officially considered to be refugees or asylum seekers by the Turkish authorities due to Turkey’s ‘geographical limitation’ to the Geneva Convention. As such, they cannot apply for asylum or refugee status in Turkey, for Turkey. While Syrian nationals can stay in Turkey for the time being and receive “temporary protection,” their status in Turkey is not protected under the Geneva Convention. The geographical exception clause makes it impossible for people coming from anywhere but the West of Turkey to apply for asylum in Turkey. While they can apply for and receive UNHCR status in Turkey, UNHCR’s implementation partner in Turkey is extremely overburdened at the moment and according to them it can take up to 7 to 10 years for a Syrian to even get an appointment with the UNHCR in Turkey for the refugee-status process to even begin. On the other side of the coin, with the Turkish economy looking not-so-bright as it did five years ago, with the Turkish lira plummeting, and the political situation in the country looking rather unstable, the integration of these “guests” into the Turkish social welfare, health, and education systems is starting to look to be a massive challenge for the Turkish government in the decades to come.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the number of Syrian nationals is proving to be too high for Turkey to manage. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), since the start of the Syrian Civil War in early 2011, the number of Syrians fleeing the country has surpassed four million, with another five and a half million being displaced internally within Syria. Almost half of the Syrians forced to live outside of Syria now live in Turkey, either waiting to make their way elsewhere or waiting for the end of the conflict in order to return back to their homes. With no end in sight for the conflict, given the complicated nature of the civil war and the rise of the so-called Islamic State, the situation of Syrian forced migrants living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and other regional countries is no longer a temporary situation; the Syrian crises is a long term issue with permanent implications for all parties involved.

Turkey is facing a humanitarian crisis in its Southeastern border, with the official statistics now reporting up to 1.8 million Syrian citizens living in Turkey. The unofficial number, however, is much higher; reaching more than two million with the addition of the undocumented individuals. And this is only the Syrians living in the region, if you factor in the number of Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans, Yemenis, among other nationals fleeing conflict in their home countries, the number of forced migrants living in Turkey increases significantly.

The plight of the Syrian nationals living is everywhere around Turkey. News stories from Western Turkey, near the Aegean, report that lifejacket sales have hit an all time high as Syrians attempting to cross to Greek islands rely on them to survive; everyday hundreds if not thousands of irregular migrants try to cross the Aegean into Greece. Police and gendarmerie stop vehicles driving on coastal roads and check for citizenship documents to in order to “prevent human smuggling.” Both Turkish and Syrian nationals are growing more skeptical and unsure about one another, especially since the recent Islamic State bombing in Suruc, Gaziantep. In Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, as well as many other Turkish cities, Syrians are living outside the Turkish government-run camps and on the streets, becoming increasingly jaded and vulnerable to everyday racism and exclusion from social life.

Currently, Syrian nationals live under a temporary protection regime in Turkey, designed to regulate their legal status outside of the Geneva Convention. In the short term, Turkish government provides a great deal of services to most Syrian nationals including shelter, food, healthcare, and education. While, the temporary protection status provides 1) an open door policy for Syrians, 2) ensures that there will be no forced returns to Syria in line with the non-refoulement principle, and 3) gives them the right to have an unlimited duration of stay in Turkey, the temporary protection status policy is a short-term stop-gap. It is not a long-term policy such as the UNHRC refugee status regime. The increasing number of Syrian nationals living in Turkey, when combined with the long-term implications of the Syrian Civil War on the region, will eventually have serious consequences for Turkish political institutions.

We can see two such areas of concern emerging already. First, is the employment status of Syrians, the temporary protection status does not give Syrian a right to employment. Lack of legal avenues for employment results in Syrians being employed in precarious settings such under-the-table employment for incredibly low wages and poor health and safety standards. Secondly, the already overburdened and under-funded Turkish health care system is having a hard time absorbing the number of non-citizens without proper insurance policies. Furthermore, if and when Syrians have access to these services, the fact that “their” services are being offered to Syrian nationals is irritating local populations. These issues are only just emerging, and it has only been four and a half years since the Syrian Civil War started. The increasing prospect of Turkish army getting directly involved in the conflict is turning Turkish people even more jaded and sceptical of the Syrian nationals living in Turkey.

So we can see why Syrians might want to leave Turkey and seek a better life in Europe, or elsewhere. For one thing, migration/development nexus research demonstrates that people tend to move to seek better lives in developed countries. When it comes to forced migration, such as in the case of the Syrians, people have no choice but to move. But currently, Syrians are stuck in countries neighbouring Syria, with developed countries not doing much, if at all, to help to them relocate and allow them to start a better life. Irregular migrants to do not choose to migrate irregularly, through smuggling networks; by risking their lives in open seas; by being at the whim of authorities and smugglers. They do so because they are often left without a legal option to seek asylum and safety.

Currently, European Union countries are using various practices, policies, and technologies to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from making claims on European territories. The EU’s approach corresponds with global trends in migration management implemented by Australia, Canada, UK, and the United States among others. Territorial access matters to asylum applications. An applicant must be physically in the territory of the country they are claiming asylum in. An embassy, in this case, does not count as a national territory. Without that physical access, there can be no asylum application. This system creates “good” refugees who sit and wait in UNHCR camps to be sponsored, while “bad” asylum-seekers that migrate irregularly and “jump-the-queue.” However, when anyone of the approximately 2 million Syrian nationals living in Turkey looking at the hard facts to assess their chances of UNHCR relocation, will figure out that since the start of the conflict, US only sponsored 1000 Syrians, UK 500, Canada 1300 (with most of these refugees being sponsored privately by family members), Kurdi family applied through this private sponsorship programme for Canada, and was refused. A Syrian national living in Turkey, does not risk his/her life because they simply want to cheat the system, or “jump-the-queue.” The queue, in fact, does not really exist, and where they are right now, they cannot work legally. The UNHCR’s implementing partner on the ground in Turkey, the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants is overburdened. They do not posses the institutional capacity at the moment to process and register 2 million individuals. The waiting time for even getting an appointment for registration is measured in years at this point. With no real stable work opportunities, these individual can survive in Turkey, but they can’t live and prosper.

In the past two week, I had two separate encounters with Syrian nationals in Turkey. First one was during a short visit to Edremit, a coastal town in North Western Turkey. In and around Edremit, Syrians wait to be smuggled into the Greek Island of Lesvos on their way to the European Union. They pay a hefty sum to be smuggled into Greece, which they cannot easily afford. During the day, they either hide in the forests, away from the gendarmerie and the police, or work illegally in the fields for very little pay. Most of them are legally entitled to be in Turkey, but cannot exit Turkey legally without a proper visa issued to their now expired Syrian passports; this is an after effect of the EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement. Without such a visa, Turkey refuses to issue them with an exit visa.

The EU and Turkey signed a readmission agreement back in 2013 that stipulates that irregular migrants that cross into EU territory via Turkey can be deported back to Turkey if their asylum application is rejected. FRONTEX, the EU’s external border security agency, is collaborating with national coast guards, police forces, and border guards to prevent irregular migrants from entering in the first place, but if they do enter the readmission agreement is there to ensure their deportation back to Turkey, at the expense of Turkish taxpayers. To prevent this Turkey does not allow Syrians to leave Turkey for Europe through regular means.

This is the catch-22 faced by Syrian nationals living in Turkey. They can stay in Turkey permanently, but for the time being but for the most part they cannot work legally, they cannot migrate elsewhere through regular means because they do not possess a Syrian passport and the backlog in the UNHCR registration system offers no realistic prospect. This takes me to the second encounter. Only few days ago, prior to boarding a flight to Belgrade in Istanbul, my partner and I witnessed a situation that is neither exceptional, nor uncommon for Syrian-born people trying to travel out of the Istanbul Ataturk Airport. In this case, a Syrian-born Turkish citizen a valid passport, and her two children, was not given the right to board the plane to Belgrade. The airport employee’s “reason” for this was that although she was a Turkish citizen with a valid passport, but her passport was expiring in less than 6 months and that she was a Syrian born Turkish citizen. He argued that, Serbian authorities would not have granted her visa-waiver status granted to Turkish citizens travelling to Serbia without that 6 months on her passport, even though they would have given that exception to “normal” Turkish citizens. He also suggested that by letting her board the plane, the employee would risk receiving a personal fine of 5000 euros by the airline. To be able to travel to Belgrade, she would have had either have a new Turkish passport, or to go to a Serbian consulate in Turkey and receive a visa on her no-longer valid Syrian passport, and then travel to Serbia with that passport. So even though she was a Turkish citizen, the fact that she was born in Syria made her a persona-non-grata for Serbian authorities. This is the case for most, if not all, European states at the moment. The current visa regime is taxing at best of times for citizens of Turkey, however, the current situation makes it nearly, if not absolutely, impossible for Syrians to get a visa and travel to Europe out of the fear that they would seek asylum upon arrival.

The status of Syrians living in Turkey is precarious at best. While on the short term, they are provided with necessary services, they are unable to work legally. Turkish authorities is doing a lot to provide for the Syrians, but there are structural issues that cannot be addressed by Turkey alone. While Syrians can live in Turkey, they cannot leave. While they can have certain legal protections under the temporary protection status, they have to wait “in line” for years on end to be even considered for a line in the UNHCR relocation “pool.” Turks and Syrians are developing and antagonistic relationship towards one another. From the taxi drivers in Edremit, to airport personnel in Istanbul, everyday Turkish citizens are enacting and internalizing the border in their own ways by regulating, reporting, suspecting the Syrian mobilities. European (b)ordering practices are becoming increasingly internal to Turkish citizens. While the Readmission Agreement was primarily introduced to prevent irregular migration through Turkey, it was presented to the domestic constituency in Turkey as a road map for visa-free travel to Europe. So in other words, while not discussed openly, the plight of Syrians living in Turkey has become a stake in the Turkish government’s bargaining position for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU. This is the current status of Syrian nationals living in Turkey.



Writing about the plight of these forced migrants is not an end on itself. You can always directly donate to UNHCR ( In Turkey, you can contribute to the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants, UNHCR’s implementing partner in Turkey. Information on how to donate can be found here ( I can vouch for their hard work, effectiveness, and need for further resources. You can also choose a more direct route and donate to provide assistance for refugees in Turkey (, or  give to provide assistance for refugees on Lesvos, Greece (

You can/should also pressure your own governments to get them to assist/settle more refugees in your country. You can pressure them to establish safer asylum application procedures outside of their national territories, perhaps directly at their embassies. You can pressure them to suspend Dublin II, for those of you living in the EU. You can pressure them to assist UNHCR more. You can pressure them to stop building walls and pursue exclusionary practices at all sorts of ports of entry. You can pressure them to establish rescue missions, instead of pushback missions. You can pressure them to treat this situation as a humanitarian issue, instead of a security issue.  You can show them that you care.

I urge all of you to understand that this is a humanitarian crisis of historical proportions, and not a security threat against your well-being and public safety of your country. We must act in solidarity to prevent future Aylans and Galips from living and dying in fear.


21 thoughts on “The Status of Syrian Nationals Residing in Turkey

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  6. Thank you Can – very informative, well researched and this should help address questions by many less well informed citizens about why (some) Syrian refugees stranded in Turkey didn’t stay in a presumably “safe place”, but rather risk their and their families lives to at least have hope of a better life somewhere else. We can all do much more to help them, and help others understand why there are no simple solutions here.


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  9. Great post, and very informative, but you may want to correct this:

    “The children in the pictures were Aylan Kurdi, 3 years old, and his brother Galip Kurdi 5, who drowned along with their mother Rehan Kurdi, on their way to Kos, Greece. They were from Kobane, trying the irregular route after their application for private sponsorship was refused by the Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), and presumably the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada this summer.”

    The family never applied for private sponsorship to Canada:

    “The aunt of Alan Kurdi earlier said his family’s request for refugee status had been rejected, but later acknowledged it had never been submitted.”


    • While it seems that the original story has more to it, the news story you linked also says “But Abdullah’s brother, Mohammad, did submit an application, though it was rejected for being incomplete, they added.” An incomplete application could mean many things. For example, the fact the Kurdi family did not have UNHCR status for the reasons I mention above, could have made their application incomplete. Either way, the family did make an application to CIC and it was refused.


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  11. Whilst the images of washed – up children are heartbreaking, we should not lose sight of destroying the big enemy – ISIS – even at the expense of making certain very painful sacrifices.


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