In Taksim Square in central Istanbul, a lanky boy with tired eyes holds a sign in English in one hand and a passport in the other. His name is Adnan and he is in the same spot every day, near the entrance to Gezi Park, the site of violently repressed demonstrations in 2013.
The sign says he is Syrian; he holds up the Syrian passport for tourists he identifies as coming from other Arab countries. In fact, I often see him following the Arab tourists some steps, engaging with them in a quick and usually unsuccessful exchange in Arabic. Western tourists are more generous, but Adnan tells me that almost all the young people lounging in the late summer sun in the park are his competitors. He points to his chest with a finger and simply says “Homs,” making a gesture and whistling sound to indicate the falling of bombs. Anyone who has seen the photographs of Homs’ destruction knows that it is a city he is unlikely to return for a very long time.
While the world has been transfixed by images of refugees crowded into flimsy dinghies off Turkey’s southwest coast, hundreds of thousands of young people like Adnan lead marginal lives in Turkey’s cities. Indeed, today Istanbul is home to more Syrian refugees than all EU countries combined. And while humanitarian agencies report that Turkey’s refugee camps are exceptionally clean and well-run, approximately 90 percent of the Syrians in Turkey live outside the camps, trying to make their way in a foreign country whose language they do not speak. Moreover, of the more than two million refugees currently in the country, an estimated 55 percent are below the age of 18. They are the reason that the recent deal between Turkey and the EU – should it actually be implemented – is not only cowardly, but also dangerous.
The deal promises money, an easing of visa restrictions for Turks, and a renewal of Turkey’s EU candidacy in exchange for Turkey increasing its efforts to contain refugees within its own borders. It says much about the EU’s fears of mass migration if a country tilting towards autocracy and on the brink of civil war can use the threat of a refugee influx to renew its candidacy, while in the past its efforts to democratise were rebuffed.
There was a time in the early 2000’s when the Turkish economy was improving and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party was still on a course of democratic reform. At that time, however, the EU snubbed Turkey for its own domestic reasons, and Turkey’s leaders began to look elsewhere for political and economic partnerships and to abandon many of the fragile reforms they had already made. Had the EU embraced Turkey a decade ago, it would be a much different country today. These days, though, the crackdown on media and protest and the violent polarisation of politics have led to a slow flight of educated Turks. “We’re all trying to leave,” one assistant professor at an Istanbul university told me. Top doctors are gradually opening clinics in London and the US. Colleagues in the UK say they often get queries from Turkish scholars looking for positions abroad.
As educated Turks try to leave the country, uprooted Syrians try to scratch out a life for themselves on the edges of Turkey’s cities. Before the war began, Syria was known throughout the Arab world for its education system, and more than 90 percent of the population was literate. Adnan dreamed of being an engineer; other young Syrians I’ve met wanted to be teachers and doctors. A young woman named Mariam is lucky: she speaks excellent English and has found a job waitressing in a small restaurant whose owner is an Arabic-speaking Turkish citizen from the Hatay region, near the Syrian border. She is also studying civil engineering at one of Istanbul’s English-language universities. Mariam, however, is an exception, and she knows it. She tells me she has two school friends who have been married off to Turkish men by their families.
They are not exceptions. Research, especially in Turkey’s southern cities, indicates that girls as young as 14 are being given as brides to older Turkish men. Boys such as Adnan, on the other hand, appear subject to radicalisation by Islamist groups that operate in the border regions and urban ghettoes. Youth who in their own country could expect to complete high school and probably go on to university are having their futures blocked by a cruel war. While Arabic-language private schools are proliferating, much more needs to be done. Turkey’s open-door policy has given the refugees safety, but the country was unprepared for the scale of the exodus or the length of the war. Even if the Syrian war were to end tomorrow, studies indicate that, until certain safety conditions are met, most refugees are unlikely to return. Rebuilding is likely to take years, some say decades.
Turkey is now struggling to formulate a policy regarding the future of these “guests.” While many people point to the need to change Syrians’ legal status in Turkey and give them work and residence permits, there is also a growing backlash from the Turkish public. Unlike in Europe, the public in Turkey has until recently showed sympathy to the refugees, but as time wears on many people are becoming uncomfortable with large swathes of Turkish cities being covered in Arabic script. Frustration with the lack of solutions is beginning to set in. Clashes have broken out in some cities, especially over the way that cheap refugee labor is cutting out Turks on the lower rungs of the work force.
As young people such as Adnan struggle with the insecurities and indignities of a truncated future, and as more and more educated Turks seek their futures away from an increasingly oppressive political regime, it seems the EU-Turkey deal, which promises a lifting of visa restrictions for Turks, may actually facilitate a brain-drain of the political opposition in Turkey, potentially to be replaced by a new population of voters brought up in Turkey’s ghettoes. It is impossible to predict what destabilising effects such a change may ultimately have on the region.
Turkey certainly needs money to handle this crisis. It has already spent almost $7 billion since the beginning of the Syrian war, and providing a future for young people like Adnan and Mariam takes more than good will. The 3 billion euros that Turkey initially wants and insists should be allocated specifically for the refugee crisis is hardly unreasonable. However, Turkey needs more than money; it needs expertise and help. The EU should not view the deal as a simple way to contain the refugee crisis and keep it beyond its borders. Any final deal should entail more EU involvement in the crisis rather than less. Partnership, engagement, and effective burden-sharing are all going to be necessary to give young people like Adnan a future that does not include boarding dinghies or taking up guns.