Integration is a highly contested, contentious and messy concept. As Castles et al. (2002: 112) argue, “There is no single generally accepted definition, theory or model of immigrant and refugee integration. The concept continues to be controversial and hotly debated.” The concept is used by many policy makers, academics and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers themselves, but understood and interpreted differently by most (Robinson, 1998). The definition of integration does not only differ in relation to who defines it; its definition also varies with regard to the types of migrants. For instance, integration of refugees differs from labor migrants due to the differing motivations of migration and conditions in the receiving society (Phillimore 2012). This piece will explore the politics of integration in relation to how policy makers interpret integration and where refugees stand in their interpretation.
Legal status associated with different migrant groups might have an important role on integration processes. For example, Syrians in Turkey are not referred to as ‘refugees’; they are under temporary protection status. In this sense, their integration processes might differ from those of refugees. Conceptual discussions about integration especially within states are mostly dominated by the framework of nation states, which highlights differences between the members of the receiving society and newcomers. This understanding of integration defines the concept as a one-way process that places responsibility solely on newcomers and omits the experiences of newcomers throughout the so-called “integration” process.
In 2003, the European Commission published a comprehensive report on integration policies in its ‘Communication on Immigration, Integration and Employment.’ In this report, integration is defined as ‘a two-way process based on reciprocity of rights and obligations of third-country nationals and host societies [and foreseeing] the immigrant’s full participation.’ Integration is thus conceived as a balance of rights and obligations, and integration policies include a holistic approach in targeting all dimensions (of integration, including economic, social, and political rights; cultural and religious diversity; and citizenship and participation). By placing responsibility for integration on members of a receiving society and its institutions, the top-down/hierarchical understanding of integration was thus circumvented.
Defining integration as a two-way process also highlights the importance of social connections established between migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers and other members of the host society (Ager and Strang, 2008; Kazlowska, 2014; Phillimore, 2012). However, the integration processes for newcomers differ due to diverse motivations for migration and different experiences in the receiving society in accordance with their migratory status (Castles et al., 2002). In 2010, the European Commission insisted once again that integration requires ‘not only efforts by national, regional and local authorities, but also a greater commitment by the host community and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers’ (EC, 2010).
The integration processes of refugees who recently arrived in Syria’s neighbouring countries are different than those in Germany, Denmark and Canada with regards to access to rights in practice. For instance, in the case of Turkey–which hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees–the word integration is not used in policy documents. Rather, the term “harmonization (uyum)” is preferred in order to highlight social harmony, which means there is no reference in official documents regarding access to rights when referring to integration of refugees (as integration is only associated with social aspects). There was also no concrete formulation of integration policies until the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) was passed in 2013. Article 96 of the LFIP deliberately uses the term “harmonization” instead of “integration,” which reflects a very cautious approach to integration issues. With the vast majority of refugees coming from non-European countries, Turkey did not feel obliged to develop a national integration policy until the ratification of the LFIP, which for the first time in April 2013, included provisions on migrant integration. Therefore, the integration of non-European asylum seekers is a new concept in Turkey (İçduygu and Şimşek, 2016).
Access to fundamental rights (as key factors for political integration) including health, education, labor market and social assistance is available for Syrian refugees in Turkey. However, access to these rights is difficult in practice. For instance, accessing work permits depends upon employers’ willingness to offer employment contracts and on refugees having held Turkish identification documents for at least six months. In most cases, employers do not prefer to apply for work permits for their Syrian employees. According to the latest figures made available following a request from an MP to the Presidency Communication Centre (Cumhurbaşkanlığı İletişim Merkezi, CİMER), the number of work permits granted to Syrian temporary protection beneficiaries from 1 January 2016 to 30 September 2018 was 27,930. Of those, 25,457 permits were issued to men and 2,473 to women. Therefore, the majority of Syrians work in an informal economy without social security, are overworked, underpaid, and face exploitation due to the lack of safe working conditions. In turn, these factors lead to their exclusion from the wider society (Şimşek, 2018b: 7). Due to the lack of safe working conditions many refugees have lost their lives in work-related accidents. According to figures from the Worker Health and Safety Council (İşçi Sağlığı ve İş Güvenliği Meclisi), 108 refugees lost their lives in work-related accidents in 2018. Deaths in the workplace have mostly occurred in the agricultural and construction sectors and also in factories during fire incidents.
The Turkish labor market also presents high exploitation risks for children, given the widespread phenomenon of child labor in areas such as agriculture, textile factories as well as restaurants in various Turkish cities. According to a United Metalworkers’ report, approximately 19% of the workforce is underage in the textile sector, while this number reaches 29% in respect of Syrian children who are under the age of 18 in the industry. Syrian children work longer hours under exploitative conditions as stated by the Turkish Medical Association’s Journal entitled “Society and Doctor,” Syrian children in textile industries work 12-hour shifts for 300 TL a month. One reason for the increase in child labor is that Turkey’s legal framework fails to protect the vast majority of working children from exploitative working conditions (Yalçın, 2016). The majority of school-aged Syrian children are working instead of going to school. Although access to education is stated in the LFIP as of 2019, 645,000 Syrian children have been enrolled in Turkish state schools, while about 400,000 children are out of school. There is no available data on the school attendance of Syrian children. There are various barriers including the lack of knowledge regarding school registration and the education system, financial hardships, child labor, language, and discrimination in schools, which create obstacles for Syrian children seeking education opportunities in Turkey (Şimşek, 2018a). Most of these barriers are related to the lack of integration among the refugee community and the absence of a two-way integration process. Syrian refugees have limited access to the labor market; they lack regular sources of income and have limited social security. My research findings indicate many Syrian refugees experience financial hardship due to limited access to the labor market, which has a negative effect on Syrian children’s access to education (Şimşek, 2018a).
Syrian women also face significant challenges in obtaining effective access to the labor market. According to the DSP-IGAM report on Syrian refugees’ economic participation in Turkey, Syrian women that mentioned having experienced physical and sexual harassment in the workplace were too scared to file complaints and left the workplace without getting paid for their work. The legal and political dimensions of becoming part of a receiving society include secure residence status and citizenship rights for refugees. However, in the case of Syrian refugees in Turkey, insecure legal status and limited access to rights in practice may influence refugees’ aspiration to integrate. Granting full citizenship is an important development but it is not clear whether it would include all Syrians under temporary protection. As of 2019, there are 79,820 Syrian nationals who have been granted citizenship in Turkey. The deputy prime minister in 2016 said ‘citizenship will be granted initially based on criteria such as employment, education level, wealth, and urgency of one’s situation.’
Although Turkey has taken important steps towards the integration of Syrian refugees into Turkey, more needs to be done, especially on the current status of Syrians. Authorities should provide a clear legal provision on the status of Syrians and should have an inclusive definition of citizenship. There is no structured regulation regarding the integration framework; for instance, granting citizenship has a high amount of ambiguity in terms of who can apply and the actual conditions for attaining citizenship. Those who are not preferred and seen as inappropriate for Turkish citizenship prefer to move to Europe to seek refugee status, as they are under temporary protection (Şimşek, 2018b). Temporary-protection status – which grants limited access to fundamental rights and fuels socio-economic deprivation - hinders integration for those who are struggling to establish their lives in Turkey.
On the one hand, granting citizenship can be understood as the long-term settlement of Syrians. On the other hand, it also shows the citizenship offered to Syrians to be a ‘selective citizenship,’ which targets investors and highly skilled individuals and is not extended to less skilled individuals, laborers and small-wage earners. Not extending the citizenship to all Syrians also highlights the selectivity of this approach to integration.
Increased racism against Syrian refugees is a threat to their safety in Turkey. Since the spring of 2014, anti-Syrian sentiments have increased in Turkey. Turkish citizens complain that refugees are a major factor in increasing rent prices, a reason for declining wages in the labor market and a source of rising social tensions. Local people forcibly restrict the presence of Syrian refugees in public spaces in many cities. Anti-Syrian sentiments and discriminatory discourses heavily foster the creation and maintenance of a violent atmosphere. Discrimination and violence against Syrian refugees are on the rise in the border cities of Sanliurfa and Kilis and have also spread to other cities. Recently, the City Councils of Antalya’s Gazipaşa district and Bursa’s Mudanya district prohibited Syrians from entering public beaches. Particularly during the election period, racism against Syrians in Turkey has been increasing and “I do not want Syrians in my country” became a trending topic on Twitter. Syrian refugees in Turkey are seen as criminals, beggars, burglars, exploiters, prostitutes, as tools for politics, but not as individuals. Syrian refugees have grown concerned about their individual safety and migrating away from Turkey is becoming a common coping strategy among them (Şimşek, 2018b). Experiencing racism in everyday life including at the workplace, on the street, and in the neighbourhood, has created obstacles in their settlement process.
Due to the lack of an integration policy, the integration of Syrian refugees is not supported in Turkey. Current integration policies lack a focus on Syrian refugees’ access to fundamental rights, which also causes social tensions between the Syrians and members of the receiving societies. The refugees’ own perceptions on integration in policy debates are often overlooked. What they think about integration, how they define integration and what integration means for them are important questions that need to be raised by policy makers. Notably, what refugees feel regarding their security, safety and stability is a fundamental aspect for integration. Whether they know how long they will be allowed to stay also needs to be carefully reflected upon by policy makers when implementing integration policies.
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