“Peace will be a very long-lasting process and I hope we can one day tell each other about how each country cooperated to find a mutual solution.”

The refugee crisis has made 2016 a year of change for all of Europe. Faced with the repercussions of the Syrian Civil War, which has seen millions of Syrians seek shelter across the Mediterranean, European states are now trying to accommodate record numbers of refugees – with limited success so far.

Rising populist movements correlate to the perception that the burden refugees impose on the European continent is simply too heavy. After the closure of the Balkan route and the refugee deal between the European Union (EU) and Turkey earlier this year, the number of refugees entering Europe via Turkey may have decreased, but the human suffering of Syria has not. The biggest loser? Turkey.

Gaby*, a researcher from Germany, has been analysing social cohesion in heavily migration-influenced regions of Turkey. Speaking exclusively to the IPF, she told us how the struggles Europe faces in light of the refugee crisis are minimalistic in comparison to the realities she has observed. Gaby said of her month-long stint across the Turkish border region to Syria:

“Compared to Europe, these countries face real challenges.”

[Image credit: Sina Stieding]

Gaziantep, north of Aleppo, is a popular destination for refugees fleeing to Turkey [Image credit: Sina Stieding]

Just 60miles north of Aleppo, Gaziantep is one of the first destinations for Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey. Next to Sanliurfa, which is just 30miles away from Isis-controlled Raqqa, Gaziantep was the sight of the workshop bringing local NGOs, international organisations and the municipalities of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey together to discuss the future of assimilation.

Ameliorating the reception of the refugees by the host populations has been a real struggle, Gaby explained. Despite facing its own domestic threat in the shape of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the refugee crisis has made Turkey very vulnerable to other social and political threats.

With 2.5 million refugees, Turkey is the world’s largest hosting country and Gaziantep is now facing what so many in Europe are fearing: cultural turmoil and “overrun”.

Turkish-Syrian border struggling with threats of terrorism

Gaziantep made headlines in summer 2016 after a Kurdish wedding was the target of an apparent teenage suicide bomber, most likely belonging to the Islamic State (Isis), leaving 57 people dead. Indeed, the Turkish-Syrian border is struggling with the constant threat of terrorism.

The ever-present fear of Isis  has made the Turkish population wary of the Syrian refugees as much as it has been the case in Europe.

“Many municipalities in Syria’s neighboring states are lacking financial support and other resources to adequately address refugees’ rights and enhance their integration on a municipal level.”

Immigration into Turkey is widely restricted, with rumours circulating in the region that a safety zone is to be imposed that will send refugees back to northern Syria right away. Unlike in Europe, Syrian refugees are unable to seek asylum in Turkey.

“They just receive a ‘guest’ status with very limited rights and nearly no access to education and health care facilities,” said Gaby.

Consequently, even acquiring a work permit is nearly impossible for incoming refugees. Clashes with the local population are therefore a forgone conclusion.

With this increasing number of inhabitants, the municipalities face challenges in demographics and lack of infrastructure. The job sector is completely overrun. Gaby helped provide vocational training for women and language classes to ease the acclimatisation of incoming migrants.

[Image credit: Sina Stieding]

[Image credit: Sina Stieding]

Turkey refugee crisis: assimilation process can’t progress

According to Gaby, the assimilation process can’t progress as long as the new members of the society are seen as evil: “Refugees would need work permits for them to have a normal day by day work life and enter into a routine.”

At the same time, she observed that an understanding that nobody abandons their life back in Syria for any other reason but to survive would help as well. Syrian children are unable to attend local schools, further hindering a blending of the communities.

“For adults, there should be more possibilities to interact with other people of the host community, and programs should also be directly addressed to women, so that they have a place where they can be amongs other women in privacy.”

Of course, not everyone supports the efforts in Sanliurfa and Gaziantep.

“Vulnerable, poor communities see refugees as problematic concerns that exacerbate the already bad political, social and economic situation in the municipalities,” Gaby noted. However, just like in Europe, they will have to come to terms with this humanitarian crisis and should learn to accept the human suffering behind it.

“I hope that people, when facing their own problems, do not forget that countries like Germany, France and Britain are in no position to complain about the current refugee situation.”

In comparison to countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, Gaby found it saddening that countries in Western Europe are concerned over an overcrowding of refugees. Lebanon, with 4 million inhabitants, hosts about a million refugees. Legislation was also introduced to encourage marriages between Syrians and Lebanese, fostering social cohesion. In Turkey, such steps have not been taken yet.

Strenght portrayed by the refugees

Despite the harsh realities Syrian refugees face even after their escape from their heavily-bombed hometowns, time and time again Gaby found herself astonished by the strength portrayed by the refugees, particularly women and children, who participated in the workshop.

[Image credit: Sina Stieding)

[Image credit: Sina Stieding]

The story of 16-year-old Mahmut, who fled his native Raqqa with his family, caused Gaby sleepless nights. She heard how his father died trying to escape and about his brother’s attempt to reach Europe to provide financial assistance for his family and his sister’s epilepsy. Mahmut now skips school to take care of her.

“When there is a chance to go to these places and see what is going on there, take this chance. Seeing things for yourself will give you much deeper insights than a lot of things you hear in the European media.”

The reluctance of people to make efforts with incoming refugees in Europe puzzles Gaby. To her, the integration of new populations is inevitable, and the success of it hugely dependent on people’s willingness to open their hearts.

“Peace will be a very long-lasting process and I hope we can one day tell each other about how each country cooperated to find a mutual solution,” Gaby said.

Right now, the ongoing clashes in the region point to each actor only furthering their own agendas. But even on a non-political basis, Gaby sees great potential to make a difference.

“We have to understand that each person can make a contribution. Even in Europe, we need to show refugees how we live, but also learn from them and let them show us what is important for them.”

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.