An injured Syrian man on the Syrian side of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey waits with his child outside a hospital on December 16, 2016. Photo: AFP / Bulent Kilic
An injured Syrian man on the Syrian side of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey waits with his child outside a hospital on December 16, 2016. Photo: AFP / Bulent Kilic

Turkey graciously agreed to host its Syrian neighbors as they escaped an atrocious civil war, but a decade later, things are looking very different. This temporary housing arrangement has turned into a permanent stay. 

The fear recently shown from Turkey that Syrians are starting to settle in is misplaced – almost all of the refugees have already moved into cities from the camps.

What is cause for worry, however, is the lack of long-term planning for young Syrians living in Turkey.

According to November data from the Refugees Association, Turkey hosts 3.7 million Syrians, and more than 2.6 million of them are aged under 30. More than a million are under 10 – born after the conflict first erupted from widespread protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey has the biggest and youngest refugee population in the world. But what kind of a future awaits them? 

The answer is simple: a bleak one. 

The truth is Turkey cannot even guarantee its own youth a bright future. The government’s short-fix mentality is leaving a legacy of great debt and dysfunctional institutions – as exemplified by its handling of the current economic crisis.

Young Turks are fleeing the country in large numbers. In 2019, 330,000 Turks migrated abroad; half of them were under 30. Those who stay are faced with the third-highest unemployment rate of 32 European countries, according to August figures from Eurostat.

Turkey’s Youth Unemployment Platform estimated that more than 11 million people aged between 15 and 34 were unemployed in November. For the third quarter of 2021, the official youth unemployment rate was 22%.

This is why, according to a 2020 survey conducted by MAK Consultancy, 76% of young people said they wanted to leave Turkey for a better future.

A similar fate awaits young Syrians, who have escaped war but carry the trauma of being part of a refugee population. As a result, they do not have access to basic human necessities such as housing, education, and financial security.

Up until now, the state’s refugee-welcoming discourse has not been reflected in its actions. The government, which is run by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, has failed to provide a coherent policy for Syrian refugees. This was displayed in February, when the country’s vaccination program failed to include Syrians. 

Access to education is the primary problem. A deal struck in 2016 between the European Union and Turkey has helped. The EU pledged €6 billion (US$6.8 billion), €2.4 billion of which has been spent on education and housing. However, it is not enough.

Systematic changes have been ordered by the Education Ministry to provide a more inclusive education framework, but the sheer scope of the task makes it extremely complex to implement. 

To start with, Turkey’s centralized education system does not allow individual schools to tailor education to the needs of Syrian students. Second, there are not enough teachers qualified to teach a curriculum in both Turkish and Arabic. The Education Reform Initiative think-tank confirmed that only half of the Syrian children registered are going to school. Of those aged between 14 and 17, a mere 26% are enrolled in school.  

Half of the Syrians in Turkey have never attended school or do not know how to read and write. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 70% of Syrian refugees live in poverty. The chances are that those children not attending school are helping out their families by working, almost all in illegal schemes.

The plunging value of the Turkish lira has led to economic strife across the country and given rise to anti-Syrian sentiment. Political parties have added to the hostility by railing against the refugee population.

In November, three Syrians aged between 17 and 21 came to work in Izmir and were burned to death while sleeping. Turkish human-rights groups said it was a xenophobic attack. In the summer of 2020, six children in Hatay were subjected to a racist attack and beaten so badly that they needed hospital treatment. Another incident in 2019 saw a nine-year-old Syrian boy from Kocaeli hang himself because of discrimination in the classroom. 

The Platform for Protecting Children and Their Rights found that more than half of Turkish parents interviewed did not approve of their children being friends with Syrians. There are no public opinion campaigns to help change their minds.

Troublingly for Turks, the number of young Syrians is growing rapidly. A 2019 report by the German political foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung estimated that nearly 500 Syrian babies are born in Turkey each day. Neither Syria nor Turkey grants these newborns citizenship, in essence making them stateless. Undoubtedly, they are the biggest victims of the current situation.

There are many aspects Turkey is grappling with when it comes to the Syrian refugees it hosts, but it is young Syrians who need the most attention now.

The government wants Turks to believe that Syrians will return to their own country, but what does going home even mean for these children? Even if the war comes to an end, when will it be safe for them to return? There have been reports of refugees going back to Syria only to be detained, interrogated, tortured and sexually abused by Assad’s security forces.

What awaits young refugees in Syria are food shortages, persecution and conscription to the military. Compared with those odds, Turkey is a far more attractive offer, but can’t it do better?

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Alexandra de Cramer

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.