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Turkey registers Syrian refugees

Turkey has collected the biometric data of at least 1.4 million Syrians as the refugees move closer to citizenship.

Syrian beggars, a fixture in Turkey’s urban centers over the past year, have begun to disappear in recent weeks. These obviously desperate people — young women nursing babies at street corners, children stopping passersby and gesturing for money, others forcing open car doors at red lights — spawned both compassion and indignation among Turks. On several occasions, beggars have been rounded up by municipal police and put on buses to refugee camps in the border regions. But they soon escaped and returned to the big cities.

Syrians were considered temporary "guests" when they first began their disorderly and poorly documented flight in April 2011. But as the civil war in their country dragged on, it became obvious that they are here to stay and that the problem they pose cannot be resolved with occasional roundups.

On Oct. 22, Turkey issued a regulation that outlined the services the refugees would receive and how. The refugees, hitherto treated as “guests,” were declared to be under “temporary protection.” Procedures were outlined for issuing identity documents to the Syrians, many of whom had arrived without passports, and their accommodation in and outside refugee shelters, in addition to services in health care, vocational training and translation.

Following the issuance of the regulation, the authorities began the “biometric registration” of the Syrians, recording their personal details, palm-vein prints and fingerprints. Dogan Eskinat, the spokesman for the Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD), told Al-Monitor that records had been completed for 1.4 million people as of Dec. 17.

“We have issued identity cards to the Syrian refugees. This does not entitle them to citizenship, but they will be able to benefit from education and health care services. They can enroll their children in school and receive hospital services,” Eskinat said. “Vocational training courses have been opened for adults in the camps. Some nongovernmental organizations are also offering such training in coordination with the Education Ministry. Children are able to receive basic education from the kindergarten level to the 12th grade.”

The records will help the authorities track Syrians who commit crimes or leave camps and go begging. “The crime rate among refugees is about 30 in 10,000,” Eskinat said. “Their offenses stem from hardships in sustaining their livelihood. Those people used to be in the big cities, most of them begging in Istanbul and Ankara. We rounded up 1,350 people and took them to the tent cities in Islahiye and Karkamis in Gaziantep province. Refugees who take part in terrorist activities or who commit crimes in Turkey, or who come to Turkey after committing crimes in their country, will be outside the scope of protection.”

Syrians involved in terrorism and other criminal activities will be punished under Turkish law. As for those who continue begging or cause disturbances in their places of accommodation, the option of sending them back to Syria was discussed but ultimately rejected. Instead, the decision was made to provide beggars and other jobless and destitute people with skills, support them with welfare assistance and integrate them into society.

Over Dec. 17-18, AFAD convened a meeting with representatives of 17 NGOs to review the state of humanitarian aid activities. Speaking after the meeting, AFAD head Fuat Oktay said Turkey's spending on the Syrian refugees and other needy people inside Syria had reached $5 billion. The international community’s support for Turkey was worth only $265 million, he said. Oktay stressed that the needs of the refugees over the past four years had been met by government institutions with the support of NGOs and the private sector. He put the latest number of Syrian refugees in Turkey at 1.65 million.

Interior Minister Efkan Ala told the Turkish Parliament’s Budget Commission in November that the refugees numbered 1,617,110 people. The AFAD head’s remarks indicate that at least 30,000 more Syrians have arrived in Turkey over the past month.

The Syrians are now a permanent topic on Turkey’s agenda, and the Turkish media often carries stories and commentary about the problems the refugees both face or cause. In a Dec. 17 column headlined “Time to talk about the Syrians,” Hurriyet columnist Ertugrul Ozkok discussed the issue in the context of Turkey’s deteriorating economic indicators. He wrote, “We all know that the burden of those people is upon us. Prosperity growth is calculated by subtracting the population growth rate from the [economic] growth rate. When you add 2 million Syrians to the population, the prosperity rate goes below zero. We equally know that those people are already allowed to work. … Most of them are here to stay. Given that the Syrian war is not going to end for years to come and even if it ends, [Syria] will no longer be attractive to those people, it’s time to add this 2 million population increase to the figures. And this is only the economic cost. The social cost will be much higher.”

Confirming Ozkok’s point, Eskinat said Ankara had no plans to repatriate the Syrians under the current conditions and that only a small number have returned home willingly.

The Syrians — placed in a category somewhere between refugees and citizens — will inevitably be naturalized at some point. This process will have various negative economic impacts, from unemployment rates to national income. It is already obvious that Turkey’s unemployment problem — counting some 5.5 million jobless at present — has worsened with the arrival of the Syrians. Social problems are also likely to grow, as unemployment and poverty distress not only the Syrians, but also the Turks in the regions where the Syrians live. This issue has led to unrest in many cities and forced Syrians to move elsewhere.

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