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Syrians shifting demographics in Turkey’s Kurdish regions

More than a third of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are concentrated in the country’s southeast, an impoverished, conflict-torn region with a predominantly Kurdish population.
Syrian refugee women stand outside their tents at a refugee camp in Nizip in Gaziantep province, near the Turkish-Syrian border March 17, 2014. Aleppo continues to bear the brunt of the civil war, in which about 140,000 people have died. Almost two years after rebels grabbed half of the city, they are now on the defensive, with government forces advancing on three sides. Turkey began building its refugee camps near the border in mid-2011, little knowing the war would last so long and bring such vast numbers

Five years into the Syrian civil war, not one of Turkey’s 81 provinces is without a refugee community, big or small. The border province of Sanliurfa tops the list in numbers of refugees, with 401,000 Syrians, followed by Istanbul with 394,000. Bartin, on the Black Sea coast, has the fewest, at 27. In terms of region, the southeast has the largest concentration of refugees, with the provinces of Gaziantep, Diyarbakir, Sanliurfa, Batman, Adiyaman, Siirt, Mardin, Kilis and Sirnak hosting a total of slightly more than 1 million Syrians. In other words, more than a third of the 2.75 million Syrians in Turkey live in the southeast, mainly because of kinship and cultural bonds with border communities, among other factors.

Some in Turkey, however, see politics behind the refugees' concentration in the southeast. At a panel organized by Istanbul’s Bilgi University in December, Ayhan Kaya, a scholar of international relations at the university, argued that a “social engineering” effort was underway to balance the southeast’s mainly Kurdish population and curb the rise of Kurdish nationalism. His colleague Ilter Turan saw no direct link between the refugee wave and the Kurdish issue, but agreed that the Syrians, who are overwhelmingly Arab, were indeed changing the ethnic composition of the southeast. Murat Erdogan, head of the Migration and Politics Research Center at Ankara’s Hacettepe University, also dismissed the claim of social engineering, arguing that the Turkish government did not foresee the refugee influx reaching such proportions and therefore had no basis for planning such a policy.

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