The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. hosted a panel discussion on September 21, 2017, focused on Syria refugees titled, “Education and Social Inclusion of Syrian Refugees in Turkey.” Panelists included Mehmet Gulluoglu, President of the The Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD); Ercan Demirci, Deputy Undersecretary of the Turkish Ministry of National Education; Juliette Tolay, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Harrisburg; and Atilla Arkan, Director of Education and Social Policies at The SETA Foundation. The panel was moderated by Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director at The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
Addressing the broader issue of refugees in Turkey, Mehmet Gulluoglu noted that when the initial refugees began to arrive in Turkey in March 2011, the Turkish Red Crescent established refugee camps that AFAD eventually took over. Concurrently with the increasing number of refugees in the camps, there was a growing number of refugees moving to the cities of Turkey. Gulluoglu noted how important it is that the people accept the refugees, as government efforts will not matter if Turkish society itself rejects the refugees. Despite this good points to the situation, Gulluoglu warned that Turkey still does not officially discuss ‘integration’ of the refugees and does not have fully fleshed out policies on the refugees. According to Gulluoglu, while 70% of all refugees initially said they wanted to return to Syria, much of Syria has been destroyed at this point and will need to be rebuilt. Turkey must acknowledge that many refugees will instead stay in Turkey now and work to address it.
According to Atilla Arkan, when the Syrian refugees initially began to arrive in Turkey in 2011, Turkish NGO’s helped to establish temporary education centers. However, as the conflict continued in Syria, the Turkish Ministry of Education decided to hire Turkish teaching staff to work with these refugee children in 2016 and 2017. Last year, the MoE similarly decided that refugee children must enroll in Turkish public schools and took steps to transform the temporary education centers into official public schools. Arkan enumerated several reasons that enrolling the Syrian children into schools is a difficult process. In order to address these concerns, Arkan offered several palliatives, including addressing social concerns of refugees, streamlining work permits for refugees, and providing scholarships for Syrian children. Besides these suggestions, Arkan noted that while a sizable sum of money was set aside to help education efforts, there is no systematic support for public schools that have large numbers of Syrian refugee students. Arkan called for the international community to support Turkey in this endeavor, warning that if these children are not educated, it could create a ‘lost generation’ in Syria.
Ercan Demirci pointed out that while Turkey is one of countries most affected by the Syrian crisis, many other countries should be concerned with addressing and managing its effects. Demirci suggested that initially, Turkey and most of the Syrian refugees expected that the conflict would be short and that the refugees would return back to Syria in the near future, and crafted its response to it as such. It was only in 2015, when Syria turned into a global conflict, that they realized that it would not be a short term problem, but would instead last for a long time into the future. In response to the new understanding, the Turkish MoE began to take steps to change how they were educating the Syrian refugees who were schoolchildren-aged. Demirci maintained that the Turkish MoE has taken a number of positive steps and is working to integrate the Syrian schoolchildren into the accredited, integrated Turkish educational system. He compared the rates of education in Syria with those in Turkey, noting that many of the schoolchildren came from northern Syria, where rates of education had always been quite low. He agreed with the prior speakers, noting that there are some obstacles to full integration, but maintained that Turkey was working hard to address those.
Juliette Tolay the two models for responding to mass movements of refugees and the impacts they have on a country. The first the formal method, seen in places like the US and the EU, is where there is a clear perception of the issue by the government and the government works to address it via policies, both based on rights and procedures. The second, the informal method, can be seen in areas like Pakistan, Iran, and some parts of Africa, where the government is either unwilling or unable to properly respond to these refugee inflows. Instead, it relies on civil society and NGOs to pick up the slack and respond to it. Both of these methods carry some downsides and upsides. Turkey, in Tolay’s opinion, follows a path between those two models. She noted that despite the much higher number of Syrian refugees in Turkey than in Europe, there is a much smaller backlash against them and society has been relatively welcoming, like an informal model. On the other hand, because the government has gotten involved, there are laws and directives which give refugees rights and access to health care and education and job markets, like a formal approach.
Tolay contended that this situation in Turkey highlights how important politics and policies on refugees are. If they are handled the right way, they can either trigger or prevent a backlash against refugees in a host country. She expressed some minor concerns that the refugees were becoming politicized in Turkey however. In some instances, opposition groups have taken anti-refugee positions because of how welcoming the government has been. In other cases, political leaders have attempted to use the refugees as political tools to achieve domestic political goals. She also suggested that the EU-Turkey refugee agreement turned the refugees as a whole into a political tool, dehumanizing them.