Turks Go Bananas
The battle over bananas in Turkey is indicative of the effects a protracted, large-scale refugee program can have on a country.
A bizarre story from Turkey about bananas last week offered some food for thought on the effects a protracted, large-scale refugee program can have on a country.
A group of Syrian nationals could now be deported from Turkey for “threatening public order and security” after posting videos of themselves eating bananas on social media. No, there’s no law in Turkey forbidding individuals from eating the potassium packed yellow fruit, or posting videos of them doing so on social media.
Videos like those posted by the seven Syrians started popping up on social media in mid October after an online news outlet published an argument between a young Syrian woman and a group of Turks.
During the argument, a middle-aged Turkish man said to the young Syrian woman, “You’re living comfortably. I can’t eat a banana, you’re buying kilos of bananas.” A Turkish woman also chimed in and criticized Syrians for returning to their home country to participate in religious festivals but not fight in the country’s civil war.
The sentiment expressed by the Turks in the video is becoming increasingly common among Turkey’s working poor. Some Turks complain that Syrians can afford to live comfortably in their new host nation while some Turks struggle to find work amidst an economic crisis and high inflation.
Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world, predominantly due to the more than 3.6 million Syrians that fled to Turkey because of the civil war that began a decade ago. Beyond the 3.6 million plus refugees living under temporary protected status, 100,000 have obtained legal residency and another 93,000 have been granted citizenship, according to 2019 figures from Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration. This means just under 5% of Turkey’s population is made up of Syrian nationals. Beyond legal Syrians residing in Turkey, there’s also a great number of unregistered Syrians still living in the country. In 2018, the Turkish government apprehended 34,000 unregistered Syrians, which likely puts the true number of unregistered Syrians, and thus Syrian nationals’ proportion of Turkey’s population, much higher.
What the Turks in the video are saying to the young woman isn’t completely unfounded, but certainly not 100% accurate either. Some Syrian refugees do have the means to live well in Syria, and do return home to observe religious holidays with family still living in Syria. Furthermore, because of their legal status in Turkey, Syrian refugees also have access to free healthcare and education—although about 40% of Syrian children do not attend due to poverty and language barriers. To encourage engagement with the Turkish healthcare and education system, the European Union established a cash transfer program for refugee children on the condition children go to school with increased incentives for young girls. Nearly half a million Syrian children take part in the program.
Despite some Turks’ perceptions, a majority of Syrian refugee households living in an urban setting take in incomes near or below the national poverty line. However, a survey conducted by the Turkish Red Crescent (TRC) and the World Food Program (WFP) found that 84% of Syrian refugee households have at least one person working, but only 3% had work permits. This is noteworthy because work permits available to Syrian refugees must be applied for by the refugee’s employer, who then must also pay taxes and social security as part of the refugee’s employment as well as pay the refugee a minimum wage. By not applying for workers permits, both employers and refugees circumvent the system established to create a fair labor market, creating labor-market distortions that adversely impact working Turks.
By no means does this inherently make Syrian refugees better off. The after-tax monthly minimum wage was 2,020 Turkish liras in 2019, whereas Syrians with a working contract that gave them regular working hours earned 1,313 Turkish liras per month on average, and irregular workers brought in 1,058 Turkish liras per month.
Nonetheless, while their perceptions are somewhat off, as can be said of the opinions and attitudes of America’s dispossessed from time to time, that doesn’t make them irrelevant. For one, just because their perceptions can be off base, doesn’t mean they can’t carry with them destabilizing effects—which is especially important in a country that has seen a general decline in stability that coincides with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
The second reason, much more applicable to a western audience, calls into question the broader strategy of refugee resettlement.
It wasn’t always the case that Turks called into question the presence of their new Syrian cohabitants. Shortly after the crisis in Syria began, Ankara created an open-door policy for Syrians hoping to flee from the escalating violence that remained until 2015. Even after the open-door closed in 2015, Turks felt a sense of pride in the service they were providing a temporary home for people who were watching their home country crumble before their very eyes. A 2016 poll found that 72% of Turks surveyed said they had no problems with the presence of millions of Syrian refugees.
Intervention from the United States and other powers only caused the Syrian civil war to linger on, even after it was clear Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would withstand western efforts to depose him. With the help of Russia and Iran, Assad recaptured large portions of Syrian territory. While Syria is far from a safe and stable place and fighting continues in certain hotspots along the borders of disputed territories, who’s in charge once the Syrian civil war ends is a foregone conclusion. Even though the Syrian civil war has subsided, the number of Syrian refugees attempting to enter Turkey prior to the Covid-19 pandemic that forced Turkey’s borders closed rose nearly 50% in 2019 compared to 2018.
But now that it’s clear Assad will retain his grip on power, the west is not only attempting to justify a longer stay for Syrian refugees, but is openly advocating for their permanent relocation in Turkey. As the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, one of Europe’s leading foreign policy think-tanks, wrote in a paper last year, “Turkey is likely to continue to host millions of refugees in the foreseeable future” and “their successful integration into Turkish society should be a key concern for European decision-makers.”
Humiliating defeats in the 2019 municipal elections for the Justice and Development Party over the Syrian refugee issue only served to make Turkey more aggressive in its attempts to close refugee camps and return Syrian nationals to their country of origin. I am not suggesting that certain exceptions shouldn’t be made for Syrians who could face real persecution upon their return to Syria, nor is this an endorsement of Turkey’s military or resettlement tactics in Northern Syria. And of course, Syrians should be deported for posting videos of themselves eating bananas.
What I am suggesting is that the ongoing refugee situation is not what the Turkish government in Ankara, nor the Turkish people, agreed to.
For years, we heard the American, and especially the foreign policy establishment in Europe, stress the importance of regional settlement of Syrian refugees for a number of reasons, but above all else was making it easier for Syrians to return to their home country. Now, the western foreign policy establishment is turning its back on the very purpose of regional refugee resettlement because it was unable to achieve its desired result in Syria. With these constantly-shifting goal posts, it’s not illogical for some to suppose that the perfect conditions to return some Syrian refugees to their home country won’t exist for quite some time, and Syrian refugees ought to start preparing to return to their home country in spite of this.