As an intractable war grinds on next door, Turkey’s president will try to absorb Syrian families into his robust base of public support. Turkish authorities have already declared that highly skilled migrants will be able to qualify for citizenship while the most vulnerable individuals will be able to apply under a selective humanitarian emergency scheme. And there are good reasons that Erdoğan might be tempted to loosen the criteria for citizenship.
Hundreds of thousands of newly naturalized constituents indebted to Turkish hospitality could help offset Erdoğan’s weak spot: the possibility that support among Turkey’s indigenous workforce will erode as the economy weakens. Economic growth in the country is not what it once was, and the 2019 presidential election is a long way off. The government has had to revise projected GDP growth for 2016 down from 4.5 percent to 3.2 percent.
But there’s a rub. Even though Syrians have helped generate economic demand and growth in Turkey this year, they have not been welcomed by a large swath of the Turkish population — least of all by Turkish nationalists. Syrians work predominantly in the unregistered economy, placing downward pressure on wages, even as they push rents and housing costs up and burden social services. They are also highly visible: At least four out of five Syrian migrants live in Turkey’s cities or towns.
So as much as Erdoğan might like their votes, he’s more likely to shelve, downplay or limit plans to naturalize Syrian migrants until he has bagged Turkish nationalist votes to secure a new constitution that arms him with full, formal — rather than just de facto — executive powers.
Going slow also has another advantage. Mainstream European politicians are under pressure from populist, anti-immigrant, right-wing politicians ranging from France’s Marine Le Pen to Austria’s Norbert Hofer. Donald Trump’s election victory in the United States last week showed that Europe’s political mainstream cannot afford to take its position for granted.
A large population of displaced Syrians strengthens the president’s hand in his hardball approach to Europe. Erdoğan has deployed Syrian migrants as a weapon in diplomacy. The western Balkan route to Europe may be closed, but the Turkish president’s threat to unleash a deluge of migrants on Europe still stands — ready to be made good on in the event that the European Union fails to grant visa-free access to Turks as part of a Turkey-EU migrant deal agreed in March.
It is a great shame that Erdoğan’s political machinations, and those of his European counterparts, have detracted from the Turkish government’s generosity as a host to Syrian migrants. This is one of the few areas where Erdoğan has the moral high ground over most of his Western partners — a point that he has been at pains to emphasize.
Whatever Erdoğan ultimately decides, two things are clear. He will continue to try to use his country’s Syrian migrant population as pawns in his pursuit of power at home and for leverage abroad. And, as with most of his ambitions, we can expect him to at least partially succeed.
Author: ANTHONY SKINNER