Category: Fieldwork Stories

A Field Trip to North Evros

By Lena Karamanidou (Glasgow Caledonian University) and Bernd Kasparek (Georg-August Universität Göttingen).


On our way from Orestiada to Alexandroupoli – the two largest urban centres in the border region of Evros, Greece – a young migrant, holding some Euro notes in his hand, tried to board the public bus we were travelling on. The conductor refused him: ‘Police. Papers. Then travel!’, he said in English. He acted within the confines of the European and Greek law: providing transport to an undocumented migrant is considered facilitation – helping a person with no legal status to enter or transit through a country – and carries heavy fines.

The previous day, one of our respondents told us that when migrants try to make their way towards the cities of Thessaloniki or Athens after leaving the Fylakio Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) or are released from detention, most have to pay their own fares. Previously, EU funding for Greece went through the UNHCR, and the UNHCR would use the funds to provide transportation to Thessaloniki. But since the funding is now going through the Greek state, no more transport is provided. Yet, as migrants normally cannot prove they are in Greece legally, they might be apprehended by the police on the way inland, re-arrested or just removed from the bus. Then they have to pay fares again.

This incident – however undramatic compared to other developments in Evros – encapsulated the interconnected nature of the European border management framework and domestic controls, and their failures. It also pointed to how actors on the ground can affect its implementation. The conductor did not call the police – at least not while we were on the bus.

The region of Evros. © OpenStreetMap contributors

Our visit to Evros – the north-eastern area of Greece that forms the only land border with Turkey, most of which is constituted by the river Evros (Maritza in Bulgarian, Meriç in Turkish) – happened almost by chance. We were invited to a workshop in Istanbul and given the proximity of the two locations, a four to five-hour coach trip away, we decided to seize the opportunity and conduct fieldwork. We had recently finished the project report on EU Border management and migration control, and Evros provided an opportunity to study in situ if and how the EU legal regime works in practice, and our interest in the country and the area is long-standing. We have both researched the impact of European legal and policy frameworks on migration and asylum policies in Greece for more than a decade. We both conducted fieldwork in Evros in 2010 and 2011, around the time of the deployment of the Rapid Border Intervention Team (RABIT) by the European Border Agency Frontex in the winter of 2010/11.

Seeing how border management and protection practices have changed since then was of great interest, given the numerous developments at the EU and domestic level. The deployment of the RABIT force, and the continuing involvement of Frontex in border surveillance and management activities – identification, nationality determination and interviewing migrants arriving at Evros. New structures such as the Regional Centres for Integrated Border and Migration Management – with two regional offices in Orestiada and Alexandroupoli – were created to facilitate the implementation of EU border management policies and the cooperation between EU agencies and Greek authorities. The Europeanisation of border management and the cooperation of the Hellenic security agencies and Frontex, according to our Hellenic Police respondents, improved professional practices – such as in nationality determination, screening and debriefing, undertaking risk analysis.

The detention centre in Fylakio, 2010. The later added containers are not in place yet. © wikimedia user:ggia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Europeanised border management practices were also supported by the reform of Greek asylum and reception systems. Fylakio, near Orestiada, was the first First Reception Centre – renamed into Reception and Identification Centre since the 2016 law introduced in response to the EU-Turkey statement – to be established in 2013. Before 2013, it existed as a detention centre for migrants, and has since been expanded by the ubiquitous container architecture characteristic of today’s migration management. While reception points to humanitarian procedures such medical screening, psychological support and vulnerability assessments, activities in Fylakio were also extended to border management activities, consisting of the identification, determination of nationality and fingerprinting of migrants arriving at Evros. While the RIC is based in the containers, the old concrete structure continues to serve as a pre-departure detention centre (PROKEKA) to facilitate detention and the implementation of Greek and EU return policies.

A view of the main square of Orestiada. Photo: Bernd Kasparek

So what has changed in Evros?

Since 2017, crossings through the Evros border have doubled. There were 5,677 arrests of third country nationals in 2017. By the end of September 2018, there were about 12,442 based on the information given to us by the police directorates in Alexandroupoli and Orestiada. The increase in arrivals is partly explained by the rise in the number of Turkish nationals crossing into Greece, in all likelihood fleeing an increasingly oppressive Turkish post-coup regime. There was a peak of arrivals in April and May, but the trend of increased arrivals continues. Interestingly, the number of arrests and detections are at the 2010 levels that triggered the RABIT deployment.

It’s difficult to point to one reason for the increased use of the Evros route. One explanation given by the police related to the low water levels of the Evros river, making crossing easier and safer. But there are many other factors: most importantly, the collapse of cooperation between the Greek and Turkish authorities since 2016. While the Turkish coup was a factor, the arrest of two found without authorisation in Turkish territory marked yet another turning point. According to our respondents, this affected communication between border control authorities and cooperation on returns, which all but broke down. The exclusion of Evros from the EU-Turkey statement and hotspot arrangements is also significant: it makes it a better route for avoiding return to Turkey.

Little attention has been paid to these shifts, as the public focus remains on the Greek islands, the hotspots there, and the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement. However, there is a lot of concern locally. Some of the concerns raised by local residents touched on ‘qualitative’‹ changes: that the migrants arriving are not only Syrian refugees or families, but also other nationalities, single men and ‘criminal elements’ – the latter reflecting hostile representations of migrants in local and national media, but also long-term public discourses criminalising and securitising migration in Greece. There were concerns that a potential military intervention in Idlib, Syria would exacerbate the situation in Evros, while increasing economic and political instability in Turkey might have an impact on movements in the area. Evros, it was said in a dramatic fashion, ‘will blow up’.

Orestiada is located in proximity to both Bulgaria and Turkey. Photo: Bernd Kasparek

A Europeanised border regime?

In a sense, our visit in Evros was a case of déjà vu: some of the deficiencies is asylum and reception widely reported in 2010-2011 still persist. Despite the establishment of the Hellenic Asylum Service in 2013, a local regional office in Alexandroupoli and a mobile asylum unit within Fylakio, the examination of applications is lagging behind. The use of short term contracts for staffing asylum services – a side-effect of the country’s austerity crisis and difficulties in absorbing EU funding – was identified as a significant factor. The reception conditions in Fylakio are reported to be still lower than European standards of reception and detention. There was no doctor in the RIC for nine months and there are shortages in interpretation services. Conditions at the pre-departure detention centre are worse, with insufficient heating, sewage problems and the presence of stray dogs being mentioned both by our respondents and in media accounts. Due to the limited capacity in the RIC, the PROKEKA facility is used as an additional space  for screening procedures. This in itself points to different functions than those envisaged in the context of the EU border management regime – facilitating return. The strict separation of concerns which is part and parcel of all EU border and migration management strategems clearly breaks down on the ground.

The Europeanised border control regime also co-exists with a national legal and policy framework for controlling migration. According to Law 3386/2005, unauthorised entry is a criminal offence. Migrants entering Greece in an unauthorised manner are arrested and detained in border police stations, while the police obtain from the local administrative court an order that allows them to refrain from criminal proceedings. This order is normally issued within 48 hours. Only following this, migrants are directed to the Fylakio RIC if they are of a nationality considered to be of ‘refugee profile’ – with a recognition rate of over 75% in the EU. If they are not, they are detained, but then released, since the collapse of Greek-Turkish cooperation has affected the implementation of the Bilateral Readmission Agreement. Since 2014, Operation ASPIDA (Shield) diverted resources to Evros in order to enhance the border control capacities of the Hellenic Police, aiming at the deterrence (apotropi was the word used by one of our police respondents) of migration movements across the border. Some controls seem to have a local flavour. The hotel where we stayed, we were told, keeps two books for recording their guests: one for the hotel itself, and one for the police, who come and check who is staying there every night.

The new highway leading to the border crossing of Kipoi/Ipsala. Photo: Bernd Kasparek

However, the most disturbing practice we heard about was illegal pushbacks. Pushbacks – returning migrants to Turkey and across the Evros river in contravention to both the non-refoulement clause of the Geneva Convention and EU law – have been widely recorded by NGOs in the late 2000s and early 2010s. In 2017 and 2018 Greek and European NGOs documented illegal pushbacks across the Evros river. Based on the information we obtained, this practice continues. According to our informants, after detention in border police stations, migrants are put in vans, taken back to the border, put into boats and led back to Turkey. These accounts reflected testimonies compiled previously by Greek NGOs. While they seem to be conducted by Hellenic Police and Army personnel, it was also indicated to us that Frontex may be involved in this practice, or at least knows and tolerates it. However, we were not able to independently corroborate this.

The practice of pushbacks is both illegal and inhumane: it endangers people’s lives and prevents them from reaching the protection regime of the European Union. Local people defending migrants’ rights pointed to the lack of media interest, domestic or global. Unlike the incident of the three murdered women which occurred while we were in Orestiada, the pushbacks do not seem newsworthy. They are difficult to record or investigate: they take place in secret, at night, with small groups of migrants each time. Yet, the Europeanised border regime fails to account for localised border practices that violate the human rights norms it purports to respect.

RESPOND in Turkey: Reflections on Migrant Framing, Fieldwork and Hope

Discursive Frames of Aliens in Turkey: “Migrants”, “Guests”, and “Foreigners”

By Ayhan Kaya (Istanbul Bilgi University, European Institute).

Photograph of the Balat district, home to many Istanbul migrants. Credit: Asli Aydin (2018)

The current state of Syrians residing in Turkey is mainly constrained by the ways in which the Turkish state actors have so far framed them. What I see is that growing societal tensions at local level in different parts of Turkey, be it big metropolitan cities like Istanbul, or the neigbouring cities in the Syrian border like Şanlıurfa, partly originate from the state of temporariness, which was instituted and reinforced by the religious rhetoric of Ansar spirit. In this short intervention, I want to discuss how the outsiders have been framed by the official texts and state actors in Turkey in relation to their ethno-cultural and religious identities.

The reception of Syrian refugees in Turkey is mainly based on a discourse of tolerance and benevolence driven from path-dependent ethno-cultural and religious premises dating back to the Ottoman Empire of the late 19th century as well as to the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1920s. The vocabulary, which has been used to identify the Syrian refugees, represents a kind of continuity with regards to the naming of “migrants”, “guests”, and “foreigners” since the early days of the Republic. For instance, the Law on Settlement (İskân Kanunu in Turkish, 1934) is one of the foundational legal texts defining the ways in which the Turkish state has identified the newcomers. The Law on Settlement was adopted in regards with the arrival of ethnic Turks in the early years of Republic. The Settlement Law (Law No. 2510 of 1934), provides that only migrants of Turkish culture, with an objective of settling in Turkey, can obtain immigrant status (Art. 3), and that those of non-Turkish origin will not be accepted as immigrants in Turkey (Art. 4). This Law has been reformed in 2006 but its main understanding of who can be an immigrant has not been substantially altered.

Moreover, it continued to be the main legislative text dealing with immigration, and it determines who can enter, settle and/or apply for refugee status in Turkey. However, it also provides the individuals of Turkish descent and culture with the opportunity to be accepted as “immigrants” and refugees in Turkey (İçduygu, 2015b). For instance, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Bulgarian-Muslims and Uighurs migrating to Turkey from different parts of the world are named as “migrants” (göçmen in Turkish) in the official documents as well as in everyday life as they are ethnically of Turkish descent. In this regard, there are two other terms which need to be elaborated further: “guest” (misafir) and “foreigner” (yabancı).

Photograph of the Avcılar district, home to many Istanbul migrants. Credit: Asli Aydin (2018)

In the official literature, the term “guest” has been hitherto used to refer to the refugees with Muslim origin but without Turkish ethnic origin coming from outside the European continent. Kurdish refugees in 2000s and Syrian refugees in 2010s were named as “guests” since Turkey officially does not accept refugees coming from outside its western boundaries. Bosniac and Kosovar refugees seeking refuge in Turkey in 1990s set up an exception as they were coming from the western borders of Turkey, and had the right to apply for asylum in Turkey according to the geographical limitation clause Turkey decided to keep together with Congo, Madagascar, Monaco in the 1967 Additional Protocol of Geneva Convention on protection of refugees removing the geographical limitations.

The term “foreigner” is often used in the official texts as well as in public to refer to those who are not neither Turkish nor Muslim. These groups are not also able to be incorporated into the prescribed national identity, which is mainly based on what I call the holy trinity of Sunni-Muslim-Turkish elements. Accordingly, not only the non-Muslims coming from abroad but also autochthonous groups such as Greeks and Armenians are named as “foreigners”, or “local foreigners” in legal texts.

To this extent, a more recent metaphor to qualify the role that the Turkish state and the pious Muslim-Turks should play for Syrians in Turkey has been the Ansar spirit (Arabic for helpers). As a metaphor, Ansar refers to the people of Medina, who supported the Prophet Mohammad and the accompanying Muslims (muhajirun, or migrants) who migrated there from Mecca, which was under the control of the pagans. The metaphor of Ansar originally points at a temporary situation as the Muslims later returned to Mecca after their forces recaptured the city from the pagans. Hence, the Turkish government has used a kind of Islamic symbolism to legitimize its acts on the resolution of the Syrian refugee crisis. The government leaders have consistently compared Turkey’s role in assisting the Syrian refugees to that of the Ansar, referring to the Medinans who helped Muhammad and his entourage. Framing the Syrian refugees within the discourse of Ansar and Muhajirun has elevated public and private efforts to accommodate Syrian refugees from a humanitarian responsibility to a religious and charity based duty.

Then the PM Ahmet Davutoğlu, in his speech in Gaziantep, one of the most popular destinations for the Syrian refugees in the Syrian border, publicly stated that the inhabitants of Gaziantep are a city of Ansar: “Gazi[antep] is an Ansar city now. God, bless you all.”[1] Similarly, President Erdoğan used the same discourse in his speeches in 2014 and afterwards: “In our culture, in our civilization, guest means honour, and blessing. You [Syrian guests] have granted us the honour of being Ansar, but also brought us joy and blessing. As for today, we have more than 1,5 million Syrian and Iraqi guests.”[2]

The discourse of Ansar has continued until recently, Deputy PM, Numan Kurtulmuş, referred to the same rhetoric when he introduced the right to work granted to the Syrian refugees under temporary protection: “The reason why the Syrian refugees are now settled in our country is hospitality and Ansar spirit that our nation has so far adhered to. There are other countries that cannot do anything when encountered with a few hundred thousands of refugees. But contrary to what the rich and prosperous countries could not do for the refugees, our country did its best for the refugees as a generous host, friend, brother and neighbour.”[3]

The main common denominator of the ruling political elite is that the Syrian refugees are being portrayed and framed by means of an act of benevolence. Hence, the assistance of the state to the refugees is accomplished based on charity, rather than universally recognized rights that are supposed to be granted to refugees fleeing their homelands. But the problem is that Turkey is far from naming the Syrian refugees as “refugees”. Therefore, the state actors tend to cope with the issue not through universal law, but through the laws of religious charity and benevolence. Such as religious-based discourse with regards to the reception of Syrian refugees in Turkey was also embraced by the bureaucrats working in the migration sector.

[1] Akşam, 28 December 2014, accessed on 7 June 2017.

[2] Hurriyet, 8 October 2014, accessed on 7 June 2017.

[3] Ajans Haber, 11 January 2016,, accessed on 8 June 2017.

Photograph of the Balat district, home to many Istanbul migrants. Credit: Asli Aydin (2018)

Passages of Hope…Notes from the field

By Aslı Aydın (Istanbul Bilgi University)

BİLGİ Team conducted the micro level interviews in the European continent of Istanbul from the end of July to the mid-August 2018. In the fieldwork, under the supervision of Professor Ayhan Kaya, we conducted 20 interviews from different regions in Arabic with the assistance of a native Arabic speaker Ahmed Fahmy, a student from Lund University, Sweden.

Photograph of the Avcılar district, home to many Istanbul migrants. Credit: Asli Aydin (2018)

We contacted our Syrian interlocutors through some civil society organizations. The Refugee Center of Şişli Municipality, Mavi Kalem Social Aid and Solidarity Association, SGDD-ASAM, Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migration, and Qnushyo Syrian Culture Center in İstanbul, which is the Advice Hub of the RESPOND Project, have been very helpful in finding our interlocutors. We are grateful for their support. They were all very supportive throughout the process.

Photograph of the Avcılar district, home to many Istanbul migrants. Credit: Asli Aydin (2018)

The interviews were mostly conducted in the headquarters of these civil society organizations where our interlocutors were already very familiar with and felt very comfortable. We also visited some of the interlocutors at their homes and had the chance to meet their families. In every home we were welcomed and in every visit we were served Syrian Coffee. The interviews lasted approximately one or one and a half hour each. I conducted the interviews together with Ahmed, our Arabic translator. I must admit that the men we interviewed were very shy unlike the women, and they mostly avoided eye contact.

Photograph of the Balat district, home to many Istanbul migrants. Credit: Asli Aydin (2018)

We had the opportunity to meet many refugees with different stories. We are so thankful to them for letting us in their everyday life and for sharing their experiences with us. There were hard moments sometimes, especially when they were telling us about their experiences of crossing the border. This was one of the most sensitive moments in their journeys. Some of them crossed the border easily, some of them faced difficulties, and some could make it to Turkey with their families, but some others could not.

Photograph of the Balat district, home to many Istanbul migrants. Credit: Asli Aydin (2018)

It was observed that the interlocutors whom we contacted through Şişli Municipality were more vulnerable in contrast to the others whom we contacted through the NGOs. Şişli is in the very centre of the city, run by mayor from the liberal-minded social democratic Republican People’s Party. Refugees who are involved in social and cultural activities tended to be more comfortable with the questions and feel self-confident during the interviews. Although they also had traumatic experiences, they all try to cope with the difficulties of adopting a new life in İstanbul – a city that offers a lot, but also takes a lot, from everyone. The fieldwork experiences have reminded us of once again, how crucial it is to have hope, no matter what you have experienced.

Fieldnotes from a Border Province, Şanlıurfa, Turkey

By Zeynep Şahin Mencütek (Swedish Research Institute, Istanbul).

Conducting fieldwork is a way of collecting data, verifying hypotheses, answering key questions and filling in gaps. It is also a key to gaining different visions about the themes and arguments, which have been proposed in the designation stage of the social research. Beyond fulfilling these research tasks, I find fieldwork to be a personally very enriching experience as a political scientist. My last field work in Şanlıurfa, Turkey this summer validated my ideas about the benefits of field research. I was in this province to conduct micro and meso level interviews within the context of RESPOND. After busy, tiring and stressful days in the field, I ended up with more questions than answers, the collection of life stories, unfinished sentences, but deep meaningful looks and heart touching scenes. So, this field research –similar to my earlier experiences- became a merger of emotional experiences with the scholarly endeavour. More than what I learned from semi-structured interviews, to be honest, I was enlightened by the experience itself and ordinary daily conversations.

Şanlıurfa is a province sharing the longest border with Syria and has three official border gates, namely Akçakale, Mürşitpınar, and Ceylanpınar in different towns of the province. It has become quite an important site for the settling of Syrian refugees in Turkey since 2011. Although it is a relatively less visible and less studied province in the context of refugee research in Turkey (compared to Gaziantep), it hosts more Syrian refugees than Gaziantep. As of August 2018, Şanlıurfa hosts 470,296 Syrians according to official statistics of Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM), while the province’s population is 1,985,753, making Syrians 23.6% of the total population. Only other two border provinces, Kilis and Hatay host a higher per capita concentration of Syrian refugees than Şanlıurfa does, 95,5% and 28,06% respectively, while this concentration is 3,75 in İstanbul which hosts 564,189 Syrians, the highest number among Turkish provinces.[i] Şanlıurfa also has three refugee camps (officially called temporary shelter/accommodation centers), which host 67,682 Syrians, the highest number among the other nine provinces having similar camps.[ii] Until 2011, Şanlıurfa could be characterized as a province of internal emigration, but the Syrian civil war substantially changed the character and demography of the city. Not only having a border city but also having a high number of Arabic and Kurdish speaking locals made the city an attractive place for Syrians to arrive and settle town, even though the province has very limited job opportunities, and mainly has an agriculture-based economy.

My fieldwork occurred between July 10th and August 2nd in Şanlıurfa’s most crowded three towns, namely Eyyübiye, and Haliliye which are at the city center, as well as Siverek which is 95 kilometers away from the city center.[iii] I also paid a short visit to another town, Ceylanpınar, which is a border town having both a border gate and a crowded camp (hosting around 22,000 refugees). In Ceylanpınar and Siverek, I also found an opportunity to interview Syrian refugees living in rural areas which provided insights about rural-urban comparison.

In the month-long fieldwork, I was able to conduct 34 interviews with meso-level actors and 24 interviews with Syrian refugees. Semi-structured interviews took place from 20 minutes to 2 hours, conducted in Turkish, English, Arabic and Kurdish. I was lucky to work with a very handy translator and cultural mediator, Ali Akbaba who definitely eased my work in the city center. I was not that lucky in terms of weather, which was around 50C and which made going around quite difficult. I have a full range of observations about the response of Şanlıurfa to the Syrian mass migration, which I would like to share, but it is not possible considering the limits of this blog entry. It may be useful to share a few of them in line with the thematic focus of the RESPOND to give you a sense of the refugee situation in the province, leaving broader discussions to the reports and publications.

Turkey-Syria border, border wall, photo taken in Ceylanpınar by the author on 22 July 2018.

In terms of border controls, both micro and meso level actors in the province reported that it was very easy to cross the Turkey-Syria border with or without passports until 2015. Very few interlocutors stated that they encountered difficulty or any type of violence during their crossing to Turkey, except in cases in which they face armed militias on their journey inside Syria. Particularly, my interviews with locals in Ceylanpınar, and a site-visit to the border gate and border fences provided a better understanding of how the “open border” policy worked in practice and how close Turkish and Syrian towns are. Also, interviews demonstrated how the situation on the other side of the border was desperate and urged Syrians to flee. In the words of a local, “even dogs, cats and birds fled from Rasulayn (Syrian border town) to here due to the bombings, they got very afraid, we also heard all these bombardments for three years, our windows broke down, at least ten local people from our town died due to the shelling.”[iv]

Border monitoring tower of Turkish soldiers, photo taken in Ceylanpınar by the author on 22 July 2018.

Since 2015, it seems that not only fighting on the border cooled down, but also the Turkish state gave up its open door policy.  There have been more controls on the part of the state and new measures, but according to the interlocutors, it is not impossible to cross if smugglers are well paid and risks are taken. I made a visit to a town to see one of these new measures, a “security wall” which is modular and four-meters high. I was told that “a few holes under the wall were already opened and villagers help those who wish to cross these holes.”[v] As a local man wisely put it, “a smuggler is a person who becomes a smuggler if there is an opportunity to do so.” It seems there are still some opportunities for smugglers. Nevertheless, border crossings are very limited compared to “the mass crossings of hundreds of thousands on daily basis” in the first four years of the war. [vi]

A Syrian couple with two kids from Kobani were given the old school of the village to settle down by the muhtar. They are not supposed to pay rent which gives them financial relief. Photo taken in Karakoyun village at Siverek by the author on 15 July 2018.

Another dimension of border controls is returns. During my interviews and site visits, voluntary return does not seem as pertinent even though many Syrians expressed their willingness if conditions in Syria become safe and liveable, while locals have been very much looking for the urging of Syrians’ return by Turkish state authorities. An answer of a local authority (muhtar) to my question about integration was: “integration? Do you mean their long-term stay here?  The only solution is the quick return of all Syrians.”[vii] I came across some exceptions to the current practices about voluntary return. During my visit to the village of Siverek, Karakoyun, I learned that 200 families fled to this village from Kobani at the end of 2014, but almost all of them except two families returned their home in Syria within two years.   My interviews with the remaining two families who settled in the old school building made it clear that these families did not return as they do not have financial resources over there and plan to go back if they accumulate money to buy a house in Kobani.  Moreover, I heard about the forced return of dozens of male Syrians, including detention for the purpose of return, which happens if there is an alleged accusation regarding a person’s links with any terrorist organizations. Such returns are organized with the cooperation  of the DGMM and the Security Forces and take place in a short time period, such as in a week.

A female local villager and a Syrian refugee. Local villagers provided food and other material aid to the Syrian refugee family since 2014. A friendship and integration are observable in the relations among them. Photo taken in Karakoyun village at Siverek by the author on 15 July 2018.

RESPOND’s other thematic focus is on reception. In the case of Şanlıurfa, the main providers of the first material needs of Syrians (such as house equipment) used to be local communities, including neighbours, previously arrived family members and relatives from same ethnicity or tribes. Local community-based humanitarianism is very much observable in the province. There has been also growing institutional humanitarianism with the arrival or establishment of a plethora of INGOs, NGOs, faith-based local NGOs, as well as community organizations established by Syrians. Although interviewed representatives from these organizations reported delivering assistance, very few refugees said that they received kind or cash aid from such organizations, while many reported getting aid from neighbours.  The most beneficial institutional social assistance is the debit card that is provided monthly by the Turkish Red Crescent with the funding of UN’s Emergency Social Safety Net program as well as cash assistance to school children. Informal work and these debit cards seem to be the main livelihood source for many of them. Registration and accessing to ID cards has often been an easy process for Syrians.

News about the humanitarian assistance provided by Şanlıurfa İnsani Yardım Platformu (Humanitarian Aid Platforms), which is an umbrella organization of 84 local NGOs. Photo taken in Şanlıurfa city center by the author on 29 July 2018.

Refugee camps are also a vital part of reception policies. I have visited a tent camp in Ceylanpınar. As opposed to international and Turkish authorities’ description of camps as “five-star camps”[viii] or being an example for “how to build a perfect refugee camp,”[ix] what I visited is barely satisfactory. It is a tent camp with an extremely poor infrastructure, particularly a bad road and common bathrooms, a small tent school without any garden or playground, but a high level of surveillance in and outside of the camp. Although these conditions may be thought of as acceptable in the first two years, it is not acceptable in the seventh year of refugee hosting. It may be the case that infrastructure was fine when it was established but it definitely, needs renovation. I was told that there are around 18,000-22,000  refugees living there, in summer time the numbers decrease because camp residents undertake seasonal agricultural labor with their families.

Entrance of Ceylanpınar tent camp. Photo taken in Ceylanpınar by the author on 23 July 2018.

Another thematic emphasis of RESPOND is on protection. This theme is increasingly on the agenda in Şanlıurfa. This is not only because the province has a large refugee population, but also many international NGOs opened their branches or extended their programs there. They and national NGOs have a strong protection dimension and almost all have case management programs providing individual mental health and socio-psychological support as well as community centers providing community empowerment. Moreover, the Turkish Red Crescent and Provincial Director of Family and Social Policies Ministry whom I also met, have been quite active in collaborating with INGOs as he considers that “all these INGOs operate in fields which fall under the ministry’s service area and it is important to know what they are doing on the ground.”[x]  Prevention of child labor and education of children are two safe areas where INGOs and provincial state authorities sought ways to collaborate effectively.

Two cell-phone store owned by Syrian refugees in a neighbourhood where Syrians live in high numbers at the city center of Şanlıurfa. Photo taken by the author on 28 August 2018.

Integration is also another policy field which RESPOND is trying to understand in local, national and regional levels. Şanlıurfa is a promising micro context to explore integration experiences, actors and factors involving the refugee integration process. The common language (either Arabic or Kurdish), kinship, religious belonging (to Islam), and conservative worldview appear as important facilitators of integration of Syrians into Şanlıurfa. Almost no one I interviewed reported difficulties about accessing health services. Unlike in other cities, such as İzmir and İstanbul, language does not appear as a barrier to get proper health services. Education services, particularly primary and secondary level education, are accessible to many Syrian children through temporary education centers. I visited three of them in different locations (in the city center, a camp and Siverek). Also, I was told that Syrian students who learned Turkish pursue education with their Turkish peers. According to the Provincial Vice Director of the Ministry of Education, in two years, all temporary education centers, including those in the camps will finish their mission and all Syrian students will be able to pursue education with their Turkish peers. While health care and education are not challenges for Syrians, it is not the case for access to the labour market. The city has a high unemployment rate, and this was exacerbated by the arrival of Syrians. Nevertheless, many interviewed Syrians reported that they have been working in informal jobs in various sectors. Construction and agriculture are the two sectors, which hire the highest numbers of Syrians, but these are the sectors in which exploitation and insecurity are the most common.  Many Syrians opened small stores and some medium-size companies in the province, signalling capital in-flow. Also, the province has high numbers of Syrian teachers, lawyers, dentists and doctors. Many are able to work in temporary and informal jobs. Local authorities take a flexible approach towards these types of entrepreneurs considering that “without cash assistance and working opportunities, there may be more tensions between locals and Syrians in the province.”[xi]  Interviews with Syrians from different class backgrounds demonstrated that class positively influences the relationships with locals and eliminates challenges about housing and access to sustainable livelihoods.  While locals’ social acceptance of Syrians seems positive, their concerns about them focus on crowdedness in the province, sharing parks with them, the rise of polygamy due to Syrian women marrying local men and the make-up that Syrian women wear. However, it is possible to smell increasing reluctance of locals to live with Syrians.

During RESPOND’s kick-off meeting in Turkey, Prof. Ayhan Kaya raised the question of hope in the picture of refugee integration, and I am adding there is also resistance and empowerment. I am sharing some scenes which I observed to give you food for thought for hope, resistance and empowerment which touched my heart:

– I met a young Syrian girl who lived with her parents and seven siblings (including a disabled brother) in a very small and extremely hot house. She has just completed her first year in the Nursing Department of the Harran University. She has taken a fellowship which she shared with her sister who is also the second year student in the Computer Engineering Department of a university in another Turkish city.

– I met a Syrian middle-aged painting teacher and a Syrian dentist. Both are seeking ways to form an association and build ties with unions for protecting the rights of Syrian teachers and dentists.

-I met two very young men who opened a telecommunication company which hired 15 Syrian young engineers. They were planning to open a new branch in İstanbul. They have just been granted Turkish citizenship, which is expected to ease the bureaucratic hurdles they must deal with.

-I met a famous photographer from Rakka.  Despite all the challenges and difficulties he faced, he has been continuously searching for how he may open a photo exhibition.  Fortunately, the Swedish Research Institute Istanbul will give him an area in which to exhibit this fall.

Inside of a refugee tent, Photo taken in Ceylanpınar by the author on 23 July 2018.

-I met a very lovely family in the refugee camp with two children. They transformed their 20-30m2 size tent into their home and a store. As you can see in the picture, the wife decorated the roof of the tent with her beautiful drawings; she made a small kitchen and garden with some greenery, and the husband made a very small but orderly bicycle repair shop in the front side of tent where he earns a little money.

Many more scenes are coming to mind, with some hope in them. In general, I felt the desperation of just asking questions but not contributing to the lives of refugees directly.  I was very much afraid to create an expectation which I cannot fulfil, but also I again observed how strong and resistant human beings are under very challenging conditions.

[i] Distribution of Syrians in the Scope of Temporary Protection by Province, Accessed 18 August 2018.

[ii] Distribution of Syrians in the Scope of Temporary Protection by Temporary Shelter Centers, Accessed 18 August 2018.

[iii] Şanlıurfa İlçelerinin Nüfusu, Accessed 18 August 2018

[iv] Daily conversation with two local women in Ceylanpınar, 22 august 2018.

[v] Interview with a local representative in Ceylanpınar, 23 August 2018.

[vi] Interview with a local representative in Ceylanpınar, 23 August 2018. Interview with a journalist who served in the reception at the Suruc, Akçakale border Gates in the 2014, Şanlıurfa, 25 August 2018.

[vii] Interview with muhtar in Eyyubiye, Şanlıurfa, 18 August 2018.

[viii] Erol Cebeci and Sally Judson, “Syrian Refugees in Turkey”, 4 April 2014,

[ix] “How to build a perfect refugee camp” New York Times, Accessed 19 August 2018. Accessed 19 August 2018

[x] Interview with the provincial director of the Family and Social Policies Ministry, in Şanlıurfa, 26 August 2018.

[xi] Interview with the muhtar of the neighborhood where Syrians live in high numbers and opened many small stores, 18 August 2018.