The Unwanted: Syrian Refugees in Turkey


It has been over 10 years that the Syrians have faced war within their country. A war that has brought poverty, misery, and torture into the average Syrian’s life. Those Syrians who remained in the country are now homeless and at the mercy of a government that openly attacks them and external forces that have very little regard for their lives. Of those who have fled, in the prospect of a better and safer life for themselves and their families, a great number moved westwards into Turkey (Washington Institute, 2016) hoping to continue their journey into European countries such as Germany (DW, 2021). However, neither Europe nor Turkey have an interest in hosting such a large number of refugees within their borders at the cost of millions of dollars in taxes. Thus, at the time of writing, the Syrian refugees’ life remains dependent on hostile policies drafted in an increasingly antagonistic international arena.

How much does a refugee cost in Turkey?

Turkey spent over 100 billion USD on refugees in 2019 alone according to the UNHCR (UNHCR, 2021), most of which were out of its own pocket. Although the EU has committed to helping, it provided only 6 billion Euros according to the International Crisis Group (Int.Crisis Group, 2020). The EU thought this would appease Ankara and convince her to keep the refugees within its borders but its help was nowhere near enough to be considered a substantial contribution to the Turkish cause. These costs have fuelled political discourses within Turkish politics, specifically on the more nationalistic side, aimed at cutting the amount of funding for refugees. 

The economic costs are only one side of the coin though. In fact, for the nationalist government of Erdogan, the societal costs allegedly imposed by Syrians on Turkey may even outweigh and be considered more of a threat than the economic ones. Indeed, northern Syria and south-eastern Turkey are home to a large Kurdish minority (DC Kurd 2023) that have historically- and still to this day- had hopes to establish their own sovereign state: Kurdistan. These hopes are often exasperated by the Turkish government which does not hide its mistreatment of Syrian Kurds (New York Times, 2022) both in and out of Turkey. In fact, the Kurdish separatist and independentist aspirations do not go unnoticed by the Turkish government and raise many alarms within the country, with the fear being a mass Kurdish revolution which seizes Turkish land via a small-scale civil war. The easiest solution to prevent such a revolution would be to ease tensions and reduce hostilities towards the Kurds, but this feels like it is no longer an option for the government as the Kurds will never be able to fully trust Turkish rule over them, nor it seems Erdogan is interested in a peaceful resolution. To summarise then, Syrians are perceived both as an economic burden and as a threat against the building of a culturally homogeneous, yet non-existent, Turkish state.

Weaponization of Refugees:

Refugees have been historically used by Turkey as a means to threaten the EU into conceding some of their values. Turkey was able to use refugees as a bargaining chip thanks to the EU’s strong unwillingness to accept refugees. Turkey threatened to send millions of refugees to the EU border (DW 2020), this came due to EU criticism of the Turkish offensive in northern Syria at the time. Ankara was successful at threatening the EU at a core level, thus proving the effectiveness of refugees’ weaponization and subsequently legitimising an exchange policy, the infamous EU/Turkey deal – money for keeping asylum seekers off the EU – that is now a defining feature of the Brussels/Ankara discourse. To be treated as pawns in a political game obviously strips individuals of their humanity and dignity, which in itself is already a blatant disregard for human rights. At the same time, to be treated in such a way creates a hiatus between the government and the refugees. This disconnect is one that cannot be ignored as the debate within Turkish politics shifts from a care-centred one to one that views these refugees as pawns, making passing laws that further discriminate against these groups of people infinitely easier. 

If, as I have already pointed out, this shows a clear disregard for human rights within Turkey, it also sheds light on the true colours of the EU. The EU, by paying Turkey to hold refugees within its borders, has commodified them and humiliated them. At the same time, asylum seekers and refugees are not entirely stripped of their agency, since they are viewed as a threat to European values (Reuters, 2023) and so, although they remain to be viewed as deserving less than what humans should get as human rights holders, they have this new label: cultural weapons. This portrayal of asylum seekers has been shared across most European countries, specifically those which border Turkey; Greece, and Bulgaria, not to mention Hungary where precisely in response to the passing of Syrians in 2015 new laws were passed to maintain the country culturally homogeneous and Christian (DW, 2015). At the Turkish Greek border, Greek authorities and Frontex – the EU border control agency- have acted violently against migrants (Human Rights Watch, 2021) and asylum seekers, in violations of refugee law and EU-specific regulations granting asylum seekers rights and protections including protection against refoulement.

Refugees’ deportation:

Turkey has long been attempting to claim land within northern Syria to form what they call a ‘safe zone’. This has been a longstanding goal for Ankara as it allows two things. Firstly, it reduces the Kurdish influence in those areas as it technically becomes under Turkish rule, and secondly, it provides an area where to deport all the refugees, regardless of the conditions as it becomes a ‘safe’ area for Syrians to return to their homeland. This could be considered a de facto invasion of another state which would go against the basic premise of international law, specifically Article 2(4) of the UN charter which states “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”. Furthermore, the deportation of Syrians back to Syria undermines and goes against Article 33 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention which prohibits the refoulement of refugees if the state they are being returned to is unsafe, and due to the ongoing wars and political climate of Syria it would be outrageous to argue its safety in any form. This, however, did not stop Turkish authorities from arbitrarily arresting and deporting thousands of Syrians back to Syria.

This may seem like a solely Turkish problem that must be dealt with by Turkey, however, it poses a serious problem for the EU. The EU is supposed to have a strict no-push-back policy when it comes to refugees and although it may not be enforced in the most effective or just way, it is still binding. This policy has its caveat, which is that a state is able to turn a refugee back if the country they came from is deemed to be safe. This caveat is very broadly defined and thus is regularly abused by many European states but with the policy changes made by Ankara it is becoming much more difficult to turn refugees back to Turkey. This legal issue seems to be disregarded by states like Greece and Bulgaria which still insist on the safety of Turkey for Syrian refugees and therefore still send refugees back to Turkey which leaves them in a vulnerable position in which they can be exploited. 


Overall, Syrian refugees seem to be unwanted people that are thrown around from place to place with blatant disregard for their humanity and dignity. Turkish policies and the fear of refugees that seem to worry the EU are equally to blame for the devolution of this situation. Syrians have and continue to face immense struggles during their lives being treated as threats and commodities rather than humans, naturally endowed with rights. They are constantly underrepresented and their voices are constantly overlooked. Turkey and the EU share equal responsibility when it comes to ensuring their safety, but both have failed miserably.

Works Cited

“Turkey: Hundreds of Refugees Deported to Syria.” Human Rights Watch, 10 Feb. 2023,

“What Is the EU-Turkey Deal?” International Rescue Committee, 18 Mar. 2022,,visa%2Dfree%20travel%20to%20Europe. Accessed 10 Feb. 2023.

“Turkiye.” UNHCR, Accessed 10 Feb. 2023.

“TURKEY AND THE WEAPONIZATION OF SYRIAN REFUGEES.” Brussels International Centre, 13 Jan. 2020, Accessed 10 Feb. 2023.

“Sharing the Burden: Revisiting the EU-Turkey Migration Deal.” International Crisis Group, 13 Mar. 2020, Accessed 10 Feb. 2023.

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UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol

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Gabriela Baczynska, Krisztina Than. “’Fences Protect Europe’, Hungary’s Orban Says Ahead of EU Migration Summit.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 7 Feb. 2023, 

Cagaptay, Soner, et al. “The Impact of Syrian Refugees on Turkey.” The Washington Institute, 25 Aug. 2016, 

Human Rights Watch. “Frontex Failing to Protect People at Eu Borders.” Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, 4 Feb. 2022, 

Hubbard, Ben, and Sangar Khaleel. “Turkey Bombs Kurdish Foes in Iraq and Syria, Likely Killing Dozens.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Nov. 2022, 

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Hasselbach, Christoph. “Syrian Refugees Find a Safe Haven in Germany – DW – 03/15/2021.”, Deutsche Welle, 15 Mar. 2021,