Photographer: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Refugee Crisis Puts Spotlight on Turkey and Syria’s Lost Youth

Millions of refugees may find themselves staying in Turkey. Now the country has to find a way to integrate them.

Gisun Habdo isn’t the kind of Syrian refugee Europeans have come to expect over the past year.

In the parched, almost treeless camp in the town of Elbeyli on Turkey’s border with Syria, the 18-year-old says she has already found her home country after escaping Aleppo with her family four years ago. She has no desire to join the million or so of her compatriots who have fled westward.

“I never thought of going," Habdo said during a break from a Turkish-language course, part of what’s now become an educational journey to her dream job. “I want to be a lab technician and stay.”

Habdo is among the three million Syrians who may end up staying in Turkey under a fragile deal with the European Union to stem the flood of refugees. Keeping them would avoid aggravating a refugee crisis roiling Europe, and they’re already helping Turkish economic growth. Yet, like in countries such as Germany and Sweden, the challenge is to integrate so many people from a religiously charged war and allow teenagers like Habdo to progress. Failure risks the threat of radicalization and new extremes of income inequality.

“We are faced with a colossal problem and we’re seriously underestimating its magnitude,” says Murat Erdogan, head of Hacettepe University’s Migration and Politics Research Center in Ankara.

Economic Boon

Under the EU agreement, Turkey is set to receive 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in aid and is negotiating other perks such as allowing its citizens visa-free entry to the Schengen area. A collapse of the accord -- already shaky due to a dispute over counter-terrorism policies -- would potentially unleash new waves of refugees.

For now, Turkey is reaping the benefits. Morgan Stanley cited Syrian spending as central to faster-than-expected economic growth in the past two quarters. Under pressure from the EU, Turkey began granting work permits in January to Syrian and Iraqi refugees, a move hailed by the International Monetary Fund as an important step to integrate them.

Complicated Reality

Reha Denemec, a chief adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said in an interview that if the children “are educated well and integrated into the system, they could become our doctors, engineers and workers in this country.”

The reality is more complicated. The majority of refugees are stuck in low-paying jobs, undermining their attempt to escape the poverty trap. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian children aren’t going to school at all, or are studying in centers with little or no government oversight.

A Syrian refugee child, works at a shoe workshop in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey on June 2.

A Syrian refugee child, works at a shoe workshop in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey on June 2.

Photographer: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Failure to integrate refugees “into the Turkish school system will limit their contribution to the economy,” said James Sawyer, an analyst at Eurasia Group. They will also “face additional obstacles to competing in the formal job market due to widespread societal xenophobia.”

‘Stealing My Bread’

Tension is already rising in the southeast, home to a patchwork of ethnic and religious groups including Turkmen, Arabs, Alevis and Kurds. About one in four in the region is jobless, double the national average.

“They are stealing my bread,” Azad Asu, a Kurd, said at a newly harvested wheat field in Mardin province near the Syrian border. “They are harming us.”

Although Turks were initially “welcoming and generous,” sentiment has turned against the refugees, according to a report by Kemal Kirisci, head of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution policy center in Washington. “There are growing calls for them to leave and for new arrivals to be prevented from entering, particularly as competition for jobs, housing and public services increases.”

Islamist Manipulation

In hosting survivors of a war heavily influenced by militants, Turkey also faces the risk of radicalization. A suicide bomber who killed 11 German tourists in Istanbul in January had a government-issued ID after convincing authorities he was a Saudi-born Syrian refugee escaping Islamic State.

War-traumatized children are especially at risk, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Young Syrian refugees are threatened with becoming a “lost generation,” it said.

“Syrian children in Turkey have experienced war and suffering firsthand, and risk violence, developing psychological disorders, child marriage, and recruitment into armed groups,” UNICEF said in February.

Spotty Standards

More than half of the 800,000 school-age Syrian children in Turkey don’t study at all. About 250,000 attend Arabic-language, gender-segregated education centers. As many as 50,000 are estimated to be attending private courses away from any kind of scrutiny, according to Hacettepe’s Erdogan.

Charity-funded centers aim to “compensate losses of children who have been out of schooling as long as four or five years,” said Huseyin Levent Kulekcioglu, head of a local aid group that educates about 500 Syrians in the southern city of Kilis. This, he said, helps keep Syrian children from crime. However, the state-appointed Turkish headmasters in those centers generally don’t speak Arabic and can’t control the curriculum.

The schooling situation “does not bode well for the prospect of helping these children become productive members of society,” said Brookings’ Kirisci. “It also makes them attractive targets for those trying to recruit more people into their crime or terrorism networks.”

With assistance from Benjamin Harvey

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