What’s New in Turkey with the Naturalization of the Syrians there?
Investigation team – Enab Baladi
Almost a year after raising the issue of granting Turkish citizenship to Syrians residing in Turkey on an exceptional basis, so many questions have started to reverberate in the minds of refugees about whether they can actually get it, after the authorities interviewed a good number of them but granted citizenship to just a few.
Given the fact that the measures announced went stale and that official statements themselves were wiped out, Enab Baladi met with a number of Syrians applying for citizenship, went through the Turkish laws and official statements to observe the application requirements, the positive as well as negative aspects of granting Turkish citizenship to Syrians, and the subsequent questions that relate to issuing passports, military service, job opportunities, and education.
“Vague” Procedures for Obtaining Turkish Citizenship
Turkish city halls invited a number of Syrians for the purpose of naturalizing them, without specifying clear criteria for how they have been selected. Some of them have been residing in Turkey for three years; some have not been in Turkey for more than a year. Some of them were highly “qualified”; others had no scientific or professional qualifications.
Manal, 27, who works for a Syrian organization that she refused to name, was invited to an interview to be granted an “exceptional” citizenship at the beginning of this year at the General Directorate of Migration in Istanbul because she has a worker’s residence permit. She is no different from around seven thousand people who have permission to work in Turkey, according to official statistics. In most other cities, however, Syrians have been invited for interviews because they are mostly either teachers or doctors.
Do you Want to Go back to Syria?
The interview with Manal lasted about an hour and a half at the Directorate General of Migration building, and it consisted of general questions about the length of her stay in Turkey, details about work, family, salary and studies. The most important question that has been asked was: Would you go back to Syria one day?
While Manal’s application procedures stopped at the first interview, Khawla, 35, an Arabic language teacher in a provisional learning center, was invited to the second interview at Kayseri city hall.
After two meetings, two security officers unexpectedly came to her home to check the information provided during the interview. They asked Khawla’s neighbors and the shopkeepers of the neighborhood about her conduct and the different activities she engages herself with. This was part of the investigation work and security inspection that the government talked about in the past.
Months have passed by since then, and neither Manal nor Khawla were updated about their application for citizenship. There is even no change in the message they receive when they check their application status online through the Civil Department website. The message permanently reads: “under study and inspection”.
“It seems that this step takes a long time,” Manal says, “and so far there is nothing new, and we still hope the decision will be taken soon.”
Why did they Exclude me?
Enab Baladi interviewed people who had been living in Turkey for years, who mastered the Turkish language and studied at Turkish universities, but they were not called upon to apply for exceptional citizenship, which raised questions about the criteria of selection and preference of people over others.
Zainab, a 23-year-old resident of Hatay province in southern Turkey for three years, has been teaching at a provisional learning center. She is evidently fluent in Turkish and studies at Ataturk University.
Zainab wondered: “Why did they exclude me from obtaining citizenship even though I do fulfill most of their conditions?” and she checked on her own whether her name was on the lists, but she did not find it.
Who Deserves Citizenship and what are the Criteria for Granting it?
Enab Baladi tried to communicate with well-informed officials in the city halls and in parliament, but they avoided talking about the issue of citizenship. It was not possible to obtain accurate and documented information on the number of applicants, the application procedures, who actually obtained it, and how long the applicants should wait to get an answer.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stirred up the case in his first statement on July 2, 2016. He said at a breakfast banquet in the southern city Kilis, “Turkey is a homeland for Syrians coming from Syria … and if some of them wish to become Turkish citizens, we will grant our Syrian brothers citizenship, and we will be able to pursue the case through a bureau we have established.”
Erdogan’s surprising statement at the time was a matter of debate among the Turkish people; especially that it was launched from a city containing more Syrians than Turkish natives. It was followed with several statements confirming the possibility of granting Turkish citizenship to highly qualified Syrians, professionals and businessmen, as well as orphans, to contain the popular rejection of the idea.
Criteria for Granting Citizenship
In light of government statements and reaction from the opposition, especially after rumors spread that all three and a half million Syrians living in Turkey had obtained citizenship, the Yeni Safak newspaper, close to the decision-making center in Ankara, got the criteria and the proposed preliminary numbers, and the expected steps, and summarized them in nine items, in an article published on 9 July 2016:
- The granting of citizenship to the Syrians will follow a “step by step” approach and an initial number of around 30-40 thousand Syrians will be granted citizenship, taking into account their professional skills and competencies.
- The total number of Syrians who will be granted Turkish citizenship will not exceed 300,000. If they have families within Turkey, they will be also offered citizenship.
- Syrians will not be able to vote in the upcoming elections for a year after they have obtained citizenship.
- An amendment should be brought to the conditional period of residence of a foreigner within Turkey prior to obtaining citizenship for the Syrians only, to be less than five years of continuous residence.
- Conducting security investigations on Syrians who will be granted citizenship by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT).
- Open the way for Syrian investors who have the money and have not been able to invest it so far.
- Granting citizenship to some opposition figures for the purpose of protecting them. They might as well be of some value to and can be exploited by the intelligence.
- Launching an awareness campaign on the role of Syrian ancestors in the Battle of Çanakkale, which claimed the lives of thousands of martyrs of Ottoman Turks and Arabs, in anticipation of the stereotyped judgment that the people can have.
- Future steps will also be taken to enable the Syrians to buy real estate, facilitate investment for them, and attract those who are wealthy to stay in Turkey.
A Circular for all Provinces … Priority is to the Syrians
According to official statistics, there are about 3 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey. 10% of them are affiliated with AFAD, Emergency and Disaster Management Department and are distributed in around 26 camps, and the rest are spread in the remaining 81 provinces.
With much talk of granting citizenship, and despite the Turkish opposition, instructions from the Ministry of the Interior with a database on the Syrians have been sent to all provinces, especially the public migration departments, and the Directorate of Civil Status Affairs, to work on before June 7, 2016.
These demanded that, upon data inspection, priority be given to Syrians who might offer Turkey technical, scientific, industrial, technical, sporting, cultural, economic and social benefits.
At the time, the Ministry of Interior sent lists of around 700 Syrian resident families to be compared with data provided by immigration services, and it was found that about 50,000 Syrians registered in the databases had higher education certificates.
Five Thousand Syrians Granted Citizenship
Up until Erdogan put his first declaration forward, the Turkish Ministry of the Interior has indicated that around 5,000 Syrians had obtained Turkish nationality under the existing legislation and in accordance with the Turkish Nationality Law No. 5091, granted to foreigners living in Turkey on clear terms:
- Uninterrupted stay within Turkey for five years from the date of application
- Acceptable Turkish language fluency level
- The ability to support himself and those whom he is responsible for
- Not to pose a danger or threat to national security.
The Coup Attempt Slows down the Process
Attempts to grant citizenship were stalled by the failed July 15 coup attempt, which took place days after Erdogan’s statements, and resulted in postponing dealing with the issue until security will be reached and internal conditions will be calmed down.
The issue was raised again about granting citizenship to a section of qualified Syrians and Iraqis in a statement by President Erdogan early this year, noting that the Ministry of Interior has started to take serious steps in this regard.
He reiterated that only those who are qualified will be granted citizenship, pointing to the presence of engineers, doctors and others. He wondered “Isn’t it better to have them work under the protection of law like citizens of this country?”.
Syrians and the Referendum Paper
Indeed, the directorates of migration in various cities began to call Syrians from the ninth month to February in 2017, a time when the governor of Istanbul, Wassib Shaheen, announced sending about two thousand files of Syrians applying for “exceptional” nationality.
Earlier, the Turkish newspaper Milliyet made it clear that the nationality will be granted to about ten thousand Syrians. Thus, voices rejecting the Syrians and their stay in Turkey started to be heard again, amid the promotion of opposition media that these names will be used as electoral votes in the referendum on the constitutional amendments of April 16.
This pushed the former deputy prime minister, Veysi Kaynak, to deny the allegations, trying to explain the idea that “granting 10 to 20 thousand Syrian the Turkish nationality will not change the outcome of the referendum against the voice of 55 million Turkish voters.”
At the time, Kaynak said that the result of the granting of citizenship to the Syrian applicants will be determined after the referendum, in accordance with the instructions of the Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, to put an end to the tension that have started to blow up the Turkish scene and that justified hostility among some people.
On the following day, Kaynak revealed the number of Syrian families who had acquired the Turkish nationality, without giving details. He said that the number reached about 3000 families, which is equivalent to about 10 to 12 thousand people, after indicating that the research began 14 months ago.
Even though four months passed since the referendum, no new official resolutions or statements have been issued yet, and the applicants who have been invited by the authorities for interviews are still waiting for either positive or negative answers
The Opposition is Demanding a General Referendum
Despite the statements that stressed how the Turkish nationality will be granted to qualified Syrians only, the opposition has become even sterner. This opposition is represented by three political parties, the Republican People’s Party, which is opposed to the idea of Syrian asylum and Turkish intervention in Syria from the beginning, as well as the Nationalist Movement Party and the Peoples’ Democratic Party.
The Republican and the peoples’ party demanded to start a referendum on whether or not to accept giving the nationality to Syrians.
“If you are insisting, and you would say, ‘We support the will of the people’, come on and let’s carry out a referendum and ask the people”, said Kemal Kilicdaroglu the main opposition leader, in a speech addressing the Turkish President Erdogan.
“The President of the Republic cannot take a decision in this regard, if you trust yourself so much, let’s carry out a referundum,” said the leader of the Kurdish People’s Party, Selahattin Demirtaş, who called for a referendum on the issue.
Genes Conspiracy.. Find a Place for your People First
Kılıçdaroğlu said that the decision to grant Turkish citizenship to the Syrians is a conspiracy against Turkey that aims at “manipulating the genes of the Turkish people.” “Europe, with a population of about 500 million, receives only 500,000 Syrians, while Turkey, with 73 million people received three millions (…) The goal is to change our genes.”
For his part, the Nationalist Movement Party leader, Devlet Bahçeli, expressed his dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s statement on the possibility of granting the Syrians houses in instalments at the institution ” Housing Reconstruction ” (Toki), which came days after he talked about the nationality”.
“I think we should look at our miserable ad pitiful people first,” he told Erdogan.
The Turkish people did not react differently compared to the political parties, and its reaction could be seen as even more violent. Within days of Erdogan’s statement, there was widespread anti-Syrian sentiment, such as “I do not want the Syrians in my country” and “Let the Syrians go.”
What does the Turkish People Say?
Almost a year after the statements, Enab Baladi carried out a survey among the Turkish people about their opinion towards the Syrians and the proposal of granting them citizenship. Most of the responses either rejected the two ideas or were at least against the proposal.
The reasons varied from “unjustified” refusal for the sake of refusal, to explanations that considered the Syrians as a “negative influence on the Turkish economy” because they thought Syrians were “entering universities for free, without sitting for any examination,” or because they were “begging in the streets,” and so many other stereotypes.
Some politicians, including opposition politicians, media professionals or citizens, are propagating a series of rumours about “Syrians enjoying exceptional rights in Turkey.”
What is new is that popular supporters of Erdogan have a different attitude and have started to join the opposition. This division contaminated the ruling party itself. Besides, the attitudes of those who voted for him have also become divided, especially in the cities and regions that normally support him, such as the regions of Uskudar and Zeytinburnu in Istanbul, according to a poll Conducted by BBC Türkçe.
“Our Men are Dying while their Men are Playing
One of the most widespread rumours among the Turkish about the Syrians is that they “abandoned their country” while the Turkish army is fighting in Syria, although the Turkish soldiers participating in the battle of the Euphrates Shield, launched last August, were there to provide logistical and technical services for the “free army” and combating factions, and the number of soldiers who died did not exceed 69, according to the report of the General Staff.
One of the stereotypical images that the Turkish people have about the Syrians is that most of them are “beggars”, as beggars are spread all over the streets of the Turkish cities, some are Syrians, some claim to be Syrian.
In mid-May, the governor of Istanbul, Vasip Sahin, denied these allegations, saying that most beggars are Turkish and not Syrians.
What subsequent reports have confirmed was that only 350 of the 3,500 people arrested during two specific operations in some Turkish cities were Syrians, while some Turkish claimed to be Syrian.
Universities for Free
There are rumours in Turkey about university education opportunities granted to Syrians in Turkey. These rumours state that Syrians enter universities without entry exams and receive education grants of up to 1,200 Liras.
Competent authorities, however, confirmed that the Syrians or other foreigners can study in Turkey through a horizontal transfer from their university to the Turkish University, or start again, by means of a set of applications and procedures, and after sitting for exams specially designed for foreigners, such as the YÖS and other exams, and this is according to a well-determined grading process.
The Turkish Red Crescent said that it grants 100 Turkish liras per month to the student, which is used exclusively for the purchase of basic food and consumer goods, and is given only to those who need it.
Syrians Want the Citizenship
Enab Baladi has conducted an opinion poll on its website and Facebook page. 1800 people participated in this poll. The question was: Do you support granting Turkish citizenship to Syrians living in Turkey?
68% of respondents supported the need to grant citizenship to Syrians, while 17% preferred “permanent residence”, while only 10% believed that nationality would affect their return home.
Fix our Reality First
The opinions of the participants differed in the voting. Some of them considered it important and necessary, and some others were pessimistic and sought to obtain the Kimlik and fix their legal status in Turkey first, and others rejected the idea altogether.
“Let them give us the Kimlik first and then we think about citizenship,” wrote a user under the pseudonym ‘Basmat Hozn’. “We have been here for two years now, and they did not give it to me. My nerves broke down to pieces before I could register my daughter at school.”
Moussab Wais had a different opinion. He believes that what Turkey is doing now is similar to what the former Ottoman rule did in the past by swallowing “skillful people”, adding that “the Turkish nationality is now the pacifier that the government is giving to the Syrians to calm them down.”
According to Hassan Yousef, “naturalization is a media bubble,” saying that if the government “wanted naturalization, it would not have waited for the polls.”
Jaber, who is part of the 17%, believes that permanent residence is better for two reasons: “the first one has to do with preserving the Syrian identity, and the second with the attempt to avoid the problems that surfaced in Turkey because of the issue.” He said that the Turks are right to react against the Syrians.
Granting Citizenship to Syrians will Revive the Turkish Economy
The Syrians in Turkey, amounting to three million Syrians, according to the statistics of the Turkish government, have started to launch economic initiatives after they experienced stability and the government offered them access to investment benefits.
In a report published last April, the Turkish economic newspaper “Dünya” reported that the number of Syrian companies in Turkey reached 5,647, ranking second among foreign companies in terms of number, after German companies, registering a rise of 168.2% 2014.
In a report in 2016, the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey said that Syrian investment capital in companies with a full or majority stake in Turkey was about 751 million Turkish Liras in the last four years.
But a report entitled “The Other Side of the Story: An Assessment of the Syrian Companies Market in Turkey”, prepared by the Building Market, a non-profit organization based in the United States, said that the Syrians had established more than 6,000 local companies in Turkey since 2011, Collectively investing over $ 300 million in Turkey.
Government Encouraging Investment
The talk about naturalization and Turkish officials’ statements about granting citizenship provoked questions among Syrian investors about the future of companies and how nationality would affect the reality of Syrian investment in Turkey.
Deputy Executive Director of Syrian Economic Forum, Ramy Sharraq, stated in an interview with Enab Baladi that the first objective of naturalizing Syrians is to improve the economic indicators of the Turkish economy.
“The process of naturalization will contribute to the significant recovery of the Turkish economy, because a good deal of Syrian money in Turkey is still in the banks and has not been oriented toward direct investment,” said Sharraq referring to naturalization as the go-ahead step that would help pump this money into the market.
As for how Syrians fear being subjects to tax prosecution after naturalization, Sharraq stressed that the incentives and benefits offered by the Turkish government and the investment environment in general will be much greater than tax evasion, therefore hence the move toward direct investment and contributing to tax and fees payment in order to obtain advanced benefits.
The Real Estate Sector
Sharraq stated that the real estate sector in Turkey, which is considered as the most attracting sector for investments, especially among foreigners, is expected to witness a revival in case Turkish citizenship is granted to Syrians. He further explained that it will be the first sector Syrian’s will invest in order to secure housing for themselves and their families and to practice trade in the same sector.
What about Passports and Mandatory Service?
A person who has acquired Turkish nationality, by virtue of origin or grant, shall be exempted from military service if he had performed it in his other country, provided that he has acquired his assets or is an immigrant from a sister Turkish State such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and others or if he was medically exempted, according to Military Code No. 111, which Enab Baladi got a copy of.
Foreigners are exempted from compulsory service if they are naturalized after the age of 21 for marriage, and if the person is a migrant who studies or works, he will be exempted if he is older than 21 when he got to Turkey.
As for the Syrians, no legal formula has been set out yet, on how to serve the flag for them after receiving citizenship, and whether there is an exception for them later or whether they will be treated as immigrants, according to official statements.
Mohammed S, aged 35, a jewelry merchant from Aleppo, reported the procedures for issuing a Turkish passport and being fit for compulsory service after obtaining Turkish citizenship two years ago, especially as these two questions preoccupy the minds of most of those who are waiting for Turkish naturalization grants soon.
Mohammad, his brothers, and his children have acquired citizenship by virtue of progeny rather than exception. This means that their status is slightly different in terms of military service. They are obliged to perform it no matter how old they may be, which is not the case for those who have been granted citizenship.
In fact, he was exempted from military service. He was previously exempted for a medical reason when he was in Syria, while his brothers were required to prove that they had performed compulsory service in Syria to obtain the exemption when they applied for passports. Because this was practically impossible, they have been postponed to the following year.
Gendarmerie officers came the next year to one of his brothers’ residence in Mersin to arrest him and ask him why he did not join the Army. He remained in detention until he explained to them that he had served in Syria.
The two brothers are obliged to renew the request for postponement of mandatory service each year until the situation in their home country is stabilized. That’s when they will be able to prove their claim.
As for passport issuance, Enab Baladi confirmed that more than one person who had recently acquired Turkish nationality had been able to obtain it immediately, and according to the period of time he requested, with no single complication, which negated what had been said about the necessity of a year of citizenship before obtaining a passport.
Syrians who have “Exceptionally” been Granted Turkish Citizenship
Eminent Syrian figures have benefited from a number of exceptions to obtain Turkish citizenship, although they have not met the basic conditions of naturalization.
Under the Turkish Cabinet’s decision, many politicians, talented and skilled Syrians were granted Turkish nationality, follwoing an exception in Turkish law that allows citizenship to be granted to anyone who “is believed to necessarily need to obtain citizenship” and “contribute to the development of Turkish industry, agriculture, technology, culture, sport and economy,” regardless of whether he is Syrian or of another nationality.
Enab Baladi tracked down names of Syrians, who have acquired Turkish nationality, including:
Members of the Opposition Coalition
As the Syrian regime opposition’s first political destination, Turkey attracted prominent politicians. Ankara granted Turkish nationality for a number of them, a move that was considered as unprecedented at the level of external support the Syrian opposition figures are receiving.
According to Euro Middle East news agency, eight people belonging to “opposition coalition” received the Turkish nationality in 2014, including George Sabra, Samir Nashar, Khalid Saleh, Hussein al-Sayed, Ahmed Ramadan, Farouk Tayfour and Ahmed Tumah.
Although they did not meet the requirements for obtaining Turkish citizenship, the Turkish Council of Ministers considered that obtaining it was necessary to facilitate the course of their work and their movement between countries.
George Sabra, a member of the coalition, told reporters that the “gift” came as a Turkish authorities’ initiative to solve one of the dilemmas facing the members of the National Council and to facilitate their movement and transportation, especially that some of them “do not have Syrian passports and others have expired ones. ”
Syrian Math Genius
His achievements and his creativity in mathematics led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to grant Turkish nationality to Syrian scholar Jamal Abu al-Ward in February 2015, for him to be listed among the Syrian geniuses who were forced to leave their country but were honored by Turkey.
Abu al-Ward was awarded the title of “Global Consultant for Creativity” by the Canadian Organization for Professional Education in cooperation with the Scientific Academy for Human Development. In a previous interview with Enab Baladi he stated that al-Assad’s way of dealing with scientists pushed him to leave the country, especially because he is an opponent of the Syrian regime.
“I was marginalized under al-Assad regime, which prioritizes people like Ali al-Deek and the like. They talked little about me compared to what the West said about my discoveries.”
“Syrian Messi” became Turkish
The head of the Turkish football federation Yildirim Demirören described Syrian teenager Adam Mateen, aged 14, as the “new Messi and the future of Turkey’s football” after the Turkish government granted him citizenship thanks to his talents in football that have been described as “exceptional.”
Last April, during a cultural and sport event and in the presence of Erdoğan’s wife Amina, Demirören announced the inclusion of Adam Mateen into the Turkish juniors’ national team.
“We were very impressed by Adam and we included him into the national team after he got Turkish citizenship. We are very happy because we managed to bring light into his world even a little” said Coach Fatih Terim.
Syrian Pianist Played for Turkey
His talent rang the Turkish Presidential Palace bells when he performed a concert in the presence of the Turkish president. Tambi Asaad, aged 15, played for Turkey at the world piano competition in Russia after the talent of this Syrian boy turned the heads of Turkish political figures that came to power.
On 8 December, 2014, pianist Tambi Asaad got the Turkish citizenship to continue his path toward international recognition as he was ranked first in the 5th International Music Competition held in Germany in April 2015, followed by his victory in the International Music Competition in Spain.
Bana al-Abed, Turkey’s Sweet Heart
The Syrian girl, who was just seven years old, was able to obtain Turkish citizenship from the Turkish president hands on 12 May, after she had mobilized a wide international solidarity with the people of Aleppo through her English tweets on Twitter.
Bana has been publishing English tweets and videos for three months about the city’s siege in 2016, and has attracted around 350,000 followers, including world figures, art, media and politics.
Bana’s fame, which has gone international, encouraged global media to look for her after Aleppo inhabitants were evacuated and handed over the city to the Syrian regime. She obtained then a special permission to enter Turkey with her family. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received her at his presidential palace in the Turkish capital.
The news of Bana being granted Turkish nationality has provoked the resentment of some Syrian refugees in Turkey, who questioned the exception by which she was naturalized, since she has spent only a few months in the country, in addition to being neither qualified nor talented enough.