Syrian Urban Refugees in Turkey: Spatial & Social Segregation

November 3, 2014

Nil Tuzcu

Gaziantep, a city in southeastern Turkey, has become the destination for displaced Syrians due to its economic resources and its proximity to the border. Since the first uprising against the Bashar al-Assad government of Syria there has been an ongoing armed conflict between different rebel groups and the government causing destruction of urban settlements and massive displacement of local population to neighboring countries. Gaziantep is the most affected city from the influx, with a total of 350,000 Syrians living in the city center, out of camps with both registered and unregistered statuses. The number of displaced Syrians crossing the border into Turkey has dramatically risen with the escalating use of violence, which creates spatially and socially segregated communities in the city. In relation to this emergent condition, I conducted two weeks of fieldwork in Gaziantep in August 2014 to investigate these segregation patterns. My intention was to explore the forces of spatial segregation and to develop an alternative approach to how social and spatial integration of the urban refugees can be achieved through urban spatial planning. The fieldwork utilized qualitative research methods, including semi-structured interviews with both Syrian and Turkish citizens. Drawing from the data collected from key informant interviews, I identified two major causes of spatial segregation: increased housing scarcity and social conflicts in the city. As the first phase of the research, this post highlights some of the initial findings.

In October 2014, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated that about 3.2 million Syrians had fled to Syria’s immediate neighbors of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq since the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011. The report by AFAD showed that 218,632 Syrian refugees were living in a total of 22 refugee camps in Turkey and the rest of the population was living outside the camps as urban refugees in various cities. Because the Republic of Turkey followed an open door policy with the refugees, the exact number of unregistered Syrian citizens who crossed the border without registration with UNHCR is unknown. Local authorities of cities have reported approximate numbers of the Syrians outside of camps but there is no reliable number. For registered urban refugees, the Turkish government provides free medical treatment at the state hospitals and education for the children of the refugees. However, because of the language barrier, only a small portion of refugee children has been able to attend the schools in Turkey.

A key initial finding from my interviews is why most Syrians have fled to live in urban settings, rather than the refugee camps. The economic relations across the border over the years have created kinship relations between the Turkish and Syrian communities, and many refugees used these kinship relations upon arrival in Turkey. Despite the availability of camp residency, the refugees preferred to live in non-camp settings because they already had relatives and business contacts in the city. The host community has been dramatically affected by the refugee inflow because of the insufficiency of housing and economic opportunity.

IMAGE CREDIT: Nil Tuzcu- An abandoned building in Gaziantep, now occupied by 30 Syrian urban refugees

Second, housing scarcity, as an already-existing problem in Gaziantep, has been aggravated by the rapid population growth. High demand on housing had led to an extreme rise in rental prices. According to an interview with the President of the Association of Real-Estate Agencies, monthly rents for apartment units increased from 300 TRY to 900 TRY in 2013. One Turkish interviewee, a landlord, explained that she rented her apartment to a 7-person Syrian family, however the family began hosting other refugees and the total number of people in the apartment went up to 20, causing unrest and infrastructural problems in the building. Similar stories indicated unwillingness to rent housing to the urban refugees. High rental prices, scarcity of housing, and discrimination against refugees have forced Syrians to find shelters in public parks, abandoned buildings and vacant areas of buildings such as garages and storage rooms. As a result, the Syrian population is largely located in the city center, where they can find vacant buildings and ruins.

A third major component of spatial and social segregation of the urban refugee population in Gaziantep is social conflicts between Syrians and Turks. The primary driver of the conflicts is the growing unemployment rate due to the population influx. The data collected from the interviews shows that Syrian refugees provide labor at lower wages without demanding any benefits from the employers. Because the Turkish Government does not provide work permits for the urban refugees, Syrian employees work illegally and many Syrian-owned businesses are not registered. During the fieldwork, I interviewed Turkish employers from three different businesses. The first respondent, owner of a contract manufacturing business, stated that when he saw that Syrians provide the same quality of work at a lower salary, he started to hire them. Over time, because of the language barrier he had to make a decision to have either all Turkish employers or all Syrian workers so that they could communicate with each other. Currently, all the workers are undocumented Syrian refugees who replaced Turkish workers. The second respondent, owner of a pistachio orchard, said that he hires both Turks and Syrians as temporary agricultural workers. Although they work for exactly the same hours, Turkish workers earn 35TL per day, and Syrian workers earn 18TL. The third respondent, owner of a small grocery store in the city center, stated that he is going out of business because the new residents of the area, Syrian urban refugees, prefer to go to Syrian-owned shops. Turkish interviewees mentioned the existence of “Little Aleppo” or “Little Syria” in the city center.

Growing unemployment and rising rents due to the increasing demand by the urban refugees gave rise to social tensions and protests against the Syrian population in Gaziantep. Threats against Syrians have also impacted daily lives and routines. One Syrian informant stated that he had to sell his car that had Syrian license plate because the car was attacked several times by Turkish people. Another Syrian interviewee explained that they did not feel secure going outside of their home because their Turkish neighbors threatened them with eviction. This brief summary of findings reflects the condition in August 2014. Tension between the urban refugees and Turks has steadily increased within the last two months, creating more isolated refugee communities.

Social conflicts and segregation in the city require multisectoral solutions. Although local and international authorities are working on providing affordable housing and economic opportunities to the urban refugees, this gradual process fails to address emerging problems. I argue that the government should focus on long term plans to provide integration of the urban refugees into Turkish society with a comprehensive policy framework instead of focusing on temporary protection, and a humanitarian focus should be the response for the emerging problems. Humanitarian aid to refugees outside of the camp settings is an international responsibility and should be addressed in the context of right to housing, right to work, freedom of movement and right to public space beyond the basic means of survival. My focus as an architect from the local area is to create collective public spaces and programs as social and political entities at the intersections of segregated communities.

Nil Tuzcu is a DRAN-affiliated SPURS fellow at MIT. She holds a Master degree from Cornell University and a Bachelors degree in Architecture from Istanbul Technical University. Her fieldwork in Gaziantep was supported by the Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality and the Gaziantep Daily Newspaper Sabah.