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‘They are too many to naturalise’: How citizenship debates politicise Syrians


Whereas the images of the ‘non-Turkish Syrians’ have swayed between unwelcome guests, new sons of the nation, and objects of negotiation in Turkey; in Lebanon, the ‘non-Lebanese Syrian’ often signifies the absolute ‘other’. Photo by Greg  Jeanneau on Unsplash.

In Turkey and Lebanon, the theme of citizenship has never been so often discussed as with the refugees. Today, the displaced Syrians, roughly consisting of 25% of the Lebanese and 5% of the Turkish population, not only put a major strain on the countries’ economic values but also came to the fore in citizenship debates. These debates shed light on the openness to change the respective citizenship regimes. In Lebanon, the fear that Syrians will dominate the Lebanese ethnic composition overshadows the demands for liberalising the current citizenship law. In Turkey, in contrast, the granting of citizenship to some Syrians despite the public opposition remains controversial as the government often manipulates the refugees in its political affairs. 

The two countries established their asylum and citizenship regimes in the 20th century with the objective of preserving their ethnic and religious composition. Lebanon did not sign the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and is party only to the Memorandum of Understanding with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, according to which it is not an asylum country and can shelter any displaced person maximum for nine months.[1] Although Turkey adheres to the Convention on the Status of Refugees, it limits its scope to people fleeing conflicts from Western territories. In other words, the Turkish state long declares itself not responsible for refugees from the war-ridden eastern regions. The displaced Syrians in Turkey and Lebanon do not hold refugee status and are granted temporary protection and/or guest worker titles. 

Lebanon and Turkey’s citizenship regimes similarly evolved around ethnic and religious traditions connected with particular demographic concerns. Based on its first constitution in 1926 and further consolidation at the end of the civil war in 1990, the Lebanese government allocates political and even bureaucratic representation into confessional affiliations. It designates the state’s president from Maronite Christians, the prime minister from Sunnis, and the parliament’s speaker from Shi'a Muslims. Political legitimacy thus builds on a fragile balance between various faith communities and their assumed shares in the population (not verified by any census since 1932). A consequence of this balance is the country’s citizenship tradition, which excludes the foreign husbands of Lebanese women as well as the children born to these families. The government thus uncompromisingly rejects the requests for the transmission of citizenship through the maternal line with the preoccupation that the Syrians will alter the fragile demographic balance between the faith communities. For example, the government enacted a law in 2015 to naturalise part of the Lebanese diaspora but disregarded the descendants of Lebanese mothers and grandmothers. Three years later, the Foreign Minister of Lebanon, of Maronite origin, proposed to liberalise the law for the children of Lebanese women married to the non-Lebanese. Yet this draft amendment also excluded the men and women of Syrian and Palestinian descent, in an attempt to preserve the above-mentioned demographic balance.

These debates in Lebanon also concern Syrians without documented citizenship, whose situation remains in limbo. According to the UN Refugee Agency, thousands of the Syrian refugees cannot register their children born in Lebanon, not least because they left key documents behind in their flight. Since these children do not carry birth certificates, they cannot even claim Syrian citizenship and eventually become stateless.[2] The government has so far disregarded the requests of the Agency for the naturalisations of the stateless Syrians. In brief, political debates over citizenship are still influenced by the preoccupations that naturalising Syrians and Palestinians could threaten political legitimacy based on the assumed demographic proportions. 

Turkey’s citizenship tradition, which goes back to the Republic’s first constitution, declares everyone to be Turkish through citizenship bonds, regardless of religion and ethnicity. Despite this, throughout the 20th century the naturalisations by governmental decrees largely prioritised migrants’ Sunni and Turkic identities to strengthen the nation state’s pro-Turkic identity. In other words, the constitutional tradition for a long while prioritised ethnic and religious elements of Turkishness over civic characteristics.[3] This protectionism began to change with the turn of the 21st century. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, since his party assumed power in 2002, has been preoccupied with the ageing population, as he famously reiterates his wish that new couples have ‘at least three children’. He also amended the citizenship law three times to facilitate the naturalisation of foreign nationals in certain conditions. 

The current Foreigners and International Protection Law normally does not allow Syrian refugees to apply for Turkish citizenship. Yet Erdogan’s promise to naturalise ‘some of the Syrians’ stirred public debates in 2016. Since then, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Directorate General of Migration Management awards citizenship to Syrians who have resided in Turkey for five years. The ‘new sons of the nation’, Erdogan calls, exceeded 100,000 by 2019, and they are likely to grow. The interior minister voiced last year their wish to naturalise 380,000 children born in Turkey. The government’s priority has been reportedly to naturalise wealthy and skilled Syrians, acting on the fact that they constitute a young workforce to the economy.[4] In return, the opposition parties accused the government of changing the country’s demographics against minorities. Ahead of the last local elections, for example, the candidates for the cities famously populated with Alevis and Kurds, just like Lütfü Savaş and Ayhan Bilgen, cautioned against future naturalisations that could give the Syrians an electoral majority.

The interests underlying the President’s citizenship turn come into question, especially since the government both gives the Syrians the hopes of Turkish citizenship and uses them in foreign policy. Statements raised by Erdogan in his public rallies suggest that he can easily use the Syrians as a negotiation object for governmental interests. For instance, according to the refugee deal signed in 2016, Turkey prevents the Syrians from reaching Europe and takes back the illegal refugees; in return, the EU finances Syrians’ accommodation in the country with 6 billion euros. Yet the Turkish president coerced the EU several times by stating that he would allow the Syrians to cross the border if Turkey did not receive this contribution. Furthermore, Erdogan, facing the growing public backlash against the naturalisations of Syrians, attempted to justify Turkey’s intervention in North Syria. He stated that 2 million Syrians, half of the current number in Turkey, would be resettled in the occupied zones. Syrians, who are already influencing citizenship perspectives, are then either further employed in coercion against Europe or used as part of justifications for war in Syria. 

Citizenship debates in Turkey and Lebanon barely add anything positive to the perceptions of Syrians. The Lebanese government, whose legitimacy relies on a sensitive demographic balance, permitted only a limited amendment in its citizenship regime but still consistently excludes Syrians and Palestinians. The Turkish government, however, put aside the country’s citizenship tradition and initiated systematic naturalisations of Syrians despite public opposition. Whereas, until now, the images of the ‘non-Turkish Syrians’ have swayed between unwelcome guests, new sons of the nation, and objects of negotiation in Turkey; in Lebanon, the ‘non-Lebanese Syrian’ often signifies the absolute ‘other’.

Notes and references: 

[1] The UN Refugee Agency, Submission by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Compilation Report. Universal Periodic Review: The Republic of Lebanon. April 2010.

[2] 'UNHCR Lebanon: Who we are and what we do'. UNHCR report, April 2018.

[3] Kemal Kirisci, ‘Disaggregating Turkish Citizenship and Immigration Practices’, Middle Eastern Studies, 36.3 (2000), 4.

[4] 'Syrians in Turkey'. Special Report by the Ombudsman Institution, 2018, p.167.

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Caner Tekin

Caner Tekin is a fellow at the Centre for Mediterranean Studies in Bochum, where he is teaching migration histories of Turkey and Germany. After receiving his doctoral degree at the Ruhr-University, he worked shortly in Brunswick as a postdoctoral fellow. He then returned to Bochum to discover more about early migrants preceding the social and cultural diversity in the Ruhr Region, including part of his family. His recent publications include the monograph Debating Turkey in Europe: Identities and Concepts (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020) and the volume co-edited with Stefan Berger, entitled History and Belonging: Representations of the Past in Contemporary European Politics (New York: Berghahn Books, 2018).

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