Syrian-Turkish partnerships can boost Turkey's economy and overcome prejudice

While anti-Syrian resentment is on the rise, so is the proportion of Syrians who intend to stay in Turkey in the long-run. Yet a recent report points to the contribution of Turkish-Syrian business partnerships to Turkey's economy. Such success stories should be emphasised as to overcome anti-Syrian prejudice in Turkish society.

According to a recent statement from Turkey’s Ministry of Interior, the officially registered number of Syrians in Turkey stands at 3,638,288. In October, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu noted that over 400,000 Syrians had ‘voluntarily’ returned to their country after Turkey established “safe zones” through its cross border operations in Syria. 

Whether or not the Syrians in Turkey will return to their homeland once the war abates has been a lingering question. Syrians were first considered temporary guests and were sincerely welcomed. What is more, President Erdoğan attributed an historic Islamic dimension to the Syrian influx by calling the Turks “Ansar” (The Helpers). The Ansar were several tribes from Medina that helped and hosted Prophet Muhammad and his family as well as his followers upon their arrival in the city after they had migrated there from Mecca.

The positive view on Syrians was bolstered with President Erdoğan’s Islamic rhetoric and traditional Turkish hospitality lasted for a while. Yet, as more and more Syrians moved into Turkish cities and became visible in daily life, some unease surfaced amongst the Turks. Meanwhile, as the economy started to deteriorate and cultural differences became apparent even in such cities as Hatay - which has its own local ethnic Arab population – resentment against Syrians grew. 

Today, according to the Refugees Association, there are at least 7 cities in Turkey with a Syrian population that makes over 10 percent of the overall population. In Kilis the Syrian population makes up 75 percent of the population.

In places like İstanbul, Hatay, Gaziantep or Mersin, small business owners such as bakeries, grocery stores, teahouses often complain about their Syrian counterparts. “The Syrians never buy from us” and “they don’t sell any Turkish products” are amongst the recurrent complaints. They also argue that officials are easier on rules and regulations when it comes to Syrian-owned businesses. The local authorities in Mersin told Duvar English that "while in the beginning, some space was indeed granted to Syrian businesses on the order of Ankara", that was no longer the case. 

Syrian resentment has also been on the rise amongst Kurds who historically made up Turkey’s cheap labor. The Kurds have been ‘the other’ and blamed for unemployment in places like Mersin that underwent massive migration from Turkey's southeastern regions. Today, the Syrians have replaced the Kurds and become ‘the other’, not only for locals but also for Kurds in those areas who suffer from increasingly harsh economic conditions.

Still, a recent report titled ‘Turkish-Syrian Business Partnerships II’ published by New York headquartered Building Markets, an NGO that collaborates with many countries, multinationals and organizations such as the World Bank, OECD and USAID sheds light on how Syrian-owned businesses and Turkish-Syrian business partnerships are and can contribute further to the Turkish economy.

According to the report, “Since the Syrian civil war began, Syrian entrepreneurs have bootstrapped their way to starting nearly 10,000 registered firms that are reinvesting into the local economy, including serving as suppliers of goods and services to the Turkish public and private sectors. They have also successfully contributed to the Turkish market by bringing with them new products and services, client networks, and niche skills in the manufacturing and trade industries that have paved the way to new export destinations across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.”

Interestingly, the study showed that “Syrian entrepreneurs provide a living for 7 percent of the Syrian community in Turkey,” and “account for approximately 562 million USD of capital” despite 80 percent of them being micro-sized business with less than 10 employees.

Besides, according to a survey that was conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2018, Syrian companies that had Turkish partners made a mere 3.7 percent of the total number of Syrian-held companies.

“In 2011, the factories of soft soap in Nizip, Gaziantep were closed down. Now, Syrians try to rejuvenate soft soap production, and they built around 30 factories. One of them exports to eleven different countries, including Japan, the Netherlands and Canada. This is a good example of the value of Syrian entrepreneurs” the Building Markets report states.

Success stories like this, which could have a positive effect on public opinion, are seldom reported in the media, as pro-government outlets mostly publish propaganda-style news about Syrians that further contribute to negative feelings about Syrians.

A recommendation in the report notes that the government should “Communicate successful examples of Syrian-Turkish business partnerships and Syrian entrepreneurs creating jobs in Turkey. This will shed positive light and overcome cultural and social prejudices.”

Another notable discovery of the Building Markets survey is the fact that 31 percent of Syrian-owned enterprises were exporters; Iraq, Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia being their top export destinations. 

This didn’t get unnoticed as Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK), local chambers of commerce and business associations have set up desks and started projects to further develop the export capabilities of Syrian enterprises especially to the MENA region. 

The report also lists the advantages and disadvantages of Syrian enterprises. MENA market knowledge and experience, language skills (Arabic/English), export ability (direct business relationships with Syria, as well as the Middle East, Gulf, and North Africa countries), unique manufacturing skills, communities of Syrian people (in Turkey and abroad), cash transactions (they prefer to work in cash) were the main advantages, while the disadvantages pointed out were social prejudices, Turkish language barrier, lack of experience in the local market, lack of technological infrastructure (digitally weak, most have no on-line presence), lack of knowledge on Turkish certifications, standards and legislation, lack of awareness about and difficulty in accessing business incentives and SME support schemes and difficulty in financial inclusion and access to financial services (mainly due to international sanctions on Syria).

According to the German government, 2.8 million Turks live in Germany since the arrival of the first 55 Turkish ‘guest workers’ (Gasterbeiter) in 1961. Like the Syrians in Turkey, they were regarded as guests by the host country and were referred to as such. The first generation of Turks saw themselves as guests. They thought they’d make some money and return to their motherland. Yet today, the third generation of Turks in Germany hardly ever think of returning to Turkey.

Research that was conducted by the Turkish-German University and presented to the Turkish Parliament last month, noted that the number of Syrians who said they would never return to Syria rose to 51.8 percent from 16.7 percent since 2017, while 30 percent said they would return to Syria once the war would end. That figure was 60 percent back in 2017.

Last February, during a visit to Turkey, Germany’s Undersecretary of the Ministry of Economy and Energy of Winkelmeier-Becker, noted that over 100,000 businesspeople of Turkish origin contribute an annual 50 billion Euro to the German economy and have created jobs for over 100,000 people.

Despite that, as top German officials have underlined over and over again, the integration of the Turks in German society has been a failure and remains a lingering problem. There are Turks who have been living in Germany for 60 years and don’t speak a word of German. To this day, a large number of Turks prefer to live in their own neighborhoods. Therefore, successful businesses don’t necessarily entail societal integration.

A Turkish businessman from Hatay told Duvar English, under the condition of anonymity, “In these times of extreme economic hardship for people and businesses, President Erdoğan has to stop repeating that his administration has spent 40 billion USD and that “if necessary he is ready to spend another 40 billion” on Syrians. Statements like this do more harm than good. If the president really wants to do good he can do so by spending more money on socio-economic, cultural programs that would promote integration, minimize cultural clashes and most importantly, teach Syrians to fish rather than give them little fish for free. I know of successful Syrian businesses here too but often they get stuck in the dark corridors of bureaucracy and the language barrier is a serious problem. I think the focus should be on these issues.”

Omar Kadkoy, an analyst and expert on the issue at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), said “Integration encapsulates many subjects and participating in the labor market in the form of entrepreneurship is one of them. Yet running a business isn’t synonymous with being successfully integrated, at least not in Turkey. First and foremost, there is no integration policy in Turkey. Thus, the lack of checks and balances generates structural shortcomings such as banks' arbitrary decisions to include or exclude Syrian entrepreneurs from fully accessing banking services, which are critical for any business. Another implication is the poor command of Turkish among many Syrian entrepreneurs. Hence, facing difficulties in many business-related aspects and potentially missing growth opportunities.”

“One important feature of Syrian entrepreneurs in changing prejudices against Syrians is creating inclusive job opportunities. Our estimations from two years ago suggest that Syrian entrepreneurs created tens of thousands of jobs for both Syrians and Turks. Yet only the people who read our report know about it. Therefore, changing the public’s prejudices requires, for instance, periodic awareness campaigns about the contributions of Syrian entrepreneurs” Kadkoy adds.

When asked about the integration of Turks in Germany Kadkoy maintained that “The success stories we hear are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it reflects integration, but on the other, it doesn’t. Not everybody should expect to become Özlem Türeci or Uğur Şahin. Integration is a two-way process with boxes to check. It is normal for some to succeed in ticking all the boxes while others don’t. The important point is the balance of rights and obligations to generate and sustain social cohesion.”

March 24, 2021 A Turkey without Kurds