Rethinking Turkish citizenship


The  announcement that Turkish citizenship will be offered to Syrian refugees came at almost the same time as the release of the Chilcot report – a report that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed would lay to rest all the bad faith, lies and deceit.

In an era in which bad faith, lies and deceit have become the norm, at a time when Europe is lowering the gates against the chaos created during the two Gulf Wars, the welcoming of refugees by any nation is a glimmer of humanity on the horizon.

The announcement that Turkish citizenship will be extended to Syrian refugees came soon on the heels of the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU- a decision taken in large part to avoid further immigration, including from Syria and Iraq.

Despite some reactions to this news in Turkey, the extension of citizenship is neither a new or a novel proposal. The original plan was revealed in January 2015 by then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

The plan to offer citizenship to Syrians at the present appears to amount to the introduction of permanent residency, something that to date has not been available in Turkey.

For years I, as a person with non-permanent residency status in Turkey, trudged to the police headquarters on the European side of Istanbul to apply to renew my residency. How happy we were when we were finally granted long-term five-year status. Taking out citizenship put an end to all this trudging back and forth.

The reasons for taking out citizenship were many. For one, the residency on offer did not give the holder the right to work. To work in Turkey as a foreigner, you have to apply to the government for permission. When I applied for a job as an English teacher in 1995, I received an answer back from the National Education Ministry. The answer was “You cannot teach English as you studied Soviet studies at university. However, as Turkish and Russian are similar languages you can teach Turkish.”

The nonsensical nature of this answer still makes me laugh. First of all, how are Russian and Turkish similar? They are incredibly different languages. True they share words like “shapka” and “vişne,” but the grammar, syntax, even the alphabets are different. And secondly, I could not speak Turkish at the time, how was I to teach Turkish? English was my native language and I had been teaching both in Turkey and the U.K.

In 2015 Davutoğlu introduced the idea of the Turquoise Card. Obviously inspired by the American green card, this card was to be the equivalent of permanent residency for foreigners. The Turquoise Card will be available to qualified foreigners, making it easier for them to be employed in Turkey.

Wait, I hear you say, qualified foreigners? What does this mean? Turkey is going to pick and choose who becomes a permanent resident?

Qualified means people who have skills or professional qualifications or education that will be beneficial to Turkey in some way. The applicants will be judged according to a point system. The point system takes into account language, education, professions.I can already hear the protests; how can Turkey dare to set up a hierarchical approach for permanent residency!

In response, let me ask the reader to find a country where there isn’t such an approach. OK, there is the “green card lottery” where you can get lucky and get a green card. But that is for a lucky few. The majority of green-card applicants are judged on a hierarchical basis. In general, if you do not have special skills or qualifications, there are very few developing or developed countries that will welcome you with open arms. Most countries also require a substantial bank account to hold up your claim.

The Turquoise Card does require that the applicant can take care of themselves. This is not set out as a certain amount in the bank at the present time, but it can be assumed that there will be a minimum amount.

But such a procedure is necessary. Especially when we are talking about a potential pool of over 3 million people.

It is clear that Europe is not willing to help Turkey resettle the refugees in any significant way. Turkey needs to find its own solution in its own way; this solution should be one that does not place an unbearable burden on the Turkish people.

Permanent residents will not be able to vote, nor can they be elected. They also will not be eligible for military conscription. Other than these restrictions, permanent residents will enjoy all the rights of Turkish citizens.

After a period of five years permanent residents can apply for citizenship.

After the president reiterated this promise – again, originally made in January 2015 – social media has exploded in a nationalistic, racist manner – one which is on par with many European countries. There is scare mongering by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); they state that the nearly 3 million Syrians and the 170,000 Iraqis will suddenly overnight become citizens. And, even worse, they will all automatically vote for the Justice and Development (AK Party). Remember where such scaremongering took the U.K. a couple of weeks ago.

The head of MHP, Devlet Bahçeli, stated that granting citizenship to the Syrians will change the nature of Turkish citizenship. Bahçeli is implying that citizenship is given as a matter of birth and/or blood. But Bahçeli, I am a Turkish citizen who carries no Turkish blood in my body. I am proud to call myself Turkish, but if you make this a matter of race, I will be the first to protest that it is not. Many of the “Turkish” people I know are no more Turkish than I am. Their families come from the Balkans, Georgia, the Caucasus and many other places.

Some of the tweets on social media that were shared by the BBC Turkish service echo this racist approach to “Turkishness:”

“They run away from war in their own country, enter school without an exam and don’t have to serve in the army, 10 years later will have a better life than mine….” #ülkemdeSuriyeliİstemiyorum# (I don’t want Syrians in my country)

“People who do not serve in the army, who do not pay takes, who do not even know how to read and write in Turkish will become Turkish citizens!….”

“see Syrian citizens entering university without an exam”

“ok, our country is recognized for its hospitality, but this is just too much…”

It needs to be said again; Turkey is not lagging behind Europe in anything…not even in racism…

There needs to be a change in how we approach the Syrians. At the most fundamental level, Syrian children of school age need to be helped. They are allowed to enroll in Turkish schools – their identity card enables them to do so. But most Syrian children prefer, for a number of reasons, to go to the Syrian schools. The Syrian schools are ad hoc establishments that the government allows in order to help ease the situation. But there will come a time when all Syrian school age children in Turkey will have to be enrolled in a Turkish state school. Or in a school that is regulated by the Turkish board of education. But for the time being, until the infrastructure has been created to support this influx, Syrian students are able to attend their own schools.

When such a change is made, the board of education will have to ensure that there will be people in the schools to help those students who are not fluent in Turkish to adjust. There will have to be a system to help them catch up in Turkish history or social studies, so that these students will not lag behind and will not slow down the other students. But after five years, the dual system of Syrian school – Turkish school needs to be wound down.

There are many reasons for this, but one of the most obvious one is that the conditions in the Syrian schools are generally much worse than those in the state schools. Primary school children follow the Syrian curriculum while Syrian high school children have to follow an alternative curriculum (Libya usually) that is recognized by the Turkish board of education. It is only in this way that the Syrian students can take the foreign student exam and attend university in Turkey; that is, they have to graduate from a system that has equivalency in the eyes of the Turkish board of education. The Syrian school system does not have this equivalency.And yet there are those crazy people on social media who claim that Syrian students get into Turkish universities without exams.

First of all, a report by a NGO called “We Will Stop Here and Go No Further” states that as little as 1 – 2 % of Syrian university-age students in Turkey were successfully enrolled at Turkish universities in 2014.

If a student was enrolled in university in Syria and has a valid transcript (and how many people who are fleeing for their lives stop by their unis to ask for a transcript ?) the Syrian student has the possibility of enrolling at any Turkish university. The Higher Educational Council has instructed all universities to open a 10 percent quota for Syrian students. However, if this quota is full, they cannot take any more Syrian students in. In short, no Turkish places are being given to Syrians. Extra places, a limited amount, have been created to meet this need.

For those Syrian students who do not have valid diplomas but who were enrolled in universities in their own country, the opportunity to continue their university education has been given to them. These students can enroll at Çukurova, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş Sütçü İmam, Kilis 7 Aralık, Harran, Mersin, Mustafa Kemal and Osmaniye Korkut Ata universities. That is a total of 8 universities; universities that are not the most popular with Turkish students, indeed, universities which act as catchalls for Turkish students who are unable to get into the more prestigious universities in the major Turkish cities. What is the mentality that dictates that the classrooms in these 8 universities remain undersubscribed while Syrian youth go without education? Do we really need to spell out the fact that an educated Syrian generation will be of much greater benefit to Turkey than one without education, hope or prospects?

As stated above, for a foreigner to take part in the Turquoise scheme, and thus attain residency and start on the road to citizenship, there are some things that the applicant needs to prove. One that they are of a good moral character (i.e. no prison record), two that they are able to care for themselves and their family. After five years of holding permanent residency they can apply for citizenship. Oh, and they also have to take a Turkish test – I had to recite İstiklal Marşı, the national anthem.

All those tweets above? All those tweets made in pure ignorance? They are all unfounded.

The five-year time period is that which needs to be rethought for the Syrian guests in Turkey. At the moment the identity cards given to Syrians do not entitle them to be included in the scheme of counting years of residence in Turkey towards citizenship. If this were not the case this citizenship matter would be a moot point; there would be thousands of new citizens today as the first Syrians crossed the border in April 2011.

How sad it is to see that Turkey is so quickly going down the road of the U.K. and the U.S. Will the next few years be ones in which racism runs rampant throughout the world?

As mentioned above, this was a week in which the Chilcot report was published. When Blair was asked if invading Iraq had been a mistake he replied: “I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer.”

I’m not quite sure where Blair is viewing the world from. But if he really thinks it is better and safer, someone should explain Brexit, DAESH, the PKK and growing fascism and racism to him. Because from where I am looking, one of the few hopeful notes lately has been the promise to extend Turkish citizenships to Syrians. This will bring about a stronger, more flexible and more tolerant Turkey.

Author: Jane Louise Kandur

Source: Daily Sabah

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