A vast new wall built by Turkey on its border with Syria offers the country some protection from external security threats. But the wall does not address domestic challenges, specifically those posed by the many refugees already inside Turkey. Caitlin Vito argues the investment on the border should be mirrored by an equally robust effort to develop effective, long-term refugee policies.

Turkey's wall on the border with Syria. Credit: Getty /Anadolu Agency / Contributor

By Caitlin Vito, Coordinator, Office of the Director of Studies

The first phase of work on Turkey’s new border wall was completed in April. The imposing structure is currently 556 kilometres long and three metres high. Eventually, it will stretch the full distance of Turkey’s 911km border with Syria. Fortified fences, minefields, ditches and drones reinforce the partition, a vast array of obstacles illustrating Turkey’s determination to seal itself off from its southern neighbour.

These measures speak to the deep sense of insecurity in Turkey. The country’s desire to reinforce its border security is understandable, given the ongoing conflict in Syria and the wider region. The Turkish government stresses that the wall will finally stop fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, crossing the border, and says it will also curb Kurdish rebel groups.

Refugees: blocked at the border, rejected by some host communities

An intentional by-product of the wall, noted and condemned by human-rights groups, is to effectively stop Syrians claiming refuge in Turkey, one of the primary destinations for people fleeing the six-year-old conflict. In April alone, Turkish Land Forces apprehended 20,465 people at the Syrian border, an increase of 1,589 from the previous month. There have been reports of Syrians being shot while trying to cross the border. The wall’s impact is compounded by strict visa requirements for Syrians entering by air or sea. Taken together, these measures have made it all but impossible for asylum seekers to legally cross the border. This marks a significant reversal for a country which initially offered an open door to Syrians fleeing violence, and which now hosts close to 3 million refugees. While the Turkish government claims its ‘open door’ policy continues, in practice it has all but ended.

An indication of the problems faced by refugees and host communities inside Turkey came in May, when a Turkish man was killed in Istanbul, allegedly after intervening in a fight sparked by Syrian and Afghan refugees making inappropriate comments to a Turkish woman. This official narrative has been questioned, but it triggered a furious reaction from many in the city. Following the funeral of the local man, police had to use tear gas and water cannons against Turkish protesters, who had turned their anger on the neighbourhood’s wider refugee community. When the unrest continued authorities evacuated over 300 Syrian and Afghan refugees from the neighbourhood, sending them to migrant camps in different provinces in Turkey. Such incidents of escalated local disputes are, while not a daily occurrence, reasonably common. In Torbali-Izmir in April, locals reportedly attacked Syrians who they accused of beating Turkish children. Eventually, 500 Syrians were forced to leave the town.

Officials must pursue integration, not political capital

The tone of the recent referendum on changes to Turkey’s constitution highlighted the growing politicisation of the country’s refugee issue. The creation of the border wall is as much a sign of the insecurity felt within Turkey as a reaction to the country’s external security threats. Turkey is now home to the largest number of refugees in the world. The time, money and effort invested in the new wall should be matched by effective, long-term policies and actions that meet the challenges posed by refugees already in the country. 

Steps should include improving government cooperation and coordination efforts with international agencies, non-governmental organisations and civil society, as well as improving access education and jobs. Since it is now clear that Syrians will be in Turkey for the longer-term, a well-developed policy guiding their integration into Turkish society is essential to mitigating rising risks to the country’s stability. An important part of this will be replacing the current top-down, ad hoc policy making approach with a long-term national plan that focuses on building consensus by giving Syrians an clearer understanding of their status in the country and provides Turks reassurance that the Syrians are not economic burdens or security threats. Failing to do so will damage Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity. A new wall, however high and well defended, will not prevent repetition of the incident in Istanbul and others like it.

It is critical that officials do not approach the refugee question in pursuit of quick political wins. The Syrian civil war and violence in Turkey’s bordering region are set to continue and, as a result, refugees inside Turkey will be there for the foreseeable future. Poor policy and ineffective action could leave them disenfranchised and marginalised. Instead, officials should take a bipartisan approach that includes countering disinformation and engaging with civil-society groups and the private sector. While the implementation of effective policy and action may not be as visually impressive as the border wall, its impact will be no less dramatic or important.

Back to content list


IISS Voices

The IISS Voices blog features timely comment and analysis on international affairs and security from IISS experts and guest writers.

Latest Voices

armed conflict database

Armed Conflict Database

A regularly updated IISS online resource providing detailed information on more than 70 conflicts worldwide.