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© Quinn Dombrowski

Turkey’s referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment that would give new powers to the president was held on 16 April. According to the unofficial results, the proposal of the governing party AKP (the Justice and Development Party) and the other right-wing party MHP (the Nationalist Action Party) was approved by 51% of voters. The outcome of this referendum stands to affect not just Turkey’s constitution, but also its policies towards refugees and migrants, both at home and abroad.

The referendum process

As democratic mechanisms intended to reach a conclusion on certain policy areas where political parties cannot reach an agreement, referenda aim to resolve existing policy disputes, and their outcomes are expected to clarify the long-term strategies of countries. This Turkish referendum aimed to resolve ongoing political debates which reproduce existing polarisation within the country about its governance. The government’s proposal, to present a “presidential system” with strong executive forces, has been strongly criticised by the opposition as creating an authoritarian, one-man regime that eliminates the 200-year-old parliamentary and democratic tradition of Turkish politics.

In order to resolve disputes like this, referenda must be fair, democratic, and need to demonstrate a strong approval or disagreement from the electorate. Small margins do not signify a “national will” and, when circumstances change, we may expect calls to repeat such a close-call referendum, as we continue to see in the UK in the case of Scotland’s 2015 referendum on independence.

In the Turkish case, I would like to underline two main issues. Firstly, this was not a fair and democratic election. As clearly mentioned in a report by the International Referendum Observation Mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), of which Turkey was a founding member, “lack of equal opportunities, one-sided media coverage and limitations on fundamental freedoms created an unlevel playing field in Turkey’s constitutional referendum”. The referendum, the OSCE report found, was organised under state of emergency conditions, there had been full state support to the “Yes” campaign and a long list of obstructions to the “No” campaign.

Added to these issues was the decision taken by the Supreme Election Council (YSK) at 5 pm on polling day, just a few minutes after the polls closed, to accept un- stamped votes as valid. This was an open violation of the Election Act which prohibits the inclusion of un-stamped votes, and was criticised by the opposition as changing the rules as the process took place.

Secondly, it is clear that Turkish society is divided equally on this issue. Although the political parties who supported the constitutional amendment received almost 61% of the total votes in the last general elections, the unofficial referendum result at 51% in favour of the amendment, demonstrates that, along with voters of left-wing parties, millions of traditionally right-wing voters also voted against the proposal. Unofficial results show that there was a participation rate of 85%, of a total 58 million eligible voters. While 51.4% (25 million) voted “yes”, 48.6% (23.7 million) voted “no”. The difference between the two is around 1.3 million, and the number of un-stamped votes which were declared to be “yes” is around 2 million.

Instead of resolving existing political disputes, the referendum in Turkey has complicated the current problems. Contrary to the aims of the referendum, political polarization is expected to escalate in the near future, with the possibility of an early general election. And it is this upheaval that would directly affect Turkey’s policies towards refugees and immigrants.

Three million Syrians and a further 500,000 refugees from other countries, along with hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants, live and work in Turkey, and Turkey itself has over 5 million of its own migrants living in countries across Western Europe. Its policies towards both refugees and migrants in Turkey (as a country of immigration), and also towards its own migrants in Western Europe (as a country of emigration), who, crucially, have the right to vote in Turkish elections, prove an interesting point of comparison.

Referendum campaigns and refugees/migrants

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, a figure which increased sharply with the onset of the Syrian civil war and the displacement of vast numbers of its citizens, including to Turkey. Although there have been many elections since 2011, the refugee question has not been at the forefront of any of the political parties’ agendas. However, since many opposition figures used the refugee question to increase their support in the recent referendum, I fully expect more anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric to follow in upcoming elections.

Two main arguments were put forward during referendum campaigning in relation to the refugee question. One of them was repeatedly raised by Sinan Ogan, the right-wing, member of parliament and former member of MHP who opposed the MHP’s leadership’s decision to support Erdogan and AKP during the election. Ogan claimed that while Turkish soldiers die in Syria fighting against ISIS, thousands of young Syrians in Turkey are partying on beaches. He called on the government to send them to fight for their own country. The second argument was raised by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the social democrat CHP (Republican People’s Party) who opposed the government’s existing plans to grant citizenship to some Syrians. He claimed that if the referendum were to be approved by the people, then the government would grant citizenship to four million Syrians. Both of these arguments capitalised on local disputes and problems between both Turkish and Syrian communities, although these instances are not commonplace. However, altercations have taken place, such as the incident on 8 April, where local people in Torbali-Izmir attacked Syrians, claiming they beat Turkish children in their neighbourhood. Following the incident 500 Syrian refugees had to leave the town.

As work is still ongoing to determine the criteria and procedures for granting citizenship to refugees, opposition leaders prefer to reject such a proposal outright, instead of contributing to the decision making process that would affect the future of the refugees and their relations with local communities in Turkey. Accusing Syrian refugees of seeking refuge in Turkey instead of staying and defending their independence echoes the arguments and rhetoric of the Turkish war of independence in 1919. Such accusations have been raised particularly in the wake of Turkey’s recent military intervention in Syria to fight against ISIS and to prevent the unification of Kurdish cantons.

 The referendum and Turkish migrants in Western Europe

While there have been many debates about refugees in Turkey, Turkish politicians have also given particular emphasis to the Turkish migrants living abroad, who are mainly concentrated in Western Europe. There are approximately 3 million Turkish immigrants eligible to vote in Turkish elections and, as a result of intense campaigning, there was a record participation rate of 47%.

Almost all political parties in Turkey have their own organisations, branches or other representation in many countries, particularly in the UK, the US and in continental Europe, which organise and mobilise the Turkish electorate, and many Turkish politicians regularly visit these countries to meet with their supporters. The recent political crisis with Germany and the Netherlands in which German and Dutch authorities opposed, cancelled and blocked Turkish ministers from meeting their overseas electorates affected politics on both sides of the crises, where attempts to cast blame and consolidate their own support were rife. Whether throwing accusations of racism or terrorism, all parties failed to contribute to mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence.

Under such an intense political polarisation and the small margins of support enjoyed by both sides, these 3 million overseas Turkish votes are critically important to Turkish elections. Voting campaigns mobilise Turkish immigrants – even those of second and third generations – living abroad to reaffirm their loyalty to Turkey. Controversies such as those outlined above, however, are also seized upon by right-wing, populist factions in Western Europe to blame and other-ise Turkish Muslim migrant communities.

What happens now?

When the Turkish president and the governing party (AKP) called the referendum President Erdogan was expecting to win with a clear majority. Allied political parties won over 60% of the vote in the last election, and within the campaigning period, he could expect to attract more votes. In the case of a decisive win it was thought that he might tone down his rhetoric, reconcile with the opposition and meet with countries of the EU, particularly Germany and France, to restore Turkey–EU relations.

Many political analysts similarly predicted that anti-Western discourse would last for the campaigning period only; after the elections they would start a fresh page. But this did not happen. Having won with a very slight majority, Erdogan now faces criticism over the legitimacy of the referendum, and is unable to enjoy the victory of being the first president of the new system. As a result, he continues his anti-Western discourse, labels the opposition lackeys of foreign forces, has repeated his promise to bring back the death penalty and challenged the EU to cancel Turkey’s membership if they can. Given that such rhetoric is only consolidating his support at home and abroad, he might insist on actioning his policies of polarisation in the near future.

However, Turkey and the EU have strong economic, political and social relations and it is not easy to break down all relations overnight. Erdogan enjoys two “advantages” in his relation with the “the West”. The first is the question of whether he will keep Syrian refugees in Turkey or choose to open the doors to Europe. The second is the Turkish migrants in Western Europe, capable of mobilising on a huge scale, and whose actions might affect the political landscape during upcoming elections in France, Germany and now the UK.

Policies towards Syrian refugees

Turkish authorities aim to provide basic services to refugees and they collaborate with UNHCR and other international agencies to do so. Although many refugees face problems in their daily lives with regard to education, labour market integration and health services, one can observe continuous improvements in these services. Although Turkey does not recognise Syrians as refugees due to a geographical distinction between European and non-European refugees it raised at the UN 1951 Convention, authorities have begun to give more importance to long-term development policies, aside from humanitarian assistance.

Turkish bureaucracy as it relates to migration management is relatively autonomous, more flexible and more collaborative than other types of bureaucracy. There are ongoing efforts to simplify the work permit application process for Syrian employees and the registration of self-employed refugees, and there has been a significant increase in the rate of educational enrolment. The institutional and legislative frameworks that deal with refugees are relatively new in Turkey, which gives a flexibility in addressing the problems and expectations of refugees as well. This can be seen in the current efforts to grant citizenship to some Syrians who have not previously had refugee status.

This progress, however, could be challenged by a politicisation of the refugee issue in Turkey. If opposition parties believe that they will win support by criticising the government’s policies towards refugees, they may focus on this issue in upcoming elections. On the other hand, if the government feels that such reaction towards refugees as displayed by their opponents in the referendum were to gain strength with conservative voters they may also change their policies and attitudes. 

President Erdogan is a pragmatist leader. His policies towards hosting refugees have not been seriously challenged by the opposition until now, but there are media reports on the negative reaction towards refugees in cities which are known as conservative strongholds. If the opposition stands to benefit from this reaction, he may change his stance towards refugees.

Hosting refugees under the ‘temporary protection’ banner allows the government to act “flexibly”, but this flexibility may not be in the interests of refugees. There is no legal barrier to removing temporary protection and asking refugees to go elsewhere within a certain period. Alternatively, the government might choose to follow a mixed policy, granting citizenship to certain refugees while making it more difficult for others to stay in Turkey.

Apart from domestic politics, Turkey’s policies towards refugees might also be affected by current Turkey–EU relations. For instance, President Erdogan stated on 25 November 2016 that they might open the borders for refugees who would like to go to Europe. This was a direct response to the European Parliament’s decision to freeze Turkey’s EU membership process. On 16 March of this year, the Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu stated that they may send 15,000 refugees to Europe per month in order to shock Europe. And government spokesperson Numan Kurtulmus argued on 13 March that the Turkey–EU refugee deal should be cancelled, when public meetings of Turkish ministers for the referendum campaign were not permitted in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.

In sum, current political polarisation in Turkey and the Turkish government’s debates with the EU and “the West” in general might politicise migration management, with political interventions directly affecting policies towards refugees. Such an attitude might place refugees in a more precarious position and put at risk the achievements that have been made towards their support and integration.

 Policies towards Turkish migrants in Western Europe

Turkey, which has a long tradition of diaspora politics, has an official policy towards its citizens living abroad. There is a specific institution entitled “Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities”, there are trade and educational initiatives, the Turkish government appoints teachers and imams for Turkish citizens living abroad and Turkey supports many mosques and the Turkish Islamic Religious Foundation (DITIB). Turkish consulates and embassies are very active in their relations with their citizens and organise events and activities to mobilise Turkish citizens based on certain agendas.

However within the current polarized environment in Turkey, earning the support of the Turkish electorate in Europe has become more crucial for all political parties. The organisational power and mobilisation capability of Turkish migrants could influence both Turkey and host countries, and they may lobby effectively on behalf of or against the Turkish authorities. During the recent referendum, the crisis with the Netherlands and Germany boosted support for the government’s position and also affected the electorates in Turkey by promoting the image of the West as being against a strong Turkey, and President Erdogan as posing a challenge to the West as a nationalist leader. As a result of this and other arguments, 47% of all those living abroad who were eligible to vote did so, with approximately 60% voting in favour of the constitutional amendment.

Such political mobilisation directly affects the domestic policies of these countries and it is particularly the right-wing and populist – even racist – current which aim to benefit from these debates to otherise and blame migrants. Therefore migrants from Turkey have been facing double political pressure: both from Turkey and from their country of residence. This is not necessarily in the best interests of migrants’ political rights and liberties. As could be seen during the political crisis, citizenship rights of migrants began to be debated in Germany, The Netherlands and Austria and legislations limiting citizenship rights have been proposed. 

Immigrants from Turkey in Europe have strong transnational networks that enable them to contribute to both Turkey and their country of residence. For over 50 years, immigrants from Turkey have contributed to their new countries economically and socially, have been investing in both countries, and increasing trade and improving social relations between societies. The politicisation we have seen over migrants might threaten their existing rights and harm the dynamic transnational space they have created. 


If the proposals put forward in the referendum are legalised in the coming months, then Turkey will prepare for a presidential race in 2019. Under the parliamentarian system, a political party attracting support of 42–43% could form its one-party government, and it is possible to predict the average votes and potential support for each political party. For instance if AKP loses two or three points of the share of the vote, then there would be chance for the other two parties to form a coalition. However under the new regime, the president needs 51% of total votes, a level which would not be so easily reached by the ruling party. As the outcome of this referendum indicates, the opposition also has considerable chance of achieving the same total.

Within this narrow margin between political forces I expect the refugee and migrant issue to become more central in the agendas of political parties, touching both policies towards Syrian refugees in Turkey and Turkish migrants in Western Europe. Current debates indicate that these would not be favourable developments for the rights and liberties of refugees and migrants, and may even threaten existing rights such as citizenship rights. As we have already seen in Western Europe, there may also soon be in Turkey an even greater need to defend the rights and liberties of refugees and migrants and oppose their exploitation as pawns in a political game.

IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.

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