The Gaziantep Migration Model for Building a Resilient City for All in a Time of Crisis

Önder Yalçın
7 min read
Photo Credit: nexus 7 / Shutterstock
The migration of people throughout the world has continued to increase in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, and until the global shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, there did not appear to be any slowdown.

The migration of people throughout the world has continued to increase in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, and until the global shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, there did not appear to be any slowdown. But not even a pandemic is ultimately going to stop the flow of people for a host of other powerful pressures, including climate collapse, general livelihood concerns, or escaping persecution and conflicts.

With regard to the war in Syria, while the international community and many governments failed to respond to the refugee and migration consequences adequately, a new power emerged to respond—cities and their local leaders. Ideally, refugees would be enabled to become socially and economically self-reliant, giving them the freedom of movement and protections necessary to make valuable contributions to their host community. Local governments are especially important in reaching this ideal scenario since they are usually the first contact for new arrivals and most directly put national human rights strategies and policies in practice. They are responsible for delivering basic everyday services necessary for the protection and promotion of human rights, along with a host of other valuable supports.

It is time for the world to see that the migration phenomenon is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be managed, and cities are well positioned in doing this management and setting an example for national policy making. Gaziantep in Turkey—where I worked as Director of Migration Management—is a model of effective local management of migration.

The Syrian Crisis

In 2011, Deraa, a small village in Syria, ended up playing a big role in the uprising against the government led by President Bashar al-Assad. At that time, it was impossible to foresee that a small spark of protest was going to set the region on fire; and nobody could have imagined the uprising in Syria was going to cause one of the largest humanitarian tragedies since the Second World War. Support from Russia and Iran to the Syrian regime boosted its brutality against civilians. Chemical weapons, air raids, and mass killings left people no choice but to flee the country. Sadly, the world’s powerful democracies chose to remain silent while authoritarian countries used destructive force. Since then, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country, 6.6 million have been internally displaced, hundreds of thousands have been wounded, and the death toll stands at nearly half a million. No solution is on the horizon and the worst may well be yet to come.

Millions of Syrians have escaped across borders, fleeing the bombs and bullets that have devastated their homes. Neighboring countries became home to Syrian refugees. Turkey alone is home to 3.6 million of them and became the world’s largest refugee-hosting country since 2014. Opening the borders to these refugees was ultimately the easy step to take; the hard job was to provide them with the necessary services and still respect their human dignity in the process. This is where Turkey’s refugee approach differs from many others; instead of directing refugees into camps and supporting them with humanitarian aid, it is letting them live in its cities and giving them the opportunity to fully contribute to these communities.

The Gaziantep Approach

Gaziantep, a city in the southeastern part of Turkey, has successfully integrated 500,000 refugees and has grown its population by 25 percent due to newcomers fleeing the crisis across the border in Syria. It also remains a model of tolerance. From the very start of the migration explosion, Gaziantep addressed an important question: Do refugees cause social, political, and economic destabilization? We knew that the answer to this question would shape all of our actions in this critical time, and ultimately Gaziantep answered definitively: Refugees do not cause destabilization; poor leadership and policies do.

Gaziantep has taken critical steps on migration governance and experienced three important milestones, among others, on its journey.

Creating a Municipal Migration Department

The short-term humanitarian response was critical in a time of crisis management, but within a year the city switched to longer-term approaches that focused on resilience, social development, and integration. In order to perform this switch successfully, establishing a migration unit was inevitable. After many long debates, Gaziantep has made institutional innovations to streamline the processes of delivering services to refugees by establishing a special administrative unit, the Migration Department, the first of its kind in Turkey. Its successes have been catalytic and inspired other municipalities to consider the same approach.

Gaziantep’s migration policies are rooted in valuing social justice and human rights, and they focus on a conflict-sensitive approach to mitigate all possible tensions among new arrivals and host community alike. In order to cope with the challenges, the city expanded its traditional responsibilities and established a comprehensive refugee policy rooted in social cohesion with an assurance of providing healthcare, education, housing, employment, and equal access to any other needed municipal services to migrants.

Interactive Social Cohesion Model

Gaziantep’s Migration Department is fortunate to be backed by academic institutions and other partners; this helped bring together theory and practice in a new, culturally sensitive, scientifically backed integration model for migrants and host communities. This was a milestone for opening discussions on integration on multiple levels—neighborhood, regional, and national. In fact, a key project to develop a model on effective integration has been initiated. Called the “Development of Interactive Social Cohesion Model,” this is funded by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK), and implemented by the Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality, Koç University in Istanbul, and Bilkent University in Ankara. By the end of this project, practical experiences at the local level will be supported by an academic approach, and a new flexible, and hopefully replicable, model for integration will be available to all interested cities.

The Gaziantep Declaration for Migration

Cities undoubtedly hold the prime responsibility for creating local opportunities for social, economic, cultural, and political inclusion. However, the cooperation of national and local governments is critical for a comprehensive response in these realms. A strong, sustainable, and comprehensive migration model requires civil and international support as well, so the contribution of domestic and international NGOs, the UN, and development agencies are also important. We discovered in Gaziantep that the breadth of partners contributed to enhancing services for migrants and refugees.

To lock in these critical relationships, and to point out the importance of working together toward long-term integration policies, Gaziantep hosted an International Forum on Local Solutions to Migration and Displacement at which The Gaziantep Declaration was signed by all the local participants. The declaration confirmed a strong local governmental role on migration, encouraged other communities to realize their migration-management potential, and collectively elevated the voice of cities nationally.

Lessons Learned & Shared

Based on our experience in Gaziantep, here is what was most important.

Cities are at the forefront not only of managing the influx of refugees, but also of providing essential services for all migrants. This includes guaranteeing a safe, welcoming environment, promoting long-term integration, and creating labor and education paths to self-sufficiency. There is no alternative to seeking universal and equal access to basic human rights and social services for migrants and refugees, without discrimination of any kind. Refugees can be a resource rather than a burden and are making tremendous contributions to the economic and social fabric of our cities.

In the end, the Gaziantep experience improved our governance, increased social cohesion between our existing and new residents, and enhanced our inclusive identity and the sustained livelihoods for refugees and our entire community.

The initiatives Gaziantep implemented around its refugee response have now been successfully adopted by other cities in Turkey. Every city has unique circumstances and dynamics, and so cities have adapted our model accordingly. But the fundamentals of addressing migration through a lens of inclusion and a respect for human rights has been core to successful management at the local level and an example of why a focus on people and our humanity can be every bit as impactful as building walls or closing down borders.