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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Turkey, a Popular Destination for Arabs with Low-ranking Passports

Turkey Arabs
Pedestrians walk next to fish and bread vendors near The Galata Bridge in Istanbul on October 26, 2021. Ozan KOSE / AFP

Dana Hourany

Eight months ago, Lebanese researcher and digital activist, Jihad Samra, decided to sell his belongings and resettle in Turkey‘s capital, Ankara.

After facing pressure from irate politicians over his social media posts, Samra made the decision. The activist’s Twitter activity is focused on exposing corrupt politicians and increasing public awareness about hidden national issues. As a result, the researcher was pressed to seek the quickest and cheapest route out, as staying in Lebanon was no longer a viable option.

“There are arrest warrants waiting for me at the airport; if I choose to return to Lebanon, I will get into trouble with political parties I have criticized in the past,” he told Fanack.

For the time being, Samra says he is content with his new life as a “digital nomad” in Turkey, where he’s allowed to renew his residency for a short time period, as long as he’s not employed in Turkey and as long as his income is generated overseas. Samra says that he’s now at liberty of expressing his political views in the digital space, so long as he abides by the relevant Turkish laws.

Harboring around five million Arabs for over a decade, Turkey has become a safe haven for Middle Easterners wishing to travel with little to no visa restrictions, compared to Western countries, which impose harsher restrictions on non-white passport holders.

Due to limitations on people of the Middle East, namely war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen, in addition to politically tense countries such as Lebanon and Iran, many have limited mobility crossing borders and often find themselves looking to Turkey as a popular destination for leisure, tourism, and employment.

A brief history

 During World War II, about two million Arabs from the Levant and Mesopotamia immigrated to Turkey. This was followed by another massive influx during the 1980s Iran-Iraq conflict and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In 2011, the nation became a safe haven for those escaping upheavals across the Arab world, cultivating both refugees and foreign immigrants.

For Syrians fleeing a horrific conflict that erupted into a full-fledged war in 2011, Turkey’s Temporary Protection System became a refuge. According to UNHCR estimates, there are around 3.64 million Syrians in the country. Additionally, Turkey is host to 322,188 International Protection applicants, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran.

According to Le Monde Diplomatique, Turkey is home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, more than 30,000 Egyptians, tens of thousands of Libyans, Yemenis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, as well as Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians.

Despite their enormous numbers, Samra says that common cultural norms and traditions make integration easier for people from the Middle East.

Cultural similarities

 Under the Ottoman Empire, the territory that is now Turkey was ruled as a Sunni Islamic state. As a consequence, the land is dotted with beautiful Islamic architecture and monuments. Daily routines such as echoing prayers in mosques and Friday mass prayers reflect Islamic traditional social patterns.

Although figures show that 99.8% of its population still identifies as Muslims, these estimates understate the prevalence of irreligious people and minority religions. Nevertheless, the prominence of Islam, according to Samra, makes for an easier transition for Muslim Arabs, especially when it comes to dietary preferences. Halal meat and traditional recipes make for important factors when it comes to social integration, Samra says.

In terms of social life, the activist notes that the hospitality of the people in Ankara is similar to that of the Middle East. He argues that this helps bridge the gap between the seemingly different civilizations, which have more in common than their outward appearances.

“Racists exist everywhere, and Turkey is no exception. However, folks here typically appreciate you if you respect them. You’ll notice how kind they are if you get to know them well,” he said.

“Istanbul succeeds at luring foreigners, especially Westerners, due to its magical appeal and beauty. But for me, I prefer the peaceful life here, in Ankara,” he added.

A touristic gem

 The country, which is wedged between Asia and Europe, is culturally and architecturally similar to both. Turkey is also situated at the confluence of the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East, and the eastern Mediterranean, giving it a climate with a wide range of temperatures, as well as a diversified scenery.

Given the diversity of terrain, flora, and coasts, Samra believes that “to see everything completely, one would have to visit various regions of the nation every single day for four years.”

Middle Eastern travelers benefit from the Turkish market’s affordability owing to the continued fall of the Turkish lira. The currency is presently trading at 15.3 per USD (at the time of writing), leading prices to rise by around 70%, reaching a 20-year high. While this is in no doubt extremely harsh on the people of Turkey, it does attract tourists with foreign currency for its affordable medical procedures like dental treatment, hair transplants, and laser eye surgery.

“Rich Arabs go to London and Milan, while working-class Arabs head to Istanbul,” Samra said.

According to the activist, wealthier Arabs from Gulf countries have typically preferred Western places such as London, where many of them have purchased property or obtained education. Furthermore, recent tensions between Turkey and a few Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, resulted in a shortage of tourist traffic to Turkey from the latter two countries.

While Middle Eastern citizens are encouraged to visit Turkey, long-term residence and employment are more difficult.

Challenges of working in Turkey

Hundreds of Lebanese fled to Turkey in the aftermath of Lebanon’s financial crisis. While the temporary residence is a simple procedure, people with long-term goals face a difficult road.

“Employers seldom recruit foreigners, and when they do, they pay them minimum wage or less,” Samra explained.

Additionally, the authorities are tightening their grip. To circumvent strict conditions, Samra advises remote workers to apply for a short-term residence card, which allows them to stay in the nation for up to 24 months.

In terms of living costs, Samra argues that Ankara is one of the most affordable cities in the world.

“In Ankara, you can live comfortably on $400 per month. However, you’ll probably need twice as much in Istanbul,” he added.

Anyone seeking to relocate to Turkey must first learn the language since it is the most significant barrier to cultural integration, Samra said.

Syrian artist Rami El Kour told Fanack that flying to Turkey for vacation or employment is a pipe dream for his people. He claims that visas for Syrians are basically non-existent. Prior to the civil war, however, Syrians who wanted to go to Turkey had many options, including the possibility of taking a bus.

“I’ve heard stories from my relatives about Turkish landmarks and great locations to visit,” he said, “but I have yet to see them for myself.”

Since tourist visas are not an option, most people file for immigration, which is laborious and expensive, according to El Kour; Syrians are compelled to go all the way to Lebanon to apply at the Turkish consulate.

“To be honest, I’d love to work in Turkey, but job options for Syrians are limited. I have friends who managed to leave during the war; they tell me that the joys of living there outweigh any cultural hurdles or racist remarks,” he said.

Despite Turkey’s status as one of the world’s largest refugee hosts, Amnesty International reports that Turkish inhabitants are increasingly concerned about the future of living with Syrian refugees. When questioned, several Turks stated that they would like to see refugees relocated to secure zones in Syria, despite the fact that only 6% of Syrians have indicated an interest in being placed in such “safe zones.” The majority expressed thanks and delight for being able to coexist with their host community and want to be able to do so in the future.