Details of the initiative — slated to be run through the Turkish interior ministry — are still being thrashed out and it's unlikely citizenship will be offered to every Syrian seeking sanctuary in the country. But absorbing even a fraction of the refugees in Turkey as citizens raises its own challenges and questions.
Any visitor to Turkey will be aware of the huge population of Syrian refugees living in the margins of its major cities and in refugee camps near the border. Since the Syrian conflict flared in 2011, the Turkish state has kept the door open for those fleeing the horrors of the war, a huge influx that now stands at some 2.7 million refugees.
Until now, Syrians have been accommodated through a scheme of "guest" permits to reside in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of refugees in Turkey, frustrated by their status and the limited opportunities available to them, have chosen to make the risky passage to Europe, often by boat.
According to the Financial Times, the Turkish government is keen to retain some of the more skilled and highly educated Syrians in their midst, many of whom are better equipped to make the journey to Europe than their compatriots. On a broader level, Ankara simply has had to accept the reality that hundreds of thousands of Syrians are building new lives within Turkey, and that a system should be in place to better integrate them.
“We got a sense that we were getting very low-quality immigration — poor, uneducated families, or in the best case, businessmen who had some money to set up a shop or factory here,” said a Turkish official, quoted anonymously by the British newspaper. “That’s why you were seeing these ghettos in cities around Turkey, with huge numbers of Syrians who were unemployed and underutilized.”
The FT suggests that the Turkish proposal may mirror points-based schemes for immigration that exist in countries such as Canada and Australia, which reward applicants with higher degrees and skills in desirable sectors like information technology and medicine.
“There are highly qualified individuals among Syrian refugees in Turkey,” Erdogan elaborated this week. “Western nations open their doors to such skilled individuals and they have no choice but go to the West when we do not open the gates of citizenship ourselves. We would like to benefit from their knowledge."
Many in Turkey, though, are less than thrilled with the idea. A hashtag that translates to "I don't want Syrians in my country" started trending soon after Erdogan first voiced the idea of naturalizing refugees.
"When we have so many jobless qualified people in health, engineering and several other areas and as if we lack human resources," said opposition politician Kamil Okyay Sindir of the center-left CHP party, "the government is trying to push the argument that the Syrian refugees will provide the human resources. This is not acceptable."
"Some of the Syrians need to go back," said Mehmet Gunal, deputy head of the ultra-nationalist MHP party. "If you start talking about this, even those who are planning to go back won’t go back. It was wrong in terms of substance and timing."
His boss, the controversial Devlet Bahceli, took an even starker line: "It would be a great contradiction for a person who has lost the qualification of being a Syrian citizen to have the qualification of being a Turkish citizen."
Others point to a more positive outcome.
"This will have a psychological impact on the Syrians in Turkey. I believe they will try more to abide by the rules and stay away from crime in order to earn the right to apply for citizenship," Ibrahim Kavlak, a member of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants, told the BBC. "I think this would also decrease the temptation amongst the migrants to travel to Europe."
The proposed initiative also comes at a moment when Turkey is wrangling with the European Union over the terms of a deal regarding the resettlement of migrants. Ankara still hopes to secure visa-free travel for Turkish nationals to the E.U. For opponents of that measure, the naturalization of Syrian refugees may add further fuel to the fire.