Daniel Honig is Assistant Professor and Özsel Beleli is Adjunct Lecturer in the International Development Program.

We are in the midst of one of the biggest humanitarian crises in decades. The civil war in Syria has so far left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions displaced. Turkey is currently the largest recipient of Syrian refugees, with about a quarter million refugees living in camps and close to 2 million refugees living in cities and towns across the country.  The refugee influx and the response to the influx have been transforming Turkey in fundamental ways – one of the less discussed elements of this transformation is the impact on the institutional landscape. We caught a glimpse of this massive change during our meetings with representatives of local civil society organizations (CSOs) in Izmir and Istanbul last January.

The response to the refugee crisis has so far been primarily led by the Turkish state with some level of cooperation with the relevant UN agencies. Inside the Turkish state apparatus, the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) has led the efforts in refugee camps while the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate-General for Migration Management (DGMM) has been responsible for the overall policy coordination and implementation. Numerous local CSOs have also been actively engaged in these humanitarian efforts.

When the refugee influx began, the state agencies and the local CSOs who are the key actors in this institutional terrain were in nascent stages of their development. Moreover, none of these organizations was responding to the refugee crisis as part of their core mission. AFAD was created in 2009 with the primary goal to coordinate responses to natural disasters. DGMM was created in 2013 for the implementation of a new law on foreigners and international protection. Several of the local CSOs had been working on disaster response, poverty relief or human rights issues on a relatively small scale with no expertise in working with refugees.

All of these organizations have had to learn quickly and grow rapidly under tremendous amounts of pressure. State agencies have had to negotiate the boundaries of their turfs. Subject expertise has had to be built, staff has had to be hired and trained. Inter-personal and inter-organizational networks of information sharing have had to be constructed. The constraining factors, such as the legal framework and administrative rules, have had to be re-negotiated.

For local CSOs delivering services, the financial incentives presented with becoming implementers for INGOs have had to be balanced against their organizational mandate and principles.  For local CSOs doing advocacy work, priorities had to be reassessed given the urgency of the refugee crisis and the direness of their situation. Power and influence have had to be negotiated with humanitarian INGOs whose raison d'être is rapid –and often short-lived – response to humanitarian crises and who, unlike the local CSOs, enter the scene with exit in mind.  The INGOs often provide funds for programs without helping local CSOs build the necessary capacity to maintain them over the medium term or respond flexibly as needs emerge.  A CSO-run community center does little for refugees who cannot reach the center; without flexible funds a CSO cannot facilitate transportation as needs arise.

In this constantly changing and complex terrain, there may be one thing that is clear to us: Turkey will be changed over the medium term by the events of the past few years and those to come.  Many of the 2 million + refugees currently in the country are likely to remain for a long time.  Treating this as an extended short-term crisis risks the “Dadaabization” of Syrian refugees – of inadequate long-term solutions borne of a false sense of temporary-ness.  The impact of the refugee crisis for Turkey will include not only a new social reality but also a new institutional reality with fundamentally transformed state agencies and local CSOs. We cannot say what precisely that new reality will be; only that it will be new, and that closing our eyes, hearts, and borders will not wish it away.

PHOTO CREDIT: AFAD Kilis Camp from Wikimedia Commons licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.