No powers, no funds. How municipalities are working creatively to address the needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey

Professor Vivien Lowndes and Professor Rabia Karakaya Polat

Over 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011. Turkey hosts the world’s largest community of displaced Syrians (about 3.6 million). Nine years after the arrival of the first group of Syrians, their future in Turkey is still uncertain. Our British Academy funded research is exploring the role of municipalities in interpreting, enacting and contesting Turkey’s refugee policy.

98% of Syrians in Turkey live in urban settings rather than camps. Half of the urban refugees live in border provinces; others are spread across the country, particularly in metropolitan areas. Istanbul, where we conducted our field research, hosts the largest number of refugees, more than half a million.

From 2011, Turkey pursued an open-door policy based on narratives of hospitality and religious solidarity. This narrative is now shifting towards cohesion, as it becomes clear that Syrians are in Turkey long-term. The government is also encouraging ‘voluntary return’ as a response to the unfolding economic crisis, the possibility of new mass arrivals and the risk of losing votes in the face of ‘compassion fatigue’. While local government actors can’t influence these official policies, they do have to solve problems on the ground, with extremely limited resources and high political risks. 

Despite not recognizing Syrians as refugees, Turkey has offered them free public health care and education as part of a temporary protection scheme. In 2016, Syrians also obtained limited access to the formal labour market, thanks to a new law on work permits. Over 110,000 have now been granted citizenship, mostly based on skills and capital. But there remains a lot of policy ambiguity. This ambiguity and the absence of a universal rights-based refugee policy in Turkey leads to significant variation in local responses to refugees, and in their living standards and level of integration with the local community.

Local governments are finding themselves in a very difficult position. The role and responsibilities of municipalities have not been clearly defined, so local government actors are operating in a very ambiguous policy environment. At the same time, they do not get any extra budget to spend on refugees. Even if they host as many refugees as their own population, they do not get an extra penny from central government. Providing services to meet refugee needs has also contributed to the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in some local communities, especially as Turkey’s economic crisis bites.

But municipalities in Turkey are extremely pragmatic organisations. They know how to operate in a centralised and increasingly authoritarian political system. As one of our respondents put it: ‘Spending 1 lira on refugees today prevents you from spending 100 lira tomorrow’. They are cooperating with NGOs as a way of accessing international funds for refugee support, mostly from the EU, despite the government’s criticism of the EU on ‘burden-sharing’. Municipal projects include community centres built to serve Syrian refugees, cash-for-work projects to increase employability, and cohesion projects such as language classes, children’s drama groups, women’s projects, and cultural activities that bring the two communities together.

Our research identified five distinctive refugee policy narratives at local level.

  • A powerful narrative during the initial years of the refugee arrival, humanitarianism still acts as a driving force for some municipalities.
  • Pragmatism is also widespread as municipalities believe that, if needs are not addressed and opportunities provided, there will be bigger challenges in the future.
  • Equality is another powerful narrative for actors in opposition-controlled municipalities, who argue that Syrians should be provided with equal rights with Turkish citizens: ‘We shouldn’t be providing aid. We should be serving their rights’.
  • The gradual decline of the ‘guest’ narrative at the national level has led to a widespread social cohesion narrative, expressed in projects to integrate Syrians into district life.
  • Finally, anti-refugee narratives are also prevalent. Some community leaders complained about economic implications (rising rents, unemployment), cultural differences, language issues and a perceived lack of social mixing.

Despite its increasingly authoritarian character, the national government’s policy narratives do not go unchallenged. In seeking to address practical challenges on the ground, both AKP and opposition controlled municipalities are developing their own understandings of refugee policy – becoming storytellers and performers in their own right – even where this directly challenges national policy narratives (notably anti-Western, religious and heroic elements). 

Our research shows that international or national policy pronouncements cannot be taken at face value.  Instead, we need to understand the active construction of what refugee policy means at the local government level, in situations of intense need and limited resources. Despite being weak vis-à-vis the central state, municipalities have been able to develop creative and varied responses to meeting refugee needs, even within the same province.  In policy terms, this points to potential benefits from harnessing local government creativity and flexibility, in preference to a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to refugee policy.

Vivien Lowndes is Professor of Public Policy at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham. 

Rabia Karakaya Polat is Professor of Political Science at the Department of International Relations, Işık University (Istanbul).

The Leadership Conundrum in Turkey’s District Governance – Insights from Doctoral Research

In this post Saban Akca presents findings from his recently completed PhD research into the behaviour of district governors in Turkey. His thesis is titled ‘The Complex Role of District Governors in Turkey: A Case of Sui Generis Public Leadership’. 

Turkish district governors are centrally appointed public administrators who represent the Turkish state at localities across the country. They have been charged with various and diverse responsibilities, including security and public order, and they are liable to ensure the smooth delivery of other public services. However, they have enjoyed a great deal of power in local administration for more than 170 years, their co-existence with locally elected mayors and the latter’s unparalleled and rapid accumulation of power are now hitting hard the very existence of the orthodox foundation of governorships nationwide.

After this brief introduction about the roles of the Turkish governors I am now ready to explain why I have been conducting a leadership study on them. First, it should be underlined here that the study – based on my personal experiences of the perceived inadequacy of training services delivered by the Training Department of the Turkish Interior Ministry for intern governors –aimed to examine a specific ‘governorship course’. However, the direction of the study evolved into one that focuses also on governor leadership exercises, mostly because the course is a mere mannequin of the status quo, rather than a transformative leadership programme.

The study has focused on the challenge within public leadership of reconciling the sometimes conflicting interests of the national and local state. As representatives of the Turkish state at the local level, governors have undertaken a traditional local leadership role. The research for the study has examined the ways in which different governors interpret, approach and play out their leadership roles within the districts to which they are appointed, and, in particular, the ways in which they balance the respective interests of the central state with those of the locality, as shaped by the democratically elected local government system.

Much of the research focus has been on governors as individuals – rather than as a group or as an institution. In this vein, the key research question for the thesis has been ‘How do Turkish governors, in the exercise of their leadership role, balance out their responsibilities towards the central government, as servants of the central state, with those towards the locality and the communities over which they have jurisdiction?’ In addition to that and in further elaboration of governors’ leadership characters and the effects of contingencies on their leadership, the second research question is: ‘To what extent, and in what ways, are differences in the approach of governors shaped by and contingent on local circumstances as opposed to more personal traits?’.

A case study design was devised, involving 30 district governors, selected from across Turkey, and semi-structured interviews were conducted with each to explore both the perceptions and perspectives of each with regard to their leadership role and the extent to which these differed from district to district in reflection of contextual factors.

The findings demonstrated a considerable range in perspectives on and approaches to the leadership role and in the strategies and modes of operation in the pursuit of governance at local level. At the same time, the findings also highlighted some commonalities; for example, a strong ambition from an early age amongst some to become a district governor. Similarly, there was shared recognition of the importance of the adaptability of leadership strategies to local circumstances, and recognition that there cannot be ‘one model’ for this governance role. Furthermore, the findings suggested that district governors tend to approach their role as father figures, for the district population as well as for their own civil servant employees.

Recent public administration reforms in Turkey, and specifically, moves to devolve more powers to municipalities, imply changes in the role and influence of district governors. Accordingly, the research sought to understand how interviewees were viewing these changes and their implications for their role into the future. In this respect, almost all the governors expressed apprehension and much uncertainty about future prospects.



Saban Akca holds a law degree from the University of Ankara, Turkey and did his master study on the European Union at the Keele University in 2011. After achieving his lawyer qualification at the Ankara Bar Chamber in 1999, he followed a career in the Turkish civil service as a district governor from 2000 until 1 September 2016.


Turkey’s General Election in June 2015 did not secure the majority that President Erdogan needed to realise his dream of transforming the country’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential republic. In the aftermath of the election, all sensitive attempts by Turkey’s political parties to form a coalition or minority government failed. Therefore, the country faces yet another election, which will be held on 1st November.  In the meantime, the long established cease-fire between the government and the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has collapsed and renewed fighting has broken out. Nobody knows what will happen in the upcoming election and what approach the country will take to handling the conflict.

And what might all this mean for local government in Turkey?  A round of interviews recently conducted with District Governors across the country has highlighted a range of challenges now confronting local level governance and public provision.  But before introducing these, it will probably be helpful to have an overview of local governance structures and public administrative arrangements in Turkey.

The local Turkish public administrative system comprises two distinct systems, one being the locally elected local/municipal authorities; the other being the governance of the central state within the localities – the latter comprising appointed governors operating at the provincial and district levels. The duties of local authorities mainly revolve around infrastructure provision and maintenance within local areas, including services such as road development, construction zoning, water facilitation and the like. In contrast, the central state, through the district governors, is responsible for a number of other key public services, including policing, education, agriculture etc.

In the past decade, local authorities in Turkey have experienced significant devolution of power from central government, with the result that much more day-to-day business concerning local communities as well as responsibility for strategic planning at the local level is now exercised by the local authorities and municipalities.  Such devolution has also involved the abolition of the special city administrations that had previously been headed by the provincial governors and the transfer of responsibility for infrastructure development in the villages and towns from the governors to the local authorities.

In light of such a significant programme of devolution, it was interesting to have the opportunity recently to learn from a sample of District Governors from across Turkey how the reform process was working out in practice and of the benefits and challenges that it was perceived to be creating.

As part of the author’s doctoral research, a total of 30 district governors were interviewed during summer 2015.  Of these, a few viewed  the developments as  potentially good for Turkey’s future in general albeit expressing some concerns about the implications for their own  role as governors – i.e. in relation to their responsibilities for  coordinating and leading the local branches of the central state’s administrative system. However, the majority of interviewees expressed a more pessimistic perspective and saw the change as the beginning of the end of the governor profession within the country. They highlighted, that the central administration, based in the capital city of Ankara, had transferred aspects of the governors’ authority and power to the local municipalities in lieu of devolving power or authority from the central government.

An intriguing question to be asked in relation to this otherwise bold devolution is why the shift of power stopped short of abolishing the governorships and the centre-appointed governors? And the answer would seem to lie mainly in two political concerns of the Turkish government at national level. First, there is the ‘Kurdish question’ – one of the most important issues that the Republic of Turkey has been facing for decades. The country has been quelling dissent from Kurdish rebels, particularly in its south-eastern and eastern parts, for some considerable time and the fear is that if the governorships were to be abolished, the Kurdish towns and cities would most likely want to claim autonomy from the Turkish state. Given that the governors act on behalf of the central government, they are seen as representing the state and symbolising national unity, which sends an important message within the context of the ‘Kurdish question’.

Second, the commitment to devolution is arguably less than whole- hearted within the central bureaucracy with Turkey having had a long tradition of a centrally structured state. Devolving power downwards to local administrations requires Turkey to break from that tradition, which will neither be an easy nor a quick process.

Given such circumstances, the future for devolution in this country remains somewhat uncertain, with the district governors unsure of the prospects and as a result often reluctant to exert their authority and leadership potential at a time when the spirit of localism grows ever stronger as does the people’s demand for enhanced democracy.  One suggestion discussed in the interviews with several governors was for the establishment of a new form of democratically-elected governorships.  Might this be a realistic way forward for Turkey in these challenging times?


Saban Akca is a doctoral researcher in INLOGOV at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on leadership in public administration, and his doctoral thesis examines the leadership performance of local-level district governors in Turkey.