States use settlement policy to forcibly relocate a portion of the population, whether large or small groups, to a new region. The fundamental reason for this involuntary migration is the political goals of the state. States use the opportunity created by wars and internal turmoil to redesign the demography of their countries. This demographic change can also occur as a result of natural disasters. However, at times, settlement policy becomes a policy of forced migration.

Since its establishment, the Ottoman Empire embraced settlement policy. Whether they were expanding or losing territory, Ottoman governments implemented settlement policy to achieve three basic goals: maintaining an ethnic, religious, and sectarian balance in existing territories; increasing the population’s contributions to the economy; and keeping certain groups at a distance to prevent them from endangering the state. Including Turks (Turkmen and Turkic tribes), groups of all religions and sects have been affected by their share of these policies. But during the last years of the Ottoman Empire and under the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, the group that has been most affected by settlement policies has been the Kurds.

Kurds were first targeted by settlement policies at the beginning of the 19th century under the reign of Sultan Mahmud II. In order to centralise the state, Kurdish Emirates were abolished and some tribes were driven from the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire to the western provinces. Following this era, forcing Kurds to migrate became state policy. After the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) came to power at the beginning of the 20th century, the leadership sent both Kurds fleeing Russian invasion, as well as Kurdish tribes that were rebelling, to the western provinces. The CUP saw the Kurds as a threat to the unity of the state and therefore chose this avenue for dealing with them. The migration patterns of Kurdish tribes in this period are shown in the map below.

Kurdish migration

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Turkish Republic, also ordered Kurds to migrate to the western provinces. Following the 1925 Sheikh Said rebellion, in which Kurdish tribes in eastern Anatolia rebelled against the Turkish state, the newly established republic began forcing Kurds to migrate. Historian Mete Tunçay argues that ethnic Turks who immigrated from outside of Turkey were settled in the areas that the Kurds had been forced to leave. For example, 14,000 Romanian immigrants who came to Turkey after 1932 were settled in the historically Kurdish cities of Elazığ and Diyarbakır.

The government wanted to effect a transformative change in its eastern provinces with Law 1097: “The Law Concerning Persons to be Transferred from East to West.” An example of the effect this law is the dispersal of the Halikanlı tribe: 154 families were sent to Edirne, 100 families to Tekirdağ, 26 families to Kırklareli, and 125 families to Aydın—all provinces in western Turkey. Following more uprisings in Ağrı in 1930 and Dersim in 1937, additional arrangements were made to continue the forced migration to the west.

In addition to harbouring the same concerns as the CUP, Atatürk saw resettlement policy as a tool for assimilating Kurds. Having founded a state on the tenets of Turkish nationalism, he was trying to Turkify all elements living within the nation’s borders. For both the CUP and for Atatürk, anxieties about territorial unity were seminal in formulating resettlement policy.

Just as all wars trigger migration, the Syrian civil war triggered a large wave of migration and forced millions to move. Turkey was faced with a wave of migration and had to determine a settlement policy. According to the report prepared by the Ministry Of Interior Disaster And Emergency Management Department (AFAD) titled, “Field Survey on Demographic View, Living Conditions and Future Expectations of Syrians in Turkey 2017,” 3,020,654 Syrians have migrated to Turkey. Considering the time that has passed since the study was conducted, we can infer that this number has far surpassed 3 million.

We do not fully know what type of settlement policy the state, in other words President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has prepared for the Syrians. However, we can make certain evaluations based on the list below that was prepared by AFAD.

First of all, Syrians that were placed in Turkish camps were sent to cities in central- and south-eastern Anatolia that fall to the west of the Euphrates river such as Hatay, Gaziantep, Adana, Malatya, Kahramanmaraş, Adıyaman, Osmaniye, and Kilis, and those that fall to the east of the Euphrates such as Şanlıurfa and Mardin. Therefore, the cities that house the most Syrians, after Istanbul, are Şanlıurfa, Hatay, Gaziantep, Adana, Mersin, and Kilis. From this perspective, we can conclude that the settlement policy of Syrians is in line with Turkey’s Syria policy. This policy can be characterised as “severing the Kurds’ connection to the Mediterranean.” (I am aware that this sentence contains many questions, and am writing it on purpose.)

Secondly, the demographic composition of southeastern cities such as Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis, and Şanlıurfa has shifted to the detriment of the Kurds. Which political interests benefit from the demographic changes in some cities in Turkey? Is the goal to upend the balance of the Kurdish population in certain cities? For example, why is there no interference in the demography of cities such as Van, Diyarbakır, Bitlis, Bingöl, Tunceli, and Hakkari, which are also in the east and southeast? I am not advocating for changing the demographic composition of these cities. But if it had been up to the CUP and Atatürk, they would have also used the Diyarbakır-Van line. Why does Erdoğan instead prefer the cities surrounding the Euphrates?

Syrians are predominantly settling along the Baku-Ceylan pipeline and the Iraq-Turkey pipeline. Is this a coincidence, or part of a larger plan? At a time in which the security of energy routes is gaining importance daily, I wonder about the purpose of settling Syrians along the energy pathways.

Petrol yolları

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Everyone is aware that Erdoğan, with his ability to turn crises into opportunities, has big plans for the Syrian refugees. But it is obvious that the settlement policies Erdoğan is attempting to implement are not compatible with Turkey’s traditional policies. As a result, even if these policies serve Erdoğan’s personal goals, they will inevitably create bigger problems in the future.