Why Politics and Social Policy Matter for Shaping Humanitarian Assistance

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  Click here to access the full article.

There is a gross mismatch today between the large scope of humanitarian crises and the limited response of the international community. The recent escalation of armed conflicts, especially in Syria and Yemen, has led to unprecedented humanitarian crises, which have substantially increased the need for international humanitarian assistance. The historic failure of international burden-sharing initiatives resulted in the concentration of these humanitarian crises within the borders of a small number of poorer countries, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Lebanon, Jordan, Somalia and Sudan. Still, the funds allocated to humanitarian causes in recent years have scarcely grown, and these funds comes from only a few donor countries.

Despite being part of the above-mentioned refugee-receiving countries, Turkey however is a different case amongst this group. After receiving the largest number of Syrians since the 2011 outbreak of the ongoing Syrian civil war, Turkey has suddenly become both one of the major recipients of international humanitarian funding and one of the key donors. The country diverges from the above-mentioned refugee receiving countries in at least three ways: it is richer, the share of refugees in its total population is lower, and it has relatively strong public capacity in policy areas such as healthcare, education and social assistance. These distinguishing characteristics of Turkey’s position, combined with the coexistence of internationally funded humanitarian response and domestic social policy developments within its borders, provide an excellent case through which to explore and discuss the links between humanitarian assistance programmes and domestic social policies.

Looking at both social policies in host countries and humanitarian assistance programmes and exploring the interplay between the two is not only a technical necessity that would serve the aid effectiveness. It is also a political necessity that would affect the pathways to newcomers’ integration into the host society. In addition, humanitarian actors have particular strengths vis-à-vis the public sector such as their expertise in the implementation of core humanitarian standards, which could be transferred to the public sector and enhance its capacity. The public sector also has valuable expertise in implementing scaled-up responses to alleviate poverty and implement universal health coverage. Therefore, developing a humanitarian response framework offers mutual learning opportunities for both public sector and humanitarian actors.

However, the broader political dynamics impose certain restrictions on such opportunities and the overall humanitarian response framework. Both humanitarian assistance programmes and domestic social policies for Syrians in Turkey have been on a slippery political ground for two reasons: the granting of temporary protection rather than refugee status and increasingly hostile Turkish public opinion towards Syrians. First, Turkey granted temporary protection status to the overwhelming majority of incoming Syrian nationals within its borders, the status of which could be lifted with a decision of the Council of Ministers. With the much-criticized 2016 agreement between Turkey and European Union member states, EU member states embraced Turkey’s decision and promised humanitarian funding, mainly in return for keeping Syrian forced migrants outside of European borders. Second, Turkish attitudes towards Syrians have worsened especially after the economic crisis hit the country. In addition, domestic political actors from different affiliations often respond to these negative attitudes to garner political support.

My findings demonstrate that social entitlements available to Syrians under temporary protection in Turkey is a product of the above-mentioned political dynamics as well as the availability of public capacity in key social policy domains. The broader political dynamics shaped the humanitarian response framework in Turkey by empowering the public sector mandate vis-à-vis the humanitarian actors. This empowerment enabled the scaling up of social assistance and health care support due to the availability of relatively strong public capacity in these domains, but it largely failed in employment, as the Turkish public capacity to generate employment and regulate the labour market is limited. Humanitarian actors are increasingly specialised in protection work (especially in mental health support), where the Turkish welfare system has been immature. However, the humanitarian actors’ relatively weak position vis-à-vis the public sector limited their capacity to transfer their protection expertise (with respect to issues such as the elimination of child labour, early marriages and gender-based violence) into the Turkish public sector. The sustainability of the relative success in social assistance and health care may be at risk in the near future both due to the worsening of public attitudes and future cutbacks on the international humanitarian funding.

About the author

Volkan Yilmaz is Associate Professor of Social Policy at Bogazici University and director of the Social Policy Forum Research Centre.


I am indebted to my research assistant Ayşe Meryem Gürpınar Akbulut for her help and my colleague Talita Cetinoglu who provided valuable insight that greatly assisted the research. The Bogazici University Research Fund funded this study (Grant Number 12723).




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