Istanbul is a city in constant flux. Each season brings a surprise. This week, mimosa bushes on Princes’ Island burst into bright bloom and ferry commuters were accosted by children selling cuts of the bright yellow pom-poms. The week before the artichoke season began, farmers set up impromptu stalls by the side of the road in the upmarket district of Nisantasi selling the beautiful fresh globes to passers-by.
Other shifts in this vast metropolis are more subtle. The political sub-currents, the effects of inflation on the price of bread and the changing skyline are easily lost on a relative newcomer.
Yet it’s impossible to ignore one significant demographic shift in the city: the presence of Syria is growing. Take, for instance, the popular Bosphorus-side tea spot near my flat in Kabatas. Over the past months it has become common to see families of destitute Syrians sheltering in the park here. Turks are sympathetic – and an Arabic tongue is often proof enough of their plight for pedestrians to peel off 10 lira by way of donation. These are refugees of every ilk. On Saturday, one lone older man in a black fedora flashed his Syrian passport at tea-drinkers before explaining his position.
Of the 2.3 million Syrian refugees who have now fled into neighbouring countries, around 700,000 are here in Turkey. Many, it seems, have made their way to Istanbul, to be absorbed into the vast network of what urbanists call “grey space”.
Turkish society is coping with the influx. Its camps are well run; its official policy is “open doors”. But my recent visit to a immigration office in the old city made clear the complexity of the challenge that faces Istanbul: there were long queues of injured, elderly and infant Syrian applicants all hoping for residency. Though countries such as the UK have given millions in aid to the Syrian cause, scenes like these are a searing reminder of how this burden must be shared. Some nations have stepped up to the challenge. Since 2012, Sweden had taken in at least 14,000 Syrian refugees; Germany has agreed to settle 10,000.
Other nations should follow this example. It’s not enough to leave it to countries such as Turkey that just happen to share borders with crisis-ridden Syria. Hundreds of Syrians have found their way to northern France, hoping to find a haven in the UK. Their plight is a damp, leaky and dangerous camp under a grey sky.
This is an international problem. Wealthy nations should put domestic political wrangling aside and meet the humanitarian challenge.
Sophie Grove is Monocle’s senior editor.