Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Syrians in Turkey: One Year Post-Earthquake and Lingering Racial Tensions

The plight of Syrians in Turkey underscores the urgent need for international support to address their needs and ensure their rights are protected.

Syrians in Turkey
Queues of Syrian refugees in Cilvegozu, the Turkish border checkpoint with Syria on 21 February 2023. Many Syrians returned to their homeland as their living conditions in Turkey worsened severely after the earthquake. ADSIZ GUNEBAKAN / ANADOLU AGENCY via AFP.

One year following the February 2023 deadly earthquake that impacted southern Turkey and northern Syria, the circumstances of Syrian refugees in Turkey seem to be steadily deteriorating. Particularly in southern Turkish cities like Adana, Urfa, Maraş, Gaziantep, Kilis and others, the living conditions of Syrian refugees have become increasingly fragile.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of Syrian refugees in these areas amounts to 1.75 million individuals, constituting a significant portion of the total 3.4 million Syrian refugees currently residing across Turkey.

Before the earthquake, over 90 per cent of Syrian refugees faced challenges in meeting basic living requirements, including housing, access to electricity and healthcare. They depended on informal employment, assistance from charitable organisations and financial support from relatives and acquaintances if available.

Economic Hardship

According to a report from the UNHCR, “the catastrophe… has taken an excruciating toll on the mental and emotional well-being of [the]… population…. With less money and increasing needs, many refugees… are resorting to survival strategies like cutting food spending and borrowing more.”

In this context, Syrian refugee Rasha M., a mother of three children, told Fanack, “I am employed by a Syrian organisation, and while my salary manages to cover our housing expenses and roughly half of our monthly food needs, the remainder is covered with debt. This means we are trapped in a vicious cycle of borrowing to pay off debt. In an emergency, I would need to find the funds to cover our needs for an entire month.”

Rasha further adds, “After the earthquake, things got worse in terms of work, which was negatively affected. We also went through a terrifying experience and spent weeks in parks and mosques. But I decided to return to our apartment, which did not collapse but is in danger of collapsing. The fear my children and I experience is constant, yet we chose to go back. But if another earthquake were to occur, what should we do?”

Electoral Curse

With each election in Turkey, refugees find themselves at the forefront of political debate. In the last presidential elections, they were a central and sometimes the only focus point on the agendas of several candidates. Discussions around refugees dominated political talk shows for the months leading up to the elections. This trend seems poised to continue in the upcoming municipal elections in early March 2024.

Syrian journalist A. B. told Fanack, “The municipal elections will be no less harsh on Syrian refugees than the presidential elections. This is made worse by the growing polarisation between the ruling party and the opposition. Since August 2023, the opposition has intensified its campaign against refugees for two primary reasons.

Firstly, it opposes refugees on principle, and secondly, it aims to compensate for its defeat in the presidential elections. Refugees are seen as a vulnerable target, and this campaign resonates with a significant portion of Turkish society, especially since these campaigns are not spur-of-the-moment but rather stem from deep-rooted sentiments cultivated over several years.”

Additionally, the journalist noted, “Since the date was set for last summer’s parliamentary and presidential elections, the opposition’s attack began, especially from the Good Party and its leader, Meral Akşener.” Akşener had accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of attempting to create a “Little Syria” within Turkey. She also advocated for the repatriation of all Syrian refugees through negotiations with the Syrian regime, citing concerns that their presence posed a threat to the national culture.

Furthermore, Ümit Özdağ, the leader of the Victory Party, recently pledged to treat Syrian refugees like tourists. He stated, “We will apply tourist tariffs to everyone who is not Turkish in the municipalities that we will govern. Bus rides and water will be more expensive. Eighty per cent of the companies and shops opened by Syrians are in violation, and we will close them.”

Additionally, Tanju Özcan, the mayor of Bolu and a candidate for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), pledged to permanently eliminate the presence of Syrian refugees in the province.

Özcan had raised water prices and solid waste taxes for foreigners tenfold, a move that drew criticism from human rights organisations.

Turkish researcher Samir Salha had anticipated an escalation in incitement against refugees as the elections approached, particularly noting the exploitation of the refugee issue by opposition parties.

In the Crossfire: Government and Opposition

Syrians in Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters gathering at the Presidential Complex to celebrate reelection victory in presidential runoff in Ankara, Turkey on May 28, 2023. Mustafa Kamaci/ Anadolu via AFP.

In statements reported by the website The New Arab, Salha, who maintains close ties to the ruling party, highlighted that Turkey, having received over four million refugees since 2011, “did not differentiate between Syrians and its citizens. However, the prolonged duration of hosting refugees, coupled with a decline in living standards and the opposition’s exploitation of the refugee issue, has fuelled resentment towards Syrians within the country.”

Journalist A. B. asserts that Syrian refugees in Turkey face pressure from both the government and the opposition. He remarked, “The difference between them is that the opposition resorts to populist media discourse that would incite citizens. This incitement may contribute to the escalation of racism towards refugees in public spaces, leading to incidents such as stabbings and physical abuse.

Meanwhile, the ruling authorities also aim to appease public sentiment and capitalise on the refugee issue. This motivation may explain certain government decisions, such as restricting Syrians from residing in specific neighbourhoods. This restriction applies to 1,169 neighbourhoods in Istanbul, Gaziantep and Adana, with the list continually being updated.”

Forced Deportation

In addition to the issues raised by the Syrian journalist, deportations to northern Syria have been reported. Many of these deportations occur without clear justification or in cases where no violation requiring deportation has been committed. Sometimes, individuals are deported without any apparent violation.

According to A. B., the Turkish police recently arrested a group of young men, among whom was one individual with a residency violation, and all were deported to northern Syria. These individuals had initially come to Turkey from various Syrian governorates. However, upon their return, they found themselves in areas controlled by pro-Turkish factions without adequate shelter. The Turkish authorities label these returns as “voluntary,” a claim deportees themselves have denied.

This case is not an isolated incident. A report released by the Turkish Ministry of Interior just two days before the earthquake revealed that the number of Syrian refugees who had “voluntarily” returned exceeded half a million.

However, the Turkish newspaper T24 questioned this narrative, highlighting that Syrians were often forced to provide fingerprints and sign deportation documents indicating voluntary return. The newspaper cited Ümit Kutbay, a lawyer representing the Özgür-Der Human Rights Association, who confirmed that Syrians in deportation centres were pressured to sign papers for “voluntary return.”

A previously released statement by Members of the Gaziantep Bar Association’s Immigration and Asylum Commission addressing the decisions and behaviours affecting Syrian refugees in deportation centres highlighted instances of ill-treatment and threats made towards Syrian refugees in these facilities. According to the statement, these actions constitute “violations of human rights and refugee rights.”

Abdul-Basit, a Syrian individual who was deported to northern Syria while his family remains in Turkey, recounts his experience, “I was apprehended on the street along with a group of young men, some of whom possessed valid residency permits, while others, like myself, were in the process of renewing them. We were then transported by car to deportation centres, where we endured various forms of verbal abuse.

Subsequently, we were gathered in a square with other individuals who had arrived before us. A police officer was recording the proceedings. We all declined when asked if we wished to return to Syria. At that point, the shouting, threats and intimidation began. We were pressured to change our answer to ‘yes,’ and the video was re-recorded. Eventually, we succumbed to the situation and were deported.”

Rampant Racism

Syrians in Turkey
A man walks past a poster with a portrait of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the presidential candidate of the Main Opposition alliance, and the words ”Syrians will go” in Kocaeli on May 22, 2023. Umit Turhan Coskun / NurPhoto via AFP

Marwan, a Syrian who successfully obtained Turkish citizenship, observes a notable rise in displays of racism against Syrians in Turkey following the presidential and parliamentary elections. In his view, this surge in racism can be attributed to various factors. One significant reason is the resentment felt by supporters of the opposition following their loss in the presidential elections. Marwan suggests that some opposition supporters harboured resentment towards Syrians, as they supported Erdogan, whose rhetoric towards refugees was seemingly less harsh than that of the opposition.

Nevertheless, the media discourse and the stringent approach towards refugees impacted all, irrespective of their political affiliations. Erdogan’s victory resulted in part from alliances that aimed to curtail the presence of refugees and facilitate their repatriation. Consequently, campaigns against Syrians intensified and began to manifest in public spaces. Many Syrians started limiting their presence on the streets to the bare minimum necessary for their daily activities.

Marwan highlighted the economic situation as another element reinforcing racism, noting the decline in the purchasing power of the Turkish lira. This economic strain, compounded by the effects of the earthquake, exacerbates tensions within Turkish society. Marwan observed that Turkish political forces typically seek to identify a scapegoat during times of crisis, and the refugee issue readily provides a convenient target for such blame-shifting tactics.

When questioned about his decision to refrain from using his real name despite holding Turkish citizenship, he explained, “While Turkey is progressing towards democracy, it has not yet reached the standards of established democracies. Therefore, I prefer not to invite trouble upon myself.”

Such troubles have been obvious on numerous occasions, as evidenced by a recent case involving the Syrian opposition Orient TV channel manager, Alaa Farhat, and presenter Ahmed Rihawi. Towards the end of 2023, Turkish judicial authorities issued a verdict sentencing the Syrian journalists to six years in prison. They were charged with offences including “spreading false news, incitement against the Turkish state and spreading hatred.” Facing arrest, the two journalists chose to flee Turkey and seek refuge in Greece.

The incident occurred during a live broadcast when Rihawi hosted Turkish analyst Oktay Yilmaz. Yilmaz attacked Rihawi after the latter inquired about the alleged involvement of the Turkish Gendarmerie in the killing of three Syrians and the torture of others on the border with Syria. Yilmaz responded by saying, “Who are you to accuse the Turkish state and the Turkish people? You live in our country, benefit from it, and then accuse us of murder.”

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