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As Turkish Economy Tanks, Syrian refugees face increased “Syriaphobia” and violence

posted on: Aug 31, 2022

Images of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey at a refugee camp for Syrians on the outskirts of Kahramanmaras, in southeastern Turkey Source: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

By: Norah Soufraji / Arab America Contributing Writer

For Syrians in Turkey, the message is clear, “You are not welcome here.” 

With the upcoming parliamentary elections in Turkey drawing closer, Syrian refugees are caught in the crossfire as national debate intensifies. Incidents of racist attacks and hateful rhetoric have risen dramatically. Turkish society has a “Syriaphobia” problem. A shift in mindset from deportation to integration is needed.

Under pressure from nationalist opposition parties and public anti-Syrian sentiment, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has promised to send as many as 1 million refugees, with “temporary protection,” back to Syria. Turkey currently hosts 4 million refugees, 3.7 million originating from Syria.

Economy: The spark that lit the fire?

From bustling historical Istanbul, to the mountains of Cappadocia, and Mediterranean beaches, Turkey’s tourism has rebounded and exceeded pre-pandemic levels. In fact, Turkey is now the 4th most visited country in the world. Revenue surged over 190% with a total of 47 million tourists visiting Turkey this year alone.

Despite Turkey’s cemented position as a global hotspot, the economy has been on a steady decline over the last few years. The Turkish lira is currently hovering around 18 per 1 US Dollar. Annual consumer price inflation in Turkey is estimated to hit a record 80 % this year. 

Many observers cite Turkey’s current economic troubles as an explanation for increased racist incidents. Nationalist opposition parties frequently blame economic problems on refugees.

The Rise of Nationalism

Opposition against Erdoğan is fierce. Many Turks hold the president responsible for the economic mismanagement of the country. Opposition parties promise sweeping economic reforms. They also blame the majority of the country’s economic troubles on the 3.7 million Syrian refugees.

Opposition parties in Turkey have circulated largely false information on the financial impact of Syrian refugees. Turks widely believe that Syrians receive monthly stipends from the government and are not required to pay for taxes or utilities. This is simply false.

In fact, as of April 21, 2022, the number of Syrians staying in temporary housing centers was announced as 50,702 people, a mere 1.4 percent of the refugee population in Turkey. The overwhelming majority of Syrians live and work in Turkey’s major cities without financial assistance from the Turkish government. The majority of financial assistance is allocated to a select number of the most vulnerable refugees which is largely funded by the European Union and United Nations. Further information available here. 

Opposition rhetoric and misinformation from media outlets have contributed to a sharp increase in “Syriaphobia” and racists attacks.

Violence Against Syrians on the Rise

In the early years of the Syrian conflict, many Syrians attest that Turks were welcoming and sympathetic to the refugees that fled to Turkey. However, eleven years later many Syrians living in Turkey confirm that a dramatic shift in attitudes occurred. 

Turkish academic, Ayşecan Terzioğlu of Sabanci University in Istanbul details what she refers to as “the banality of evil” in the ways in which discrimination against Syrians has become normalized in Turkey.

According to Terzioğlu,

“Syrian forced migrants in Turkey face crucial difficulties in finding decent housing and in having access to education, employment and health-care services, as well as in coping with discriminatory discourse in their everyday lives.”

In Turkish media, Syrians are depicted as backwards fundamentalists or as cowards for fleeing the Syrian conflict. This idealogical push has led to an uptick in violent incidents in the last two years.

In 2020, in the city of Bursa, 17-year-old market worker Hamza Ajan, was beaten to death by a a group of four people. This was after reportedly intervening when the group was verbally assaulting a Syrian woman. Hamza Ajan died a few hours later in the hospital.

On June 6, 2022, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee Sherif Khaled al-Ahmed was killed by six young Turkish men in Bağcilar district in Istanbul. Friends of Ahmed said that he was planning to propose to a woman he was dating. He had plans to return to Northern Syria or journey to Europe to start a new life.

On June 14, 2022, a video showing the killing of Sultan Abdul Baset Jabneh in the touristy Taksim district of ​​Istanbul, was circulated across social media by human rights activists. Jabneh was reportedly stabbed to death in front of his shop.

Even the elderly have become targets of racially motivated violence. On May 30, 2022, a video of 70-year-old Leila Muhammad circulated social media showing the elderly woman being kicked in the face and insulted by a Turkish man in the Eastern city of Gaziantep. This incident also caught the attention of Turkish women’s right and human’s rights organizations who condemned the incident.

Racist social media trends 

It can be said that much of the violence occurring on the streets of Turkey was inspired and encouraged by racist discourse on the internet. Turkey’s political parties are capitalizing on their countries economic troubles and sowing fear and discontent in the Turkish populace.

One need only search such terms as #Suriyeli (Syrians) on popular social networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube and are met with an onslaught of racially motivated propaganda. 

A fairly newer hashtag which was also shared by a number of Turkish singers and celebrities #SuriyelilerOyKullanmasın (Syrians Should Not Vote) refers to the belief that even Syrians who have obtained Turkish citizenship should not be entitled to vote. 

Other common hashtags include #SuriyelilerSuriyeye (Syrians to Syria) and #UElkemdeSuriyeliİstemiyorum (I don’t want Syrians in my country) 

Daily Struggles of Syrians in Turkey

Syrian refugees and foreigners in Turkey face daily struggles.

It has become commonplace and almost impossible for Syrians to enter into rental contracts with Turkish landlords. “No foreigners” or “We don’t rent to Syrians” has become the norm rather than the exception.

Syrians also routinely receive wages far below the legal minimum and Turkish and Arab employers alike rarely provide work permits. Even Syrians who have obtained Turkish citizenship face regular discrimination with access to job opportunities and in every day life. It’s not unheard of for a bank teller to refuse to open an account on the basis of one’s country of birth or to be turned away service simply for being Syrian.

President Erdoğan claims that the Turkish government has spent a total of $40 billion on refugees. However, how he arrived at this figure remains a puzzle to observers both abroad and domestic.

According to Mustafa Sönmez of Al-Monitor:

“How Erdoğan arrived at $40 billion remains a mystery. Figures available in budgets and annual programs simply do not match that sum. The opposition parties claim that the amount of assistance extended to the refugees is exaggerated, with most Syrians providing for themselves, working as cheap labor.”

President Erdoğan has repeatedly addressed Europe and threatened to “open the gates” if Turkey does not receive additional financial aid to handle the refugee situation. The EU has recently approved an aid package of $3 billion for 2023 and have provided a total of $6 billion so far.

“Protected” Status and Threats of Deportation

The majority of Syrian refugees are considered “under temporary protection” but what does that protection actually mean? 

For Syrians holding refugee cards, permission must be acquired to leave the province from which they were processed. This means that the state must approve any time a refugee wishes to visit or move to another city for job opportunities. Requests are routinely denied.

The issue facing Syrian refugees in regards to official status is that the official policy is not for them to be integrated into society, but to be sent back at the earliest opportunity.

Where is the Accountability? 

It should be noted that although many areas of Syria no longer face daily bombings and armed fighting, the country has become a dilapidated shadow of its former self.

Over 90 percent of Syrians within Syria live in extreme poverty. Lack of electricity, water, and basic services as well as outrageous inflation on consumer goods and food, make daily life practically unlivable for Syrians who do not receive assistance from family members outside of Syria. 

It is the responsibility of not only Turkey, but the international community at large to advocate for the rights and dignity of Syrian refugees. Turkey faces a rough road ahead to combat the challenges of hosting 4 million refugees in their country. A shift in mindset from deportation to integration is required. Perhaps it is time for other nations to offer asylum and resettlement for refugees facing an uncertain future in Turkey.

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