In Turkey, anger at Syrians reaches boiling point as elections loom
Antakya, the capital of the Hatay province, deep in the south of Turkey, was once the cosmopolitan center of ancient Syria. But for the many Syrians who live here now — refugees from a devastating civil war — the city feels unwelcoming, alien.
After the February earthquakes that destroyed so much of the region, Syrian refugees became the targets of resentment, hate speech and violence. Politicians were quick to seize upon the public mood. Exploiting the anger directed at refugees became a key tactic for candidates in tense, often ugly campaigns. Turkey will vote in the first round of the presidential election on May 14, and, for the first time in two decades, it appears that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could lose his hold on power.
In Antakya, three months after the earthquakes, hollowed-out homes with cracked walls hang precariously over a sea of rubble, trinkets and clothing. In Hatay province alone, over 23,000 people died in the earthquakes. Many in the area still live in camps. The luckier ones live in homes made out of shipping containers provided by the state. As Turkey faces repair bills totaling tens of billions of dollars, container homes — indeed, whole container cities — will be required as construction gets underway.
Across the region most affected by the earthquakes, Syrian refugees are still living in makeshift tent colonies. NGO workers and Syrians I spoke to said they had been pushed out of official, state-run campsites by Turkish citizens and even the local authorities.
In April, Amnesty International accused the Turkish police of beating and torturing alleged looters in Antakya and reported that Syrians were targets of xenophobic abuse by Turkish officials.
Mouna, a Syrian refugee in Antakya whose home was destroyed in the earthquakes, told me she’d been forced to leave a state-run camp by the Turkish residents. She now lives in a tent she has set up beside the ruins of her former home. Resourcefully, Mouna has built an extension to her tent that contains a kitchen and a toilet. A washing machine and a fridge are powered by electricity rerouted from a nearby power supply. Her neighbors are all Syrian refugees who go in and out of the crumbling buildings around them to retrieve possessions to put in their tents.
A 46-year-old single mother of two sons, Mouna left Syria in 2012, during the early phase of the Syrian civil war. She has been slowly building a life in Turkey. Her job in a dessert factory paid enough for her to afford rent and keep her family safe.
After the earthquakes struck in February 2023, Mouna and her sons were housed in an official camp but were soon driven out by Turkish people who resented having to share scarce facilities with refugees. She says Syrians were bullied and told that they could not use the toilets. A little girl, Mouna says, hit her and told her that “Syrians should go home.” The authorities did little to help. Mouna and her neighbors rely on a Syrian NGO for water and food.
Syrian refugees in Turkey are “caught between two earthquakes,” says Murat Erdogan, a professor at Ankara University. “One is the physical earthquake,” Erdogan (no relation to the Turkish president) told me, “and the other is a political earthquake.” Even before the disaster, he adds, “social cohesion was not easy because of the number of the refugees.” There are over 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, and for nearly a decade Turkey has hosted more refugees than any other country in the world.
Unpublished data Erdogan collected in January 2023 for the “Syrian Barometer,” an annual survey he conducts, showed that 28.5% of Turks see Syrians as the number one problem in Turkey, an increase of 3% from the year before.
But now, Erdogan believes, the earthquakes have cemented in people’s minds the image of Syrians as criminals and a drain on public services.
Throughout Antakya, Syrians living in camps dotted around the city told me stories that echoed Mouna’s experience of discrimination. One woman, heavily pregnant, was hit so hard in the stomach by a group of Turkish men that she lost her baby. Another woman told me her son was beaten by military officers who accused him of stealing. She showed me photos on her phone of a child’s mangled and bruised limbs.
But there are also many stories of Turks and Syrians helping one another to deal with the aftermath of the earthquakes. Mouna told me she knew Turkish people who remained kind and supportive. But the rise in anti-Syrian sentiment is evident and impossible to ignore.
A Turkish man I met in Hatay province boasted that he had shot a looter in the leg. He suspected the man was Syrian. “How could you tell?” I asked. “From his mustache,” the man replied.
The earthquakes have caused a massive spike in anti-Syrian hate speech online, said Dilan Tasmedir, who runs Medya ve Goc Dernegi, an organization that monitors rhetoric about migrants in the Turkish media. Slogans like “We don’t want Syrians” and “No longer welcome” trended on Twitter. The comedian Sahan Gokbakar wrote to his 3.7 million followers on the platform: “Health, shelter and all our material resources should be used only for our own people, not for foreigners.” While some criticized the comment for its divisiveness, the tweet racked up more than 280,000 likes.
When protests against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria erupted into a civil war in 2011, millions fled the country. Turkey’s tiny refugee population mushroomed as the Turkish president welcomed Syrians into the country as guests. “When a people is persecuted,” Erdogan declared, “especially people that are our relatives, our brothers, and with whom we share a 910 km border, we absolutely cannot pretend nothing is happening and turn our backs.”
When Erdogan allowed Syrians to seek refuge in Turkey, he was breaking with a long nativist tradition in his country of not accepting high numbers of refugees. But he also now had a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations with Europe.
In 2016, a year after Europe faced its largest migrant crisis since World War II, the European Union signed a deal with Turkey in which the country received six billion euros to help with improving conditions for refugees. Turkish nationals were granted visa-free travel to Europe, and, in return, Ankara agreed to prevent refugees from leaving Turkey illegally for Greece and to take back refugees who had left Turkey illegally and been turned away at EU borders. The aim was for the EU to process the asylum requests of Syrian refugees while they awaited a decision in Turkey instead of trying to cross illegally into Greece. But the EU was slow to hold up its end of the bargain, keeping the flow of immigrants granted entry into European countries to a trickle.
Erdogan temporarily reneged on the deal in 2020, letting migrants pass through Turkey to Greece. He said that the EU was providing inadequate support. By 2021, about 28,000 Syrians had been resettled in Europe, well below the maximum threshold of 72,000 outlined in the original agreement.
The EU deal prompted a shift in attitudes inside Turkey, as it dawned on many Turks that their Syrian “guests” were in fact not there temporarily, but permanently, said Tasmedir of Medya ve Goc Dernegi. More than 200,000 Syrians have been granted citizenship in Turkey since 2011. And many will vote for the first time during the May 14 general election. Opposition groups claim that Erdogan granted these Syrians citizenship in an attempt to expand his own electoral base.
Erdogan could use all the extra votes he can get. Public frustration over Turkey’s economic crisis, botched earthquake relief efforts and endemic corruption have all weakened Erdogan’s appeal to the point that defeat in the first round seems like a distinct possibility. The pressure of the election on both the government and opposition parties is extremely high, and the hot button topic of much of the campaigning has been the nationwide hostility toward Syrian refugees.
Regardless of political ideology, Turkish political parties are now promising to send refugees back to Syria. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year-old economist and social democratic politician, is Erdogan’s main contender for the presidency. He’s promised to “fulfill people’s longing for democracy,” repair strained relations with the West and unseat Erdogan. He’s also said that returning Syrians to Syria within two years is one of his top goals. Kilicdaroglu’s party, the Republican People’s Party, is the largest in a coalition of opposition parties called the National Alliance. While Kilicdaroglu has a lead on Erdogan in most polls, the results of the first round of voting are expected to be close.
Then there’s the Victory Party, a far-right, anti-immigrant party formed in 2021, with only one representative currently in the Turkish parliament. But, Ankara University professor Murat Erdogan told me, it has had a “profound effect” on political discourse.
Last month, Umit Ozdag, the leader of the Victory Party and its sole representative, tweeted a video of a group of people he implied were Syrians. He depicted them as Arab invaders who, he said, would transport the “Middle East’s understanding of religion, culture of violence, humiliation of women, rape of children, rape of boys, drugs” to Turkey. Ozdag’s central policy proposal is to expel all Syrians from Turkey within one year.
In January, the Victory Party began its “Bus to Damascus” fundraising campaign, in which it asked supporters to name people they wanted returned to Syria and to provide donations for bus tickets. As people across the region sought shelter just days after the earthquakes hit in February, Ozdag began accusing Syrians of looting and called for the police and soldiers to shoot looters on sight. In one instance, he shared a video on Twitter of a live news broadcast which he claimed showed a Syrian man stealing a phone during rescue operations.
Ozdag later admitted he was wrong but refused to apologize, even after it emerged that the man was a Turkish volunteer helping with the search-and-rescue operations. One Turkish rescue worker became so frustrated with Ozdag’s divisive rhetoric that he confronted him on camera. “We, whether Muslim or Christian, are fed up with hearing this sort of talk,” the man told Ozdag.
In Europe and the United States, the question of how to deal with refugees has been highly polarizing, with voters’ views on migration often correlating with where they might be placed on the political spectrum. In the U.K., for example, voters on the left tend to be less hardline on immigration than voters on the right. But in Turkey, the desire to send Syrians back is now the status quo, receiving widespread support from an estimated 85% of voters. In some cases, I found that voters on the left express even more hostility toward refugees than those on the right.
At a May 6 rally held by Kilicdaroglu’s party, I spoke with several younger supporters of the social democratic candidate who saw Arab migrants as an existential threat to liberal secular values. Nida Koksaldi, a 21-year-old architecture student, told me she supports the Republican People’s Party because she supports women’s rights, animal rights and LGBTQ rights. Had I met Koksaldi in California, I might have expected her to have included refugees in that list. But she agrees with Kilicdaroglu’s proposed policy of expelling Syrians. They are violent, she said of migrants generally, bad for Turkish society and bad for women’s rights. “They even rape us,” she told me.
Friedrich Puttmann, a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics, believes that much of the resentment toward Syrians is rooted in Turkey’s own struggle for its identity. The Republican People’s Party was the party of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic who espoused a philosophy of secularism and encouraged Turks to look to the West as a model. Kemalists, who support Ataturk’s sweeping reforms, tend to be more liberal and firmly support women’s rights. Historically, voters who support the party have feared cultural influence from the Arab world, which is often painted by Kemalist politicians as uniformly conservative and patriarchal.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is more aligned with religiously conservative voters, and therefore, according to Puttmann, has historically been more closely linked with Arab culture. Prior to the Syrian civil war, in the early years of Erdogan’s leadership, the country had already become more economically tied to Arab states. So when hundreds of thousands of Syrians entered Turkey as refugees, supporters of the Republican People’s Party were already angry at what they saw as the “Arabization” of Turkey.
Over time, as more Syrians have come to the country, voters in both blocks have become increasingly hostile toward Syrians. Supporters of Erdogan’s party, torn between their duty toward fellow Muslims and their resentment over cultural differences and the economic impact of migration, have begun reframing Syrians as bad Muslims.
More secular Turkish people see the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey as evidence of a cultural shift that has occurred under the Justice and Development Party, with Turkey becoming a more conservative, religious and Arabicized country. They see Syrians as part of a system that has eroded Turkey’s secular, liberal identity, Puttmann says. This perception seems to ignore the fact that many Syrians are also secular and liberal.
In an attempt to match the opposition’s rhetoric on returning Syrian refugees to Syria and in the face of mounting public pressure, Erdogan’s government has shifted its policies. Last year, Erdogan announced a plan to send up to a million refugees back to Syria, though the country is still at war. There have been reports that the Assad regime has tortured and disappeared refugees who returned to the country. Reports also emerged last year of Syrians being arrested and forced into northern Syria at gunpoint by Turkish officials. More recently, Erdogan has begun trying to negotiate with the Assad regime to reach a deal that would facilitate the return of Syrian refugees. Assad’s precondition for any settlement is that Turkey withdraw its troops from the parts of northern Syria that it has controlled since 2016 following successive military operations aimed at limiting Kurdish control of the region.
Kilicdaroglu says he will negotiate with Assad and is widely seen as a more appealing negotiating partner for the isolated dictator. Kilicdaroglu has also said he will withdraw Turkish troops from northern Syria, secure his country’s border and repatriate Syrians — as long as Turkey’s security requirements in northern Syria are met.
Back in Antakya, the election feels like a battle fought in a distant land. Political posters with gleaming candidates are the only new and shiny objects in an empty, dust-covered city. Most Syrians living in the camps are too focused on surviving from one day to the next to concern themselves with elections they can do little to influence.
More than a decade after the first Syrians fled the civil war and arrived in Turkey, it is hard to find hope among the refugees in Antakya. What future they might have had, they say, has disappeared with the earthquakes.
Mouna told me she brought her kids to Turkey so that they could have a better future than in Syria. Now she fears they have none in a country that doesn’t want them. But Mouna also recalled that when she first arrived in Turkey, people were hospitable and she was able to make friends. “And I think this will happen again,” she said, “because not all the people are bad.”
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