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Guests or enemies? Syrian refugees in Turkey after 10 years

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Alin Ozinian

The Syrian civil war has brought the largest world refugee and displacement crisis of our time, with extensive deaths, displacement and destruction. The Syrian people are still suffering under the brutal civil war, which officially began March 15, 2011 and has killed hundreds of thousands and torn families apart.

More than 585,000 people have died in the conflict, and 6.6 million have become refugees in neighboring countries and Europe, with the entire country deeply traumatized by the cruelty of the war. When Syrians fled their country to escape the horrors of the now 10-year-old war, it gave Europe its biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

Today, when Syria is still economically devastated and remains divided, Turkey currently “hosts” some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, who mainly settled in big cities.

Turkish Minute spoke with Halid Abdo, who was born in Halep, Syria, and moved to Turkey in 2014. Abdo is a journalist and was 17 when he arrived in Turkey. According to Abdo, the biggest problems for most Syrians are work permits, high rents and the Turkish language barrier.

“When the Syrians first arrived, their contact with people was limited because they did not know Turkish. Most of them tried to go to European countries via Turkey; some succeeded, some did not. Most of them stay in Turkey for now, knowing that the ‘roads’ are close to Europe,” said Abdo.

Syrian refugees, who are also called “brothers” or “guests” by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, have been increasingly targeted by hate speech and hate crimes and are blamed for many of Turkey’s social and economic troubles.

According to the “Hate Speech and Discriminatory Discourse in Media 2019 Report,” published by the Hrant Dink Foundation, Syrian refugees in Turkey were the second most targeted group in the Turkish media, with 760 hate speech items. According to the report, Armenians were the most targeted group in 2019 with 803 hate speech items.

“Syrians Barometer 2019: A framework for achieving social cohesion with Syrians in Turkey,” prepared by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), reported that Turks are increasingly feeling hatred and anger towards Syrians. Nearly 42 percent of the population said Syrians were potentially dangerous people who were a burden on the country.

Journalist Nurcan Baysal, based in Diyarbakır, thinks hatred of Syrians has gone beyond xenophobia in Turkey because different reasons trigger it. “There are nearly 4 million Syrians in Turkey. In cities like Gaziantep and Kilis the demographic structure changed after their arrival. We know there is also strong anti-Arab sentiment in Turkey. There is prejudice towards Arabs. For example, people believe Arabs are dirty,” Baysal told Turkish Minute.

According to analyst Soner Çağaptay, the arrival of Syrian refugees in Turkey was the country’s most significant demographic shift since its “population exchange” with Greece in the 1920s. According to official Turkish figures, only around 100,000 of them remain sheltered in camps; the vast majority have settled in cities and towns among the broader population. Most of them — 3.2 million — are concentrated in 14 of Turkey’s 81 provinces: the Syrian border provinces of Gaziantep, Hatay, Kilis, Mardin and Şanlıurfa; the nearby southern provinces of Adana, Mersin and Kahramanmaraş; and the demographically and economically larger provinces of Ankara, Bursa, Istanbul, Izmir, Kayseri and Konya.

Istanbul has the largest number — 547,479, or nearly 4 percent of the province’s 2018 population. Yet the demographic impact on the country’s smaller southern provinces is even more significant. Syrians account for 27 percent of the population of Hatay, 22 percent in Gaziantep, 21 percent in Şanlıurfa and a whopping 81 percent in Kilis.

Hate speech towards Syrians has led to serious incidents in the recent past. Syrian refugee Abdulkadir Davud (21) was shot dead in August 2020 as a result of a hate crime in Istanbul. In September 2020 Eymen Hammami (16) was stabbed to death in another alleged hate crime in the Black Sea city of Samsun. Three Syrian refugee women and a child were severely beaten in October in the southeastern city of Antep. Vail El Mansur (14) was killed on his way to work the same week.

Another Syrian refugee who was collecting trash was assaulted by a group of street-cleaners last week in southern Antalya province. The Syrian man was beaten, his motorcycle was crushed with a garbage truck and set on fire, and he passed out on the street.

“It would be a lie if we say the Syrians are not being excluded from Turkish society. Turkish people are actually compassionate and helpful, but they are intolerant of Syrians because of the country’s own economic problems. Syrians who speak Turkish tell Turks about their tragedy and pain. After hearing this, some people show compassion,” said Abdo.

Baysal thinks that in addition to Arabophobia, an economic crisis and unemployment in Turkey increase the prejudice against Syrians. “Also, politicians’ statements are also very effective. Statements like “We spent a lot of money on Syrians” are fueling hatred. On the other hand, Turkey spends the EU’s money on these refugees, but a big percentage of the people in Turkey do not know the details of the EU-Turkey agreement.

In 2016 the EU struck a deal with Turkey: in exchange for €6 billion ($7 billion) in aid, Ankara agreed to stop refugees and migrants from making the deadly crossing of the Mediterranean and the long trek through Eastern Europe. Syrians and others who have made it over the water to Greece since the deal was agreed are now mostly held in camps.

Baysal thinks that at least opposition politicians know about the EU-Turkey agreement and the money Turkey received, but they continue to use the Syrian refugees as a political tool. “The main opposition Republican People’s Party [CHP] often blames refugees for Turkey’s ongoing socio-economic problems as well as the high level of unemployment. Maybe it is safe and risk-free to blame the Syrians instead of the main power responsible, the government. As a result Syrian refugees become victims of hate crimes because of their portrayal in the mass media and politicians’ anti-refugee rhetoric.”

The Kemalist CHP and the center-right opposition İYİ (Good) Party have become representatives for the nationalist, anti-refugee anger in Turkey by targeting Syrians. Ümit Özdağ, Istanbul deputy for the İYİ Party, said in April 2019 that “1 million Syrians are in the Turkish workforce while 6 million Turks are unemployed.”

Yılmaz Özdil, a columnist popular with supporters of the CHP, alleged in his column in June 2019 that Syrians were forming gangs, setting up illegal businesses and invading Istanbul, forcing Turks to move out of their neighborhoods.

Turkish social media accounts managed by politicians, public figures or anonymous figures frequently spread false information about Syrians harassing, raping and even murdering Turkish citizens. As a result there have been various campaigns where users shared posts with such hashtags as #ülkemdesuriyeliistemiyorum (I don’t want Syrians in my country) and #SuriyelilerDefoluyor (Syrians get out).

According to Abdo, most Turks do not know about the EU’s financial support because neither the press nor the politicians speak about the realities. “Syrians are being used as a political card in Turkey. Not only the CHP, but everyone uses us for their own interests,” said Abdo.

Syrian refugees are at risk in the Turkish labor market due to a lack of regulation. They work mainly in labor-intensive jobs without a contract or employment rights. A statement issued in March 2019 by the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Services said 31,185 Syrians had been granted work permits in Turkey.

After spending five years in Turkey, Syrian refugees are entitled by law to apply for Turkish citizenship. However, according to the Ministry of Interior, only 110,000 Syrians (53,000 adults and 57,000 minors) had acquired Turkish citizenship as of December 2019.

Apparently, the problems will not end any time soon in Syria, and everyone agrees a political solution regarding Syrian refugee rights is required in Turkey. However, Abdo says, Syrians still want to return to their country but are waiting for the right conditions.

“Most of us want to go back to Syria if it becomes a normal country. If the Assad regime ends and other groups in the country are suppressed, of course, we want to return to our home country. Currently, most of the families are divided, sometimes the parents are in one country, while the children are in another …”

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