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[ANALYSIS] Why would Ukrainians fleeing the war at home seek shelter in Turkey?

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And why would Turkey, a Muslim country where anti-refugee sentiment and hate crimes against migrants and refugees are increasing by the day, agree to take in even more foreigners from predominantly Christian Ukraine?

TM Staff

Unconfirmed reports have recently been circulating in the Turkish press, the majority of which is controlled by the country’s authoritarian president and his Islamist government, that Turkey has accepted more than 31,000 refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

According to the reports, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, in comments made at an event in the nation’s capital on March 6, claimed that Ankara had “evacuated” more than 20,000 Ukrainian refugees to Turkey, adding: “We do not discriminate against any race, even if they have blonde hair and blue eyes. We are Muslim, and we embrace victims wherever they come from.” A local Turkish news outlet said on March 10 that the number had increased to more than 31,000, making a point to compare it to the UK’s 300.

Early reports were quick to say that Ukrainians were able to enter Turkey under a visa waiver program that allows them to stay for up to 90 days, in a possible attempt to ease locals’ worries that more refugees would be permanently settling in Turkey. Yet no major foreign outlets have reported on an influx of Ukrainian refugees to Turkey, and UNHCR does not specifically include Turkey as a country that has accepted Ukrainians, although they could be among the more than 300,000 who have gone to “Other European countries.”

The question can be asked, though, why Turkey would accept even more refugees than it already has, and why Ukrainians would want to take shelter in what has turned into a non-refugee-friendly country.

Turkey currently hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, comprising 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees and close to 320,000 persons of concern from other nationalities. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who long pursued an open-door policy toward refugees, recently recognized the public’s unhappiness with the situation and vowed not to allow the country to become a “warehouse” for refugees.

Anti-refugee sentiment is now nearing a boiling point, fueled by Turkey’s economic woes. With unemployment high and the price of food and housing skyrocketing, many Turks have turned their frustration toward the country’s foreign residents, particularly those who fled the civil war in Syria. Hate crimes against refugees and migrants, who are blamed for many of Turkey’s social and economic ills, have been escalating in recent years, with a mob in Ankara attacking Syrian refugees, their houses and workplaces in August and numerous incidents of assault and murder of refugees reported by the local press. A northwestern Turkish city, in an attempt to drive refugees from its borders, enacted regulations forcing refugees to pay exorbitant fees for basic municipal services, which led to increased hate crimes and discrimination against the city’s Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan residents.

Turkish media including pro-government and opposition outlets fuel and exploit the flames of hatred against people who fled their countries and sought refuge in Turkey, and anti-refugee sentiment has also been expressed by opposition politicians, with the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party vowing to send Syrians back home if his party comes to power. The government has deported Iranian and Syrian refugees for protesting discrimination in Turkey, and President Erdoğan announced in September that Turkey would no longer be able to welcome any more Afghan refugees despite the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover of the country. Erdoğan is building a wall on the Turkish-Iranian border to keep migrants from the east out and also used refugees as pawns by bussing them to Turkey’s border with Greece in an attempt to force the EU to provide more funds for their support.

According to a survey conducted by Metropoll in August, more than 90 percent of Turks are against accepting more refugees, with only 9.1 percent of respondents supporting the idea that Turkey should welcome desperate newcomers.

In addition to the hostile political and popular environment for refugees, Turkey, a 99 percent Muslim country, could also be called religiously inhospitable to Christians, who in 1914 made up a fifth of the population, a community that was reduced in the first half of the 20th century by massacres, deportations and pogroms to some 100,000 today. In July 2020 Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a UNESO World Heritage Site which for some thousand years had been the Christian world’s largest church before becoming a mosque in 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, and a museum in 1935, was reconverted back into a Muslim place of worship, sparking criticism from Western allies and Christians around the world.

Andrew Brunson, the American pastor of a Protestant church in İzmir, where he had lived for 23 years, was arrested in 2016 on trumped-up charges of association with a so-called “terrorist” group as well as espionage. He was imprisoned for two years and ultimately convicted on the charge of aiding terrorism but was sentenced to time served. He returned to the United States upon his release.

Located on an island near Istanbul, the Halki Orthodox Seminary, founded in 1844, served as a school for Greek Orthodox clergy until 1971, when the Turkish government closed the school under a law nationalizing all institutions of higher learning. It was the last school to train priests in modern Turkey, with its closure causing Orthodox Christians in Turkey to resent the fact that they’ve long been deprived of spiritual leadership. The international community has joined the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul in calling on the Turkish government to reopen the seminary, but without success thus far. Although Turkish officials have at times appeared inclined to support the reopening of the seminary, none have taken any concrete steps to do so.

According to the US State Department’s 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom, the government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians, and media and nongovernmental organizations reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish-citizen leaders of Protestant congregations.

Finally, the majority of Ukrainians have sought refuge in neighboring countries — Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania, all of which are predominantly Christian, as is Ukraine, and also former Soviet or socialist republics, sharing a common political culture and history. Turkey does not have a land border with Ukraine, nor is it a Christian country, with almost its entire population Muslim. Slavic languages are spoken in Poland and Slovakia, as in Ukraine, while Ukrainian is a minority or official regional language in parts of the other receiving countries. Other than what appear to be 300 Crimean Tatars – a Turkic-language-speaking Muslim people — who were reported by a Crimean news website to have been sent to Turkey, Ukrainian refugees will have difficulty communicating even their most basic needs in Turkey and will be unable to work to support themselves and their families.

All of which brings us back to the question of why Ukrainians, fleeing the threat of one authoritarian, would choose to shelter in Turkey, ruled by another; why they would leave a democratic and free country for one that has abandoned democracy and the rule of law; and why they would prefer a nation whose government and people have openly rejected the entry of more refugees and seek to expel the ones already there.

Or have Ukrainians really sheltered in Turkey in any significant numbers? Could the reports, found exclusively in the Turkish press or with attributions to it, actually be seeking to make Turkey look heroic in the eyes of the world when in fact it has refused to condemn Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine; has declined to join its Western allies in imposing sanctions on Moscow and closing its airspace to Russia; and has generally tread carefully in statements about the war, seeking to avoid angering Erdoğan’s friend Putin while trying to present itself as a good NATO ally supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

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