Interior minister leaves far-right leader’s call for a face-off unanswered after spat over refugees

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Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu did not answer a call by the leader of an anti-refugee political party for a personal meeting, an appeal that resembled a challenge to single combat after the former insulted the latter by calling him “even lower than an animal,” in a spat over refugees in the country.

Anti-refugee sentiment has reached a boiling point in Turkey, fueled by the country’s economic woes. With unemployment high and the price of food and housing skyrocketing, many Turks have turned their frustration toward refugees, particularly the nearly 4 million Syrians who fled the civil war that broke out in 2011.

On Tuesday, “Silent Invasion,” a short film catering to anti-refugee fear-mongering about Turks being outnumbered by Syrians in the future, was aired on YouTube.

Hande Karacasu, the producer of the short film, which got more than a million views shortly after its release, was briefly detained afterward. 

Following Karacasu’s brief detention, Ümit Özdağ, leader of the far-right and anti-refugee Victory Party (ZP), which has been at the forefront of anti-refugee propaganda in Turkey, announced on Twitter that the film was paid for by him. 

In a live broadcast Soylu refuted the figures about the number of refugees in the country provided in the film, and when the host of the show said Özdağ wanted to ask him question on the live broadcast over the phone, Soylu said he did not take Özdağ for a human being and that he is “even lower than an animal.” Soylu further claimed that Özdağ was working for foreign intelligence services, labeling him as “a child of Soros.”

George Soros, a Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist, is seen as a bogeyman by conspiracists and some Turkish nationalists who claim he was behind the post-Soviet revolutions in Eastern Europe.

Following Soylu’s remarks, Özdağ said on Thursday that he was not going to answer Soylu’s insults with insults and would rather preserve his dignity in a face-off with him at 11:00 a.m. on Friday in front of the interior ministry building, a meeting he would attend “unarmed and alone.”

“If you are man enough, come meet me,” Özdağ said, addressing Soylu.

At the announced time Özdağ was prevented from proceeding to the front of the interior ministry by riot police who blocked the roads, citing security reasons.

“Let those who fear you be like you. You are a criminal man. When your term is over, you will be arrested. You are also aware of this. You are the greatest criminal in the history of the republic. From now on, me and you, Süleyman [Soylu] will carry on with this affair until one of us dies. Either you apologize in front of the nation, or this fight will continue until the end,” Özdağ said to members of the press after he was denied passage to the ministry.

Attitudes about refugees fleeing the long conflict in Syria have gradually hardened in Turkey, where they used to be welcomed with open arms, sympathy and compassion, as the number of newcomers has swelled over the past decade.

Tensions between Turks and Syrians flare up on occasion in Turkey, where refugees are blamed for many of the country’s social and economic troubles.

Hate crimes against refugees and migrants have been escalating in the country in recent years as 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.

Anti-migrant sentiment has also been expressed by opposition politicians, including Özdağ and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who promised to send Syrians back home if his party comes to power in 2023.

Meanwhile, the state-run Anadolu news agency on Tuesday reported that Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had announced that his government was working on a new project to ensure the “voluntary” return home of 1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

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