Turkey: refugees targeted in surge of xenophobia
In the face of the imminent arrival of a new contingent of Afghan asylum seekers and amid sharp economic downturn, xenophobia is surging in Turkey, as expressed violently in a recent riot. Syrian refugees are under attack but face deportation for speaking out. In a country with the largest refugee population in the world, the strong-arm president has repeatedly instrumentalised migrants and refugees to rally political support and extract concessions from the European Union, a policy that has enabled xenophobia to thrive. The Turkish government must now take responsibility and act on the basis of recognising migrants and refugees as rights holders.
For the many refugees who now call Turkey home, the months since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan have been full of anxiety. Turkey already hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, and the majority of them – more than 3.5 million – are Syrian people who fled the brutal conflict and repression of Bashar-al-Assad’s regime. Refugees in Turkey are concerned because it is now abundantly clear that there are plenty of Turkish people who don’t want them there. The expected arrival of a wave of Afghan refugees could only add to the tensions between locals and refugees, which have been escalating for months.
Sometimes tensions have given way to violence, as was the case in August, when a Turkish mob destroyed Syrian property in the capital, Ankara, in the wake of a fight that ended with the alleged killing of a local teenager. This eruption of street violence was accompanied by the usual escalation of xenophobic posts on social media. Both online and offline, people voiced slogans such as ‘We don’t want any Syrians’ and ‘Turkey for the Turks’.
The ability of Syrians to stay in Turkey now hangs in the balance: some have been threatened with deportation merely for critical social media posts. The Turkish government has done worse than ignoring the problem: it has actively incited xenophobia against migrants and refugees in the hope of political gain.
A strongman under pressure
Under the 2016 refugee deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU), Turkey has acted as the EU’s gatekeeper, keeping migrants and refugees within its territory rather than allowing them to cross EU borders. In return, it has not only received substantial funding but also obtained a free pass as the EU has turned its eyes away from Turkey’s declining human rights situation. When the occasional disagreement has arisen, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has typically bent the EU’s arm simply by threatening to do nothing to stop migrants and refugees crossing to Greece. This usually leads to further funding and political concessions.
EU-Turkey’s deal – condemned by human rights organisations – allowed migrants and refugees to stay, but always made clear they were political and economic bargaining chips.
As one crisis after another exposed Erdoğan’s shortcomings, even that tacit tolerance of migrants and refugees has waned. Increasingly it is clear that migrants and refugees will be sacrificed in an attempt to salvage Erdoğan’s waning popularity.
With Erdoğan at its head, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently celebrated 19 years in power. Over the past few years, Erdoğan pushed through constitutional changes that greatly expanded presidential powers, which he then made remorseless use of, suppressing criticism and taking advantage of every crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic, to tighten his grip on power. Under Erdoğan, the media has become strictly controlled, judicial independence has largely been eroded and there are many thousands of political prisoners.
But current crises are not giving Erdoğan the opportunity to further grab power; now they are exposing his weaknesses. A president who made himself seem all powerful is being blamed for a severe economic downturn. Inflation and unemployment rates are soaring and the Turkish lira sunk to a new low in November. Many Turks are struggling to afford the essentials. Erdoğan was already left looking weak by the government’s failure to get to grips with a wildfire crisis earlier this year – see our story. Erdoğan has become a clear target for public resentment. His approval rate tanked at 38.9 per cent in October, compared to rates as high as 55.8 per cent before the pandemic. Opposition leaders have called for immediate early elections.
No wonder that Erdoğan sought the easy way out, mobilising nativist rhetoric and manipulating the Turkish public’s negative perceptions of migrants and refugees as he tries to find someone other than himself to take the blame for the country’s problems.
Xenophobia: from opinion to action
As the Taliban captured Afghanistan in August 2021, it was to be expected that people would soon flee the country, crossing through Iran and into Turkey.
Far from receiving a warm welcome, they found themselves pawns in a grim political competition among Turkish politicians eager to capitalise on anti-refugee sentiment, including the Turkish version of Trump’s ‘build the wall’ campaign: on 27 July, the Erdoğan-appointed governor of Turkey’s eastern Van province announced the construction of a concrete wall along its border with Iran.
While newly designed walls announced to rally political support are not always built, Turkish border forces have already redoubled their pushback efforts, having reportedly started to catch Afghans crossing the border and deport them back to Iran. Several deportees have stated that they were tortured in the process.
The Turkish government is not alone in this response. Although frequently at odds with its Greek neighbours, on this they are in lockstep. In recent years, Greek politicians and sections of the public have shown increasing hostility towards migrants and refugees, and as soon as the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, Greece completed the construction of a 40-km wall on its border with Turkey.
The closed-door policy implemented by Turkey and the EU both responds to and reinforces negative public attitudes toward refugees. In a recent survey, two thirds of Turkish respondents supported closing the border to migrants. Of course, it is one thing to express an opinion when asked by a pollster, and another to act violently on it. But for Syrians already in Turkey, xenophobic sentiment – which they have experienced at least since 2014 – has long moved from the realm of opinion to action, as reflected by the escalation of hostilities leading to the August anti-Syrian riot.
Economic anxiety adds fuel to the fire
The economic downturn has added a sharp edge to anti-migrant sentiment. Many lower-income Turks struggling to make ends meet have come to see refugees as unfair competition for jobs and resources, further fuelling anti-migrant backlash. This populist turn driven by economic anxiety mirrors a pattern seen across Europe, in which those who have little are encouraged to lash out at those who have even less, rather than question the economic and political systems that are failing them.
When economic times were better, Erdoğan could afford to position as more tolerant. But his rhetoric has shifted with the situation. In 2014, as a newly inaugurated president, he changed the official narrative from nationalism to something that could be described as ‘selective humanitarianism’. Framed around culture and religion, this rehashed narrative urged Turkish citizens to behave ‘compassionately’ towards refugees who were presented as ‘fellow Muslims’ and to showcase hospitality as an outstanding quality of the Turkish nation.
Doing so allowed Erdoğan to avoid political debate and defuse potential populist sentiment over hosting increasing numbers of migrants and refugees in the run-up to his 2016 agreement with the EU. Five years later, having done little to check rising anti-migrant sentiment, Erdoğan told the EU that Turkey would no longer serve as Europe’s ‘warehouse’. Having defended migrants when it suited him politically, he now treats them as a burden.
At no point did Erdoğan approach the situation in humanitarian terms, nor talk about treating migrants and refugees as bearers of rights and deserving of international protection. The one time he broke his silence over spiralling xenophobia, he dodged responsibility by depicting it as ‘universal issue’ and blaming pandemic economic hardship for making it worse.
Mixed messages have come from other sources. In the wake of the Ankara riots, the Governor’s Office praised the ‘intense efforts of the police force’, which arrested the dozens of Turkish citizens responsible for the violence. But then the Turkish authorities subsequently accused Syrians of ‘inciting hatred’ by, of all things, eating bananas in a ‘provocative’ way.
Deprived of access to mainstream platforms, Syrian migrants and their advocates took to social media to debunk myths and try to shift the dominant narrative around migrants and refugees. But their efforts have been viewed as provocative and insulting, triggering backlash. Complaints that Syrians were ‘stealing jobs from Turkish people’ and ‘buying kilograms of bananas’, a luxury that many Turks could no longer afford, led to a satirical response in which some Syrians shared videos of themselves eating bananas. The harsh reaction has seen several Syrians arrested and facing deportation.
Among them is broadcast journalist Majed Shamaa, who created and shared banana videos. He has already been moved to a deportation camp, despite calls by media freedom organisations for his release. The threat of deportation is very real. Since 2019, Amnesty International has repeatedly warned of a Turkish plan to force large numbers of Syrian refugees to a so-called ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria.
It’s hardly a surprise that the freedom of expression of Syrian migrants is under attack. This is something that any Turkish citizen already knows: the expression of any criticism of Erdoğan, his party or his policies brings along the very really possibility of a harsh reprisal. For years, human rights organisations have documented thousands of cases of detentions of civil society personnel, journalists, academics and people suspected of supporting the opposition, merely for expressing critical opinions. Control of social media has increased.
A race to the bottom
Syrian refugees cannot expect any better from the AKP’s political competitors: the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, has declared that if he came to power, he would send all refugees back to their countries of origin.
Other opposition leaders talk up the danger of foreign infiltration among Afghans fleeing their homeland, in a way designed to whip up xenophobia. Along those lines, the vice chairperson of the conservative Good Party, allied to the CHP, recently tweeted his view that there might be Islamist extremists among Afghan refugees.
Turkey is no outlier in this respect: across Europe, parties on different points of the ideological spectrum are increasingly competing to position themselves as taking the toughest position on migrants and refugees. Denmark – see our story – offers another example: centre-right and centre-left parties alike have mobilised hostility towards migrants and refugees to appeal to voters. In that sense, right-wing nationalists win even where they lose, as they succeed in shifting the political conversation and tilting the field towards the right. Candidates in France’s 2022 presidential elections are now competing to take the strongest anti-migrant line, under pressure from the far right.
In the run-up to Turkey’s next presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled to be held in 2023, migrants and refugees can expect to be further targeted for political gain. Given the vicious race to the bottom, the way out is unlikely to be the result of domestic political dynamics, in Turkey or in other countries. It’s time to call for a new European approach that makes the spending of funds in compensation for hosting migrants and refugees contingent upon treating them with compassion, upholding their rights and protecting them from xenophobia and violence.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Turkish government must take measures – including programmes to promote dialogue and understanding – to mitigate public xenophobia against migrants and refugees and commit to creating a safe environment for them.
Turkish media and civil society should work collectively to challenge xenophobia and common misconceptions about migrants and refugees.
The EU should put the rights of migrants and refugees first rather than treat them as a threat and security problem, in line with its human rights commitments towards EU citizens, and insist on stronger rights guarantees in return for its funding to Turkey.
Cover photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images