North Africa, West Asia

Anti-Syrian racism in Turkey

A wave of xenophobia is ruining the lives of Syrian refugees in Turkey where they are seen as criminals, accused of stealing jobs and responsible for anything that goes wrong. Media incitement and state inaction fuel the flames.

Dogus Simsek
27 January 2015

‘Suriyeli’ (Syrians) is a name given to people escaping from the civil war in Syria. Called‘Suriyeli’, they are seen as criminals, beggars, burglars and prostitutes, unable to adapt to Turkish culture. They are numbers, devoid of their unique stories. Some have crossed the borders individually, some with family members, some with a baby to live in a safe place. They did not have much choice about where to go. They crossed the border without knowing what was waiting for them. The only thing they have left is hope.

Since the outbreak of the Syrin uprising in March 2011, over 1 million Syrians have crossed into Turkey. According to the Director General of Migration Management in Turkey, 1 million and 450 thousand Syrian refugees are registered in Turkey. Turkish authorities take them to refugee camps; there are 22 refugee camps in the cities of southeastern Turkey alone. The recent AFAD report (The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency) shows that more than half of Syrian refugees live outside the refugee camps— choosing to live in the cities and towns of Turkey because the camps are overcrowded. Camp life is tough, and there is a limited freedom of mobility.

Unwelcomed 'guests'

In Turkey, Syrian refugees are taken in as ‘guests’, not as ‘refugees’, as a result of Turkey’s asylum policy—not to be polite. Due to the ‘geographical limitation’ that Turkey bears to the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol, it only accepts European asylum seekers as refugees. Turkey has implemented a ‘temporary protection scheme’ for Syrian refugees, which maintains open door policy, non-refoulement, and humanitarian assistance, including supports inside the borders of the camps. ‘Guest’ status implies ambiguity about their presence, safety and rights in Turkey. Realistically, Syrian refugees in Turkey will not go back to Syria anytime soon; they are not ‘temporary’ in Turkey. Within this unpredictable situation, many Syrian refugees use social networks to shelter in cities and towns and work under exploitative conditions.

Due to the increased number of Syrian refugees scattered across the cities and towns of Turkey, xenophobia has raised its head in Turkish society. Perceptions about Syrian refugees highlight the fear of living with ‘foreigners’. The main native concerns are the economic situation and social tension, as many Turkish citizens accuse ‘Syrians' of  'taking our jobs and our homes’, ‘Syrians do not adapt to our culture’, ‘crime in Turkey increases because of Syrians’. As a result of this negative labeling, many local people do not want Syrian refugees to live in 'their' cities; nor do they want them to be visible in the public sphere. Many people I spoke to in Istanbul would like Syrian refugees to stay in the camps; they do not want to live among them. Anti-immigrant and discriminatory discourse became popular among the local people. There began to be demonstrations against Syrian refugees and physical attacks on them.

Hate crime

Since the spring of 2014, anti-Syrian sentiments have increased in Turkey. Turkish citizens who live in the cities where there have been many Syrian refugees criticize Syrian refugees as a major determinant in increasing rent prices, a reason for lowering wages in the labour market and of rising social tensions. Local people forcibly restrict the presence of Syrian refugees in public spaces in many cities. Anti-Syrian sentiment and discriminatory discourses heavily assist the creation and maintenance of a violent atmosphere. For instance, in Ankara local people stoned and set fire to the building Syrian refugees lived in. Then they marched against Syrian refugees.

Anti-Syrian sentiment carries on rising in other cities of Turkey as well. In Gaziantep, in southeastern Turkey where more than 200,000 Syrian refugees are living, extreme right wing groups have been hunting down Syrian refugees to verbally and physically attack them. Tension in a Gaziantep neighbourhood erupted after the death of a Syrian tenant at the hands of a Turkish landlord; local people attacked Syrian refugees in the streets and in the parks armed with knives and sticks; shouting anti-Syrian slogans—more than 10 Syrian refugees were injured. Discrimination and violence against Syrian refugees are on the rise in the border cities of Sanliurfa and Kilis, and have now spread to Kahramanmaras, Izmir, Kayseri, Adana and Antalya.

Recently, Antalya’s governor office sent notification to more than 1,500 Syrian refugees to leave the city, stating that they have brought with them economic and social tension and damaged the tourism industry. After the governor’s remarks, some local people attacked Syrian refugees in Antalya’s Manavgat district. They wrecked Syrian refugees’ houses and cars, and marched to a neighbourhood where Syrian refugees live.

Syrian refugees are not the only victims of racism in Turkey. In Turkey’s history, Kurds, Armenians, non-Muslims, gypsies, blacks, Arabs and many other minorities are subjected to racism. Many Turkish citizens do not accept that there is racism in Turkey as they state that they are proud of their hospitality towards foreigners.

However, racism is visible everywhere, in public space, private space, in all corners of the world. Discriminatory discourses have prominently been attributed to the Turkish process of modernization, the building of its nation-state and the formation of Turkish national identity. These discourses have been spread by the media, state and institutions in all cases resulting in the marginalisation of Syrian refugees.

Many Turkish citizens, especially those among Turkey's poor, believe that Syrian refugees have been looked after with the taxes they pay; they steal their jobs; they are burglars, beggars, criminals; they are culturally different - not modern; they create social tension, etc. The xenophobic and racist discourses have become legitimized through such phrases. Forms of racism and xenophobia are closely interlinked with the economic situation, as in Europe. 

Mediated hatred

The content of racism is elided with that of difference. Public discourses against Syrian refugees are based on a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. When people identify themselves as a member of a particular group, they do not feel comfortable with others. The public's concerns about Syrian refugees are to do with culture, values and sustainability. The mainstream media, some column writers, and the opposition, use and amplify these concerns about Syrian refugees living in the cities. The racism of mainstream media is visible in many news contexts. For instance, Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Ajansi) refers to ‘Syrians' as unable 'to adap to an urban lifestyle in Turkey’ in the news; Syrian refugees are seen as criminals, problem makers in many item daily in mainstream papers.

Apart from being victims of racism, Syrian refugees in Turkey are also used as a politial football by politicians. The opposition party has criticized the foreign policy of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government on Syria as being too sectarian and not supporting the ‘open door’ policy towards Syrian refugees put forward by the opposition party politicians.

Some column writers who endorse the opposition party also wrote that ‘we look after Syrians, give them money; offer them jobs. While Turkish soldiers defend their nation, they sit back and do nothing’. Such racist discourses do not only target Syrian refugees, but also use them as a policy-making tool. With such discourses, racism has slowly been shown to infect almost all of society. The public, some column writers and politicians blame Syrian refugees, rather than denouncing the state, as the cause of unemployment, crime, social tension, rising rent prices; these opportunists are using the vulnerability of Syrian refugees for their own interests, and the interests of the capitalist classes.

Syrian refugees in Turkey are seen as criminals, beggars, burglars, exploiters, prostitutes, as tools for politics, but not as individuals. Turkey’s state, media, and civil society have to work seriously to create an environment for Syrian refugees to live respectably, as well as to develop measures and an environment that prevent the targeting of Syrian refugees.

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