Anti-immigrant sentiments lead to violence in Turkey

A mob stands around a burning car in Altındağ, Ankara. Screenshot from the BBC video titled “What happened in Altındağ?”

A brawl between a group of Syrian migrants and locals in the Turkish capital of Ankara on August 12 reflected the worsening anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. Two Turkish citizens were stabbed during a confrontation, one of whom died after being taken to a hospital. The incident led to further violence as mobs ransacked and vandalized stores, homes, and cars belonging to Syrian immigrants in Ankara's Altindag neighborhood, which is home to a large number of Syrians. Police have so far detained 76 people.

During the day, Turkish youth formed groups to “bring order” to the neighborhoods. They are looking for Syrians.

Riot police on the scene were heard urging residents not to allow any provocations.

What will those who incite Syrian hatred every day say to the racist attacks on the stabbing of two young people in Altındağ, after the death of 18 year old Emirhan Yalçın? The perpetrator of the murder has been caught, but will those who stoned homes and injured the child be identified?

The district governor who reportedly arrived at the scene, tried to defuse tensions. But the defiant mob continued to express their discontent, as reported by BBC Turkish Service. “All of them [Syrians] must be terminated,” yelled one woman while another local said:

Just because we give them homes, economic opportunities, they think they are above us. Then they come and say they don’t want Afghans in this country.

Speaking to the BBC Turkish service, another resident of the neighborhood where attacks took place said: 

What are they going to do? Take them away? Instead, we say, give us half an hour. We will, as a nation, take them away in half an hour. Our goal is not to kill them, but send them away. They should leave.

Meanwhile, Syrian residents expressed concern over the safety of their families. One Syrian resident whose home was targeted said he will move as soon as possible, as he is scared for his three children. 

Pitting locals against migrants

The anti-immigrant sentiments have reached a new high as Turkey finds itself on the receiving end of thousands of Afghan migrants fleeing for their safety. This coincided with a growing disillusionment against the refugee deal between Ankara and Brussels in 2016 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. According to the agreement, Turkey halted the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe in return for visa concessions and 6 billion euros in aid for Syrians arriving in Turkey.

Other reasons include the ongoing economic crisis as reflected in the rising unemployment, inflation, and currency devaluation.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that some 4 million refugees, mostly Syrians, live in Turkey. Afghans make up the second largest group.

But patience is running thin as Turkey struggles with an incoming flow of refugees and an EU unwilling to proceed with 2016 pledges to smooth Turkey’s EU accession negotiations and visa concessions for Turkish citizens.

On July 18, the opposition Republic People's Party leader tweeted that Turkey won't become “an open prison to refugees.”

A week later, following an interview conducted by German Bild newspaper with Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz who said that Turkey was a more suitable place for Afghan migrants, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement, saying, “Turkey will not take in a new wave of migration,” and that “Turkey will not be a border guard or a refugee camp for the EU.”

Some local observers said that statements like this and a lack of sound immigration policies should be blamed for the increasing anti-immigrant sentiments in the country, with the clash in Ankara as a recent example.

Speaking to Deutsche Welle, sociologist Ulaş Sanata said:

Tensions between refugees and locals were never properly defused. There have been a lot of mistakes in immigration policy. It was non-transparent and poorly communicated.

Meanwhile, Metin Çorabatır, the president of the Research Centre for Asylum and Immigration (IGAM), blamed the rhetoric used by politicians threatening to send immigrants home or refusal to accept more ahead of the upcoming election in 2023.

Çorabatır was referring to a tweet in July 16 by the leader of opposition Republic People party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who claimed that once in power, the CHP will send Syrians away.

If we become the government in power, we will say our farewells to our Syrian guests. This is one of our five goals. We have our plans and programs ready. I wanted this video to be here as a proof.

The leader of another opposition Iyi Party, Meral Akşener, used similar rhetoric. Akşener has said that the government should contact Syrian rulers and send Syrians back to their country as soon as possible.

Our general president, Meral Akşener said what needs to be done to the government that turned our country into a migrant ditch;
– Stop the arrival of Afghans left at our borders by the Iranian government.
– Explain what was discussed with Biden.
– Syrian refugees must be sent back to their countries.

Nezih Onur Kuru, a political scientist, told Al-Monitor in an interview that the anti-Syrian violence in Ankara was “neither new nor surprising.” According to Kuru's own research, there have been at least “246 separate incidents of violence against Syrian refugees since 2011.”

The situation hasn’t always been this tense. According to a poll in 2012, only 52 percent of Turkish citizens disagreed with taking Syrian refugees. But in a September 2018 poll, 83 percent of Turkish citizens reported negative views on Syrians.

Currently, Syrians are under “temporary protection” by the government. As the government states on its website, temporary protection includes education for all children, healthcare, and suitable places for worship, in addition to education centers for adults who want to gain skills for employment.

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