In Turkey, anti-immigrant sentiments are on the rise once again

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Violent protests targeting Turkey's Syrian refugee community in Turkey's Kayseri province broke out on June 30, reigniting anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. The National Intelligence Agency (MIT) said violence also spread to other provinces including Hatay, Gaziantep, Konya, Bursa, and a district in Istanbul.

In response to violence in Kayseri, images of burnt Turkish flags and counter-protests were reported to take place in northwestern Syria, including in those areas that are controlled by Turkish-backed forces. On July 2, Turkey closed a number of border crossings into Syria including the Bab al Hawa, the main crossing for people and trade. The violence erupted merely two weeks after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expressed interest in resuming talks after Turkey severed its ties in 2011 in the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War. The same day, a 17-year-old Syrian national was stabbed to death in Turkey's Antalya province. The suspects were arrested according to the local media reports.

One spark is all it takes

The violence started with the news of a sexual assault on a child in the province of Kayseri. According to the statement by the Kayseri Governor's office, “a Syrian national was detained following an alleged harassment of a young Syrian child,” who was later identified as the assaulter's relative, reported Bianet.

But in a country where anti-immigrant sentiments are high, the incident escalated into targeted attacks on homes, shops, and other properties owned by Syrian immigrants. Police intervention resulted in the arrest of over 400 nationals according to the Turkish Ministry of the Interior. The assaulter was also arrested according to the Minister of the Interior Ali Yerlikaya while Kayser chief public prosecutor launched an investigation.

Recent research by IPSOS and UNHCR showed that 77 percent of respondents in Turkey said they were in support of closing the country to refugees completely. Globally the average anti-immigrant sentiment stands at about 44 percent, according to the same study, making Turkey a significant outlier.

Turkey's refugee policy

In 2016 the EU struck a refugee deal that had Turkey halt the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe in return for visa concessions and EUR 6 billion in aid for more than 3.5 million Syrians arriving in Turkey. In July 2020, Turkey threatened to end the blockade and allow migrants free passage to Europe, which prompted the European Parliament to approve an additional EUR 500 million (USD 562 million) in financing for Turkey. In 2021, the EU allocated EUR 3 billion to refugees for 2021–2023. Two EU officials who spoke to the Financial Times at the time said additional funds had been budgeted to extend aid to Turkey.

In addition to Syrian refugees, Turkey has also been on the receiving end of thousands of Afghan migrants who fled the country following the withdrawal of American troops in August 2021.

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.

In May 2022, President Erdoğan unveiled a program to return some one million Syrian refugees to parts of northern Syria under its control — a U-turn on the President's previous promises not to send the refugees back. This decision was largely viewed as a tactical step for the president ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections as many across the country blamed refugees for the internal economic troubles.

A month before the plan was announced, Turkey's then Minister of the Interior, Süleyman Soylu warned that Syrians wanting to return to Turkey after visiting their homes for the Eid al-Fitr holiday would not be allowed back unless they were exempt and held official permission from the government of Turkey to attend special occasions, including funerals, or health-related issues, reported Hürriyet Daily News at the time.

In February 2022 the government set a 25 percent cap for non-Turkish residents in the residential neighborhoods. In cases where the number of Syrians topped that percentage, they were relocated to other neighborhoods. Meanwhile, 16 provinces were completely closed off to new arrivals of refugees and foreign migrants.

Syrians reside in Turkey under temporary protection, which according to some experts, has simplified the process of their deportation. “Since 2018, there have been repeated waves of deportations,” Anita Starosta from the organization Medico International said in an interview with DW.

Between January and December 2023, over 57,000 Syrians and other people were deported according to Human Rights Watch, adding these deportations took place with the authorities pressuring “the border authorities to list the majority of border crossings as ‘returnees’ or ‘voluntary.’” President Erdoğan said during a cabinet meeting on July 3, that 670,000 Syrians already returned to areas “cleared of terrorism in northern Syria.” The president also added that he hopes one million more will return “when the housing projects implemented with the support of Qatar are completed.”

The incident in Kayseri was not the first attack on the refugees in Turkey. In 2021 a brawl between a group of Syrian migrants and locals in the Turkish capital of Ankara led to two Turkish citizens getting 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.

In 2022, the nationalist leader of the Zafer (Victory) Party, Ümit Özdağ, made “immigration the centerpiece of [the party's] election campaign” ahead of the general elections. He even commissioned a video titled “Silent Occupation,” depicting a dystopian future in which Syrians have taken over Turkey, where Turks are not welcomed, banned from speaking their language, and are deprived of white-collar jobs — all linked to uncontrolled immigration of Syrian refugees that started in 2011.

The events in Kayseri reignited the calls for mass deportations.

This time, the incident in Turkey as well as its echoes across the border in Syria are more worrying. At least seven people were reportedly killed and twenty wounded in Syria as a result of violence.

The opposition was quick to blame the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) while Erdoğan accused the opposition of “fueling xenophobia and hatred of refugees in society.”

On July 3 the border crossing was reopened.

Other issues at stake

“The Kayseri events were likely a trigger, but the counter-protests were coupled with other developments such as objections to Ankara-Damascus normalization,” wrote journalist Ingrid Woudwijk in her analysis for TurkeyRecap.

Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Turkey carried out four incursions in northwestern Syria in what Ankara described as preventive measures and a matter of national security. Turkey has also been backing anti-Assad forces in northern Syria. Syria's northeast is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US ally, led by the People's Protection Units (YPG). The YPG fighters are considered to be the offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — a group designated as a terrorist entity by the US and Turkey.

According to the International Crisis Group, the “two pillars of [Turkey's] national security policy are to prevent a further influx of refugees from among the nearly five million displaced people living precariously in north-western Syria, and to weaken, if not break, SDF (and by extension PKK) control of the northeast.”

For Assad's regime, which is backed by Russia and Iran, reconciliation would involve Turkey pulling out all of its 10,000 troops and its support of rebel forces in northern Syria — “a precondition Ankara has called unacceptable, citing security concerns over Syrian Kurdish militants,” reported seasoned journalist Burcu Karakas for Reuters.

In 2022 when the Russian-mediated talks between Turkish and Syrian officials were launched similar protests took place in northern Syria. Then, the talks came to a dead end when Turkey refused to meet the Syrian government's demand to withdraw Turkish forces from Northern Syria, said journalist Ezgi Akin writing for AlMonitor. Journalist Gonul Tol told TurkeyRecap:

The biggest impediment to normalization with Assad remains what Turkey is doing in northern Syria. Turkey is not there [to secure] its borders. Turkey is engaged in a nation-building process. And that is the biggest problem for Assad's point of view. I don't see Assad backing away from that.

In October 2019, Turkey-led forces organized an incursion into Kurdish-held northeastern Syria with the goal of pushing the “YPG [the People's Protection Units] fighters at least 30 kilometers away from the borders of Turkey.” The intention was to establish a so-called “safe zone” in parts of Syrian territory in order to return Syrian refugees. In response, Turkey was condemned by both the European Union and the US with “EU foreign ministers agreeing to stop weapons exports to Turkey, and Washington issuing sanctions.”

“When [Syrians] hear things like peace negotiations, they feel that they will lose their future,” security analyst Serhat Erkmen, told The New York Times in an interview. Similarly, Samir Abdullah, from the non-profit Harmoon Centre for Contemporary Studies in Istanbul told Reuters that some Syrians in Turkey fear “Erdogan will make a deal with Assad and send the Syrians back” and that “they will be stripped of their Turkish citizenship.”

Meanwhile, in an attempt to reassure Turkey-backed Syrian armed opposition groups, President Erdoğan re-upped his promise “not to fail anyone who has trusted us, taken refuge in us and acted together with us” and protect Syrians living in Turkey.

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