Syrian refugee crisis: Xenophobia and scapegoating

Syrian refugee crisis: Xenophobia and scapegoating

While writing this piece, I saw the terrible news of a pregnant Syrian woman who was raped, and she and her 10-month-old son were beaten to death by two men in Turkey’s Sakarya district. In the last week, anti-refugee hashtags such as #DeportSyrians have popped up in social media in Turkey. Turks and Syrian refugees clashed in Istanbul and Ankara; several were injured and refugee workplaces were damaged.

This is not the first time such incidents have taken place, but the situation has escalated following social media posts — some supported by politicians, journalists and celebrities — urging the government to deport Syrian refugees.

The Syrian conflict has created the largest global refugee crisis since World War II, with serious humanitarian repercussions. According to last month’s UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Global Trends report, Turkey continues to host the most Syrian refugees in the world.

With the understanding that protecting refugees is an important pillar of the rules-based international order, Ankara maintains an open-door policy toward Syrian refugees despite their staggering number. While this policy is appreciated by the international community, it has failed to give Turkey sufficient support thus far.

The international community, and particularly the UN, have done very little for Syrian refugees in Turkey compared to what Ankara has done for them. Global concern for the refugee issue is merely rhetoric. Appreciating Turkey without taking on some responsibility is nothing short of duplicity.

The burden on Turkey has economic and social dimensions. Economic problems cause social unrest. Nobody said it would be easy for Syrians to integrate into an unknown society, or for their hosts to get used to the presence of such a large number of refugees. One need not be a genius to know that integration takes time, and this time may bring several challenges for both sides.

Ankara maintains an open-door policy toward Syrian refugees despite their staggering number. While this policy is appreciated by the international community, it has failed to give Turkey sufficient support thus far.

Sinem Cengiz

Turning back to the past week’s incidents, locals living in an Ankara neighborhood reportedly attacked refugee workplaces and homes after social media posts claimed that a 5-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by a Syrian. Ankara’s governor said those who took part in spreading false allegations would be identified.

Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak urged the public to remain “tolerant” of refugees following the clashes. “We have seen a social reaction against Syrians lately,” he said. “Of course, there are some among the 3 million of them who may have committed crime. But the crime rate of Syrians is lower than that of our own citizens. I can say there is a clear social incitement, a provocation. Those incitements are calling people to head to the streets.”

The Interior Ministry said occasional tensions between Syrian refugees and locals have recently been distorted and exaggerated to create public indignation. “The average annual rate of incidents that involved Syrians in the total public security incidents in Turkey between 2014 and 2017 is 1.32 percent,” it said, adding that most of those incidents were caused by disagreements among refugees.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said refugees who commit a crime “are punished as deserved before the law. If necessary, we will even deport them. Turkish citizens should avoid any deed that would cast a shadow on our hospitality. But still everybody should know their place.”

Many claims about refugees raping, killing and stealing play on moral considerations and pump xenophobic rhetoric. Media outlets contribute to the xenophobic public discourse. But most Turks with common sense consider these refugees part of the country and oppose scapegoating them. I appreciate Ankara’s handling of the refugee issue despite the economic and social burdens. Abandoning the open-door policy would mean leaving people to die.

In a town on the Turkish-Syrian border, a Syrian man told me: “If Turkey had a war like the one in Syria now, we as Syrians wouldn’t be as generous as Turks, opening our doors widely to this large number of refugees.” Turkey has done a great thing, and its people should not allow unrepresentative groups to harm this hospitality.

The common sense, tolerance and empathy of the Turkish public will overcome hysterical and senseless fear. One should never forget that nobody chooses to be a refugee or flee their homeland for nothing, and anybody could become a refugee one day.


Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.


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