‘Fake news’ fuels attacks on Syrians in Ankara

‘Fake news’ fuels attacks on Syrians in Ankara
Pro-nationalist demonstrators gesture during riots against refugees in Ankara. (File/Reuters)
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Updated 12 August 2021

‘Fake news’ fuels attacks on Syrians in Ankara

‘Fake news’ fuels attacks on Syrians in Ankara
  • Unrest broke out Wednesday in response to a fight between local residents and people believed to be Syrian migrants
  • Turkey’s main opposition party last month made waves by vowing to send Syrians “back home”

ANKARA:Syrian refugees including children on Thursday fled from their homes into the streets, carrying their luggage and trying to leave the neighborhood, after mob attacks.

Those who could not leave said that they were afraid to go out because of the attacks. 

Heightened anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey, partly fueled by fake and misleading news on social media and by politicians’ narratives, resulted in the escalation of tensions between Syrian migrants and Turkish residents in Altindag district on the outskirts of Ankaras. 

Following the stabbing of a Turkish citizen and the death of another in Ankara allegedly caused by two Syrians, crowds gathered on Wednesday night chanting anti-Syrian slogans, attacking Syrian businesses, burning vehicles and throwing stones at houses in Altindag. 

Some Syrian families posted videos showing parents trying to calm their children by turning music up to drown out the noise outside. A Syrian child suffered serious head injuries after stones were thrown at his house. 

Meanwhile, a number of social media accounts in Turkey shared two-year-old videos of Afghans carrying Afghan flags. They were presented as if they were recent videos and that the Afghans were holding Taliban flags.

An investigation was launched into the wide circulation of social media posts that spread panic and fear about refugees in Turkey. The police urged everyone to be careful about provocations and fake content.

Turkey is home to about 4 million displaced people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, making it the world’s largest host of refugees. 

The latest refugee wave from Afghanistan comes as increased tension between government forces and the Taliban escalated tensions in Turkey, with some mayors suggesting that urban water prices for refugees should increase tenfold. 

Thousands of Afghans have entered Turkey through Iran and headed toward western cities to find homes and jobs, with some Turkish pro-government think tanks accusing Tehran of helping Afghan refugees to cross into Turkey. 

A 2020 survey by Bilgi University and the German Marshall Fund of the US revealed that 86 percent of Turks supported the repatriation of Syrians.

The recent flare-up in tensions required comprehensive and immediate policy tools for the integration of the rising number of refugees in Turkey, commentators said. 

“What happened in Altindag is a collective punishment for an individual crime,” said Omar Kadkoy, a migration policy analyst at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV.

Kadkoy believes that the latest attacks in Ankara are not about a lack of integration policies but about mischanneled anger from the mishandling of Syrians’ arrival and settlement in Turkey since 2011. This showed the need for enacting integration policies to encourage social cohesion, he said. 

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, recently warned against the refugee influx in Turkey, saying the issue was a continuing one for the country. He said that his party’s policy was to send Syrian refugees back to their homeland.

Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas tweeted: “I hope the authorities will prepare an emergency action plan and ensure that the guests return to their country before this problem — experienced in many parts of our country — becomes uncontrollable.”

These calls by the opposition were quickly responded to by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who said: “They have taken refuge with us. We cannot tell those who beg for security to go back to where they were.”

For Kadkoy, the statements by Kilicdaroglu and Yavas fall short of offering an effective alternative to the government’s position. 

Yesterday’s troubles were a “repetitive trend” and the ability to deal with the issue relied on politicians’ will to “avoid using the refugees’ card for political gains,” he told Arab News. 

Tensions between locals and refugees were also caused by economic factors, he said. 

“The locals see themselves in an uneven economic playfield. Recently, government officials made unrealistic statements portraying Syrians’ cheap labor as an integral element to the survival of the Turkish economy at a time of poor economic performance, rising inflation rate and high unemployment levels, especially among the Turkish youth,” Kadkoy said. 

Turkey’s annual inflation rate reached 18.95 percent in July, while the unemployment rate was recorded at 10.6 percent in June. 

“Equally important is the years-long indifference to the imbalanced competition among Turkish and Syrian owners of unregistered small businesses. The uneven competition inflates negative perceptions and brews the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy. Under similar fragile circumstances, it is easy to translate anti-Syrian sentiments into acts of lynching and vandalism, particularly with the circulation of misinformation,” Kadkoy said. 

On Thursday, at least 76 people were arrested for trying to attack Syrian refugees in Altindag and spreading fake news on social media, with 38 of them having criminal records, including for violence, burglary and looting.