ANKARA: Amid alarming reports about assassinations of Syrian refugees in Turkey, the trend of violence and the security of foreigners has become a source of concern in the country, where refugees were once welcomed with open arms.
The country’s economic woes, with high rates of unemployment and decreased purchasing power due to inflation, have pushed many to blame foreigners.
The frequent use of anti-refugee rhetoric by politicians has fanned the flames of racism. A Turkish court recently overturned controversial plans by the mayor of the northwestern city of Bolu, Tanju Ozcan, to increase water bills by tenfold for foreigners, as well as charging 100,000 lira ($7,435) for civil marriage ceremonies for foreigners in Turkey.
“They overstayed their welcome. If I had the power, I would use municipal officials to throw them out by force,” Ozcan said. “I know people will talk about human rights and they will call me fascist. I simply do not care.”
Anti-immigrant sentiment has hardened, exacerbated by an influx of Afghans after the Taliban takeover of their country in August 2021.
Last week, Nail Al-Naif, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, was killed in Istanbul by a group of men when sleeping in his room. Eight people, including five Turkish nationals and three Afghans, were arrested.
Another young Syrian was stabbed walking in a park in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir last week, just a couple of days after a mob attacked a shopping mall frequented by Syrians in Istanbul, allegedly after a Syrian refugee refused to give a cigarette to a Turkish man.
In November, three young Syrian workers were burned to death in the western city of Izmir after a fire broke out at their apartment when they were sleeping.
Police detained a Turkish man, who admitted that he caused the fire motivated by xenophobia.
Muge Dalkiran, an expert on migration issues and a junior fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, said refugees have been scapegoated in Turkey due to ongoing competition over economic resources, concerns over ethnic or religious balances, and security-related worries.
“The tension has also escalated as a result of misinformation in the media, xenophobic discourses and hate speech by public figures from different political parties that represent large and diverse groups in the Turkish society,” she told Arab News.
Dalkiran said that negative attitudes, hate speech, and xenophobia against migrant and refugee groups exist in many countries, but in Turkey a major problem is impunity.
“Due to the lack of (a) clear legal definition of xenophobia and racial discrimination, as well as the lack of the enforcement of law, this leads to the impunity for crimes motivated by racist and xenophobic attitudes.
“In addition to this, the lack of international protection of refugees also creates a precarious situation for them,” she said.
As Turkey has put a geographical limitation on the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, it cannot grant its main refugee groups, like Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, refugee status.
“Many times, because of the fear of detention or deportation, migrant and refugee groups in Turkey cannot even access official complaint mechanisms when they face violent acts,” Dalkiran said.
The number of Syrian refugees under temporary protection in Turkey is 3.7 million people, most of them living in Istanbul as well as the southeastern province of Gaziantep.
Over 2.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are under the age of 30. Overall, the country is home to about 5.3 million foreigners in total.
Metin Corabatir, president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara, said there are many examples of xenophobia that go unreported.
“Syrian refugees in Ankara cannot send their children to school for fear that they could be subject to physical violence or hate speech” he told Arab News.
“They cannot guarantee their own security and children pay it back with their declining enrolment rates,” he added.
In August 2021, tensions rose in Ankara’s Altindag district, where the Syrian population is concentrated in the capital.
After a knife fight between locals and Syrians, several workplaces and houses of Syrians were targeted.
“(Turkish) house owners in Altindag district reportedly began to decline to rent their houses to Syrians,” Corabatir said.
“The municipality abruptly stopped the coal and food assistance to the Syrians in the city without giving any excuse. Opposition politicians began pledging to send Syrians back to their home country,” he added.
“As the date of parliamentary elections is nearing, refugees and foreigners in general have been used for domestic consumption,” said Corabatir.
Advocacy groups also underline the alarming trend of hate speech in the country against foreigners more generally. Recently, a taxi driver in Istanbul beat a French woman after he overcharged her and her husband.
“We cannot send these refugees back to Syria, which is still unsafe,” Corabatir said. “Several international right groups, like Amnesty International, announced that those who returned home were subjected to torture, disappearance and detention.”
In January, a video was posted on social media of a Turkish man in Istanbul breaking the doors and windows of a house he owned because, after he raised the rent of his Syrian tenants by 150 percent and they refused to pay, he wanted to evict them.
Dalkiran emphasized the need for adopting a coherent and integrated approach by political parties and their leaders, the media, academia and civil society for the refugee-related issues.
“Rather than populist discourses to secure the electoral gains, a human rights-based approach should be prioritized,” she said.
“This needs to be accompanied by social awareness raising efforts to combat against racism and xenophobia together with the migrant and refugee rights.”