As Turkey Faces Economic Troubles, Syrian Refugees Are No Longer Welcome
With Turkey heading for parliamentary and presidential elections, the issue of Syrian refugees has become a central topic of the political debate as opposition parties and presidential candidates pledge to revisit Ankara’s policy toward Syrians.
Earlier this week, nationalist Good (IYI) Party presidential candidate Meral Aksener vowed to “send 4 million Syrian refugees back to Syria” in a campaign promise.
After placing the blame for the refugee flow on Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s meddling in Syria’s internal affairs, Aksener said she would fix relations with Damascus and send Syrian brothers and sisters back to their country.
“The money spent on them is 150 billion Turkish Liras. It makes $36 billion U.S. dollars,” Hurriyet daily news quoted her as saying at a campaign rally in the northwestern province of Bolu on Tuesday.
She is not alone in her stance towards Syrians in Turkey.
Muharram Ince, the presidential candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), also has an unwavering position about some of the Syrians who went back to their home country to visit their relatives during Muslim Holy day of Eid.
“There are 4.5 million Syrians living in Turkey. Nearly 72,000 Syrians go there during Eid and stay in Syria from one week to ten days. If you can go and return after 10 days, stay there permanently,” he said during a televised interview aired on CNN Turk in late May.
“Why do you come back, for holiday? It means conditions are ideal [there]. If you go there, I would shut down the doors. Is this soup kitchen?” he said, adding that Turkey’s own citizens suffer a high rate of unemployment.
When Syria descended into a bloody civil conflict seven years ago, thousands of people fled the bloodshed. Turkey became one of the first countries that opened its borders to accommodate the civilians. The modest number of the refugees in the initial phase of the Syrian war later skyrocketed into staggering figures, making Turkey the country with the largest refugee population in the world.
The flow of migrants to the E.U. countries in 2015 and 2016 dramatically swept the political landscape across the continent. It unsettled social fabric there, with ominous repercussions for domestic politics everywhere, from Italy to Austria, and from Hungary to Germany. It fueled the rise of right-wing and anti-immigrant populist parties. The pull of nationalism and the emerging tide of anti-immigrant sentiment now re-defines the nature of political debate across the E.U.
Though not identical to the situation in Europe, a similar pattern is building in Turkey where a change of heart against refugees is no longer secret. It constitutes the backbone of the strong resentment among opposition parties, which see the AKP as the main actor responsible for plunging Turkey into the Syrian morass.
The discussion of the refugee issue is inextricably linked with Turkey’s Syria policy and its intervention to steer the course of the conflict from the beginning in a bid to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime. What started for Ankara as an ambitious push for regime change in Damascus in 2011, later evolved into a different strategy and goal to keep a check on the expansion of a Syrian Kurdish militia in northern Syria that the Turkish government sees as a vital national security threat.
Turkey and Syrian Refugees
“Turkey has a mixed approach towards migrants and refugees: on the one hand, surveys constantly show very high levels of xenophobia, over 90 percent; on the other hand, hospitality and solidarity with other members of the Muslim community is considered a high value,” said Franck Duvell, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher at The Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at Oxford University.
Duvell told Globe Post Turkey that the AKP government and its president have been positive about the influx of Syrians for three reasons.
“First, it is part of their foreign policy to provide protection to people from other Muslim countries, notably Syrians who flee a government the AK Party wants to see ousted. Second, it is economically conducive as Syrians are recruited as cheap and informal labor for jobs Turks no longer accept, such as in the textile industry,” he said, expounding on the factors that shaped the AKP government’s approach to the issue. “This helps to keep the industry afloat.”
And third, he added, they are welcome as additional subjects for an already aging society.
But things have not always been without challenges. And despite the conventional wisdom about the prevalence of hospitality and generosity shown by the Turkish public, there was also another element in the story which has largely cloaked from the media spotlight.
“I have been following the Syrian refugee flow since the beginning and the popular perception about Syrians were already negative when the numbers reached half a million,” Professor Ibrahim Sirkeci, Director of Regent’s Centre for Migration and Integration at Regent’s University London, told Globe Post Turkey.
Ruling party’s full control over media, he argued, suppressed the views as well as preventing negativity coming out in TVs and newspapers. But due to economic factors, there is an increasing resentment towards the government’s policy regarding the Syrian refugees.
According to Sirkeci, historical cases in other countries reveal that “when there are an economic growth and low unemployment and general feeling of wealth, people are not worried much about refugees, but when things go downwards, then they are the easier to spot scapegoat.”
He noted that in the last few months, Turkish Lira lost about 25 percent in value and job creation is not there. People towards the bottom of the ladder feel the heat the most. With a worsening economic crisis, Turkey can see racist discourses against Syrians spelled out more, Sirkeci added.
Duvell thinks that the current approach of Turkey vis a vis Syrian and other refugees is rather volatile. In case of an economic crisis, they would be the first to bear the brunt and ordered to leave, he emphasized.
“The opposition parties, if gaining or even coming to power indeed aim to swim on the wave of xenophobia, play the race card and are inclined to remove Syrians from the country. The AKP party now plays the same card in order to contain the rising influence of the opposition,” he said. “In many cases, this would be a clear breach of international law.”
Any change in government policy towards the refugees in Turkey has great implications and side effects for the E.U. as well. After months of wrangling, Ankara and Brussels sealed a deal in March 2016 to stem the tide of migration flow from Turkey to Europe.
That agreement curbed the migration influx to a significant extent. The future of the deal sometimes appeared to be in jeopardy due to occasional moments of diplomatic tension between Turkey and the E.U. in the aftermath of a failed coup, but somehow it remained in place.
Duvell said political debates on the subject in Turkey pose a huge risk for the E.U. Many of those who cannot or do not want to go back to Syria because they lost everything or for fear of persecution will once more try to move on to the E.U. instead. Given that we talk about 3 to 4 million people if only one-tenth would move toward West, that means nearly 400,000 people, he noted.