ISTANBUL — “You said we would be praying in the Umayyad Mosque [in Damascus] in 24 hours. But what happened? Now millions of Syrians pray in our mosques. How could the political administration that is doing this talk about friendship, brotherhood and peace?” Turkish Republican’s People Party leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said recently in a speech directed against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“After you entered Syria, 3.6 million Syrians came [to Turkey], and you spent $40 billion on them. What would have happened had you spent those $40 billion on businessmen, farmers and industrialists instead?”
This anti-Syrian refugees political discourse could contribute to turning hatred into action, according to Osama al-Boushi, a Syrian activist living in Istanbul, citing an incident on January 7, when 11-year-old Syrian Muhammad al-Ahmad was viciously beaten by a Turkish man in Ankara, leaving him with a broken arm, a fractured skull, dental damage and a swollen eye. In December, four Syrian children were beaten by guards (Güvenlik) in one of Istanbul’s metro stations.
Further, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) documented eight cases of assault against Syrians in Turkey between October 2019 and August 2020. These assaults vary from humiliation to the destruction of property and even murder.
Echoing Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech, an academic and former member of parliament, Pelin Gündeş, tweeted on February 21, “There are no Syrian women in the labor market. Have you ever seen a Syrian woman do any domestic work? Our women and Uzbeks and Turkmen women are doing these things. I am 48 years old and still work even on Sundays. But Syrian women staying at home exhausts me.” Many on social media considered her tweet as inciting hatred against Syrians in Turkey.
The report published by the SCM cited six similar speeches and tweets by Turkish celebrities and politicians between July and September 2020, one of which was a speech by a prominent member of the Good Party, Ilay Aksoy, denouncing employment of the Syrian woman Aya al-Sakka in Basaksehir city.
Also, on December 15, Turkish journalist Fatih Altayli attacked Syrians in Turkey on a live broadcast on the Turk Haber TV network, saying that Syrians have overtaken Turkey and are not held accountable. This enraged many Syrians and Turks on social media, many of whom denounced it as racist.
According to al-Boushi, who has been following the Syrian refugees’ situation in Turkey, many racial incidents against Syrians occur after the Turkish opposition’s anti-Syrian statements.
Amir Said, a Syrian refugee living in Istanbul, “had a dispute with a pro-opposition Turk who believed that hosting Syrians in Turkey was a mistake and blamed us as Syrians for leaving Syria – as if we left willingly!” he told Syria Direct. In another incident, Said’s colleague refused to compensate him for overtime, confirming that this has happened to many of his Syrian friends.
On 27 August, activists circulated photos on social media of posters unknown people had spread in Gaziantep calling for Syrians to return to their country.
However, it remains uncertain whether all of the assaults against Syrians in Turkey are racially motivated by racism. Al-Boushi could not say for sure that the beating of the child, al-Ahmad, was racially motivated, pointing out that the incident took place on a street known for being heavily populated by Syrians.
According to Batoul (Um Beshr), sometimes people demand that Syrians return to their country. Her sister, she said, once asked her neighbor to lower the noise from her house, but the neighbor instead texted her, “I’ve lived here for years; if you don’t like it here, go back to your country.” However, the neighbor’s husband later apologized and told Batoul’s sister that there was no difference between them.
Despite the spread of news of problems Syrians face in Turkey, it’s not all negative, according to Um Beshr, saying that she receives a warm welcome from her neighbors and the mothers of her children’s friends at school and that some neighbors sometimes invite her over to their homes.
Said tells of another experience he has had with Turks, “We get along well, maybe because I speak Turkish. The Turks are nationalist people, and they like it when they see you speaking their language. This may make them treat you better.”
Orhan Goul (pseudonym), a Turkish citizen living in Istanbul, told Syria Direct that he has never had an incident with a Syrian despite being in close contact with them and working with many of them, and they are on good terms. Goul emphasized that this does not only apply to him but also his family and those close to him, none of whom have faced problems when dealing with Syrians.
“Syrians live among Turkish people and are free to practice all of their activities and become a part of Turkish society,” according to Turkish political analyst Yusuf Katipoglu citing the fact that Turkey has privileged skilled Syrians by providing citizenship to those who have fulfilled the necessary conditions.
However, “the naturalization of large groups of Syrians angers the public that considers that their ancestors fought for the liberty of this nation, according to Turkish writer and journalist Hisham Gonay, “and now foreigners who had supposedly come here temporarily are slowly being naturalized.”
Attempts at demonizing Turkey
Katipoglu has warned against exaggerating some of the assaults that “happen here and there against our Syrian brethren in Turkey” and “depicting them as a big deal.” The motivation behind this, he told Syria Direct, is “to demonize Turkey and put pressure on the government to overthrow it.”
According to Katipoglu, the Turkish opposition criticizes the government to put spokes in the wheels and use the “Syrian card” as a pretext, adding that when a Syrian commits an offense or breaks the law, it cannot be generalized to the entire Syrian people.
In the same context, Gonay considered that the attacks against Syrians in Turkey cannot be regarded as systematic or that the whole of Turkish society is taking part in the hate speech. “There may be some general distaste towards the presence of refugees in Turkey for known reasons such as the poor economy and widespread unemployment which lead to a negative sentiment by the public towards Syrians,” Gonay told Syria Direct, in combination with “the total neglect by pro-government media towards these incidents and its undermining of them leading to a rise in their numbers.”
Further, Syrian refugees, according to Gonay, were partially responsible for taking part in politics and publicly expressing their support of the government by raising the Syrian [revolution] flag during the elections and chanting in support of the Justice and Development Party, which provokes the Turkish public that views refugees as guests who are not entitled to intervene in [Turkey’s] internal affairs, especially elections.
On the other hand, “the Turkish Ministry of Interior is held responsible for not a single official publicly discussing the fact that there are many actors who provide aid to Syrians,” Gonay added. “So when a working-class Turkish citizen hears that Turkey has spent billions of dollars on Syrian refugees, they will complain about their presence and will see them as potential competition for their livelihoods.”
Contrarily, Katipoglu claimed that the aid provided to Syrian refugees is provocative only for a minority of seculars and nationalists.
President Erdogan previously stated that his country had spent $40 billion on Syrian refugees while the European Union spent only $3 billion.
The rule of law and dialogue with the opposition
In some instances, the police neglect some complaints by Syrian refugees or others either for “racist purposes, for there being no real damage or threat, or because the complainant does not know Turkish and did not provide an interpreter,” the president of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, Ghazwan Kronfol, told Syria Direct.
Consequently, if someone wants to file a complaint about racist verbal or physical abuse, it would be better to take their complaint straight to the Public Prosecutor’s office. The latter is obliged to respond to the complaint fairly, according to Kronfol.
The Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee follows up some assault cases referred to it with concerned official Turkish bodies that take deal with these cases “seriously and positively,” according to Inas al-Najjar, the Communications Officer at the Committee.
But the Turkish government will have to put in the most effort to find long-term solutions, according to Gonay, by awareness-raising campaigns or public statements on social media, especially as 80% of Turkish media is close to the Turkish government. This kind of awareness-raising could portray Syrians as successful students and business people who have contributed to the Turkish economy and undermine the image of the Syrian refugee as a burden on the state.
In this context, a study published last September by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies revealed that there is still ambiguity regarding projects to support Syrians’ assimilation and support them to learn the Turkish language. Additionally, the study showed that Turkish drama and media have negatively portrayed Syrian refugees as poor and rural characters begging on the streets. In contrast, Syrian institutions in Turkey have not played any role in addressing Syrians’ large presence in the country.
Also, tying the fate of Syrians to the future of the ruling Justice and Development Party does not serve Syrian interests, Gonay warned, calling them to communicate with the Turkish opposition, especially the Republican’s People Party to reach a solution, especially that Turkey is a country where power is alternated; the ruling party may change according to elections.
Among joint efforts between Syrians and Turks to reduce hostilities, al-Najjar pointed out that there was a “joint team between the Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee and the Assimilation Division at the Directorate General of Migration Management working on developing pathways for the assimilation of Syrians in Turkey and raising awareness in that regard.”
The Joint Committee is trying to shed light on the bigger picture for Syrians in Turkey, which consists of many success stories in the fields of science, education, business and sports.“We have many fantastic models of success stories, some of which have reached the media while others have been neglected,” al-Najjar said, calling on Syrians in Turkey to work more seriously and adamantly to show the actual image of Syrian society and its values and morals.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Ahmad Elamine.