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Anti-Syrian discrimination mars Turkey’s earthquake response

Amid a spike in anti-refugee rhetoric, some Turkish organizations and authorities denied shelter, food or evacuation rides to Syrian refugees in the aftermath of the February 6 earthquake.

1 March 2023

ATHENS — “You want to leave peacefully, or do we need to use force?” Five Turkish police officers stood facing Bilal* in the shelter for earthquake survivors in the city of Mersin, southern Turkey where he was staying with his family last month. He was still in shock after losing 15 relatives in the February 6 earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria four days before.

“We will leave peacefully,” he remembers responding to the officers. “We just got displaced by an earthquake.”

Bilal said the police escorted his family and a few dozen other Syrians in the shelter, run by the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), out on the grounds that it was reserved for Turkish citizens. “The shelter was very nice—the room had mattresses and a table, and the children slept well for the first time since the earthquake destroyed our house in Hatay,” he told Syria Direct.

Before coming to the shelter in Mersin, Bilal and his mother, wife and two daughters—three and four years old—spent three nights sleeping in cars, on the street and in the crowded house of a friend. They only spent one night in AFAD shelter before they were evicted, he said.

Syria Direct reached out to AFAD for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication. 

In Turkey, the February 6 earthquake impacted 13.9 million Turkish citizens and 1.74 million refugees and migrants, including Syrians. In its wake, while many individuals and civil society groups helped all victims, state-linked organizations providing the bulk of relief denied aid to Syrians in some cases, according to earthquake survivors and rights organizations, even as far-right politicians escalated anti-refugee rhetoric. 

As Bilal was leaving the shelter in Mersin on February 10, he saw a Turkish journalist speaking to a camera saying that Syrians were being expelled because they had destroyed furniture in the shelter, he recalled. “That’s just false, we were traumatized, why would anyone break cupboards or doors?” said this Syrian refugee. 

The police took the evicted Syrians to two buses, Bilal said, which drove them to the neighboring city of Tarsus. Staff at a school-turned-shelter there said it was full, so they were sent back to Mersin and taken to a university where they spent the night. The next day, a Syrian woman offered to host the women in Bilal’s family until they found somewhere else to go. By then, relatives had joined Bilal and his family, and the group numbered 20 people in all. They accepted her offer, and the men slept in cars.

The next day, he went to an AFAD center in Mersin with his niece, seeking placement in another shelter. “The person from AFAD said, ‘you are Syrian, you already took everything, this help is for the Turks, come back in five days and we’ll see,” Bilal recalled.

He said a Turkish police officer pleaded with the worker to let Bilal’s family in, and eventually they were given the address of a school where they could sleep. “The next day we went there, it was 70 kilometers away, but there was no school…they gave us a wrong address,” Bilal concluded.

Another Syrian in Mersin offered Bilal and his relatives his office, which is where they stayed until another, 6.4-magnitude, earthquake hit on February 20. They decided to leave the area, and traveled 500 kilometers to the outskirts of Ankara, where they rented a house. 

While they now had a roof over their heads, he said they faced a different kind of discrimination. “The Turkish Red Crescent was distributing aid around houses, but when they saw we were Syrian they didn’t give us anything,” he said. 

Serhat Belen, a Turkish Red Crescent spokesperson, told Syria Direct their team was helping “everyone regardless of status, nationality or ethnicity. We have been supporting displaced people for years in these regions through our cash program and community outreach activities, and we will do our best to support them in this current disaster.”

Bilal is now looking to rent a separate house in Ankara for his wife and children. “We want to rent, we want to pay: we don’t want anything for free,” he said. “With the earthquake, racism has intensified. Before, it wasn’t that straightforward.”

But beyond shelters and aid distribution, some Syrians displaced by the earthquake have also faced discrimination when trying to rent apartments. Journalist Zaina Erhaim told Syria Direct that bookings she made for members of her family through Airbnb were canceled twice when the hosts realized they were Syrian. 

“I booked a flat for my family in Ankara on Airbnb using my UK account and card…when they arrived with a confirmation in hand they were told there were no places available and [the host] asked us to cancel,” Erhaim said. “After kicking them out, I booked another flat for them using my account, same happened.”

Hiba* was also evicted, but from a garden.  She lost her husband when their home in Antakya collapsed during the earthquake, while she and her three children were pulled out of the rubble alive. With the help of some neighbors, they set up tents in a garden nearby. 

Four days later, “people came and told the Syrians to leave the tents so they could bring displaced Turkish families,” said Hiba, who is originally from Aleppo. She does not know if the people who told them to leave belonged to any organization. She left, and went to stay with a friend in a nearby city. 

“We have not received any help from the state, not even the 10,000 Turkish lira [$532] the government promised. It has all been through friends,” she said, referring to a sum Ankara pledged to give all affected families—Turkish and Syrian alike. 

Restricted movement

Beyond being denied a place to stay, Syrian refugees in Turkey have faced limitations on their freedom of movement. By law, Syrians cannot travel beyond the provinces where they are registered as residents without authorization. In the aftermath of the disaster, authorities lifted this restriction for 60 days, but some restrictions remain.

“Officially, they said the Syrians can travel in Turkey but they cannot travel by air, they have to go by vehicle or bus, no air travel,” noted Melek Taylan, a board member of the rights group Citizens Assembly. 

Citizens Assembly has been monitoring discrimination in Turkey’s aid response since the earthquake struck. “In Antakya, Syrian refugees were forcibly pushed into buses and sent to other provinces, relocating them by force,” she said.

While some were forced onto buses, others were removed from buses they wanted to be on. Bilal said some of his relatives were taken off of an evacuation bus, as “in the bus evacuation to Istanbul, they didn’t let the men in, only the women.”

May*, a Syrian who works for a Syrian NGO in Turkey, said her team documented a similar case. “A Turkish man, his Syrian wife and their child were on a bus evacuating people from Antakya. At the checkpoint, they saw the woman’s Syrian passport, and asked them to get off the bus,” she explained. After a heated discussion between the father and authorities at the checkpoint, his wife and child were allowed back on.

A few bad apples?

Discrimination in Turkey’s earthquake relief response is “widespread” and has affected refugees’ “access to humanitarian aid such as food and tents, or their ability to flee to safer areas,” said Gülseren Yoleri, from the Refugee Commission of the Human Rights Association, a Turkish rights watchdog. 

In addition to Syrians, Kurdish and Roma people were also affected by discrimination during the response. “Kurdish youth who went to the region to help faced unfounded accusations and police violence,” Yoleri said. In the Kahramanmaraş region, AFAD had “forbidden” the work of Kurdish organizations and “confiscated their materials, Taylan added.” The Roma community in Gaziantep were “left completely on their own,” she said. 

Turkish organizations have “mostly” focused on “Turkish people only,” said Houda Atassi, Regional Director of International Humanitarian Relief. Atassi, herself a refugee in Gaziantep, said aid distribution was not “equal” between Syrian and Turkish victims, while many Turkish individuals stepped in to help on a personal level. 

May agreed that “most of the support to Syrians” came from private individuals—both Turkish and Syrian—or international organizations, but not from Turkish state organizations.

Taylan made a distinction between the main, government-linked Turkish players in the relief operation, such as AFAD and the Turkish Red Crescent, and smaller civil society groups that she said did not discriminate when distributing aid. 

On a structural level, Taylan said the centralization of power in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s hands hindered the efficiency of the emergency response. State agencies and the Turkish army were slow to respond, “all waiting for Erdoğan to give them the orders,” she said.

During the chaotic early days after the disaster, civil society organizations responded to the affected areas, “distributing food, clothes and tents,” Taylan said. But organizations “were prevented [from working] by AFAD because it had received an order not to let the civil society do this work, so the relief system got completely locked up.”

The head of the Gaziantep Syrian Community organization, Mustafa Hussain, emphasized that discriminatory acts during the response were the exception to the rule. “Many Turkish organizations help Syrians and Turks, they don’t differentiate. They give them tents, food, clothes, medicine,” he said.

Turkish migration authorities and town councils reached out to him after the earthquake to organize help for the Syrian community in Gaziantep, he added. “We organized a shared space  with Turkish and Syrian civil society to help everyone,” he said. “There are few cases of racism, but they don’t represent a big portion of the society.”

 A spike in racism and hate crimes

In recent years, far-right parties in Turkey have stoked anti-refugee sentiment, criticizing Erdoğan for allowing an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees to remain in the country. The Turkish economic crisis and political posturing ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in June also fueled anti-Syrian sentiment.

“For the last couple of years there has been a growing xenophobic discourse against refugees and migrants in Turkey,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch. Right-wing parties have promised to send all Syrians back to their country, leading to a “dangerous context for refugees because you have societal xenophobia, but you have politicians pumping it,” she added. 

In 2021, after a Turkish teenager was stabbed to death during a fight between Turkish residents and Syrian refugees in Ankara, neighborhoods where Syrians lived were vandalized. A number of Syrian refugees have also been killed and attacked in hate crimes in recent years. 

Arguably the loudest voice promoting anti-Syrian sentiment in Turkey is Ümit Özdağ, an extreme far-right politician and leader of the opposition Victory Party. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Özdağ portrayed Syrians as looters and thieves in several social media posts and media interviews. 

“His discourse promotes hate speech and hate crimes, and could actually represent an imminent threat to Syrians,” Sinclair-Webb said. A few days after the earthquake, Özdağ posted a video on Twitter that he claimed showed a Syrian man stealing a rescue worker’s phone. The man in the video was later revealed to be Abdulbaki Bozdağ, a Turkish citizen recovering his own phone. Bozdağ filed a complaint against Özdağ, and Turkish prosecutors opened an investigation.  

Özdağ put this on social media as a truth and then it became truth for people because it confirms the prejudice,” Sinclair-Webb said. 

In the first days after the disaster, cases of theft were reported, and rights groups have documented abuses by authorities in response.“There are cases of Syrian and Turkish people reporting a general level of ill-treatment by gendarmerie and police, and there have been particular difficulties for Syrians in this context,” explained Sinclair-Webb. 

“We are seeing a lot of attacks [against Syrians] by [Turkish] citizens,” Sinclair-Webb added. Last week, independent Turkish newspaper BirGun reported that some Syrians helping earthquake victims were physically attacked and treated as thieves.

In response, some refugees kept a low profile. Taylan said some Syrians helping in rescue efforts avoided speaking Arabic because they worried that locals could think they were there to harm them if they knew they were Syrian. Some refugees under the rubble “preferred to remain silent, bang or scream instead of speaking [in Arabic],” Yoleri added.  

Yet, despite growing anti-refugee rhetoric, Turkish citizens have also defended their Syrian neighbors. In one video posted on social media in mid-February, a Turkish man confronted far-right politician Özdağ in person as the politician visited affected areas. He told Özdağ that Syrians had been helping rescue people and that he was “tired” of his rhetoric.


Against a politics of division, Sinclair-Webb called on Turkish authorities to promote social harmony. “There is a need for community efforts to bring people together, unfortunately I am not seeing these messages because the government is still running scared of the opposition parties weaponizing the refugee card,” she added.

*Bilal, Hiba, and May asked to be identified only under pseudonyms, due to safety concerns.

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