AMMAN- Istanbul’s re-run mayoral election last month held deep significance for Syrians in Turkey, as it proved to be a microcosm for an ongoing national debate about the status of the 3.5 million Syrians who have lived in Turkey since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which holds a plurality of the seats in the Turkish national assembly, was defeated in Istanbul’s mayoral election for the first time in a quarter century. The loss prompted severe concern over the future of the AKP, as well as for Erdoğan, who once famously said: “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.”

The presence of Syrians in Turkey was one of the most salient issues in the mayoral campaign of the victorious Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem Imamoğlu and his competitor Binali Yıldırım, of the AKP party. Imamoğlu made a number of provocative speeches aimed at Syrians during and after the campaign, including one in which he said that Syrian refugees “threaten [Turkish] people’s incomes.”

Following his election, there were several attacks on Syrian-owned shops in Istanbul. 

During the election, Imamoğlu accused the AKP of mishandling the refugee issue, saying that it acted out of emotion and as a result, endangered Turkey. Yıldırım defended AKP’s policies, saying “Syrian refugees are present under temporary protection [status], and they will return after the war ends.” He emphasized, however, that there would be immediate deportation of anyone who disturbed the peace and security of Turkey. 

Despite frequent exploitation of the refugee issue in the Turkish political arena, the recent divergence in rhetoric between the supporters of the CHP and AKP has exacerbated the fears of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, who account for 64% of the global total of Syrian refugees, according to UNHCR statistics. 

Nonetheless, according to Hamzeh Takeen, a Turkish journalist close to the government, “It’s logical that both the ruling and the opposition parties [engage with] the Syrian issue, as it’s neither small nor simple. However, what is not natural is dealing with the issue in a racist and [otherizing] fashion.” 

“Syrians are currently part of Turkish society, and they exist in all its domains. They have foundations, schools, and [cultural and research] centers.” 

Who’s to blame over the growing hatred? 

In January 2019, a survey was released by the Center for Social Studies and Politics in Turkey which, by drawing on a sample of 300 Turkish citizens, showed that 77% of Turkish citizens want Syrians to return to Syria.

The recent Istanbul mayoral election was considered by many to be a “breaking point,” as Imamoğlu’s election was seen as a popular mandate for anti-Syrian policy. 

However, the election was hardly the beginning of such sentiment. Its roots can be found in the security, economic and political issues which have plagued Turkey in recent years. 

Concerns over the presence of Syrians first took form after a series of terrorist bombings along the Syrian-Turkish border, the worst of which was the deadliest terrorist attack in modern Turkish history, the May 2013 Reyhanlı bombings, in which 51 people died. Turkey accused Syria’s security services of carrying out the attack. Later, in 2017, IS (ISIS) carried out a shooting in a nightclub in Istanbul which killed 39 people and wounded dozens more. 

Perhaps even more importantly for the Turkish people and government is the growing strength of the Kurdish militant groups both inside Turkey, as is the case with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is recognized by several countries as a terrorist group, or across the border where the Democratic Union Party (PYD) controls most of northeastern Syria.

While Turkish officials have never stated that there is a relationship between the presence of Syrian refugees and IS attacks or the uptick in PKK agitation in Turkey, many Turkish citizens began to connect the two issues and see Syrians as a detriment to Turkish security.

The other, and perhaps most prominent issue, which has led to anti-Syrian sentiment in Turkey is the economic crisis that the country has been going through since 2016. Many figures in opposition parties have blamed Syrians for the crisis. 

However, experts point to several different factors to explain the economic crisis, including the uptick in terrorist attacks in the country, the 2016 coup attempt, and the tension between the ruling AKP government and opposition parties, in addition to the 2016 American presidential elections and the subsequent U.S. and European policies towards Turkey. 

“The decline in the value of the Turkish Lira was one reason for the increase in hostile [rhetoric] against Syrians, especially with the opposition suggesting that the Syrians are a burden on the Turkish economy,” Emran Abdul Haq, a Syrian lecturer of economics at a Turkish university, told Syria Direct.

“Syrians have contributed to the Turkish economy, in addition to [facilitating] infrastructure projects due to European funding [intended to] help address the refugee presence in Turkey.” 

Despite this, popular discontent has continued to mostly be directed at Syrians, following accusations from opposition politicians that Syrian refugees are harming the economy. 

Turks march in solidarity with Syrians in Istanbul, June 6th, 2019 (Anadolu Agency)

However, a 2018 study by the International Foundation for Technology and Economic and Social Research (UTESAV) in partnership with the University of Istanbul Medipol found that Syrian refugees in Turkey had a positive impact on the Turkish economy. 

According to the study, which was intended to examine discrimination against Syrians in Turkey, over 200 thousand Syrian-owned companies were registered in the city of Gaziantep in west Turkey in 2016 and 2017. Syrians also comprised 25% of the economic activity among foreign companies in Istanbul during the same time period. 

Syrians fuel domestic political struggles

The ruling AKP firmly embraced Syrian refugees in 2011, providing them with services that most other countries were unwilling or unable to give. At the same time, opposition parties began to use the presence of Syrians in Turkey to drum up political support, producing an angry constituency and a deeply polarized Turkish populace. 

“[Erdogan] used the Syrian issue to his advantage, making the opposition think that Syrians were on the side of the ruling party [AKP],” Ayla Mustafa, a Turkish woman from Istanbul, said. “This contributed to the incitement of [popular sentiment] against them.” 

However, Khaled al-Ali (pseudonym), a Syrian refugee living in Istanbul who spoke to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity due to security concerns, considers what is happening in the streets of Turkey “a reflection of the rhetoric of both the government and opposition.” 

“The expression [of rejection] of Syrians by the Turkish [people] has been given a green light by both sides,” he added. 

Still, Turkish opposition parties have played a large role in fueling hate speech against Syrian refugees by “using racist language against the Syrians, as well as fabricating false lies to polarize the [Turkish people],” Takeen said. 

These rumors became so widespread that the AKP-affiliated Committee for Human Rights published a report that addressed popular misconceptions about Syrian refugees in Turkey. 

One of the most popular rumors was an exaggeration of the number of crimes committed by Syrians. In actuality, crimes by Syrians made up less than 1.32% of the total committed in Turkey between 2014 and 2017, according to the report. 

It also refuted allegations that refugees receive free houses from the state, do not pay taxes, receive monthly wages from the government, and vote in elections despite not having Turkish citizenship.

“Usually the leftist parties are more [sympathetic with] refugees, but the situation is different in Turkey,” said Ömer Özkizilcik, an analyst at the independent, Ankara-based think tank, “SETA.” “Wherever the AKP [a right-wing party] was weakened, discontent over refugees increased. Some CHP [a left-wing party] mayors have even banned Syrians from entering certain areas.” 

“Despite fears … Turkey remains the best option” 

Emran Abdul Haq is frightened by the recent actions of the government towards Syrians in Turkey, specifically due to what he sees as a “change [in treatment of Syrians] on an official level, through a literal application of the law after years of giving them a margin of flexibility.” 

Despite official reassurances from Ismail Çataklı, Turkey’s deputy Minister of Interior, that “Turkey will not force any Syrians to return to Syria,” he repeated a warning that those who commit “dangerous” crimes will be deported.

The fact that this rhetoric is coming from the staunchly pro-refugee AKP, coupled with the assaults on Syrians perhaps signals a departure from the relatively comfortable living situation Syrians enjoyed in Turkey thus far.

Threats of compulsory returns are what concern Syrians in Turkey the most. “The fear is not only from the internal policies,” Khaled al-A’li said. “Rather, [it’s] from returning to [our] country or from Turkey giving Northern Syria to the regime.” 

“Despite the legitimate fears of Syrians [there], Turkey remains the best option,” Özkizilcik said. Speaking of those Syrians who sought asylum in Europe, Özkizilcik said that the European Union “went crazy” after just 1 million refugees, whereas Turkey alone hosts 3.5 million refugees. 

“Turkey’s policies towards Syrian refugees will focus on integration more than before. [However, there will be] an emphasis on preventing any new refugee flows [from Syria].” 

According to the pro-AKP journalist, Takeen, “Turkey’s policy towards Syrian refugees has not changed on the official level, and there is no indicator that proves the contrary.” 

Furthermore, many Turks are still standing with and supporting Syrians. Turkish citizens marched in a show of solidarity with Syrians on June 6th, after a series of assaults on Syrian-owned shops in Ikitelli, which were fueled by rumors that two Syrian teenagers verbally assaulted a Turkish girl. 

“Some people want to play a negative role, to provoke conflicts with the Syrians,” said Matin Turan, the president of the Arab League Society, the group who organized the solidarity march.