Is xenophobia against Syrian refugees on the rise in Turkey?

Tensions between locals and Syrian refugees in Turkish cities first sparked in 2014 in Gaziantep, where a Syrian was attacked by Turks

Menekse Tokyay
Menekse Tokyay - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Istanbul - The Syrian conflict has resulted in an influx of about three million refugees into Turkey, fueling xenophobia toward Syrians.

After a youth was recently attacked with a knife and his cellphone allegedly seized by a Syrian in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, protesters gathered on July 10 against the presence of Syrians.

On July 16, about 50 shops belonging to Syrians were stoned, and many Syrians faced lynching attempts following a racist campaign organized on social media.

Ziad O, a Syrian refugee living in the coastal city of İzmir, is well aware of rising xenophobia against Syrian refugees in Turkey, although he has not witnessed any social discrimination so far.

“I know many Syrian refugees here in Izmir who are verbally abused and mistreated by their bosses, who had to work longer hours for less money compared to their Turkish colleagues, especially in the textile sector,” Ziad told Al Arabiya English.

Ziad, who was a lawyer in Syria, had to leave Damascus four years ago. He now teaches Turkish to Syrian refugees and Arabic to Turks, as well as freelance translation.

Tensions between locals and Syrian refugees in big cities here first sparked in 2014 in the southeastern province of Gaziantep, where a Syrian was attacked by Turks following a traffic accident.

Quickly thereafter, a Turkish landlord was killed by his Syrian tenant in Gaziantep, leading to an exodus of refugees from there.

A xenophobic campaign on social media with the trending hashtag #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliİstemiyorum (I don’t want Syrians in my country) is supported by people who consider Syrian refugees a financial and social burden, and accuse them of stealing jobs.

The idea of granting citizenship to Syrian refugees, proposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 2, has triggered heated debate and further xenophobia, leading to physical violence between locals and Syrians.

In the central Anatolian town of Beysehir, one such clash on July 9 over the kicking of a stray dog resulted in the murder of a Syrian, and Syrian homes were stoned.

A Syrian girl begs in the street of Istanbul as she hugs another child. (AFP)
A Syrian girl begs in the street of Istanbul as she hugs another child. (AFP)

Ziad said some Syrian refugees want Turkish citizenship because they see their future in Turkey. However, “language is an important barrier,” he said.

“The authorities should provide them with opportunities to learn Turkish, and find solutions to the negative impacts of their entrance into the workforce, especially unregistered work that harms society.”

The German Marshall Fund’s Turkish Perceptions Survey (2015) revealed that 84 percent of Turks were worried about refugees coming from Syria, while 80 percent thought immigrants had not integrated well.

Ozgehan Senyuva, an expert on EU-Turkey relations from Ankara’s Middle Eastern Technical University, said granting citizenship to refugees does not automatically resolve xenophobia.

“The main issue is ensuring the integration of these people,” Senyuva told Al Arabiya English.

“They’re mainly young people with no access to education opportunities since a long time. The key for their adaptation process is education.”

Experts tell Al Arabiya English that disinformation stirs up xenophobia. “Some say Syrian refugees will get free housing from the Turkish state, while others claim they’re taking their jobs or increasing crime rates,” Senyuva said.

“It has become clear that Syrians in Turkey aren’t just temporary guests, so there’s an urgent need for broader policies to integrate this growing number into society with long-term and comprehensive strategies in different areas such as education and youth policies.”

However, Metin Çorabatır - former spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Turkey, who currently heads the Center for Asylum and Migration in Ankara - says policies regarding Syrian refugees in Turkey have always been the focus of politics.

“Unfortunately, the Turkish government hasn’t elaborated those policies through countrywide discussions, and hasn’t informed Turkish citizens about the broader aspects of its refugee policy, which has directly increased social anger toward them,” Corabatir told Al Arabiya English.

With the latest discussions about prospective citizenship to Syrian refugees without addressing concerns, Turks are beginning to see them as a cultural, economic, social and political threat, he adds.

According to Corabatir, in order to overcome rising xenophobia against Syrian refugees, there is a need for public diplomacy, and the authorities should accurately inform Turkish citizens about why the country is hosting so many refugees, and why they need help.

“Syrian refugees in Turkey won’t go back to Syria anytime soon, so we should be prepared to handle them in a socially effective way,” he said.

A Syrian girl begs in the street as another child sleeps next to her, in downtown Istanbul. (AFP)
A Syrian girl begs in the street as another child sleeps next to her, in downtown Istanbul. (AFP)
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