Turkey's election, Syrian refugees, and a race to the bottom of xenophobia

A Syrian woman walks past billboards showing President Erdogan and his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu [AFP]
8 min read
08 May, 2023

The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey have sparked fear and worry among the 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in the country.

Recent opinion polls show the country’s longtime president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, almost neck-and-neck with his secularist challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, with the latter having a slight lead.

The election is taking place amid an alarming rise of xenophobia and discrimination against Syrian refugees, with both candidates promising mass deportations, and Kilicdaroglu, in particular, focusing on the issue.

The 74-year-old opposition candidate, who is backed by the six-party 'Nation Alliance' led by his left-leaning Republican People’s Party (CHP), has repeatedly vowed to deport all the Syrian refugees in the country.

“We have unemployed young people but there are 3.6 million Syrians. We will send all Syrians back to their countries within two years at the latest,” he said at an election rally on 1 May.

"The election is taking place amid an alarming rise of xenophobia and discrimination against Syrian refugees, with both candidates promising mass deportations"

Syrian refugees have increasingly become a scapegoat for Turkey’s economic problems. In recent years Turks have seen their purchasing power dwindle, with many struggling to meet the basic costs of living as the national currency collapses in value amid unprecedented inflation.

The refugees are seen by many Turks as a drain on the country’s resources and have been blamed for a host of social ills ranging from sexual harassment to looting following the deadly earthquake which hit Turkey last February. An opinion poll conducted by the Syrians Barometer showed that 88.5% of Turks wanted Syrians to return to their country.

“There is fertile ground to blame Syrian refugees for social and economic problems, and for the government and other parties to run away for their responsibilities," Salah Al-Din Al-Dabbagh, a Syrian lawyer familiar with the situation in Turkey, told The New Arab. 

"So they give promises to get rid of the alleged reason – meaning promises to deport Syrian and non-Syrian refugees from Turkey.”

Xenophobic attitudes permeate society

While Turkey has been polarised for years between supporters of the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party which has ruled the country since 2002 and supporters of secular parties, opposition to the continued presence of Syrians appears to be a unifying issue for Turkish voters. Initially, there was some degree of sympathy towards Syrians in Turkey as a result of the devastating conflict in Syria but attitudes have hardened over time.

“No choice is better than the other as far as Syrians are concerned regarding the parties competing for power. Despite the main [CHP] opposition party putting deportation of Syrians at the top of its agenda, the ruling [AKP] party has adopted a policy of putting pressure on Syrians to force them into leaving or deporting them by force,” Al-Dabbagh told The New Arab.

The Syrians Barometer survey, which was conducted in 2021, found that 70.6% of Turks surveyed believed that Syrians would “harm our country’s economy”. It found a very disturbing incidence of racist attitudes among Turkish respondents with just over two-thirds (67.1%) believing that Syrians “disturb social peace and morality by engaging in violence, theft, smuggling, and prostitution”.

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The hardening of attitudes over the previous few years was best shown in a question asking Turks to describe Syrians. While in 2017, 57% of Turks surveyed believed that Syrians were “victims who escaped persecution and war”, that number had gone down to 33.6% in 2021. Meanwhile, around 40% of Turks surveyed believed that Syrians were “dangerous people who will cause us a lot of troubles in the future” and “burdens on us” in 2021.

These attitudes have translated both into casual racism against Syrians – with many being denied employment, housing, and other essentials of life - and regular violent attacks, with incidents of assault and even murder taking place on a regular basis.

Temporary protection – institutionalising discrimination

The outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 brought Turkey face to face with an unprecedented refugee crisis which Turkish society was not prepared for.

Between 2011 and 2015 the Syrian refugee population in Turkey grew from less than 100,000 to 2.4 million. Today a staggering 15% of Syria’s pre-war population of 25 million live in Turkey and an entire generation of Syrian children – who are stateless, without either Syrian or Turkish citizenship - have been born in the country.

While until 2015 Turkey implemented what has been described as an “open-door” policy to the refugees, they were not granted official refugee status but rather “temporary protection”. Turkey has a geographic limitation to its ratification of the 1951 UN refugee convention which only grants refugee status to those fleeing “events occurring in Europe”.

A Syrian refugee girl weeps as families board buses returning to neighbouring Syria on 6 August 2019, in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul. [Getty]

What this means for Syrian refugees is that they exist in a kind of perpetual limbo. The “temporary protection” status allows the refugees to reside in Turkey “until they are resettled in a third country” but no country is willing to take them in and the EU struck a much-criticised deal with Turkey in 2016 aimed at severely restricting the number of Syrian refugees crossing to Europe.

On the other hand, a return to Syria, where the same regime which forced the refugees to flee their homes is still in power, is not an option for the vast majority of Syrians.

Syrian researcher Suhail Al-Ghazi told The New Arab, “The system of temporary protection in itself is a discrimination and persecution law. It bans refugees from free movement and sends people back based on Immigration Directorate or police decisions - not through a court order where people can appeal”.

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Under “temporary protection” laws Syrians are restricted to specific areas in Turkey and often denied legal rights. Turkish authorities routinely round up Syrians and deport them, and there is a general fear among Syrians that if they are involved in any kind of trouble – such as an altercation with a Turkish citizen – they could be arbitrarily deported to Syria.

The sudden and unprecedented nature of the Syrian refugees’ arrival in Turkey, coupled with the “temporary” nature of their stay in the country – although most have nowhere else to go – has fed a situation where Syrians have not been integrated into Turkish society.

Most Syrians live apart from Turks and discourse on Syrian refugees has been dominated by politicians and commentators who present them solely as a burden and a threat. Social media has played a major role in this, with right-wing xenophobes like Umit Ozdag, whose videos have been viewed millions of times, leading discourse on the issue.

"No choice is better than the other as far as Syrians are concerned regarding the parties competing for power"

Competing to return Syrians

While Turkey’s secularist opposition has been more outspoken in its hostility to the presence of Syrian refugees, Turkey’s Islamist-leaning AKP government - which initially was relatively welcoming of Syrian refugees - has been accused of forcibly deporting them in violation of international law while loudly proclaiming that thousands of Syrians had “voluntarily” returned to Syria.

 In October 2022, Human Rights Watch accused the Turkish government of “trying to make northern Syria a refugee dumping ground” through its arbitrary deportations.

Last year, Erdogan claimed that 500,000 Syrians had already returned to Syria, and announced plans to return one million more “voluntarily”. In addition, following last February’s earthquake, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar claimed that 60,000 Syrians had voluntarily returned to their country.

However, the forced nature of the Turkish authorities’ deportations and the results of opinion polls among Syrian refugees in Turkey – which show that hardly any are willing to return voluntarily to Syria in the current conditions – make these figures very questionable. According to the 2021 Syrians Barometer survey, only 1.7% of Syrians expressed willingness to return to a “safe zone” in Syria.

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Salah Al-Din Al-Dabbagh told The New Arab that as many as 250,000 Syrians had been forcibly deported by the AKP government and that there would be more to come.

“The policy of forced deportations will continue, either with or without legal justifications. This is happening in many Turkish cities and human rights groups have documented the deportation of thousands of Syrians – including whole families - by force in the past few years,” he said.

Despite the AKP-led government’s deportations, Syrians in Turkey have expressed hope that Erdogan will win the elections, given the opposition’s far more pronounced hostility to Syrian refugees and its plan to deport all of the 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey within the next two years – a plan that is unlikely to be accomplished without force or violence.

However, Al-Dabbagh said that it was “incorrect” to presume the AKP would treat Syrians any better than the CHP.

Syrians arrive at Bab al-Hawa
Syrians arrive at the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Syria in 2019 after being deported by Turkish authorities. [AFP]

“The prevailing sentiment that the AKP is the best choice for Syrians in Turkey doesn’t seem to be correct. The [current] Turkish government has taken many decisions making life difficult for Syrians on its lands and Erdogan and the AKP have improved ties with [Bashar Al-Assad’s] government,” he said, adding that Kilicdaroglu’s plan was “unrealistic” and unlikely to be implemented in practice.

Syrian researcher Suhail Al-Ghazi also said that there was little difference between the two parties.

“What's expected is that whoever wins the election is going to take more steps to push as many refugees as they can to leave…. there’s not much difference [between the AKP and the CHP] because the voters want to send refugees back,” he told The New Arab.

While the opposition has been more outspoken in its hostility to Syrians than the ruling AKP, what the Turkish election campaign has done is to increase scapegoating of and negative discourse around Syrian refugees without showing any meaningful difference between the parties on the issue.

Regardless of who wins, the election is almost certain to lead to more xenophobia against and more deportations of Syrian refugees in Turkey – as well as very likely more violence.

Amr Salahi is a journalist and news editor at The New Arab with a focus on Syrian, Egyptian, and Libyan affairs