'Be as invisible as possible': In Turkey, hostility to Syrians grows after Taksim attack

In Turkey, hostility to Syrians grows after Taksim attack
7 min read
24 November, 2022
In-depth: The identification of the Taksim bombing attacker as a Syrian national has exacerbated anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey, as politicians and influential media figures call for their immediate deportation.

The explosion in Istanbul’s busy Taksim Square area that killed six people and wounded more than 50 earlier this month has added fuel to the fire of the already flaring anti-Syrian sentiment in Turkey after the attacker was identified as a “Syrian Arab”.

Reciprocally, it has deepened the fears of the millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey, who remain unsure about their future in the country. The assailant’s ethnicity has been weaponised by anti-refugee circles to argue that Syrians pose a national security threat.

While the Turkish government blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the attack, the group denied responsibility.

"Accommodating the world's largest refugee community has led to tensions and growing anti-refugee sentiment"

Turkish police have arrested Ahram Albashir, the assailant, along with 46 others. Bulgarian authorities informed their Turkish counterparts on Saturday that five people were charged with supporting terrorist acts in connection with the Taksim bombing.

In retaliation, the Turkish army launched a military operation on Saturday night, targeting PKK and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) positions in Iraq and Syria. Rockets fired from the PYD-controlled area killed two civilians and wounded six in the border city of Gaziantep, its governor stated on Monday.

Following the release of Albashir’s ethnic identity, thousands of Turkish social media users as well as politicians and influential figures across the country voiced their disapproval and anger towards the government’s refugee policy, asking for Syrians’ immediate return to their country.

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'Send them back'

Batuhan Colak, the head of a Turkish news site, wrote on Twitter that “the bomber is a Syrian … millions of such dubious [refugees] exist in the country,” implying that Syrians were posing a threat to the country.

Sedef Kabas, a well-known television presenter, who was recently jailed on the accusation of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said, “Syrian, Afghan, Arab, African and more… All illegal immigrants must be deported immediately”.

People from all walks of life had opinions on the issue. A famous sports commentator said in a TV sports programme that, “I have no brother from Syria or Afghanistan,” adding that refugees must be sent back to their countries.

Turkey is home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, in addition to 650,000 who were born there. According to the Interior Ministry, the number of foreign nationals living in Turkey exceeds five million, including those that arrived in the country illegally.

People run away as Turkish policemen try to secure the area after a strong explosion shook the busy shopping street of Istiklal in Istanbul, on 13 November 2022. [Getty]
People run away as Turkish policemen try to secure the area after a strong explosion shook the busy shopping street of Istiklal in Istanbul, on 13 November 2022. [Getty]

Accommodating the world’s largest refugee community has led to tensions and growing anti-refugee sentiment. Last year in Ankara’s Altindag province, a simple brawl between Turks and Syrians escalated due to ethnic tensions, resulting in the expulsion of Syrians from the district.

“Yes, we are in fear,” said Ahmad, a Syrian barber in Istanbul’s Fatih.“Yet, this fear is deeper than that of being beaten in the street. We’ve lost our future in Syria. Sending us back would be another exile. So, the real fear is to lose the life that we’ve built here,” he told The New Arab.

The Federation of International NGOs, an umbrella organisation for multiple Syrian humanitarian organisations, issued a statement following the Taksim attack, stressing that the PKK and PYD are a threat to all people in the region.

“Targeting a whole population over the assailant’s identity and ethnicity saddens us,” the statement read.

"This fear is deeper than that of being beaten in the street. We've lost our future in Syria. Sending us back would be another exile. So, the real fear is to lose the life that we've built here"

No place to return

Osama, who lives in Esenyurt, one of Istanbul’s suburbs where the ghettoization of Syrians is observable, said, “people don’t understand that we’ve no place to return. There is no infrastructure, no jobs, no schools in Syria. Nor is there security”. He added that several Syrians, who voluntarily or forcibly went back to Syria, have been arrested by the regime forces.

Despite the widespread calls for the government to deport Syrians, only 16 percent would like to return to Syria if the war ends, according to a 2020 survey. Yet, a recent study has found that 82 percent of Turks want them to go back or remain isolated in refugee camps.

“It is a pity that they want us to go back to the hands of a butcher like Assad or to the PYD-controlled area, which also arbitrarily detains people,” Osama added.

The Turkish opposition has been promising to take any necessary steps to facilitate their return if they win the elections in 2023.

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“If we are elected, we will hold bilateral talks with Syria’s legitimate government. We must build houses, roads, schools, hospitals for the Syrians who will return to their country. How will we do all this? Our constructors will build all with the funds to be provided by the European Union,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the opposition Republican People’s Party, said recently.

Other opposition leaders have adopted a harsher tone. Umit Ozdag, head of the far-right Victory Party, for instance, has been referring to the presence of Syrian refugees as a “silent invasion".

“We are not invading anywhere. It wasn’t our choice to come here,” said Osama. “In fact, we try to remain silent and not get ourselves in trouble even if we face insults or discrimination.”

Syrian children sit with luggage as they wait with refugees to board buses returning to neighbouring Syria on 6 August 2019 in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul. [Getty]
Syrian children sit with luggage as they wait with refugees to board buses returning to neighbouring Syria on 6 August 2019 in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul. [Getty]

'Be as invisible as possible'

Safa and her daughter Tasneem told The New Arab that they have suffered from discrimination and insults from people in the streets or on public transportation.

“We are from Aleppo with Kurdish origin. We have never approved of the PKK or its affiliates in Syria. People say that we brought trouble to their country. I advise my daughter to be as invisible as possible so as not to have any problem or even a quarrel with anyone,” the mother said.

Tasneem was also disappointed with the stance towards Syrians that she calls “collective targeting.” As a student at a public university, she says “the day after the [Taksim] attack, I was so hesitant to go to school. When I arrived, everybody was talking about Syria and Syrians and I saw their unhappiness with my presence there.

“Indeed, I’ve heard several times that I was receiving education with the taxes they [Turks] pay while we, they believe, receive money from the government, which is a lie,” she added.

"Disinformation, along with increasingly hostile hate speech towards them, has pushed Syrian refugees further into isolation"

Some opposition figures have been claiming that Syrians benefit from free social services as well as sizable government stipends. This claim has been refuted repeatedly by several fact-checking institutions.

The disinformation, along with increasingly hostile hate speech towards them, has pushed Syrian refugees further into isolation. Osama says this isolation motivated him to move to Esenyurt to protect his son.

“In my son’s previous school in Yesilpinar [a former slum in Istanbul’s European side], the attitudes changed in the last few years. Even the teachers were referring to my son and other Syrians as ‘them’. Also, some parents ask their children not to spend time with Syrians. As a result, we decided to move to Esenyurt where the Syrian population is denser.”

In July, Turkey announced that 1,200 locations with high densities of foreign nationals would be closed to foreigners with the aim of decreasing their population presence, in addition to 781 neighbourhoods where the ban is already in place.

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Anti-Syrian sentiment grows

An Istanbul-based lawyer, Ibrahim Kibar, specialising in refugee rights believes that this anti-Syrian stance is not a new phenomenon. He argues that certain incidents over the last decade, such as the 15 July coup attempt, the fight against the PYD in Syria, and the pandemic, had simply cast a veil on it.

“Now, the economy is not going well. So, this problem is not shelved by people. Most importantly, Turkey’s paradigm has changed from pro-refugee to anti-refugee. Even the ruling party [Justice and Development Party] promises to send them [Syrians] back.”

In May, Erdogan stated that Turkey was building houses in Idlib to settle at least one million Syrians there. He also signalled that he would hold talks with the Syrian regime after the elections in Turkey in 2023.

As a result of this common rhetoric, Kibar believes, Syrians are facing more discrimination than before but are afraid to report incidents to the police. However, Kibar says this stance is not confined to Syrians; other nationalities such as Afghans, Pakistanis or sub-Saharan Africans are also subjected to it.

This pressure has already convinced some half a million Syrians to go back to relatively safe areas in their country, but the rest remain fearful of what their future in Turkey holds.

Yusuf Selman İnanç is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul covering Turkish politics, foreign policy as well as domestic issues such as refugees. He studied politics at Istanbul University and the School of Oriental and African Studies and history at Central European University.

Follow him on Twitter: @yusufsinanc