'Who am I? I'm a human being!': The violent rise of anti-Syrian racism in Turkey
Over the past 11 years, Turkey has been home to millions of refugees from Syria. Historically, Turkey has provided a warm welcome to those fleeing violence, but the recent economic downturn and political and social changes have altered most people’s attitudes towards the more than three million Syrian refugees in the country, who are blamed for the country’s economic crisis.
Racism and discrimination against Syrians are now rife in Turkey, and violent attacks against Syrians have skyrocketed. While the known cases are shocking and deadly, it's likely that the true scale of the violence is much greater, as many are too scared to report attacks.
Some violent cases have sparked national and international outrage. In June, a group of Turkish men physically assaulted Leyla Muhammad, an elderly Syrian woman, in what is believed to be a racially motivated attack. Many more have faced a constant barrage of verbal abuse and emotional manipulation.
"The recent economic downturn and political and social changes have altered most people's attitudes towards the more than three million Syrian refugees in the country, who are blamed for the country's economic crisis"
Now, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to repatriate one million Syrians and attempts to restore relations with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have frightened many, who believe their home country is still unsafe for them.
Analysts believe that Syrian refugees are being used as scapegoats for the state of the country and pawns in domestic politics ahead of the elections in 2023.
“Since we are seeing a rising opposition to Turkish President Erdogan, he is trying to use Syrian refugees to create xenophobic feelings throughout the population, making them a scapegoat for society’s problems,” Hakim Mohammed, a MENA-based political analyst, told The New Arab.
For Mohammed, the racism in Turkey against Syrian refugees is primarily economically and politically motivated by rising inflation, a deteriorating economy, and the upcoming elections, which all fuel propaganda against refugees.
Many Syrians had hoped to build a better and safer life in Turkey, but with the emerging political climate, many have started to make plans to seek asylum somewhere else, a far-fetched dream with significant financial and legal obstacles. Ideally, most hope to settle in Europe.
“I lived in what they say is a safe zone and I can tell you there is nothing safe about it, we wouldn’t have been in Turkey if it wasn’t dangerous there, so I hope that my and my family’s asylum gets accepted in Holland,” Sami Aboud, a Syrian carpenter and a refugee who flew from Damascus to Istanbul, told The New Arab.
Aboud believes that Turkey’s political actors are building election platforms on the pledge of sending Syrians back and are blaming refugees to cover up the root causes of Turkey's economic troubles.
Politicians have been accused of stoking tensions with xenophobic language in recent local election campaigns and President Erdogan, who initially welcomed Syrians, is now taking a tougher stance after coming under fire from opposition groups.
Critics of President Erdogan say that sending back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey will only create more tension and drive violence between communities in Northern Syria. Those in Turkey have already suffered significant psychological harm, and the thought of returning to Syria makes them anxious.
Hiba Seif, a 26-year-old Syrian refugee and mother of two children, recounts how her husband was detained by Turkish police on his way to the supermarket to buy their newborn milk.
Having lived in war and destruction for ten years and sacrificed their safety to reach Turkey, Hiba and her husband are now being pressured to return home.
"We are originally from Damascus, but fled to Idlib to escape the Assad regime. I was pregnant and tried to flee to Turkey several times after the shelling and bombings in Idlib," Seif told The New Arab as tears rolled down her eyes.
"'I thought that the experience I went through in Syria was one of the harshest ones, but today I feel overwhelmed by the injustice and inhumanity that I'm experiencing'"
“My husband is the backbone of my household; we are financially dependent on him, and my kids' health has become unhealthy due to the absence of their father for over 80 days," she added.
Turkish authorities have now stopped issuing kimlik cards, which grant Syrian refugees legal protections, entitle them to move freely within Turkish territory, and make them eligible to receive all Turkish government services. They have also been detaining refugees at camps near the border.
"I thought that the experience I went through in Syria was one of the harshest ones, but today I feel overwhelmed by the injustice and inhumanity that I'm experiencing because they've forced me to leave you and the kids," reads a letter that Seif’s husband wrote to her.
“Syrians are getting the blame for everything, for corruption, for unemployment, for inflation, and for the rising cost of living,” said Seif.
In a tree-shaded neighbourhood in the suburbs of Ankara, Ahmad Al-Safadi runs the sweet business that he brought from Damascus with him to Turkey. He tells The New Arab about the decision of him and his wife to take their three children and return to Syria.
“We have been resisting racism and discrimination for a very long time, but we now have come to the point where my son had thought of suicide because of constant bullying,” said Al-Safadi.
He explained that his daughter wants to drop out of school because she cannot handle the hatred anymore, and he called on the government to address the widespread issue in a systematic manner.
Al-Safadi’s business was attacked several times in the past year and he has now become discouraged by a notable shift in attitudes amongst Turkish people.
“They would throw rocks at my shop, break all the glass, and cause a lot of disturbance in the shop,” recounted Al-Safadi.
Experts fear that the already surging rate of inflation will heap more pain on cash-strapped households and drive further racist attacks and hostile attitudes towards Syrians. What happens next could jeopardise the lives and security of Syrians.
“It is not about voluntary return, it is about forcing them to return. But these safe spaces are not always safe and that is the battle we are campaigning for,” said Maha Numan, an advocate and analyst on refugee rights.
Recently, a 17-year-old Syrian student was verbally attacked with racist expressions from Turkish people whilst speaking in a street interview.
“I left school because of the racism inflicted on me, I was at the top of the class because of my 9th-grade average,” he said.
“Who am I? I'm a human being!” he added.
"Despite some residing in Turkey for over a decade, Syrians are still seen as temporary guests and a burden on society, a perception that has fortified recently"
After the video of the street interview went viral, the Syrian teen was then hosted with his father at the Turkish presidential complex in Ankara by the chief advisor to Erdogan, sparking criticism from far-right politicians.
Despite some residing in Turkey for over a decade, Syrians are still seen as temporary guests and a burden on society, a perception that has fortified recently. Meanwhile, the Turkish government continues to impose restrictions against them.
For example, Syrian refugees were banned from visiting home for the Eid al-Adha holiday in July. Those wanting to return to Syria for celebrations were only granted a one-way permit. The same measures were also taken during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in April.
Just in 2022 alone, the Syrian community in Turkey has witnessed several violent mob attacks. On the 9th of January, several Syrian businesses were attacked in Istanbul by men chanting “This is Turkey, not Syria”.
In June of this year, two racist murders shook the community. Sultan Abdel Baset Jabneh was stabbed to death in front of his shop in the Taksim district of Istanbul and Sherif Khaled al-Ahmad was shot and killed by a group of young Turkish men.
Europe, which gave billions to Turkey to keep the refugees away, has shown no indications of welcoming Syrians fleeing violence at home and abroad. In fact, EU countries continue to tighten their borders and push back refugees seeking asylum with dangerous tactics.
Caught between Syria’s political violence and Turkey’s hostility, many Syrian refugees feel their options for the future are grim.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.
Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462