In the wake of Turkey's earthquake came an aftershock of anti-Syrian racism
With over 47,000 confirmed fatalities in the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria, as well as over 300,000 displaced and an astonishing 26 million people left in need of assistance, the situation is beyond tragic.
Sadly, however, victims are still being made.
One particularly vicious addendum to this catastrophe is that it has led to an exacerbation of already intense anti-Syrian racism within Turkey. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, claims began to emerge of the mass looting of damaged shops and homes in earthquake-stricken towns by Syrian refugees.
In the city of Mersin, where displaced Syrians like Turks had fled to a shelter set up in a student dormitory, just a few days after the earthquake, authorities removed and herded them onto buses where they were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road 40 miles away in Adana.''
This was entirely false, driven by the now familiarly anti-Syrian voice of Umit Ozdag, a well-known anti-refugee demagogue and leader of the Kemalist neo-fascist Zafer (Victory) Party. Ozdag has a long history of attempting to stoke up anti-refugee sentiment and violence, including his call for the mass expulsion of Syrians from Turkey. Authorities even had to block Ozdag from placing a mine on the border with Syria, as a violently symbolic gesture towards his view that border crossings should be terminated.
Since the earthquake, Ozdag has been active on the ground in quake-stricken areas, openly exploiting the disaster to drum up hostility. On social media, he has also been preaching hate and organising protests to expel Syrians from shelters. Hashtags like #Nolongerwelcome and #WedontwantSyrians, have been trending since the earthquake.
Ozdag is sadly not a lone voice. Over the past few years, anti-Syrian sentiment has reached fever pitch, with the media, mainstream opposition parties and even the ruling AK Party using Syrians as a scapegoat for rapidly deteriorating economic conditions.
In combination with this, Turkey has been edging towards normalisation with Assad, to the end of being able to expel, or “resettle”, Syrians in the Baathist rump state. The result of this has been the arbitrary and involuntary deportation of hundreds of Syrians by increasingly hostile Turkish authorities, as well as escalating racist violence against them.
The earthquake seems to have brought out the worst in this anti-Syrian tendency, with reports of widespread harassment against Syrians across the country.
With Turkey’s elections just around the corner and as the presence of Syrians continues to be perniciously intertwined with the economic instability that has rocked the country, political support against the racist backlash in highly unlikely.
At a time when people should be coming together collectively to help one another in the face of such a cruel tragedy, Syrians are being targeted.
In the city of Mersin, where displaced Syrians like Turks had fled to a shelter set up in a student dormitory, just a few days after the earthquake, authorities removed and herded them onto buses where they were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road 40 miles away in Adana.
Across the country there are reports of locals, often backed by authorities, refusing Syrian families entries to shelters in an unofficial ‘Turks Only’ policy.
In the badly hit city of Antakya, a small group of Syrians were transporting the body of a friend they had recovered from the rubble when they stopped to get some soup from one of the charity vendors that was set up after the earthquake. As soon as the volunteers realised they were Syrian, not only did they refuse to give them soup, but a violent mob formed around them. Some Turks tried to protect them. When the police arrived, instead of castigating the vendor and the mob, they handcuffed the Syrians and kept them in jail for hours.
These are not isolated events, they keep unfolding across the country.
A Syrian mechanic friend, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, currently living near Gaziantep told me under the protection of anonymity that while “racial incitement” has been increasing for a few years now, never before has he seen such “open hostility” by Turks towards Syrians. He also spoke about how he’d been abused and told to “go home”.
However, what scares him most is the rapidity with which the situation has deteriorated. “Even back in 2016 … though there was some criticism of Syrians, Turks used to call us their brothers and sisters, but now they speak of us as invaders who are to blame … for everything that goes wrong.”
Erdogan’s Turkey used to stand as a shining light when it came to not just accepting but integrating Syrian refugees. We are now seeing that unravel.
The reality is that Syrians were always going to be susceptible to such racism in a climate where Europe—driven by its own uncompromising racism towards particularly non-white Muslim refugees—has made it impossible for them to be dispersed across the continent fairly and safely.
Syrians never asked to be in Turkey. Most would return home, but given they were being ethnically cleansed by the Assad regime and its allies, is obviously a huge motivation to stay away.
The fact that one day after the earthquake Assad bombed the rebel-held and earthquake-hit town of Marea across the border in Idlib, is evidence that no part of Syria is safe for them to return.
In reality, the earthquake was a tragedy within a tragedy.
When Syrians fled Assad, Iran and Putin’s machinery of death, they hoped that, at the very least, the world would be there to help them acquire stability and security in the face of a genocidal war. 12 years later, and in the face of natural disasters, a dangerously compromised UN, increasing racist populism against refugees in Turkey and beyond, the threat of the normalisation of Assad and the racist hostility of Europe, Syrian refugees are even less safe now.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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