Turkey’s Nativist Turn against Syrian Refugees and Other Arabs

Until just a few years ago, Turkey’s political leaders were proud to call Istanbul the new “Arab capital” because it became the most favored destination of residence for many disappointed citizens of the Arab world. Recent reports on harassment of Palestinians in Istanbul indicate that rising resentment against Syrian refugees in the country is now transforming into a general hatred of all Arabs, a phenomenon buttressed by an anti-Arab nativist discourse from the early era of the modern Turkish Republic. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent call to make a series of policy changes regarding Syrian refugees—such as deportation of those who are involved in crimes and an end of free health care services for them—reveals a changing dynamic in Turkey.

The Troubles with Syrian Refugees

Tensions between the local Turks and the refugees are on the rise as the Turkish economy suffers from a chronic recession. Strained relations invite an environment conducive to violent eruptions, which were witnessed recently in the Kucukcekmece district in Istanbul, where Turkish crowds vandalized Syrian stores after false rumors that a Syrian male had harassed a local girl.

Although large-scale incidents are rare, a shifting political discourse about 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey has become salient in recent months. In campaigning for the Istanbul municipal elections—which had become a symbolic battle between Erdoğan and his opponents—the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoğlu, criticized the president’s refugee policies and called for a new policy to return Syrians to “their free homeland.” He added a warning about security concerns “that would really trouble us all, and there would be street clashes.” Imamoğlu also complained about the ubiquitous shop signs in Arabic in some districts of Istanbul. On the night of his recent election victory, reactionary Twitter hashtags such as #SuriyelilerDefoluyor (Syrians get out!) were circulated.

To ease public resentment, President Erdoğan and Turkish officials mention prospects for resettlement to safe zones—a discourse that supports Turkish military operations in Syria.

To ease public resentment, President Erdoğan and Turkish officials mention prospects for resettlement to safe zones—a discourse that supports Turkish military operations in Syria. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Istanbul mayoral candidate and former prime minister, Binali Yildirim, stated that 295,000 Syrians have already returned home, adding that “Istanbul residents should know that Syrians are not here to stay.”

Yet, as survey data suggest, most Syrian refugees would like to stay in Turkey. They are reluctant to go back to their war-torn Syrian towns or to resettle in Turkey-backed safe zones on the Syrian-Turkish border. With an unrealistic hope to persuade Syrians to go back home, the Turkish government lacks a long-term perspective. Approximately 430,000 Syrian children who were born in Turkey are considered stateless, in an official sense. Most Syrian refugees’ current “temporary protection” status puts them in limbo and their citizenship prospects seem unattainable in the current political atmosphere. Unfortunately, their current status also draws criticism from local residents who claim that Syrians play an unfair game when entering the labor market or opening a business because their status helps them avoid tax requirements and employment regulations that Turkish citizens have to observe.

Looking at the large picture, key drivers that fuel the recent nativist sentiment in Turkey are the worsening economy and the politicization of the refugee issue by divisive election campaigns in recent years.

Worsening Economy, Increasing Tensions

For the fourth consecutive year, Turkey is the top country for hosting the largest number of refugees worldwide. Turkey’s financial stagnation, together with 19 percent inflation and 14.7 percent unemployment—the highest level since 2005—increase anxiety in metropolitan centers and labor markets where Syrian refugees are seen as a threat. With limited education and few skills, an estimated 750,000-950,000 Syrians are employed in Turkey’s informal labor sector, while only 15,000 have permits for formal employment. Turkish unskilled workers feel increasing pressure to compete for a limited number of jobs and to accept lower wages. In some urban enclaves where internal Kurdish migrants compete for similar jobs, communal tensions have increased.

Turkish unskilled workers feel increasing pressure to compete for a limited number of jobs and to accept lower wages. In some urban enclaves where internal Kurdish migrants compete for similar jobs, communal tensions have increased.

In the government discourse, however, Syrians do not take jobs away from local communities; instead, they accept the type of jobs Turkish citizens do not want. Syrian “cheap labor” has provided a boost to an already strained Turkish economy. As Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak bluntly put it in 2017, “Turkey needs to view these three million people as human resources as well … Our factories would come to a standstill in many of our provinces without the Syrians.”

What disturbs government officials is the fact that economic competition in metropolitan areas is not confined to unskilled labor markets. Local business owners complain that the authorities protect unregistered Syrian grocery stores, restaurants, electronics shops, and similar enterprises, which are not supervised and thus benefit from unfair advantage, and they are growing in number rapidly. The refugees tend to shop at Syrian businesses, which often forces Turkish local stores to move to other urban enclaves, leading to further separation of the communities and increasing ghettoization.

Syrian refugees become more vulnerable as their status gets politicized in a crumbling economy.

In recent local elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party lost almost all major cities—the country’s economic powerhouses—where the majority of Syrian refugees reside. Although it is most difficult to make a direct correlation between the presence of refugees and voting behavior, most analysts point to the economic factors behind Erdoğan’s electoral defeat. Thus, Syrian refugees become more vulnerable as their status gets politicized in a crumbling economy. According to recent survey research by Kadir Has University, 67.7 percent of Turkish citizens are discontented with the presence of Syrians, showing a more negative trend compared to 61 percent in 2018 and 54.5 percent in 2017. In another public opinion poll that asked Turkish citizens about the most upsetting aspect of the refugee issue, the top complaint was “rising unemployment among Turks” followed by “begging” and “nonpayment of taxes.”

Politics of Syrian Refugees

Scapegoating refugees under turbulent economic conditions is not peculiar to the Turkish context, of course. Yet, Turkey’s highly politicized atmosphere, with frequent elections in the past few years, has fueled negative perceptions of Syrians, who are often associated with Erdoğan’s ruling party.

Although President Erdoğan and the Turkish government have played a “protective” role for the refugees, their increasing tone of Turkish nationalism since the 2016 coup attempt has served to encourage the anti-refugee sentiments, paradoxically undermining government policies. According to International Crisis Group field interviews, Syrian refugees do not trust Turkish police forces, who have been recruited heavily from Turkish ultranationalist cadres to fill the vacuum caused by the mass purges in the bureaucracy following the coup attempt. The two-year-long state of emergency (July 2016-July 2018) exacted a major toll on nongovernmental organizations operating at the local level, putting an increased burden on Ankara’s central government. Recent research on Istanbul’s 700,000 Syrian refugees indicates that the best practices of refugee integration occur in the districts where nongovernmental organizations are working closely with local authorities.

Turkey’s highly politicized atmosphere, with frequent elections in the past few years, has fueled negative perceptions of Syrians, who are often associated with Erdoğan’s ruling party.

In the past few years, Erdoğan’s suggestions to grant citizenship to Syrian refugees were met with strong public disapproval. Opposition parties blamed the president for trying to expand the AKP voter base and consolidate his grip on presidential powers—as most Syrians are believed to support him out of gratitude. Yet, Erdoğan gave inconsistent messages about the long-term plan for refugees, including a call for resettlement to safe zones in both parts of the Turkey-Syria border. His demand to grant citizenship to “highly qualified people”—such as engineers, lawyers, and doctors—has been implemented to a certain extent. By March 2019, the number of Syrians who were granted citizenship reached 79,894, two-thirds of whom were eligible to vote in the recent local elections. Moreover, the Turkish government introduced encouraging provisions for rich Syrians and other foreigners: those who purchase real estate worth more than $ 250,000, as opposed to the minimum of $1 million previously required, are eligible to apply for Turkish citizenship.

Moreover, the AKP’s emphasis on “Islamic brotherhood” with Syrian refugees has also led to politicization of the refugee issue. Turkey’s Alevi community and its secular constituency protest what they call the “Sunnification” policy, while Kurds perceive a political plot in the resettlement of large numbers of Sunni Arabs in the Kurdish-majority southeast. In fact, after a large number of refugee settlements, Turkey’s ethnic and sectarian composition in border cities is rapidly changing. Alawites—called “Arab Alevi” citizens of Turkey—are no longer dominant in the Hatay province, for example, as the demography has changed.

Palestinian Refugees: Victims of Turkish Nativism?

Increasing nativist sentiments hurt not only Syrian refugees but also all Arabs. Although the overwhelming majority of Turks sympathize deeply with the Palestinian cause, refugees from Gaza report racist gazes and harassment. Compared to the Syrian refugee issue, however, the Palestinian issue is less politicized in Turkey, receiving support for Palestinians’ well-being from a wide political spectrum. According to a recent public opinion poll, only 23 percent of Turkish citizens support normalization of relations with Israel; those who reject normalization are equally distributed regarding political affiliation.

Increasing nativist sentiments hurt not only Syrian refugees but also all Arabs. Although the overwhelming majority of Turks sympathize deeply with the Palestinian cause, refugees from Gaza report racist gazes and harassment.

Such continuous sympathy for Palestinians, however, is not translated into residential welcoming. Heightened tensions in Gaza led to a massive exodus of young Palestinians. Thanks to easy-to-obtain tourist visas, Turkey has become an attractive destination for thousands of Palestinians who could leave and sought new opportunities in Istanbul or Europe in the past few years. Yet, half of the refuge-seeking travelers, around 17,000 according to unofficial statistics, return to Gaza frustrated and regretful. Palestinians in Istanbul describe increasing security checks in the streets where Arab-looking individuals are stopped by Turkish police to answer if they are Syrians. Some even say, “I wish I had that honor”—of being Syrian in order to receive some sort of temporary visa status to work.

It should be noted that the Turkish Republican and official state narratives are not helpful in the face of growing antipathy toward Syrian refugees, which often evolves into anti-Arab hatred. Specifically, the anti-Arab discourse of the Kemal Ataturk era—such as “Arabs betrayed Turks”—is circulating among media commentators and politicians. In his recent article,1 for instance, veteran columnist Emin Colasan narrates how Ataturk’s banning of the Arabic script was so important, but that now it is challenged by the recent “invasion” with millions of “aliens” who come from Syria and “uncivilized Islamic countries” and has become “a plague in all terms.” Unfortunately, especially when invoking Ataturk, such claims are often not seen as “racism,” as his ideology was inculcated in the official public education curriculum. When it comes to the portrayal of the high-brow, “modern,” and secular Turk versus the “uncivilized” Middle Easterner, there is no shortage of Turkish state ideological repertoires. According to a media watch organization, 1,148 news articles and columns in the Turkish print media—published in the year 2017 alone—were identified as featuring hate speech against Syrians.

The Turkish Republican and official state narratives are not helpful in the face of growing antipathy toward Syrian refugees, which often evolves into anti-Arab hatred.

Overcoming Nativism Demands a Long-Term Vision

The Turkish government’s recent steps to ease tensions—i.e. limiting Arabic shop signs, promising to allocate more funds to municipalities that have more refugee residents, and deporting those Syrians involved in crimes—may bring positive outcomes. However, without a long-term vision, such policies will likely be ineffective. Conflicting messages from government officials stem from the fact that Erdoğan’s AKP has consistently allied with the Turkish Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in the past few years, and running the new presidential system smoothly requires MHP’s firm support in the Turkish parliament. Critics of Erdoğan, including former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, lament that AKP has become a Turkish nationalist party in discourse and action, losing its original core values and orientation.

In fact, nativism is the most salient issue that distinguishes AKP from MHP—the two parties that form Erdoğan’s coalition in the parliament. As an identity-based Turkish-nativist party, MHP has not offered any substantial policy for the refugee issue. Yet, a lack of long-term vision will hurt AKP, not MHP. If AKP reinvigorates a pluralistic language and avoids divisive political campaigns with a religious discourse, Erdoğan may find support from liberal circles for developing sustainable strategies for refugees. Long-term efforts should include strengthening local administrations and nongovernmental organizations to address the problem of ghettoization as well as the language barrier between locals and refugees. Better facilities for educating refugee children and developing long-term solutions to youth delinquency—instead of an immediate deportation to a war zone—are often neglected initiatives, despite the fact that they are found to be key themes and effective strategies in field observations by academic experts.

Mustafa Gurbuz is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Mustafa and read his previous publications click here

1 Available in Turkish only.