Analysis

'They Bite the Hand That Feeds Them': In Turkey and Lebanon, Syrian Refugees Met With Growing Hostility

While Erdogan boasts of Syrian refugees’ successful integration in his country, Turks are calling to deport them back to Syria

A Syrian family is seen in a tent on the beach in Istanbul, July 28, 2019.
AFP

A cartoon showing a couple and their child fleeing from a white crescent moon with threatening teeth on a red background is raising a storm on Turkish social media. Its resemblance to the national flag needs no interpretation; it symbolizes the Turkish government’s persecution of Syrian refugees.

The persecution began weeks ago but reached a new peak this month, when Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu issued a new regulation that may well result in thousands being deported. It requires all Syrian refugees to return to the Turkish province where they registered upon entering the country or face deportation.

Local and foreign news outlets reported this week that over 1,000 Syrian refugees were detained in Istanbul last weekend and given a month to leave.

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Soon after the drawing appeared on Syrian websites, Turks began responding angrily on social media, accusing the refugees of “biting the hand that feeds them.” A Twitter account called “I don’t want Syrians in my country” drew numerous enthusiastic responses.

Some Turks posted pictures of Syrians at the beach, smoking hookahs or otherwise enjoying life, to destroy the image of the wretched refugee that roused Turks’ compassion eight years ago.

Ismail Saymaz, a prominent opposition journalist employed by the pro-government daily Hurriyet (Turkey’s leading liberal voice until a crony of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bought it), said on television that refugees were making a laughingstock of Turkey. Government regulations require them to live in the provinces where they registered or in designated refugee camps, and they aren’t allowed to leave the country and then return. Yet 83,000 refugees went to Syria for the Eid al-Fitr holiday in June and 46,000 did so for the Eid al-Adha holiday, and then they returned, “turning Turkey into a circus,” he charged.

A Syrian refugee and her son at the Istanbul coastline, Turkey, July 2019.
AFP

Saymaz voiced a question many Turks are asking angrily: If tens of thousands of Syrians can return to Syria for holidays, to visit relatives and perhaps even to do business, why should Turks continue to support 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey? If Syria is now safe, why shouldn’t all the Syrians be deported there?

At least two mayors have banned Syrians from using their cities’ public beaches. Several towns have banned Arabic-language signs. Even speaking Arabic in the street can be dangerous; there have been recent media reports of brawls between Turks and “Arabic speakers.”

But if public opinion is changing, Erdogan’s opinion so far hasn’t. He frequently boasts of Syrian refugees’ successful integration in Turkey. His ministers report on the thousands of Syrian businesses opened in Turkey, the thousands of refugees who received work permits and the special classrooms built for Syrian children. He is rightly proud of Turkey for absorbing more Syrians than any other country and funding most of their needs.

But boasting of Turkish compassion for their “brothers in faith” has boomeranged now that Turkey faces an economic crisis. Tens of thousands of Turks have lost jobs to Syrians willing to work for less. Benefits have been slashed. Many Turks are on the brink of hunger.

Municipal services have deteriorated because they must now be provided to more people. Parents won’t send their children to schools with Syrian students because of their lower quality. Syrian doctors even work illegally in Turkish clinics, although Turkey doesn’t recognize Syrian medical degrees, providing what many Turks deem inferior medical care.

Ankara says it has spent $37 billion so far to absorb the refugees. During this time, unemployment rose to 13 percent and housing prices, especially rent, skyrocketed, leaving many Turks unable to afford housing.

Turks’ unhappiness hasn’t yet provoked widespread unrest, but it does have political consequences. Senior members of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) say one reason for the party’s defeat in Istanbul’s mayoral election was anger over Erdogan’s refugee policy.

A poll by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University found that 68 percent of Turks are unhappy with the presence of Syrian refugees. Istanbul alone has at least 500,000 refugees, and probably far more; new Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu puts the number at one million.

The political damage suffered by the AKP and Erdogan led the governor of Istanbul Province to set August 20 as the deadline for refugees not registered there to leave. Police have already begun searching for unregistered refugees and expelling them. Any refugees who entered Turkey illegally will also be deported.

Additionally, Turkish immigration police have persuaded thousands of Syrians to sign “voluntary departure” forms by threatening to arrest those who don’t sign. Turkish informants help them find these refugees.

Soylu tried this week to assuage both the government’s critics and the refugees, saying the new policy is aimed only at illegal refugees, while Turkey remains committed to absorbing legal ones. But many refugees still fear mass deportations are in the offing.

Erdogan hasn’t yet commented publicly on the rising tension, as it could undermine his foreign policy toward Syria. A large-scale return of Syrian refugees would imply that Syria under President Bashar Assad is now a safe country. Thus keeping the refugees in Turkey lets him deny the Assad regime’s legitimacy. More importantly, it lets him keep fighting the Kurds in Syria and occupying parts of northern Syria.

Lebanon’s Syrian refugees

Lebanon faces a similar dilemma. Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his supporters oppose returning the Syrian refugees for some of the same reasons Erdogan does, saying this shouldn’t happen until the UN brokers a political solution to Syria’s crisis and declares Syria a safe country. Hezbollah and its Christian allies say Beirut should bypass the UN and negotiate directly with Assad over the refugees, which would imply Lebanese recognition of his regime.

But as in Turkey, domestic pressure from Lebanese who have lost jobs or fear the country’s demographic changes has already produced several political decisions that could hurt the refugees.

Unlike Turkey, Lebanon has no refugee camps. Some Syrians have rented homes; others built shacks or live in unfinished building sites.

Roughly 80 percent of the 1.6 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack necessary permits, whether because of their cost ($200 for an annual residency permit and $750 to $1200 for a work permit) or because registration would subject them to supervision and deportation. Nevertheless, most Syrians work, in menial jobs that Lebanese largely shun.

The domestic political pressure, coupled with the desire to deport them and thereby help the Assad regime (which conscripts every returning refugee of the right age), led the labor minister to issue several new regulations last month. They require all Lebanese employers to arrange work permits for their foreign employees within a month; otherwise, they will be fined and the employees will be deported.

Though the new rules technically apply to all foreign workers, the main victims will be Syrians and Palestinians. The latter have already launched protests against the new policy.

Labor Ministry inspectors, not usually very active, are now working energetically to find, arrest and deport thousands of Syrian refugees. Employers report being fined thousands of dollars for every foreign worker without a permit. Nighttime arrests have become commonplace, and even refugees with legal permits have reportedly found themselves sent across the border.

Lebanon hasn’t been moved by appeals from human rights groups, saying its economic woes don’t allow it to let Syrians “steal” Lebanese jobs. But realistically, it can’t deport most of its refugees any more than Turkey can.

Lebanon relies too heavily on foreign labor; it also benefits economically from the refugees. And Turkey sees them as a diplomatic asset that serves its regional strategy.