Analysis |

Erdogan Turned Syrian Refugees Into a Weapon, and It’s Backfiring

Turkey's president has used the millions of refugees as leverage against the European Union, but a recent uptick in racist incidents toward them is piling pressure on his government

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last month.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last month.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Ahmet Kanjo, 17, a Syrian refugee, was facing off against a group of about 12 Turkish people, arguing vehemently with them. “I had to leave school because of racism,” he said.

“We’re not racist, Turkey isn’t racist,” an older, white-haired woman shot back. “The country is full of dirty people,” she said, wagging an accusing finger in Kanjo’s face. “My son went to fight in Syria. Why? So you can live here peacefully and harass women? Excuse me, we sell all our possessions to rich foreigners, we’re the ones who feed them and fill their empty stomachs, and then they harass us.”

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But Kanjo was not deterred. In fluent Turkish and very politely, he told her: “You say that you sold all your possessions to foreigners, but it’s not Syrians you sold to.” “I mean foreigners in general,” she responded. “So don’t say you sold to Syrians. You blame the Syrians for everything,” he responded.

A Turkish man of about 60 wearing a flat, brimmed cap joined the argument. In a firm tone, he brought up some history. “Your forefathers worked together with the French and the British and stabbed us in the back, and they continue to do so,” he said.

Kanjo retorted: “You claim that we live at your expense. I am a human being. I work and study and pay tuition from my own pocket. You claim that we’re beggars; do you know that they threw my father out of work because he’s Syrian? I left school although I was first in my class, and you can check the school records.”

Slowly but surely, more and more bystanders, young and old, joined in. Some of them made derogatory comments and began to argue among themselves, until Kanjo started to feel threatened and left the scene.

The encounter looked like another one of the street confrontations now taking place in many Turkish cities. But this time, the outcome was different. The incident, which was filmed and shared on social media, was only a preview of what happened next.

Kanjo’s pointed statement, “I’m a human being,” struck the hearts of thousands of Turks who tweeted out the quote as a hashtag. “How can it be that a child of 17 has to say ‘I’m a human being’ in a country that is known for its warm welcome to foreigners?” one person tweeted. Businessman Sabri Toktas pledged to cover Kanjo’s tuition until the end of his schooling, and others expressed their support and decried the racists.

However, some argued that it wasn’t racism, but rather the expression of anger of citizens who are suffering economic hardship because of the serious economic crisis in Turkey. “The refugees are not to blame, the government is to blame,” one post said, careful not to specifically accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for fear he would be summoned for interrogation for “harming and insulting the president,” as has happened to hundreds of other people in Turkey.

Kanjo, however, was far from the only one to come under attack. A 70-year-old woman, Layla Mohammed, was struck in the face in the province of Gaziantep because she is Syrian, though she too received many messages of support. The video in which she is shown protecting her face from the man who hit her was shared and received responses showing people protecting their faces as a gesture of solidarity.

Other Syrian refugees have been less fortunate, and many have been killed in attacks. Syrian storekeepers have been attacked and their merchandise smashed or set on fire. Syrian refugees say that they are afraid to leave their homes or speak Arabic among themselves because of the harassment and the beatings they then endure. The victims find it difficult to report their attacks to the police because most of them are treated with hostility when they do, or they cannot recount what happened because their Turkish is weak.

The Turkish government has launched a website where people can submit complaints against civil servants who make racist comments. Turkish law punishes instances of racism, gender-based assault, mocking a disability or discrimination based on ethnicity or skin color. However, those who file a complaint are required to fill out detailed forms in Turkish, and many avoid doing so and fully identifying themselves, whether because they don’t know Turkish or for fear of revenge.

The government does make efforts to uproot hate speech against Syrian refugees, such when Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu met in his office with 21 outstanding Syrian students from various universities and praised them lavishly for their success, describing them as “brothers of Turkey’s citizens.”

Nevertheless, such gestures lose meaning the moment a member of parliament, Umit Ozdag, calls for the border between Turkey and Syria to be mined to prevent refugees from entering, and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the largest opposition party, calls for the deportation of a million refugees back to Syria. The Interior Ministry lodged a complaint against Ozdag for breaking the law, while Kilicdaroglu has softened his tone toward the refugees, but the hate speech in Turkey has not subsided.

‘Thinning out’ and movement restrictions

The hateful rhetoric has been somewhat fuelled by President Erdogan himself: after all, he intended to repatriate about a million Syrian refugees and to restrict the movement of refugees.

One recent regulation states that refugees may constitute no more than 20 percent of the population of a province, instead of the previous quota of 25 percent. Taxi and bus drivers are also required to check the movement permits of foreign passengers, because refugees are required to remain only in the districts where they are authorized to live.

Syrians living in Turkey wait at a clinic in Istanbul, May.Credit: MURAD SEZER/Reuters

These restrictions are an attempt to thin out the concentrations of refugees in big cities like Istanbul or Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, so as to mitigate the anger and opposition of local inhabitants to their presence, even though these are the very cities and districts where the refugees can find work. Prohibiting them from living there means loss of livelihood or education.

Turkey is thought to be the country hosting the largest number of refugees – about 4 million Syrian refugees live there, and another approximately 1 million fled from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Palestine. It has also managed to build proper infrastructure to provide public services for the refugees and to accept a significant number of students in schools in refugee camps and cities. Turkey pays for food and medical assistance, and has distributed hundreds of thousands of work permits and granted citizenship to more than 200,000 Syrian refugees.

Turkey began to take in and aid Syrian refugees from the beginning of the civil war in Syria, as part of Erdogan’s strong stance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Erdogan also saw this humanitarian gesture as a way to apply pressure on Europe.

The refugee agreement between Turkey and the European Union, signed in 2016 – by which Turkey would prevent waves of refugees from flooding EU countries in exchange for 6 billion euros, and a visa waiver for Turkish citizens – also serves as a threat against the EU every time a political conflict arises with Turkey. The issue of the visas has still not been resolved, and Turkey also claims that it has not received all of the money it was promised. Nevertheless, Turkey continues to adhere almost fully to the agreement.

A grain silo in Odesa, Ukraine, May.Credit: STRINGER/רויטרס

But this agreement has turned out to be a double-edged sword. Two years after it was signed, Turkey went into an economic crisis that has escalated this year with uncontrollable inflation of around 70 percent, severe unemployment and a freefall in the value of the Turkish lira.

The Syrian refugees who gave Erdogan leverage over Europe have become a burden and a domestic political threat. Until this year, Erdogan spoke of his intention to establish a security zone inside Syria along the border to “purge the nests of Kurdish terrorists who harm the security of Turkey.”

Two-pronged foreign policy

Erdogan has therefore started to stress the need to repatriate Syrian citizens. Along with Ankara’s invasion plan, which encountered massive opposition from the United States, Iran, Russia and European countries, Turkey has begun to build housing for refugees inside Syria. On Thursday, an agreement was signed between Turkey and Qatar to construct 1,000 units to house some 5,000 people.

It seems that the “thinning out” of the refugees is increasingly approaching the top of Erdogan’s agenda, the closer he gets to next year’s planned presidential election. A mass expulsion of Syrian refugees from Turkey could give Erdogan a nationalist political edge, and also partially help reduce the economic burden that welfare for the refugees imposes on the country.

Erdogan’s foreign policy is two-pronged. On the one hand, he is working to restore Turkey’s ties with Arab countries, and has even managed to renew diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Later, apparently in October, he will also appoint an ambassador to Israel.

At the same time, his relationship with the United States and European countries are tense, and he is presenting himself as the only leader who can mediate between Russia and the West. While the wheat agreement that he was able to weave recently together with the United Nations has still not gone into effect, a joint headquarters has already been set up and barring any surprises, within a week Ukraine will renew wheat exports to the Middle East and Africa via the Black Sea.

A meeting is planned next week between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort city of Sochi, where the two leaders will try to put together a joint plan to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. If this succeeds, it will be an achievement of international importance. But as many world leaders know, foreign policy successes are rarely translated into domestic political achievements.

Turkey’s citizens, who lack enough money to support themselves, whose employment is uncertain and whose purchasing power has shrunk by dozens of percentage points, are the ones who will decide next year how much political power Erdogan will have if he is reelected. These citizens will be less impressed with Erdogan’s success as a “different league of leader” outside of Turkey, if he cannot stop the economic decline at home.

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