Refugee crisis reaches boiling point

By Josie Makkink

In Istanbul, the strained relationship between Syrian refugees and Turkish nationals has escalated significantly due to the city’s economic collapse and social turmoil.

The tension between Syrian refugees and Turkish nationals became extremely politized during the second round of the elections in Istanbul. An economic meltdown, overpopulation, and hostile living conditions are consuming the city. Political parties are using the refugees residing in Turkey as a scapegoat for these structural problems.

Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu claimed during the Turkish presidential election of 2023 that: “I will send all refugees back home once I am elected as president.” The refugee crisis in Turkey has long been at the forefront of political and economic tension in Turkey. Over 3,5 million refugees have fled to Turkey to escape the war in Syria that started in 2011. This number has grown exponentially after the establishment of the EU-Turkey deal in 2016. Currently, 550,000 registered refugees are living in Istanbul alone, making Turkey the largest host of Syrian refugees in the world.

The EU-Turkey deal was introduced to reduce the number of people fleeing to the European Union in search of safety and protection from the war in Syria. It was agreed that Turkey would implement policies that would stop people traveling illegally from Turkey to the Greek islands. In return, Turkey would receive six billion dollars in subsidies to facilitate these measures and Turkish nationals would have access to visa-free travel to Europe. After the introduction of the Turkey-EU deal, the number of refugees residing in Turkey grew rapidly. At the same time, the country faced growing impoverishment and unemployment causing increased friction between Turkish citizens and refugees.

At the start of the Syrian war, the general attitude of Turkish people towards refugees was friendly. A professor in migration at the University of Bilgi, Alev Yücel, states that: “This feeling was based on solidarity and common religious values. However, this sentiment dramatically changed, particularly after the start of the economic meltdown of Turkey in 2018.” With an inflation rate of 43,7%, many locals are struggling to get by. “The main motive behind the anti-refugee discourse is not racism but the growing impoverishment, underemployment, and unemployment among local Turkish people,” says Alev Yücel. The public is blaming refugees for these problems which is fuelled by pro-government media.

Political parties are using refugees as a scapegoat and stating that they are the main antagonist in the Turkish economic downfall. Besides, the government is weaponizing Syrian refugees and instrumentalizing them as a political tool to influence the public for political gain. In pro-government media and social media platforms, exaggerated figures on the number of Syrian refugees receiving benefits from Turkish authorities are spread. The media also uses a lot of disinformation on certain topics related to Syrian refugees creating a harmful narrative of “us against them.”

The number of crimes committed in Istanbul has increased and many citizens are blaming refugees. Eda Aydemir, a citizen of Istanbul, says: “The problem with the refugees is that not only women and children are coming to Istanbul, but also men, to escape from the war. They are not all innocent and most of them are prone to committing crimes… In other words, not only war victims, but also many criminals come to our city,” says Eda. With these increased crime rates, the prejudice towards refugees is growing. “Sociologically, there is a saying in the Turkish language that when there is war men who are fleeing the country are considered traitors. They should stay and fight for their country,” she adds.  Therefore, immigrant men who fled their country because of the war are not accepted in Turkish society.

A lot of people affected are searching for options to solve this ongoing refugee crisis. It is evident that Turkey does not have any form of an integration policy. Alev Yücel states that: “Policies on refugee integration should be ensured in all aspects of society. Another critical point is that especially Turkish news media should provide integrative content and balanced reporting that is free from hate speech and disinformation.” The latter is critical in ceasing the tension between the Turkish public and the refugees. On a supranational level, the European Union should also be more actively involved in helping Turkey with the refugee crisis. Alev explains: “The European Union should take more responsibility instead of just relying on Turkey to block refugees entering the EU zones.”