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Welcome No More: How Turkey Targets Increasingly Vulnerable Syrians

In a tense context of a worsening economic crisis in Turkey, Syrians living in the country have been regularly scapegoated by politicians and citizens, and many advocate for normalizing ties with the Syrian regime to end the war and send Syrians back to their country.

On May 28, 2023, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won Turkey’s presidential elections, two weeks after a very close first round against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. The war in Syria and the presence of 3.6 million refugees in Turkey proved a political priority for all candidates during the campaign, due to growing hostility expressed by Turkish citizens toward Syrians in recent years. In a tense context of an economic crisis and military incursions in northern Syria, the Syrian people have been regularly scapegoated in the political arena, leading all the Turkish opposition parties, with the exception of the Party of the Future, to advocate for normalizing ties with the Syrian regime to end the war and send Syrians back to their country. 

The first weeks of Erdoğan’s third mandate unveiled the new securitarian political line applied by the government. As raids and arbitrary arrests are increasing, Syrians fear violence and forced returns, while witnessing the normalization at regional level of Assad’s presence, the great precarity of the inhabitants of northern Syria, the new wave of protests in Al-Suwayda, and renewed violence

Disinformation and hate speech

Researcher Solène Poyraz underlines the dangerous role of disinformation and the stigmatizing rhetoric that has spread over the last several years among Turkish society, especially on social media. Runner-up presidential candidate Kılıçdaroğlu for instance denounced the presence of “10 millions Syrians,” who he said could “become 30 millions,” representing “crime machines in the making.” Furthermore, the far-right Victory Party led by Ümit Özdağ succeeded in significantly influencing the national debate by spreading anti-Syrian discourse and disinformation—the expulsion of “13 millions refugees and fugitives” constituted the core of his political program. Political analyst Mehmet Canbekli, holds the Özdağ group accountable for a wave of racist campaigns spreading on social media sites in recent months.

For academics Tirşe Erbaysal Filibeli and Can Ertuna, the most common demand is the call for “forced migration” of Syrians, largely in response to the economic situation in Turkey and the perceived advantages that Syrians are believed to benefit from. This rhetoric is sometimes accompanied by threats, such as calls to kill, neuter, and even rise against Syrians. Injunctions such as “refugees, leave!” and “Syrians, go home!” are also pervasive. 

Online public figures also have an important impact by instrumentalizing the history of Turkey and the Ottoman empire. A good example of such phenomena is the account on X of historian Ümit Doğan, followed by almost 320,000 people. On September 18, he paid tribute to Djemal Pasha, Ottoman governor of Syria in the beginning of the 20th century, known by local Arab populations as “the butcher.” The picture he shared—which was liked 12,000 times—was accompanied by the caption “Djemal Pasha, who was said not to have breakfast without hanging 20 Arabs every morning.” 

A new security campaign

Erdoğan, who once advocated the welcoming of the “Syrian brothers,” gradually started to change his policies in 2018. His election speech promised an anti-migrant orientation, as he mentioned the 600,000 refugees already returned voluntarily to “safe zones” created by his government in Syria. He also announced the creation of a joint resettlement program in cooperation with Qatar, which is supposed to guarantee the return of another million, before declaring that “the desire of refugees to return voluntarily is clear. They also yearn to return to their lands.”

Erdoğan took one more step toward securitarian goals with his new government formed in June when he appointed former governor of Istanbul Ali Yerlikaya as Minister of Interior. Yerlikaya immediately issued instructions on arresting irregular immigrants residing and working in the country without official authorization in 81 provinces, including Syrians under temporary protection but residing in a province other than the one where their residence permit was issued. On July 26, Yerlikaya announced in an interview the arrest of 35,797 “illegal immigrants” in the span of two months, and confirmed that their presence in Istanbul would be significantly reduced with the help of 39 mobile and fixed security centers to verify immigrants’ fingerprints, and announced the inauguration of new detention centers. The following month, Yerlikaya congratulated the police forces at the head of an operation that led to the arrest of 30 “migrant smuggling organizers” in the regions of Istanbul, Edirne, and Ekirdağ. According to the government, 25,000 irregular migrants had been prevented from entering Turkey in June as Erdoğan stressed on July 13 the importance of controlling illegal immigration from northwestern Syria.

Another decisive step was taken as Erdoğan reshuffled the immigration presidency, appointing Atilla Toros, former chief inspector in the ministry of interior, as the new head of migration management. Toros is notably famous for drafting the 2013 Law 6458 on Foreigners and International Protection. Two weeks after his appointment in July, new restrictive measures were announced, according to which Syrians under temporary protection and registered outside the province of Istanbul but living there must return to the province where they are registered by September 24. This measure, however, does not concern Syrians who come from the provinces affected by the earthquake and who were previously issued a permit.

Hostility and arbitrary arrests on the rise

While the government takes high-level measures against “illegal immigration,” hostility and violence toward Syrians continues to be pervasive on the ground. In the state of Mersin, a campaign to remove billboards written in Arabic was launched, while similar initiatives took place in Izmir, Adana, Istanbul, and Kayseri. On September 16, a racist group attacked a peaceful rally organized in Istanbul in solidarity with Syrian refugees.

Although the interior ministry denied that its security campaign targets “legal immigrants,” and Erdoğan insisted on the fact that “illegal residents should not be confused with refugees,” Syrians assure that they are being purposely arrested, even when they are in possession of a Kimlik, the temporary protection ID card. On July 22, Minister of Interior Yerlikaya stated during a meeting that “wrong actions by some police officers represent individual mistakes, and they are being held accountable,” seemingly acknowledging for the first time the existence of illegal arbitrary arrests and deportations. As renowned activist for refugees’ rights Taha Elgazi commented: “how can one’s intellectual logic accept that the deportation journey of a Syrian refugee, from his arrest until his arrival in the northern regions of Syria, be considered a case of individual error?” 

Ghazwan Koronful, lawyer and director of the association Free Syrian Lawyers is also well aware of the ongoing institutional hostility expressed toward Syrians, in particular among the police, the gendarmerie, and the border guard forces. According to him, the current anti-migrant policy and general rhetoric was foreseeable and he stated that “there is no willingness to accept or integrate [Syrians] into the Turkish society.” Koronful believes, moreover, that the policy of expulsion and forced returns might still be in its early stages: “In my opinion, within five years, the number of Syrians remaining in Turkey will only be approximately 500,000 [out of the 3.6 million currently in the country], and most of them will be naturalized citizens, university students, and businessmen.” 

Mistreatment and abuse documented on social media

Over the last weeks, activists have posted on social media videos documenting the harsh handling of Syrian refugees by Turkish police officers. According to them, arbitrary arrests are becoming systemic and are increasingly becoming violent. For instance, a video filmed at the Syrian-Turkish border shows young men with their heads facing the ground while officers in uniforms walk on their backs and heads, and kick them with their feet and wooden sticks. Women of all ages, including pregnant and veiled women, are also victims of harsh treatment.

Twenty-eight year-old Abdelrahman shared on Facebook, before the police made him remove it, the abuses he faced when he was detained for eight months and deported in July to Tell Abyad in Syria, despite being in possession of a Kimlik card. His pregnant wife, who did not have a residency card, was arrested by the police in Antakya along with their sick one-year-old child. When Abdelrahman arrived at the police station, he was beaten, while officers pushed his wife. Doctors managed to stop her from going into labor and their baby, who was born a couple of weeks after the attack, has to undergo intestinal surgery as a result of the kicks his mother received. Days later, Abdelrahman was arrested and taken to the immigration office, his Kimlik was withdrawn, and he was given an official paper ordering his return to Syria. Despite a judge canceling the deportation verdict, Abdelrahman was deported four months later. 

Such testimony echoes the story shared on Tiktok of a young man living in Istanbul. While on his way to the hospital with his wife in labor, he was taken out of the taxi by force despite having a Kimlik from the same state, and was imprisoned in Ozali prison in Gaziantep, before being deported. His phone was confiscated the whole time, and he only found out that his wife had given birth safely after he arrived in Jarablus.

On July 27, the presidency of migration management deported a number of Syrian refugees through the Bab-al-Hawa crossing. Eleven women were present among them, and one of them was seven months pregnant. Her husband, who suffers from a permanent disability, explained in a YouTube interview that his wife was arrested in Istanbul at night and her phone was switched off for three days before she finally managed to inform him that she had been deported to Idlib. According to her, the police and the deportation center’s employees refused to let her communicate with her family. 

Finally, in the third week of September, three young Syrian men were killed, including 31-year-old Ahmad Madrati, who was shot in Adana province by Turkish youngsters. Twenty-two-year-old Ammar Ibrahim Taboush was killed by the owner of the workshop where he worked. Ibrahim Deli Hassan was stabbed in the streets of Izmir after being asked for a cigarette. The aggressions were filmed and shared on social media and sparked indignation and fear among the Syrian community. 

Not just an anti-Syrian hate

As the hate toward Syrian refugees is becoming systemic in Turkey, other Arab nationals have been targeted. Over the last weeks, a visually impaired Algerian citizen legally residing in Turkey was deported with her Syrian husband, just like two Moroccan nationals. A Kuwaiti tourist was seriously injured by Turks in Trabzon, and two Egyptian visitors were violently beaten in the street. 

Such events have shocked the Arab world, where the situation in Turkey is followed closely by internet users and television audiences. Economic consequences already appeared: as explained by politician Yasin Aktay, “as the rumor spread that there is an anti-Arab attitude in the country, reservation cancellations increased this summer […] costing $5 billion to Turkey,” in a country where tourism is one of the most important sources of income. 

As a consequence, 27 X users including journalists spreading “hate and disinformation” were arrested after Erdoğan declared that the authorities “will put the blame on the efforts of 3-5 charlatans organized on social media to turn our country into a fireplace. […] Our line and stance are clear; we neither allow illegal immigrants nor allow discord merchants.” However, the motivation behind such a new step is unlikely to be out of concern for the spread of anti-Syrian narratives; rather, Erdoğan is strengthening his grip on the media in the spirit of October 2022’s parliamentary law on “vaguely defined false information.”

As long as Turkey’s authorities will not reverse the anti-Syrian tendency and work to integrate, racism, hate crimes, and discriminatory acts to the current legal framework to protect all the inhabitants of Turkey, the plight of the country’s Syrians is bound to worsen under the new government’s securitarian political orientation.

Elise Daniaud Oudeh is a researcher and PhD candidate in Politics at LUISS University, Italy. She specializes her work in the Russian presence in Syria, Russian history of ideas, Arab Political Thought and political discourse analysis.


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