In recent weeks, Turkey has borne witness to a concerning surge in violence directed towards Syrian refugees, coupled with a wave of deportations in the wake of the general elections.
Syrian refugees, a topic of intense scrutiny during the recent Turkish general elections, are poised to remain a focal point as the mayoral elections approach next year.
The opposition coalition, known as Millet İttifakı, stirred controversy during the presidential elections' second round with openly racist language, asserting that the departure of Syrians would be imminent should they secure victory.
However, this rhetoric isn't confined to the current electoral cycle; it's the culmination of a decade-long trajectory, fueled by an amalgamation of factors contributing to the rise of hostility directed at Syrians within Turkish territory.
The aftermath of the elections saw the AKP securing a victory, a result that some Syrian refugees had hoped would herald the end of the wave of racism.
Yet, disillusionment has set in, leading many pro-refugee leftist activists to lament: "The opposition may have promised, but the government has delivered.”
The last month has witnessed increased animosity from Turkish authorities towards Syrians. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Turkish officials arrested Syrians in their homes and workplaces, detained them in poor conditions, subjected them to assault, coerced them into signing sign voluntary return forms, and forced them across border crossing points at gunpoint.
The Deportation Paradox
The Turkish government, and the Presidency of Migration Management in particular, asserts that the return of Syrian refugees during the past months and years has been voluntary. This perspective mirrors the stance of some Syrian opposition institutions. Last year, on June 22nd, 200 Syrian organizations issued a statement confirming the voluntary return of 500,000 Syrian refugees.
On the other hand, Turkish governmental human rights organization (TİHEK), as well as a multitude of domestic and international human rights organisations, have all contradicted the Presidency of Migration Management's claims. They have documented the signatures of Syrian refugees on voluntary return documents as having been obtained through coercion which involved psychological and physical abuse.
“Assuming, for the sake of argument, that all forcibly repatriated Syrian refugees from Turkey in the previous period had returned voluntarily, let us narrow it down to the past month (July) only. These individuals would be considered as those who returned voluntarily after approximately 15 months after the Turkish government announced the voluntary return project and Erdoğan and then interior minister Soylu's statements about the establishment of housing units for those voluntarily returning to northern Syrian regions.” El Gazi added:
“What is the percentage of Syrian refugees who returned voluntarily and received housing units within the framework of the voluntary return project? Which institutions and entities oversee the organization of housing for Syrian refugees who have returned voluntarily? Which parties and entities supervise the completion of housing unit construction projects? Will the promises made by the Turkish government to provide housing for voluntarily returning Syrian refugees become a reality, or will they remain a project? On another note, if housing complexes have been completed over the past year, why are voluntarily returned Syrian refugees not being housed and settled in them? Shouldn't the priority be given to refugees in camps?”
On the legality of these deportations, El Gazi said: “For years, in coordination with Turkish human rights organizations and committees within Turkish lawyer associations, we have affirmed that the Presidency of Migration Management does not have the legal authority to deport Syrian refugees (even those without temporary protection cards). To emphasize this point, these organizations and committees have submitted comprehensive reports documenting that most Syrian refugees have been subjected to psychological and physical attacks by some employees/elements within deportation centres, with the aim of forcing them to sign voluntary return documents.”
However, representatives of Syrian opposition institutions, as well as affiliated organizations and committees, insist that the deportation of Syrian refugees is conducted within a legal framework. They deny all reports and claims pointing to violations of Syrian human rights in temporary housing and deportation centres, asserting that the Presidency of Migration Management is deporting "violators" among Syrian refugees.
The Syrian parties, particularly the Syrian Interim Government and The Syrian National Coalition, adopt a position that raises concerns. Their endorsement of 'forced deportation' operations, coupled with their dismissal of reported human rights abuses within deportation centres, stands in contrast to the statements made by Ali Yerlikaya, the Turkish Interior Minister. Yerlikaya acknowledged 'individual errors' during the detention of Syrian refugees and foreigners, highlighting potential discrepancies in the overall process and framework.
Racism and Violence Tolerated
The normalization of violence and hatred towards Syrians in Turkey has extended into the political realm, with figures like Ümit Özdağ and his political party, the Zafer Partisi (Victory Party) which champions anti-immigration sentiment, engaging in rhetoric which normalises violence against Syrians in Turkish society. Ümit relies on blatant lies, fabricated videos, out-of-context or mistranslated clips, and outlandish claims in order to whip up hatred against Syrian refugees.
Violence against Syrians in Turkey is becoming so normalized to the point that Turkish developers are now making mobile games which feature deporting Syrians with catapults.
It's important to note that Özdağ's views and the stance of the Zafer Partisi do not represent the entire political opposition in Turkey. The country's political spectrum is diverse, and various parties have taken differing approaches to the Syrian refugee issue. Some parties, like the Turkish Workers Party (TİP) and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) emphasise the importance of humanitarian support, and integration of Syrians into society, while others raise concerns about economic competition and national security.
Why The Government Doesn’t Act Against Racists?
El Gazi explained the lack of action by the Turkish government against racists for two main reasons. First, elements within the ruling coalition, mainly the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), harbour racist views against Arabs in general, and Syrians in particular. The head of the MHP, Devlet Bahçeli, was the first major Turkish politician to claim that Syrian refugees are used to “disrupt the demographic balance of Turkey”.
The second reason is that the government wants to showcase itself as the protector of Syrian refugees against racist opposition parties. And it cannot do so without an environment in which such racism is allowed to thrive.
Upon closer examination, the ongoing dramatic interplay between the Turkish government, the opposition, and the Syrian refugees reveals a complex web of dynamics. While acknowledging the negative role some factions of the opposition have played, questions arise regarding the government's response to this issue.
The government's strategy involves magnifying a moderately-sized problem to divert attention from more substantial issues, a tactic that both the opposition amplifies and the government capitalizes upon. By engaging citizens' time and energy in responding to these provocations, the government is afforded the space to make new mistakes and violations without facing immediate media scrutiny. This strategy casts Syrians as a distraction, allowing the government to act with relative impunity.
Yet, there's a compelling case to refocus on the government's actions rather than engaging with the provocateurs, who are in essence a part of the government's broader strategy. The government, while grappling with its own mistakes, maneuvers to create problems or exploit situations to shift the focus away from its own failings. By highlighting the opposition's role, they deflect attention from their own missteps, leaving Syrians inadvertently implicated.
In this context, those who possess the means, including human rights advocates and concerned citizens, must redirect the media discourse towards the government's actions rather than getting ensnared in exchanges with provocateurs. It's essential to recognize that the law's enforcement lies within the government's domain, not with the opposition. By strategically steering the conversation, stakeholders can ensure that the spotlight remains on the government's decisions and actions, ultimately holding them accountable for their role in the ongoing narrative.