Turkey: growing tension erupts in sporadic violence against Syrian refugees

Late last month, approximately 300 people – some armed with sticks and knives – rampaged through the Istanbul district of Ikitelli, destroying some of the cars and businesses of Syrian refugees.

Several people were injured in the incident, which took place on 25 August 2014, and police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd, which had allegedly been angered by rumours that a Syrian had harassed a Turkish local.

Similar confrontations have occurred recently in other Turkish cities, seen by many as a sign of the growing tension between locals and refugees living in the country.
“Look at my door,” said Semih, a 40-year-old father of six from Aleppo.

“They came and smashed it in”

Semih and his family live in a one-room flat below a wrecked shop in Ikitelli.
The shop is now exposed to the elements; its display glass panels broken into shards and covering the floor, mixed with office debris.

In a creek running next to the building, brown water flows over an Arabic storefront banner, thrown there by vandals.

It is rather telling that in the aftermath of the destruction of 25 August, Arabic language shop signs – the main target of the vandals – remain conspicuously absent.

Ahmet runs a garment workshop and is one of the few business owners in Ikitelli who still carries Arabic signage. “All my Syrian workers left after the [violence],” he told Equal Times.

“I’m looking for more workers – that’s what that sign out front says. Look at all these machines,” he said, pointing to a row of idle sewing machines.

He worried that the combination of reduced output and the loss of the cheap labour provided by the Syrians would force him to shut up shop by winter.


Tensions and tribulations

The Turkish government estimates that 1.36 million Syrians live as refugees in Turkey, having fled the Syrian civil war which began in 2011.

While 220,000 Syrians live in refugee camps, limited capacity means that most refugees live in cities, primarily in the southern Turkish provinces of Gaziantep, Kilis, and Hatay, near the Syrian border, and in western Turkish cities such as Izmir and Istanbul.

Many refugees arrive with little hard cash. Language barriers make employment and integration difficult. Demand for accommodation has driven up rents.

Semih, unemployed and speaking only broken Turkish, said he pays 700 Turkish lira (US$320) per month in rent, an exorbitant price for what is a one room, unfinished, damp basement.

Scared and uncomfortable, one of Semih’s biggest concerns is the fact that his children are continually turned away from Turkish hospitals. The problem, he says, is that he has no identification.

A number of refugees have taken to begging in order to survive.

Semih said his only income came from his kids who sold cigarettes on the street. While we spoke, Semih’s ten-year-old son manned a makeshift cigarette stand with just four packs for sale.

Some refugees work for wages below the local going rate, antagonising Turkish job-seekers.

“Imagine you lived in a town of 100,000 people and the government brought in 30,000 people to live there. You immediately have a housing problem and a security problem,” Sabri, a retired accountant, said in the shade of his Ikitelli bicycle repair shop, which he runs four months a year.

“There’s high tension now and it’s going to get worse,” Sabri said. “I pay taxes, Syrians don’t. Turkish-license plated cars get parking tickets, Syrian-plated cars don’t.”

“With so many of us here, there’s bound to be a small number who end up causing problems,” said Mustafa Wali, project director at the Syrian Nour Association, a local NGO in Istanbul.

A “few” locals may be prejudiced against them, but Syrians are “extremely grateful” for all Turkey has done for them, Wali told Equal Times.

As we spoke in Wali’s office, dozens of Syrian refugees, including mothers with newborn babies in bassinettes, were downstairs being examined by volunteer Syrian doctors and picking-up donated prescription medications.

The association also helps pay rents and organises schools.

Counts vary as to the number of Syrian refugees living in Istanbul. In July, Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu was quoted saying there were 67,000 Syrians in Istanbul but other, more recent estimates are much higher.


“Bubbling up”

“It’s remarkable how long it’s taken [for the tension] to bubble up. And now it’s really starting to bubble-up,” Hugh Pope, the Turkey/Cyprus project director at the International Crisis Group, said in a phone interview with Equal Times.

An International Crisis Group report published in April 2014 comprehensively describes the social, political, and security costs of Turkey’s response to Syrian refugees and argues “a sustainable, long-term arrangement with the international community” must replace what has been a heretofore well-intentioned “emergency response”.

An earlier report describes the growing refugee community in Turkey’s cities and the “blurred border” between Turkey and Syria.

AFAD, the Turkish government agency providing for Syrian refugees recently held a meeting to discuss the growing tension.

“A number of provocations and intense disinformation have fuelled xenophobia and discrimination,” said an AFAD statement, published after the 22 August meeting.
Urban myths about non-existent government benefits for refugees, such as citizenship being granted in exchange for votes, has likely contributed to some resentment, Pope said.

Turkey has been praised by the United Nations and International Crisis Group for its refugee policy and for the high-quality camps it has set-up.

Still, like most international actors, Turkey entertained “a lot of wishful thinking” in hoping that the war would end quickly, Syrian president Bashir al-Assad would be toppled, and refugees would return home.

But Pope told Equal Times that the AFAD statement indicates the government has now recognised that the refugee population is a long-term issue.

“Now that the Syrian crisis has continued for three years and that the numbers of Syrian guests [in Turkey] are still increasing there are a number of different social problems and dynamics…we will be evaluating these new developments,” the AFAD statement said.

In a bid to reduce tensions, the government will expand schooling, language training, and healthcare services, and try to stop informal employment, begging, prostitution, and polygamy, the statement said.

The crime rate among Syrian refugees is low, but even minor incidents resonate broadly with the public, the statement said.

Three million people have left Syria and 6.5 million have been displaced within Syria due to the civil war, and is “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”, according to a 29 August 2014 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) press release.