Several recent incidents in Turkey speak to a dangerous atmosphere for the country's Syrian refugee population. Caitlin Vito argues that if the tension continues to build, something will have to give.

Photo by Ilyas Akengin/AFP/Getty Images

By Caitlin Vito, Coordinator, Office of the Director of Studies

In late February an argument broke out in the Turkish city of Adana between locals and Syrian refugees. Long-term residents set fire to the refugees’ tents, and shots were fired. These types of clashes are not uncommon, although they rarely feature in the Turkish press due to government pressure not to report them.

Incidents such as these in Adana and other Turkish cities speak to the dangerous mix brewing in Turkey: deep political polarisation following the coup attempt in July 2016; increasing terror attacks and tensions with Kurdish groups inside the country; a weakening economy; and the challenge of hosting millions of Syrian refugees, mostly young adults and children seeking jobs and education. These factors have created an environment of uncertainty and insecurity, and could lead to ever-more volatile situations with ramifications beyond Turkey.

Official narrative ignores growing tensions

As Syria’s neighbour, Turkey has been on the front line of the Syrian refugee crisis. The country hosts 2.9 million registered Syrian refugees – more than any other country – and a large number of unregistered refugees. The pressure on them and their host country is compounded by the Turkish government’s framing of the response to the refugee crisis as part of a positive national narrative, and corresponding efforts to stifle media reports that might undermine this view.

Turkey’s response to Syrian refugees has been a source of national pride. At the onset of the conflict in 2011, Turkey adopted an open-door policy to Syrians fleeing what they expected to be a short-lived crisis. While this was a remarkable humanitarian act, it also fed President Erdoğan’s narrative that Turkey is a protector of fellow Muslims. Such language resonates well with conservative and nationalist Turks.

However, growing refugee numbers and post-coup instability have widened the gap between this official government narrative and reality. Turkey has closed its border with Syria and there have been reports of Turkish troops shooting at those trying to cross. Since 2014 Turkey has been building a 900 kilometre wall between the two countries, which is expected to be completed this year.

The government narrative also ignores the real tensions between Syrian refugees and some host communities. Competition over jobs and housing are key concerns for local residents. In a recent study, three fifths of Turks polled believed that Syrians ‘committed crimes and were detrimental to public order and peace wherever they settled’. The new arrivals also upset the delicate religious and ethnic balance within Turkey, as the refugees are overwhelmingly Sunni Arabs. This is a deep concern for the Alawite population along the border with Syria. But as such worries sit uncomfortably with President Erdoğan’s rhetoric, scrutiny of them by the media or academics is suppressed.


Political dimension to refugee support

These changes in Turkey’s ethnic and sectarian composition matter politically, as the country’s party constituencies match its cultural, ethnic and sectarian divisions. President Erdoğan’s AKP party, which is seen to have Sunni leanings, stands to benefit should the majority Sunni Syrian refugees be allowed to vote. In addition, many refugees credit their permission to stay in Turkey to President Erdoğan and would be loyal to his party. Tensions surrounding this issue are so high that the government’s proposal in July 2016 that Syrians be granted citizenship sparked a furore, and the authorities eventually backed down. Rumours are circulating that the government will grant refugees citizenship before a critical constitutional referendum on 16 April of this year.

Turkey’s Syrian refugees face life as political pawns in a crisis-hit and profoundly divided country. The government’s efforts to silence the media and academic institutions limits real public discussion on the best way forward for them and their host communities. As the tension builds, something will have to give. 

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