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Turkey’s Syrian refugee problem spirals out of control

Syrian refugees in Turkey are regularly subject to hostilities by locals, a trend Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan implies the opposition is responsible for.

Turkey’s Syrian refugee problem continues to fester and grow with no apparent resolution in sight, while threatening to spiral out of control and leading to social tensions across the country. It is not just in towns and cities near the Syrian border — with a high concentration of refugees — where confrontations with locals are on the increase.

The problem is also spreading to cities far from the Syrian border, which have a better capacity to absorb outsiders due to their large populations. Istanbul, with a population of 14 million, is a case in point.

The governor of Turkey’s largest city and financial capital is talking about drastic measures that include plans to expel Syrians dwelling and begging on the streets of the city to camps near the Syrian border. 

This in turn has led to unease in parts of the country being mentioned in this connection. These developments also continue to pose an embarrassment for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which insists that Turkey will maintain its open-door policy for Syrians fleeing the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The issue is also providing political fodder for Erdogan’s opponents on the eve of the presidential elections in which he is also a candidate. Erdogan — for his part — is on the defensive, saying in a patronizing manner that he knows who is behind the recent attacks against Syrians in the southeastern Turkish cities of Gaziantep, Adana and Kahramanmaras, although he has not named anyone or any group

Addressing a crowd in the Black Sea province of Sakarya this week, Erdogan said 1.1 million Syrians had sought help from Turkey and taken refuge here. “Are we to abandon these people to bombs?” he asked. 

“In the past few days, we unfortunately had provocative actions against our Syrian brothers and sisters. I know who is doing this, but will not mention them now. If the need arises, however, I will disclose it,” Erdogan said cryptically.

One of the attacks Erdogan was referring to took place in Adana where a group of masked men, some bearing meat cleavers, attacked shops owned by Syrians. Another attack occurred also recently in Gaziantep after a Syrian driver was involved in an accident that injured a local woman and her 5-year-old daughter.

The driver of the car with Syrian license plates managed to escape the attack by an angry crowd, which subsequently turned its anger on shops in the city run by Syrians, while waving Turkish flags and chanting nationalist slogans.

Local officials generally try to downplay these incidents. In Adana, there were local reports that the attackers were members of a gang trying to extort money from the Syrians.

A deputy for Gaziantep from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said the attackers in the Gaziantep incident were not from the city at all, but had come from outside to try and provoke tensions between locals and the Syrians.

Observers in both cities, however, suggested that tensions have been rising with Syrians due to a host of economic difficulties and social problems posed by the presence of the refugees. Syrians are not only accused of taking away business but also jobs, while undercutting wages by being prepared to work below the minimum wage without expecting social security.

Officials in Gaziantep, to take one example, say there are over 200,000 Syrians in the city — with a population of 1.8 million — but the perception of people on the streets is that the figure is closer to half a million refugees. 

Gaziantep and other cities in southeastern Turkey are already under massive pressure from domestic migration from towns and villages, and have a limited capacity to absorb large numbers of Syrian refugees. This is also aggravating the problem. Mehmet Cetingulec provides a detailed breakdown of problems being experienced in his July 9 post for Al-Monitor. 

But it is not just southeastern Turkey with social problems relating to Syrian refugees. The growing number of Syrians living on and begging in the streets of Istanbul has started to seriously annoy Istanbul residents. Responding to questions put to him on this subject, Istanbul Mayor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said that “very serious measures” were being worked on to deal with the matter.

According to the mayor, there are 67,000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul today. He says he does not expect this number to increase, but many are disputing this figure and arguing that an official head count of Syrians has not been made. Some claim that the number of Syrians who have taken refuge in Istanbul could be as high as 200,000.

There is really no way of knowing at this stage what the truth of the matter is, and public sentiments are being fueled more by perceptions than facts. Mutlu also said that the larger portion of the Syrians in Istanbul is made up of those who are better educated and have the means to stand on their own feet.

Mutlu said the better-off Syrians were also disturbed by the presence of Syrians begging and living on the streets of Istanbul because this was ruining the image of all Syrians. Mutlu said they had placed hundreds of street-dwelling Syrians in camps set up near Istanbul, adding that they had also sent over 500 of them to the southeastern city of Sanliurfa.

He said they were also working on legislation for those who refuse to leave the city to send them to designated camps in other parts of Turkey. His remarks were taken to mean that these Syrians would be expelled from the city to camps closer to the Syrian border.

According to official figures, Turkey has just over 1 million Syrian refugees today. The public perception, however, is that this figure is much higher and could be anything up to 1.5 million, if not more. Some 220,000 of the refugees are housed in 24 camps set up mostly in regions near the Syrian border.

Conditions in these camps have been verified by international observers as being above world standards. Turkey’s problem, however, has to do with the remaining Syrians trying to exist outside the camps, with most concentrated in the southeast, and living in substandard conditions.

Sedat Laciner, an academic, columnist and author who specializes in the Middle East, said in his column on July 18 that if the Syrians had been dispersed across Turkey in a balanced way, it would have been much easier for the country to digest them. The problem, he argued, was because they were concentrated in certain parts of the country that are already overloaded with domestic migrants.

“It is true that Turkey is a large country with a population of 76 million and not weak like Jordan and Lebanon. But 1-1.5 million refugees is not a number that any country can absorb easily. Looking at this picture, we can say that Turkey is faced with a very heavy security risk,” Laciner wrote. With all of the Erdogan government’s plans and predictions concerning Syria having gone seriously awry, and with no end in sight to the Syrian crisis in a manner that will ease Turkey’s Syria refugee problem, more and more Turks are beginning to think like Laciner.

Meanwhile, street-level animosity against Syrians continues to increase, and no amount of exhortation by Erdogan to desist from this, or innuendo on his part trying to indirectly implicate his domestic opponents over attacks against Syrians, appear likely to make the problem disappear.

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