A Syrian boy walks past graffiti saying "Brotherhood Beyond Borders," in the northern Syrian town of Azaz on the border with Turkey, Oct. 16, 2018.

A Syrian boy walks past graffiti saying "Brotherhood Beyond Borders," in the northern Syrian town of Azaz on the border with Turkey, Oct. 16, 2018.

Opposition using Syrian asylum seekers to generate new divides in Turkish politics

The status of more than 3.6 million temporary Syrian asylum seekers across Turkey has been one of the most controversial political issues being discussed by the Turkish people and politicians in the last few weeks..

The status of more than 3.6 million temporary Syrian asylum seekers across Turkey has been one of the most controversial political issues being discussed by the Turkish people and politicians in the last few weeks. Because of manipulation and disinformation campaigns by media channels and populist politicians from the opposition camp, systematic anti-Syrian rhetoric has spread throughout the entire Turkish population. Claims shared by those media companies and politicians do not represent the facts. A new cleavage and political controversy are being generated to transform mainstream politics in Turkey. Turkey’s right and left-wing populist politicians are trying to create new spaces for their political agendas by manipulating the issue of Syrians in Turkey.

The successful accommodation of Syrians was achieved by the supportive discourse and the policies of the government in Turkey. Civil society organizations and local and international aid agencies also coordinated and mobilized with the support of the government to improve the humanitarian conditions of the Syrians in Turkey.

According to unofficial estimates, Turkey, including civil society organizations, has spent around $40 billion for the Syrians in Turkey. Especially in the cities bordering Syria the demographic situation is changing, which leads to deeper concerns among local populations.

Despite their promises, the EU and other international agencies did not deliver the support that they promised to help Syrians in Turkey. The Turkish government’s sense of abandonment by the international community on the issue of Syrians also weakened the government’s resistance capacity against anti-Syrian campaigns.

Syrian temporary asylum seekers are accommodated according to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol which was also adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Turkey is a party to both the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol but puts a geographical limitation to both Convention and Protocol.

Only people from European countries are given the status of refugees in Turkey. Turkey is, therefore, a temporary place for Syrian asylum seekers and a transit country for the irregular migrants from other Asian and African countries.

Some opposition politicians wanted to benefit from the widespread unrest in the places where Syrians were concentrated. Those politicians, with the support of the opposition media, manipulated the issue of Syrian asylum seekers. Such a manipulation campaign polarizes the Turkish people against Syrian asylum seekers that escaped from their countries because of the devastating civil war.

Opposition politicians in particular spread the false messages that the “Syrians will become Turkish citizens,” “Syrians are voting in the elections,” “Syrians are paid regular salaries by the government,” “They are accepted to universities without exams,” “Syrians have privileges in hospitals,” “Syrians do not pay taxes if they initiate business,” and so forth.

None of those claims have any basis, but especially before the local elections such messages were spread systematically to the Turkish people to weaken the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s position. It seems that such a campaign worked for the opposition parties and they benefited from the hate discourse unleashed against millions of Syrians.

Political manipulations and hate discourse toward the Syrians in Turkey are very dangerous, but they are mounting, and those manipulations are increasing popular unrest about the Syrians in Turkey. Such an aggressive anti-Syrian campaign has the potential to jeopardize social peace in Turkey.

Together with irregular migrants, the estimated population of Syrians in Turkey is more than 4 million, and this population creates social, cultural and economic problems in Turkey. Despite some criticism, Syrian temporary asylum seekers did not turn into a major political issue because of the embracing and welcoming nature of the AK Party governments in the last seven years.

Economic stagnation, rising unemployment, and rising food and housing prices due to inflation put the issues of Syrians on the spot. Putting the Syrians on the spot for Turkey’s current challenges and accusing the government that embraces Syrians for humanitarian reasons is unfair treatment which may have dangerous consequences for Turkey. The status of the Syrians in Turkey is becoming one of the critical domestic political issues in Turkey. The Turkish people are misinformed about the realities on the ground. The crime rates among Syrian temporary asylum seekers are lower than the average crime rate records in Turkey.

In many cities and towns, there are very successful integration examples and Syrians are well-adapted to the local context and Turkish people embrace them. There is still sympathy and support for the Syrians due to their traumatic experiences in the ongoing civil war. So far, Turkish society successfully accommodated more than 3.6 million Syrians without generating major social conflicts.

This situation is likely to change in the coming months if the aggressive manipulation and disinformation campaign does not come to an end. There should be an ethical consensus among politicians not to manipulate the issues related to Syrian temporary asylum seekers in Turkey.

[Daily Sabah, 2 August 2019]

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