Recent Unrests Show Turkey is a Powder Keg

July 2, 2024
by Enes Esen, published on 2 July 2024
Recent Unrests Show Turkey is a Powder Keg

In several cities in Turkey, mobs have attacked Syrian refugees and ransacked their businesses. This chain of events was apparently sparked by the abuse of a child by a Syrian man in Kayseri. The mobs in the city, wanting to take justice into their own hands, turned their anger toward Syrians. Later, it was revealed that the abuse victim was not Turkish but Syrian. Nonetheless, protests spread to different cities such as Hatay and Istanbul, where large communities of Syrians reside. The protests against Syrians in Turkey have calmed down for now. The Minister of Interior Affairs announced that law enforcement arrested 474 people, 285 of whom have criminal records, and warned against provocations.

On the other hand, Syrians in northern Syria within Turkey’s sphere of influence burned Turkish flags, attacked trucks coming from Turkey, and in a few instances exchanged fire with Turkish troops. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs described what happened in northern Syria as provocation and stressed that Turkey is committed to the well-being of the people of Syria.

Resentment against Syrians and other migrants in Turkey has been brewing since it became clear that they were not temporary guests but were staying in the country permanently. According to official data, as of June 27, 2024, over 3.1 million Syrians are under temporary protection in Turkey. The temporary protection status grants them specific rights and access to services, including healthcare, education, and legal residency in the country, although they lack some of the rights they would be entitled to if they were recognized as refugees under international law. Additionally, there are over 1.1 million legal foreign residents in Turkey. 

Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe that the actual number is higher. On June 26, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu underscored that based on utility bills, there are nearly 2.5 million refugees in Istanbul, constituting 17 to 18 percent of the city’s official population of 16 million. Government data states that slightly over 1 million immigrants live in Istanbul. On the other hand, in other provinces, such as Reyhanlı district in Hatay and some districts in Kilis, Syrians likely outnumber Turkish citizens.

Many Turkish citizens wrongfully blame their economic and social woes on refugees, believing that unemployment and inflation would not be as high if there were fewer refugees in the country. Turkey has been grappling with triple-digit inflation for many years, reaching as high as 120% according to independent economic researchers such as ENAG, while official data on inflation is substantially lower. Furthermore, those who cannot express their dissatisfaction with government policies due to political repression channel their anger toward refugees, as it has been a hallmark policy issue of the AKP since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. In Kayseri, some protesters even chanted slogans demanding the resignation of President Erdoğan.

The protests against Turkey in northern Syria are, however, mostly related to a recent statement by President Erdoğan. On June 28, Erdoğan stated that he did not rule out the possibility of meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to help restore bilateral relations between Turkey and Syria. "Just as we maintained very active ties in the past, including family discussions with Mr. Assad, it is certainly not impossible for this to happen again in the future; it can happen," he added. The Turkish government assures Syrians in northern Syria that any normalization with Damascus will not come at their expense. Nonetheless, normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus is literally a life-and-death issue for Syrians who oppose Bashar al-Assad.

Additionally, for millions of Syrians who are stuck in Idlib and its surroundings, life conditions are extremely harsh. They lack the necessary infrastructure for shelter, health, and education, and their economic opportunities are quite limited. It is no wonder that protests easily turn violent in this impoverished part of war-ravaged Syria. 

As expected in a rapidly changing demographic landscape, a populist movement, the Victory Party, whose main political agenda is fighting immigrants, has been gaining strength. Although this party received only 2.3% of votes in 2023, its anti-immigrant talking points are widely amplified by several political parties, including the main opposition party CHP. This phenomenon is not peculiar to Turkey; populist anti-immigrant parties are on the rise all over Europe and the US, and many of them are taking part in government, as in the Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden.

The issue of Syrian refugees is a powder keg for Turkey and is likely to worsen. Many in Turkey wrongfully blame the worsening economic and social crisis on Syrians and Afghans in the country. Pogroms against Syrians may occur repeatedly, putting the country's fragile social harmony at risk.

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