Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”


Sultangazi is an inner-city district of Istanbul located on the European side of the Bosphorus, home to more than a half-million Turkish citizens and 50,000 Syrians. What’s happening there reflects nationwide patterns of refugee integration and assimilation – but also growing impatience among the native population. The district is a microcosm of Turkish society in terms of faith, ethnicity and political persuasion. Pious Sunni conservatives live next door to left-leaning Alevis; Turkish ultra-nationalists rub shoulders with Kurdish movement sympathisers. There are no formal records of religious affiliation, but locals estimate that 30-40 per cent of Sultangazi’s residents are Alevi and the rest Sunni. Alevis, Turkey’s second-largest faith community, profess a variant of Shia Islam (as do the Alawites of Syria, from whom the Alevis are distinct in historical evolution, culture and religious practice). Around half the population are Kurds – of whom slightly over half are social conservatives who vote for the Sunni Islamist formation ruling Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The rest largely support the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

The Syrians who have settled in Sultangazi are mostly Sunni Arabs from rural areas around Aleppo. In addition to the 40,000 who are registered refugees, an estimated 10,000 Syrians are unregistered. There are also approximately 8,000 migrants of other nationalities, mainly Afghans, Pakistanis and Azerbaijanis.

Crisis Group’s Turkey Project Director Nigar Goksel talks about identity politics and growing frictions in the job market between Syrian refugees and host communities in the refugee-dense neighbourhoods of Turkey’s major western cities. CRISISGROUP

In conversations with Crisis Group, residents referred to their quarter as “a district of victimhood” because it brings together so many different people – citizens and non-citizens – who have had to leave their hometowns behind for political or economic reasons. There has been a particularly large influx of Syrians over the past two years, as the Assad regime recaptured parts of northern Syria that had been held by rebels, and as more Syrians moved from border provinces to western cities in search of job opportunities. Sultangazi today ranks among the top five of Istanbul’s 39 districts in the number of Syrians hosted; they now comprise over 8 per cent of its total population. Many Syrians received a warm welcome in Turkey. But, as their numbers grow in districts such as Sultangazi, some fear that the new arrivals will redraw the demographic map to the detriment of long-time residents. Secularists and leftists, in particular, see the Syrians as pawns in a move by the AK Party government to dilute the concentration – and perhaps, down the road, the electoral strength – of minority constituencies. Such perceptions deepen existing social and political divides (covered in a November 2016 Crisis Group report). The Syrians’ socio-economic impact is also becoming increasingly manifest. Public services such as health and education, already strained by the district’s rapid expansion, have been further overstretched by the refugee influx. Locals complain about long lines at hospitals, crowded classrooms, skyrocketing rents, packed busses and piled-up trash. The sense that the Syrian influx has worsened the quality of life is sowing resentment among hosts, irrespective of political affiliation. Compassion and solidarity are curdling into hostility.

Crisis Group Turkey Project Director Nigar Göksel talking to a Turkish restaurant owner about the impact of unregistered Syrian businesses in Sultangazi district, September 2017. CRISISGROUP

As underlined by Crisis Group’s 29 January report, Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, the risk of violent clashes between hosts and refugees is higher in places where the stress on public services overlaps with labour market competition and identity-related demographic concerns. Sultangazi is such a place. The Gazi Hot Spot The tract of land now known as Sultangazi has witnessed waves of migration, starting in the mid-1970s when people came from across Anatolia. In the 1990s, a large number of Kurds arrived after being forcibly displaced from villages in the south east at the peak of the army’s fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since 2004 or so, the district has also attracted refugees and migrant workers from countries to Turkey’s east. With plenty of affordable housing and low-skilled job opportunities in textile workshops, Sultangazi has continued to boom, absorbing around 100,000 Turkish citizens in the past decade. On aggregate, voting patterns in the quarter reflect strong support for the AK Party government, albeit with staunch opposition in certain neighbourhoods. In the November 2015 general elections, the AK Party received 163,000 votes (60.6 per cent), while the main centre-left, secular opposition force, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), garnered 60,000 and the left-leaning, pro-Kurdish HDP got 40,000. Over 60 per cent of voters said “yes” to the April 2017 plebiscite asking citizens to approve measures that greatly strengthened the powers of the president. The Istanbul average “yes” vote was 48.6 per cent. Despite this higher overall support, some neighbourhoods firmly rejected the referendum (see map below for a detailed breakdown).

One of them was Gazi, where a majority of residents are left-wing Alevis, either Kurdish or Turkish in ethnicity. A full 78.9 per cent of its voters said “no” to the stronger presidency. Similarly, the AK Party won only 19 per cent of the neighbourhood’s vote in the November 2015 parliamentary elections, while the CHP received 54 per cent and the HDP 23.8 per cent.

Gazi is legendary in Turkey for antipathy to the state. Left-wing and/or Alevi youth there clashed frequently with the nationalist police in the 1990s. On 12 March 1995, the unrest culminated in what is commonly referred to as “the Gazi incidents”. Unknown gunmen in a stolen taxi riddled five teahouses with bullets, killing one person and wounding numerous others. Residents saw the police response as markedly slow; riots broke out and spread to other neighbourhoods, continuing for about a week. The police reaction to the rioters was swift and harsh, with officers shooting into crowds, killing fifteen people. Many believe the incident was instigated by the “deep state” – ultra-nationalists and their allies in the security forces – to discourage the growth of Alevi and Kurdish dissent in big cities. Anger spiralled into confrontations with police again during the Gezi Park protests in May-June 2013. Some 2-3,000 neighbourhood residents took to the streets for around one week in anti-government protests. Tensions also rose in Gazi on the night of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, when pro-AK Party crowds reportedly marched into the neighbourhood chanting “Allahu Ekber” (God is great). Pro-government demonstrators had been summoned into the streets across Istanbul by state-employed imams using the loudspeakers of mosques. Rumours spread that the demonstrators were planning to attack Alevis, and residents gathered in front of the local cemevi (Alevi house of worship). Police dispersed the pro-AK Party crowd before it reached the area. Many leftists took this series of events as validation of their view that, under AK Party rule, the invocation of Sunni Muslim solidarity is “party politics”, geared toward mobilising the right-wing, conservative-leaning majority of the electorate. They point to statements they perceive as sectarian by AK Party leaders to back up this interpretation.

Blame Game Across the Sultangazi district, representatives of the Alevi community and the Kurdish movement view the Syrian refugees’ presence largely through the prism of their own accumulated grievances against the state. The risk of violent attacks on refugees may increase amid the building anger among Kurdish movement sympathisers at the crackdown on the HDP underway since early 2016. Thousands of the HDP’s members and nine of its 53 MPs – including party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş – were arrested and remain in prison. Another 30 MPs were detained and/or arrested and released since November. “We have no rights. There is police impunity for any action against the Kurdish youth here”, a Kurdish movement figure in Sultangazi told Crisis Group. “This is all building up a frustration [that] can be channelled against the Syrians, many of whom announce Erdoğan as their saviour”. Alevis also feel worn down by longstanding state discrimination. “We still do not have equal citizenship”, said one representative. “We have so many complaints about our situation that it is hard for us to talk about Syrians …. In a place like the Gazi neighbourhood that locals say is over 50 per cent Alevi, there is a threat perception from the past anyway, and now they think Syrians will be settled here to reduce the Alevis to a minority”.

The government and its supporters accuse Alevi organisations of being sectarian when they reach out to the minority of Syrian refugees who are Kurds or Alawites. A Kurdish movement representative claimed that the authorities warned Syrian Kurds not to establish relations with Kurdish organisations in Turkey: “Syrian Kurds who came to Sultangazi were told they would be provided all health and education services if they abide by this rule. So, out of fear of being sent back to Syria by Turkish authorities, they have stayed low-profile about their Kurdish identity”. Kurdish and Alevi oppositionists insist they are not concerned solely with their co-ethnics and/or co-religionists. One Alevi representative said: “At first, we tried to provide support to all the Syrians who came here, regardless of sect or ethnicity. However, when the numbers soared, and since we get no resources from the state, we had to cut down. Since we observed the Syrian Alawites were not so comfortable going to the centres of the Sunni Muslim charities, we concentrated our efforts on them”.