Deporting Syrians has become an election promise in Turkey

By Zubeyir Koçulu and Maaz İbrahimoğlu

Incidents of xenophobia and violence towards Syrian refugees in Turkey have increased in recent months, coinciding with local and national election cycles. Populist candidates are scapegoating Syrians as the cause for the country's current woes.

A street sign advertises rental properties, with Syrians barred from applying

Sherif Khaled Al-Ahmad, a 22-year-old Syrian textile worker, was shot to death in front of his ground-floor apartment in Istanbul on June 7 during an assault by a group of Turkish men.

Three men accosted Sherif and his flatmates at around 4.30 am and shouted insults through the Syrians’ windows, demanding them to come outside.

Sherif left his apartment to talk to them, but one of the three men immediately shot him in the leg and head, leaving him dead.

"They did not immediately escape after shooting Sherif but waited on the corner to shoot the other Syrians living in the apartment," a neighbour and a close friend of Sherif, who chose to stay anonymous for security reasons, told The New Arab.

According to him, the attackers had racist motives.

Sherif's body was buried in Idlib, Syria last week according to reports by local media. The police are searching for the three men over the killing.

The tragic death of the young Syrian comes amid the increasing anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey – including verbal and physical attacks targeting the immigrants from the MENA, Syrians in particular.

According to the Interior Ministry, Turkey is hosting more than 3.5 million registered Syrians. Millions of Syrians have fled the neighbouring country since the civil war started in 2011.

Recently, several videos showing merciless attacks on Syrians living in Turkey have gone viral on social media.

A video widely shared in May shows a group of Turkish men attacking Leyla Muhammed, an elderly Syrian woman, in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. A man in the group is seen kicking the mentally disabled woman in the face as she sat on a bench. The man assaulted her upon rumours in the neighbourhood claiming that she was a kidnapper, which turned out to be false.

Anti-Syrian sentiment has increased in Turkey in recent years, partly fuelled by an economic downturn that saw consumer prices skyrocket, threatening President Tayyip Erdogan's 19-year grip on power.

Ferhat Kentel, a sociology professor, told The New Arab that the refugees are a handy instrument for the Turkish government and employers.

"We must remember that hosting millions of refugees is a bargaining chip against the West that the government has used to threaten Europe with opening the borders and letting the refugees 'occupy' their countries. On the other hand, they are also an instrument for business people; they are just cheap labour."

A poll conducted this year shows that 81.7% of Turkish electors want the government to send Syrians back to their country, and the percentage supporting this idea among Erdogan voters is 84.5. Several polls conclude that the majority of the Turkish population sees the refugees, specifically Syrians, as the reason for the high cost of living in the country.

Sending Syrians back to war-torn Syria has become an election promise before Turkey's upcoming 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections. Main opposition secular CHP and newly emerged nationalist parties such as IYI and Zafer have promised their supporters to deport Syrians from the country.

The ruling AKP has joined the club recently. In May, Erdogan revealed his party's plans to send around one million refugees back to Syria.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced in April that Turkey has deported 317,000 refugees, including 19,000 Syrians.

Amnesty International has criticised Ankara over the “illegal deportations” of Syrians, calling on Ankara to protect them from any forcible return, in line with its international obligations.

Ahmad al Ahmad, a businessman from Aleppo, told The New Arab that several of his Syrian customers in Istanbul's Bagcilar district had stopped coming to his ornament shop in fear of deportation.