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.
"There are so many police officers hunting Syrians around my shop. Syrians who didn't manage to sort out their residency permit in the country stay away from the area."
Al Ahmad also said that the Municipal Police recently removed his shop's sign in Arabic after some nationalist politicians and media figures raised a big stink over the increasing number of shops with Arabic names and signs in the country.
"We know that we are not wanted here," he sighed.
People from different political factions answered The New Arab's questions about Syrians.
Orhan Yanik, an Erdogan supporter, said that "the rents and prices increased after Syrians came to the country."
"I want them to go back to their country, but not forcefully; it should come after creating a liveable environment in their country," he added.
Ercan Ateş, a voter of the main opposition CHP, argues that Syrians must be deported immediately.
"Our economy is already bad; we try to survive with the price hikes. And Syrians caused the increase in rent prices. Our people are unemployed, and business holders unofficially hire Syrians for half salary, so they don't pay insurance and tax."
He believes that the war in Syria has already ended, and Syrians could go back.
According to Ismail Salloura, however, a man from Damascus who is running a dessert shop in Istanbul, there is still war in Syria, and they cannot go back and live safely in their country.
Ferhat Kentel asserts that the anti-Syrian racism in Turkey should be situated in the overall social, political, and historical context of the country.
According to him, Turkish society is full of past traumas of very different social actors and incidents, leading to the marginalisation of ethnic minorities, who serve as internal and external enemies blamed for the problems in the country. Ferhat believes that hatred towards refugees is also linked to the insecurity fuelled by the global and national economy, wars in the region, and political instability.
"Average person faces many hardships in their struggle for survival in Turkey. So, this is not only a question of rationality but of feelings. [Turks’] feelings of resentment and grudge lead to situations in which they find themselves vulnerable. Those people who feel insecure or who don't have a kind of confidence in their being or identity conclude that the refugees are responsible for this environment. Vulnerable people consider refugees, another vulnerable group, as scapegoats."
According to Kentel, taking the anti-refugee sentiment under control and preventing more systemic attacks on immigrants in the country depends on the initiatives of the politicians.
"All depends on their discourse. Will they use manipulative language or mild language? Will they provoke, or will they calm the situation?"
He argues if Ankara finds a way to ameliorate the problems about the democratic order, human rights, and the economy, people will be less angry and more peaceful. And they will not target refugees as much as they do now.
According to the professor, if the country's political and economic situation deteriorates, it is difficult to expect better days for refugees living in Turkey.
© 2022 The New Arab