The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkey moves to deport Syrian migrants for eating bananas in a ‘provocative’ way on TikTok

The Turkish lira hit a record low against the dollar recently and the national economy remains battered after years of high inflation and unemployment. (Moe Zoyari/Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Turkish government said this week that it has opened deportation proceedings against at least seven Syrian nationals accused of eating bananas in a “provocative” way while participating in a TikTok video challenge, in a move that underscores rising hostility toward Syrians in a country with a reputation for being welcoming to refugees.

The challenge was inspired by an Oct. 17 encounter on the streets of Istanbul that was captured on video, during which a man complained that he could not afford bananas, a staple that has fallen out of the reach of many consumers amid a poor economy. Turning to a female Syrian student, he alleged that refugees from Syria were buying the fruit by the “kilo,” a reference to false rumors that displaced people were living in luxury off Turkish taxpayer largesse.

In response, Syrians in Turkey and elsewhere posted videos of themselves eating bananas to poke fun at the incident. In one video, a group of young Syrians sat around a room, chuckling as they ate their fruit.

On Thursday, local media reported that immigration authorities in Istanbul had detained 11 Syrians involved with the videos on charges of “inciting or humiliating the [Turkish] people with hatred and hostility,” in an action that an Amnesty International coordinator called “appalling.”

Turkey has long been generous toward refugees: As of late 2019, it sheltered the world’s largest number of displaced people, including 3.6 million Syrians. But amid double-digit inflation — the cost of food increased by nearly 30 percent in September — there has been a “considerable decrease” in “acceptance and solidarity” in recent years, according to a report commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Turkish people have started looking at Syrian refugees as a “scapegoat,” said Kemal Kirisci, a Turkey expert at the Brookings Institution, in an interview. The U.N. refugee agency report, for instance, suggested that more than 80 percent of Turks believe displaced Syrians thrive on government subsidies.

In reality, less than half of the refugee population receives a monthly allowance of around $12 per family member, barely enough to cover urban household expenses, according to Kirisci.

Ankara’s move has sparked anger among refugee advocates, who note that the Geneva Conventions prohibit returning refugees back to their home country when they face credible threats to their life or liberty. Refugees can lose their protected status if found guilty of a serious crime, but the Wednesday announcement did not specify what, if any, laws the Syrians allegedly violated.

Turkey’s Interior Ministry did not immediately return a request for comment, including a question seeking clarification on whether the detained Syrians have refugee status.

The decline in public support for Syrian refugees in a battered national economy is the underlying context to the threat of deportation, said Kirisci, adding that “Turkey was a country that enjoyed humor. … But that sense of humor has disappeared.”

Turkey has deported hundreds of Syrian migrants, advocates and refugees say

Since the Syrian civil war broke out a decade ago, some 6 million people have fled that country. While the conflict has abated in parts of Syria, violence persists in some regions and suffering is widespread across the country. Syrians who have returned face “grave human rights abuses and persecution” from government officials as well as difficulty meeting their basic needs, according to a report this month from Human Rights Watch.

The mounting hostility toward Syrian refugees in Turkey has translated into violence. Law enforcement detained 76 people in August after a mob stormed an Ankara neighborhood where many Syrian immigrants live, overturning cars, vandalizing businesses and chanting anti-Syrian slogans.

Turkey is not the only country where Syrian refugees are increasingly feeling unwelcome. Denmark has been trying to force out some refugees by revoking their residency permits, with Copenhagen saying it considers parts of Damascus, the Syrian capital, and its vicinity safe.

Activist Asmaa al-Natour and her husband are among those who have been sent to Danish detention centers. A photo of Natour saying an emotional farewell to her Danish neighbors was widely circulated on social media.