The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With nationalism rising, Turkey turns against refugees it once welcomed

Turkey’s growing antipathy toward refugees is starting to resemble the attitudes in the rest of Europe toward those fleeing unrest

Police use tear gas in August 2021 to disperse men who vandalized Ankara shops and homes believed to be owned by Syrians. (AFP/Getty Images)
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ANKARA, Turkey — In a neighborhood still scarred by hate, the Syrian refugees all but vanished one day recently. They shuttered their shops. They hurried through streets. It was the anniversary of a rampage by an anti-Syrian mob, and the authorities had delivered a warning: It was better to disappear.

The violence last August started when a young Syrian was accused of fatally stabbing Emirhan Yalcin, a Turkish teen, during a fight in Ankara’s Altindag district. Gangs of Turkish citizens descended on the neighborhood, vandalizing and looting Syrian stores, homes and cars, in an outburst shocking for its ferocity and for where it occurred: at the edge of Turkey’s capital, a few miles from the presidential palace.

“They were brainwashed,” said Abu Huthaifa, a local Syrian activist, who said he was threatened with a beating as he watched the riots from a balcony. For Syrians across Turkey, the fury unleashed in Altindag was a warning of the season of xenophobia to come.

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

A surge in anti-immigrant sentiment over the past year in Turkey has brought deadly assaults on refugees and mob attacks on immigrant neighborhoods — a perilous turn for Turkey, which once took pride in extending a welcome to Syrians, and hosts at least 4 million refugees and asylum seekers, more than any other country in the world.

The anger has emanated from a public unnerved by a worsening economic crisis, unsettled by claims that immigrants are changing Turkey’s character, and egged on by politicians using provocative or racist rhetoric to capitalize on all the fear. Turkey is the latest European country to grapple with the rise of anti-immigrant politics, but its refugees also face a durable strain of nativism that favors some immigrants — like those from the Balkans — over others, especially from the Middle East.

Turkey has “swung in a nationalist direction in all respects,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who allowed millions of Syrian refugees to come to Turkey, has struggled to respond to the anger, his government alternating between defending immigrants and passing new regulations to limit their visibility. Facing a critical election next year, Erdogan has vowed to send a million Syrians home, a policy seen as impractical and illegal and that has done little to quiet calls from his opponents for more action.

Fears abound among Syrians on both sides of the border that more-drastic steps are coming, including that Ankara might restore long-severed ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Such a move would placate Turkey’s nationalists, who see Erdogan’s support for the opposition as contributing to the refugee crisis.

Resentments had been building for years, and boiled over last summer when a new wave of Afghan refugees arrived at Turkey’s borders. Now opinion polls regularly identify immigration as the first- or second-most-urgent problem facing the nation.

“We are like dogs in our own country,” a Turkish man could be heard yelling this month on a tram in Istanbul’s tourist-filled Sultanahmet neighborhood, in an outburst that seemed to channel a national mood.

An ultranationalist politician named Umit Ozdag has placed himself at the center of the furor, amplifying every controversy involving immigrants and creating new ones as he travels across the country promoting his new anti-immigrant political party.

Residents remember when he appeared in Altindag, soon after the violence, and made a show of leaving an empty suitcase as a warning to Syrians: “It’s time to go now,” Ozdag said, writing about the stunt on Twitter.

Nighttime rampage

Abu Huthaifa, the Syrian activist, who asked to be referred to by his nickname for safety reasons, said some of the thousands of messages he received the night of the rampage in Altindag were as filled with fear as those he’d heard back home in Syria’s Idlib province during the war.

One angry resident told him that if his house was attacked, he would ignite a cooking-gas cylinder. A woman said she was so frightened that she urinated on herself. Others suggested forming vigilante groups to retaliate.

“I had not expected to see such a thing. In every building, there are Turks and Syrians. We are neighbors,” Abu Huthaifa said.

Today, some buildings in the neighborhood have been reduced to rubble in what the local government says is a long-planned gentrification project. Syrians feared it was part of an effort to purge them from a neighborhood that has been dubbed a “second Aleppo.”

Over the past year, roughly half of the 60,000 Syrian refugees who lived in the district have left, Abu Huthaifa said.

In one Turkish-owned store, the proprietor tinkered with a computer as two young Syrians and Kemal Ipek, a Turk running a real estate agency, entered the shop. The conversation, in Turkish, turned to immigration.

“Everybody loves their country, but conditions are dire there,” said Ahmed, a 27-year-old refugee from Aleppo who came to Turkey in 2016. “I want to go back, really,” he said.

Ipek seemed unconvinced.

“I know someone. Muhammed Haydar. Syrian. He is in Syria right now, on vacation. He’s been there for six months,” he said. “He’s been there for six months,” he repeated, in case his point was lost: Syria was not as dangerous as the refugees claimed.

“Easy, easy,” said the proprietor, sensing an argument brewing, and both men backed down.

“It’s been too long since we came here,” Ahmed allowed.

“It’s the prime minister who victimized us,” the shop owner said, referring to Erdogan, who held the post of prime minister before becoming president. Ipek agreed.

“God willing, the government changes, and things change,” he said.

Nationalist outrage

For Ozdag, the anti-immigrant politician, critics of Erdogan’s policies are potential voters for his new Victory Party. His platform focuses on the Turkish leader — whom he accuses of creating a “national identity” crisis — but mainly targets refugees, using words like “invasion” to describe their presence.

The immigrants have created a “deep existential crisis for Turkish society and the Turkish state,” he said in a recent interview.

His Twitter feed is a wellspring of nationalist outrage, with posts documenting alleged attacks by immigrants or capitulations to foreigners, like signs posted in Arabic rather than Turkish. He maintains that his party is Turkey’s “last exit before the cliff.”

“You cannot integrate more than 5 million Arabs in Turkey,” he said. Asked if he was whipping up emotions that posed peril to immigrants, he countered that such feelings were already rampant.

“There is a lot of anger on the streets,” he said. “And this not being represented in politics actually increases the threat of violence. Now, we have taken this anger under control.”

Can Selcuki, director of the Turkiye Raporu polling agency, said recent elections had shown a “rising secular nationalism in Turkey” that includes anti-immigrant sentiment. Mainstream political parties for the most part have resisted capitalizing on the anger, aware of the dangers of stoking public outrage at a time of rampant economic suffering.

As Turkey’s economy struggles, Erdogan goes it alone

Inflation jumped to 80 percent in July, according to official figures. Turks have struggled to afford basic goods as stories about the government financially supporting refugees — many of them untrue — gain traction.

“Umit Ozdag swooped in, with populist wording, and managed to capture the anger around this issue,” Selcuki said. “The topic was already there. Mr. Ozdag made it boil.”

While he remains a comparatively minor politician, with support amounting to a few percentage points, that backing can be found across Turkey, even in places where there are not many refugees, Selcuki said, adding that half of his support also comes from first-time voters.

Ozdag’s anti-Syrian rhetoric is not “surprising within Turkish popular discourse,” said Howard Eissenstat, a professor of history at St. Lawrence University. Nativism “is deeply woven into Turkish nationalism, and it’s deeply woven into the sense of who the Turks are,” he said.

There is little room in that vision for Arabs. When people in Turkey think about fraternal relations, they think about Muslims in the Russian empire, in the Balkans — they really don’t think about the Muslims of the Ottoman Middle East,” he said.

Yildiz Onen, a spokeswoman for the We Are All Refugees platform, said Ozdag was not solely to blame for the soaring xenophobia.

Erdogan’s government was slow to combat disinformation that spread in Turkey about migrants receiving generous state benefits, she said. As a result, “people who were against immigrants — I actually call them racists — started to become more powerful. They started to organize.”

Solidarity soured

In the earlier years of the Syrian war, “there was more of a sense of solidarity and empathy,” said Aydintasbas, of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Turks opened their homes to traumatized Syrians — at a time when European governments did everything to prevent them from reaching their borders, including paying to keep them away under a 2016 deal that provided Turkey with 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) in aid.

“The reality is, Syria is still not safe for return,” Aydintasbas said. “That Turkey is going to have to live with the reality of Syrian refugees is something the government is very keen to suppress.”

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Old prejudices have collided with new anxieties, forming a combustible mix. Insults cast Arabs as dirty, an unwitting echo of epithets slung at Turks who settled in Europe in decades past. Videos said to show immigrants harassing Turkish women or behaving in ways deemed unacceptable cause outrage every few weeks.

The triggers for the current climate “might be economic and political, but the tools are cultural identity,” said Mostafa Minawi, a professor of history at Cornell University and author of a forthcoming book about Arab Ottomans in late-19th-century Istanbul.

Some of the rhetoric — calling Arabs “traitors,” for instance — has deep roots, dating to the Arab revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, but the vitriol also owes to modern right-wing, nativist currents taking hold in Europe and elsewhere. “Turkey is not immune to this,” he said.

On the other side of the unrest in Altindag, there were Turkish residents who stood up for their immigrant neighbors — offering up their homes or bringing refugees food, Abu Huthaifa said. When Syrians temporarily left the neighborhood, some Turkish employers gave them paid days off.

He is planning to stay. When not engaged in community organizing, he has a job in advertising. Two of his daughters are at a Turkish university.

“We are doing well,” he said. “We just need some stability.”

Beril Eski contributed to this report.