Refugees – a hot topic in Turkish politics

With tensions rising dangerously amid a burgeoning economic crisis, the Turkish government’s refugee policy – ad hoc, miscalculated and unclear – is making Syrians an easy target for the opposition. Ayse Karabat reports from Istanbul

By Ayşe Karabat

On 29 April 2011, a group of 252 people, consisting mostly of children and their parents, escaped their government’s atrocities and crossed the border from Syria into Turkey, where they were welcomed. They were the first, to be followed by millions of others.

Little did anyone know that their numbers would reach 3.7 million within the next 11 years and they would no longer be welcomed by their host society.

Followers of Turkish politics might easily have predicted that, besides the worsening economic situation, the opposition would seize upon rising public anger towards the Syrian refugees as a hot-button issue destined to shape the political landscape in the months leading up to the 2023 general election.

Politicians like Tanju Ozcan, the mayor of the northwestern province of Bolu from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), claim there is a correlation between Syrian refugees and the economic crisis.

From billboards in his city in Arabic and Turkish on 19 May, Ozcan addressed Syrians, telling them, "You see the economic crisis in our country. Our young people are unemployed and families are living under the poverty line. Under these circumstances, we don’t have any bread to share with you."

A day later the public prosecutor ordered that the billboards be taken down.

The population of his city is 320,000; around 5,000 registered Syrians live there. That is nothing compared to provinces like Hatay and Gaziantep, both in the south and bordering Syria, where the refugees exceed 25 percent of the population. As a result, the municipal authorities there feel the pressure and have to deal with inevitable tensions among the local population.

CHP Mayor Tanju Ozcan's anti-refugee billboards in the northwestern province of Bolu (source: Facebook, Haber Ay)
The mayor of Bolu, Tanju Ozcan of Turkey's opposition CHP, had an innovative idea of how to get rid of unwanted foreigners. With billboards in Arabic: "I'm talking to the temporary refugees: you say you came to our country 11 years ago as guests. The Turkish nation has been protecting you with its scarce resources for years. This visit has gone on far too long. You see the economic crisis in our country. Our youth is unemployed, families are living below the poverty line. We have no more bread and water to share with you. It is time to leave as you came. You are no longer wanted. Return to your country!" A day later, the public prosecutor ordered them to be taken down

Liberal and unplanned refugee policy

Initially, Syrians were placed in refugee camps. In 2014, however, when Islamic State overran swathes of Syrian territory, the flow of Syrians towards Turkey accelerated and the refugee numbers spiralled. The 26 designated camps quickly proved insufficient. For three years the Syrian refugees were therefore allowed to settle anywhere, with no official oversight or organisation.

"Up until 2017, Syrians could settle wherever they wanted. Turkey basically implemented the most liberal refugee settling programme in the world," writes Murat Erdogan of Ankara University’s Migration Research Center.

He points out that many other countries, such as Germany, paid attention to planning and distributing the refugee population to prevent what he terms 'ghettos' from forming. In Turkey, by contrast, the unplanned settlement of refugees led to high concentrations of Syrians in certain areas, which effectively prevented them from integrating with the host society.

According to Murat Erdogan, the government proved incapable of assessing the risks of unregulated mass movement and underestimated it from the beginning. Even when migration is planned and regulated, it will inevitably create issues for host countries, he adds.

During Turkey's open-door policy, refugees from other countries also began arriving in Turkey in the hope of crossing over to Europe. Those who failed to gain entry into the EU remained in Turkey. Besides Syrians, migrants from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan have since arrived. According to a statement published by the Presidency of Migration Office in May 2022, some 320,458 individuals are currently living under international protection in Turkey.

In addition there is also the steady stream of irregular and unregistered refugees pouring into Turkey. In a press statement on 17 May, the Istanbul Governor’s Office announced that 17,116 irregular migrants were detained within a week.

Refugees are not temporary

In 2017, Turkey completed its registration process of the Syrian refugees and banned them from settling in 16 cities and more than 800 neighbourhoods. They were also subject to resettlement from places where the refugee population exceeded 25 percent of the overall local population. The policy was piloted in Ankara’s Altindag district where, in 2016, the properties, houses and workplaces of the refugees were attacked after a dispute between refugees and locals.


Migration Research Association founder and chair Didem Danis, from Galatasaray University, points out that, initially, Turkey fell into the same trap that Germany did in the nineteen sixties and seventies, thinking the refugees would be temporary, just like Germany drew the wrong conclusions about its "guest workers".

Back in 2011, the Turkish government referred to the Syrians as guests; subsequently, their status was officially defined as people "under temporary protection status" (TPS) in 2014.

"Their presence is a social fact, and even if the war ends in Syria, at least half of them will stay here. Some 45 percent of Syrian TPS holders are under the age of 18. Turkey should focus on them, because the integration problems will become more severe with the second generation," she told

More than 80 percent of Turks want the Syrians to return home

A recent survey by Metropoll research company reveals the extent of these concerns: 81.7 percent of the Turkish population want the Syrians to return to their own country. At least 84 percent of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) voters say Syrians should go back. The percentage is even higher among opposition supporters: 89 percent of CHP voters, 97 percent of the nationalist opposition IYI (Good) Party voters and 87 percent of the supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) want to be rid of the refugees.

"When the economy goes downhill, society starts looking for a scapegoat. And here, the most vulnerable group, refugees, is being targeted," says Danis, adding that Turkish society’s concerns about refugees have translated into hatred towards them. Some political parties have long instrumentalised this, and discriminatory and racist narratives are being widely circulated especially on social media, she says.

One such anti-refugee video is a nine-minute dystopian short film called "Silent Occupation", which was released by the ultra-nationalist Victory Party in May. The movie echoes the German far-right Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) 2019 anti-immigrant campaign. The Victory Party video foresees a Turkey in 2043, overrun by Syrian gangs and with a Syrian-led party in power in Istanbul, where Arabic is now the official language.

Chairman of the Victory Party Umit Ozdag (photo: AFP)
Umit Ozdag's fiery anti-refugee politics: a nine-minute dystopian short film called "Silent Occupation" was released by the ultra-nationalist Victory Party in May. The movie echoes the German far-right Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) 2019 anti-immigrant campaign. The Victory Party video foresees a Turkey in 2043, overrun by Syrian gangs and with a Syrian-led party in power in Istanbul, where Arabic has become the official language.

Victory Party may have the support of just 0.5. percent of voters, yet its chairman Umit Ozdag's fiery anti-refugee politics have brought him more than 1.3 million followers on Twitter.

There is also a group that calls itself the "Ataman Group", which has been sharing videos of its members beating up migrants. In one of the videos, the group says, "Either you desert rats leave our country, or we'll make it your grave."

But these far-right groups are not the only ones talking about sending Syrians back to their home country. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu claims that if they win the elections in 2023, they will reach an agreement with Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad and ensure the safe return of Syrians to their country. He added that Erdogan could be planning on giving citizenship to Syrians to boost his shrinking votes.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan defined the opposition’s statement as xenophobic and said his party will always stand by the oppressed. Although, recently, his government also declared their main strategy to be the honourable, safe and voluntary return of refugees.

Both Murat Erdogan and Didem Danis are convinced that integration policies are the only way to ease some of Turkish society's understandable concerns.

"The government needs to put forward a clear and transparent policy, informing the public every step of the way, in contrast to its strategy to date. The opposition should refrain from instrumentalising this issue for their own political interests," Danis told

"What we as citizens need to keep in mind is that they are human beings. We need to watch what we say on social media because that might lead to a refugee child being bullied in school."

Ayse Karabat

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