The refugee burden

September 17, 2023

Turkey is host to the world’s biggest refugee population

The refugee burden


e will send all Syrians back to their country in two years at the latest,” proclaimed Kemal K l çdaro lu at an election rally earlier this year. K l çdaro lu, the opposition candidate in Turkey’s presidential election, believes that dealing with the ‘Syrian issue’ is vital to securing Turkey’s future.

Following the first round of elections, K l çdaro lu made his stance on deportation of refugees even clearer: “Erdogan, you did not protect the borders and honour of our country. As soon as I come to power, I will send all refugees home.”

K l çdaro lu is not the only politician who used the rhetoric against refugees for electoral gains. Erdo an talked about ‘voluntary repatriations’ of Syrians and the far-right presidential candidate Sinan Ogan ran solely on an anti-immigrant stance. As the tide of opinion turned after Erdo an’s victory, Syrian refugees in Turkey remain anxious about their future in the country.

According to figures provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Turkey is host to the world’s biggest refugee population with around 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees. The past year has seen a sudden shift in the welcoming attitude Turkey had once had for Syrian refugees. With a sudden economic crisis gripping the country with extremely high rates of inflation and the value of the Turkish lira plunging, the people have found an easy scapegoat in the Syrian refugee population.

The alarming trend of rising xenophobia and physical violence against Syrian refugees was visible well before the 2023 general elections. Neighbourhoods like Bagcilar in stanbul have experienced increasing attacks on Syrian businesses. Many Syrian refugees granted ‘temporary protection status’ were also deported last year by the hundreds under Erdo an’s government. Of course, the reason behind this threat to Syrian refugee safety in Turkey lay in the fact that they are not officially recognised by the state as ‘refugees.’ Rather, they are put under temporary protection status that falls short of providing individuals with the necessary legal protection. It also results in the failure of Turkish authorities to maintain a certain level of social cohesion.

The past year has seen a sudden shift in the welcoming attitude Turkey had once had for Syrian refugees. With a sudden economic crisis gripping the country, Syrian refugees are being turned away.

The government claims that these deportations were ‘voluntary departures.’ However, Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of forced deportations of Syrians. During talks with the Syrian government in order to normalise relations, Erdogan pushed for resettling Syrians in areas of Syria still under Turkish control, despite many Syrians remaining wary and fearful for their lives upon being returned to Syria.

October 2022 saw Turkish inflation rates go up to 85 percent. A populist movement gaining popularity during such a time was not a shock to political analysts. When refugee-host community relationships in many refugee-hosting countries is observed, a discernible yet predictable shift in such relationships always occurs during times of economic depreciation, thus resulting in social tensions taking root. Economic concerns are only the tip of the iceberg; with an increase in looting and cases of sexual harassment directly after the massive earthquakes in February, Syrians became an easy target.

With hostility towards Syrian refugees reaching critical levels, the 2023 general election was predictably marked by a single-minded focus on the ‘Syrian problem’, despite the country’s myriad economic problems. Despite the social and political cleavages between the secular political parties and the right-leaning Justice and Development Party, both sides seemed to agree on one thing: the deportation of Syrian refugees. What can best describe this attitude is the way the Turkish population perceives Syrians. A poll conducted in 2017 that asked survey-takers to describe Syrian refugees in one word showed that many viewed them as ‘victims’. In 2021, a significant number called Syrian refugees ‘burden on us’.

While there is no quick and easy solution towards changing the attitude towards Syrian refugees in Turkey, an immediate concern should be understanding why this irrational, anxious spiral has occurred and attempt to create a policy pathway towards pulling the nation out of it. In the meantime, it is crucial to temper down the perception of Syrian refugees being a ‘burden.’

The writer is a journalist at The Borgen Project

The refugee burden