Turkey’s refugee quota plan worries refugee rights activists

A Turkish Interior Ministry plan to limit the number of foreigners living in neighborhoods across Turkey has angered human rights activists, who slam the move as a sign of brewing unrest. anti-immigrant sentiment as Turkey heads to elections.

Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s iron-fisted interior minister, told reporters last week that 16 provinces had been closed to new foreign residents, including districts in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. “If the number of foreigners in one neighborhood exceeds 25 percent, we will send them to other neighborhoods,” he said, adding that the implementation had already started on a voluntary basis. Although Soylu used the generic term for “foreigner”, he was clearly referring to Syrians under temporary protection and other asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa.

Turkey has set a geographical limit on its ratification of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, meaning that only those fleeing due to “events in Europe” can obtain refugee status. But despite the lack of official recognition, local authorities and international media refer to Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis and others from Asia and Africa as “refugees”. Turkey hosts one of the largest refugee communities in the world, with refugees making up 5% of its population of around 83 million, with the largest group being four million Syrians, of whom 193,000 have been granted Turkish citizenship.

Bureaucratic sources say the so-called “dilution plan” aims to prevent ghettos and communal violence, but many immigration activists fear it will inflame anti-immigration rhetoric as the Turkey is heading for elections next year. Refugee groups also fear the plan could encourage local politicians to try to charge foreigners more for water, electricity or business licenses to force Syrians or Afghans out of their towns.

“The plan to impose quotas on refugees is a demonstration of the impasse in which the government finds itself, whose support is diminishing due to the economic crisis,” said Burcak Sel Tufekci, director of the association Earth is Home. International Solidarity, which supports refugees.

For Tufekci, the decisive moment passed last year. She told Al-Monitor: “Since the fight between Syrian refugees and residents of Altindag [a working-class neighborhood in Ankara] in August 2021, many Syrians were relocated to Ankara. We now know that this is a national plan and perhaps more steps to come for refugees as elections approach.

Tufekci’s association has an office in Altindag, a stronghold of the ruling Justice and Development Party. In August 2021, 18-year-old Turkish Emirhan Yalcin was stabbed during a fight with Syrian refugees. Following the stabbing, hundreds of residents shouting insults at the refugees attacked Syrian-owned properties, particularly those on a street known as “Little Aleppo”.

“Ironically, Altindag was one of the neighborhoods where there was good harmony between Syrians and Turks until then,” Tufekci told Al-Monitor. “We found it incredible that things had taken such a drastic turn so quickly, as if an invisible hand had come to turn things around.” Altindag thus becomes a pilot for quotas and relocation. More than 4,500 Syrians have been relocated or will soon be. In addition, 177 Syrian businesses have been closed. The Directorate General of Migration Management claimed that the closures were carried out on a “voluntary basis” and that financial assistance was provided to those who volunteered to leave the area and move elsewhere.

“Many Syrians have settled there because it is close to the industrial areas of the capital, where there are garages or furniture manufacturers,” Metin Corabatir, president of the Center for Research on asylum and migration based in Ankara. “Where would they go? If they are placed too far from their job or in another city where they cannot work, it will trigger a negative cycle with social impacts ranging from juvenile delinquency to criminality.

Tufekci agreed. “The plan, which is being prepared with little consultation and in accordance with the principles of humanitarian law, will have serious consequences both politically and economically,” she explained. “We know that Syrians under temporary protection already have difficulty accessing public services such as health and education. These relocations, especially if they are forced to go to areas where there are no jobs or services, will worsen their situation, pushing some towards crime and also resentment towards the host society.

Clashes between Syrians and Turks in Ankara and Istanbul, coupled with further resentment over the arrival of Afghan refugees, have fueled anti-refugee sentiments in the country, whose residents live with food prices rising almost daily. causing fuel and gas bills to skyrocket. , rising unemployment and labor strikes. The refugees, accused by many Turks of having an easy life thanks to state subsidies and alms, have become scapegoats.

“As refugees increasingly become a card in the hands of political parties, the migration bureaucracy makes quick and reckless decisions that respond to political concerns, rather than offering a well-thought-out solution,” an activist said. from immigration who asked for anonymity. “So what we see are decisions that are either in conflict with international humanitarian law or impossible to implement for practical reasons.”

In 2019, Istanbul’s governor’s office announced that 5,945 Syrian refugees not registered to reside in the city had been sent to temporary accommodation centers in other cities. “But a lot of them came back because that’s where they worked,” the immigration campaigner said. “The governor’s office knew that – they just wanted to make a statement.”

Similarly, when dozens of Syrians munched bananas on TikTok to poke fun at anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey, the anger of some politicians and ordinary Turks led the Directorate General of Migration Management to announce that Syrians who would not respect Turkey would be expelled. Although several Syrians, including a journalist, were taken into custody and harassed as a show of muscle flexing, there were no deportations.

But human rights groups reported a wave of deportations in the first months of 2022. Asked about the number of deportations or returns to Syria, Soylu said: “Some 480,000 Syrians are voluntarily returned… to safe areas in Syria. no place to go, given the situation in Syria. »

According to a report by academics Sinem Adar and Friedrich Puttmann, more than 82% of Turks want Syrian refugees to be repatriated, 71% see them as a security threat and around two-thirds are generally unhappy with their presence. Aware of growing impatience, the political opposition is challenging the government’s migration policy, often using anti-migrant rhetoric. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has pledged to deport the Syrians within two years if he wins the next elections. When Tanju Ozcan, the CHP mayor of the northwestern town of Bolu, imposed discriminatory fines on refugees living in his town, Kilicdaroglu took no action against him despite pressure from some members to kick him out of the party. Further to the right of the political spectrum, the recently founded far-right Victory Party bases its policy exclusively on opposition to refugees and promises to defend Turkish identity.

Sharon P. Juarez