Turkey has spent more than 200 Million Turkish lira on 43,387 Syrian refugeessince the inception of the civil war in Syria last year. Until recently, Turkey was praised for its performance in providing the refugees with the basic needs and essential services. Also, Turkey pursued a cautious strategy in settling the Syrian refugees by paying attention to ethnic and religious identities. However, for the last two weeks Turkey has experienced protests in some of the refugee camps. Early this week, clashes erupted after the arrival of 1,500 Turkmens into a refugee camp based in Islahiye in which Syrian refugees raised a Syrian flag at the entrance of the camp. Why did Syrian refugees protest and how did Turkish people respond?
While some refugees claimed that Turkey did not provide them with adequate food at the start of the Holy Ramadan that began last week, some others praised Turkey for her support of the Syrian refugees, saying that the Turkish government has been so generous and no Arab country saved so many Syrians from Assad’s clutches. Nevertheless, it seems there has been a shortage of food and water acknowledged by the Turkish government which has stated that it is trying to improve conditions in refugee camps? There are three explanations that possibly caused the protests. First, as the civil war continues in Syria the number of Syrian civilians seeking refuge in Turkey has risen remarkably. Government’s efforts were ineffective in dealing with refugee demands. Second, as some refugees have alleged, there may be some irregularities in distributing provisions to people who qualify for humanitarian aid. This is difficult to prove since nobody has concrete evidence. Third, the Turkish government did not take all necessary measures for a durable solution, as refugees are described as “guests” and Assad’s regime was expected to fall before now.
The fight between Syrian refugees and Turkish officials who wanted to locate the 1,500 Turkmens coming from Lazkiyah into the camp in Islahiye caused extensive media coverage, not only because of the clashes, but also since it gave the opposition media a chance to criticize the AKP government for its Syria policy. While some claimed that the Syrian refugees rejected outright being in the same camp with Turkmens on identity grounds, the Islahiye District Governor stated that there are some people trying to reach “certain undesirable goals” by provoking the refugees. This might be true, given deteriorating relations between the Turkish government and the Assad regime who is thought to be behind such incidents. Nonetheless, Turkish newspapers reported a lack of space, which suggests Turkey is having troubles in efficiently undertaking this task. Given the increasing number of refugees, Turkey should review its refugee policy and cooperate with UNHCR to fulfil its humanitarian responsibilities.
Thoughout all this there are the realities: the Syrian refugees’ clash with Turkish police provoking local residents, who entered the camp to defend the Turkish police force and raise the Turkish flag. On top of this was the Turkish nation’s ‘discontent with the AKP government’s refugee policy.’ Following an incident on Twitter, Facebook and Eksisozluk, a famous Turkish forum for youth, I came across much hate speech against Syrians and harsh criticism of the AKP. While criticism of the AKP is either ideological or nationalist, the Turkish people’s reactions to Syrian refugees are marked by anti-Arab sentiments. Sources of these sentiments date back to the early Republican era, which portrayed Arabs as religious bigots and those who stabbed the Ottomans in the back. That may help explain why Turkish people think Syrian refugees are more than a burden.