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Nationalistic Rage: Anti-Syrian Refugee Sentiment in Turkiye

In this blog post by Junior Fellow Nur Helvali, we shift our focus from the far-right in Canada to explore how anti-refugee sentiments are expressed in Turkiye. This post lays the foundation for a series that takes up cross-cultural analyses of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments around the world.

In 2011, when demonstrations against the Bashar Assad regime began in Syria, the chaos in the country evolved into a civil war. Shortly after the emergence of the war, an intense migration began from Syria to Turkiye. Under the 1951 United Nations Geneva Convention, Turkiye does not grant “refugee” status to Syrian refugees but provides “temporary protection” as “guests.” According to the UNHCR reports, Turkiye currently hosts 3.6 million Syrians under this temporary protection, and unofficial reports show that the number exceeds 6 million when including unregistered and undocumented refugees. This intense migration has led to many deep-rooted problems in the country.[1] In some cases, this has led to very high levels of violence and other negative behaviors towards refugees.

Since 2011, when I started my international relations undergraduate education, I had the opportunity to observe the refugees who flocked to Turkiye and how Turkish citizens’ attitudes towards them developed over time. Later, as part of an on-going research program, I interviewed several Syrian people to learnt about their arrival, settlement, and integration processes in the country. When it became clear that most Syrians refugees were going to become permanent residents in Turkiye, I pivoted my work to study the problems that began to appear between these two communities, which triggered feelings of Turkish nationalism.

There are many factors in the formation of discriminatory and exclusionary attitudes towards Syrians in Turkiye. The thought that the Syrian presence in Turkiye is permanent now, the rapid increase in Syrian numbers, even the claims that the number of newborn Syrians in some provinces is higher than the number of Turkish newborns, has created an understanding among some Turkish citizens that the Syrian refugee population is having a significant and negative impact on Turkish culture.[2] Claims that Syrians are more prone to crime, that the right of citizenship will be granted to Syrians—a sensitive subject for Turks—and the overall visibility of Syrians have triggered a rise of antagonistic nationalism in the country. Sentiments like these are reflected in nativist discourses around the world, including Canada and the US (see the work of Peter Schrag, 2010).

It is also necessary to mention that the deterioration of the general socio-political situation in Turkiye has exacerbated poor relations between Turks and they Syrian guests. Many of the Turkish people believe that Syrians are one of the main reasons for the economic crisis in the country, claiming that a significant part of the national budget is spent on their needs. Turks state that they are very uncomfortable with the taxes they pay being spent on the Syrians.[3] Syrians’ willingness to work as low-wage labourers also causes intense reaction in the country claiming that "Syrians took away the jobs of Turks."[4] These sentiments are likely familiar ones to our Canadian readers and evince the global nature of anti-refugee rhetoric.

Syrians are also targets in many issues in the news. In response to the very common violent incidents against Syrians and their work places, the interior ministry of Turkey has announced that it has started a ‘dilution’ project in order to reduce tensions between the Syrians and the Turks.[5] It was emphasized by the government of Turkiye that this project was implemented for the Syrians to not disturb the demographic structure of Turkish society. Syrians were required to register with local authorities in the city in which they were settled, and they could only benefit from services from their registered cities. Syrians, who had difficulty staying in provinces with limited job opportunities, started to settle in other cities as unregistered workers. The foreign population was limited to 25% of the Turkish population in the districts they residence across the country. Registration for residence in 16 provinces in total, including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and other industrial cities has been closed. In touristic provinces, the Syrian population is tiny compared to other provinces, with the thought that they will disturb both the local community and tourists.[6] Such policies rely on ethno-nationalist understandings of demographics and the nation state and evince a deeply rooted anxiety for the future of the country (see also the work of Arjun Appadurai, 2006).

Based on my most recent research, interviewing Turkish citizens it is constantly emphasized that Syrian refugees harm the values ​​of Turks. After Syrians settled in Turkiye, they started using Arabic script in order to enable them to carry out their economic activities, especially among themselves. As the Arabic-speaking population has become the second-largest minority in the country, Arabic scripts started to appear in places such as small businesses, hospitals, and roads. Turkish citizens say that Arabic scripts, songs, and clothing are problematic for social cohesion and the future of the Turkish nation.[7] On this subject, the question 'Is this Turkiye? or an Arab country?' is frequently covered in Turkish media.[8] Izmir and Adana Metropolitan Municipality has also recently started removing signs in Arabic in reaction to these narratives. This fear of “Islamification” has become a rallying call for far-right and ethno-nationalist groups around the globe as actors frame their anti-refugee sentiments not as “hate” for Syrians, but rather as love for their homeland and tradition (see also the work of José Pedro Zúquete, 2023)

It can easily be observed that the attitude towards Syrian asylum seekers in Turkiye, which has been more than a decade now, is no longer one of hospitality. It has been triggering the far-right nationals both socially and politically. Along with showing the crises that massive migration can create in a country, it can be said that anti-refugee sentiments has increased in other countries as well as in Turkiye.

In conclusion, this event, which went down in history as one of the biggest “refugee crises” in the world, has affected not only the countries near its borders, but also many countries across the world. For refugees who have firstly fled mostly to Turkiye, Lebanon and Jordan since the war began, countries with higher welfare have been more attractive for their long-term settlement. Canada has been at the forefront of these countries with the immigration opportunities and welfare level it provides. However, despite the fact that the opportunities are more positive, as the number of refugees increases, it can be observed that the anti-refugee statements has soared in the Canadian society as well. Although Turkiye and Canada are different countries in many regards, the bases of anti-immigrant rhetoric are similar. In my next blog post, I will write about how the “Syrian refugee crisis” has affected anti-refugee sentiment in Canada and what similarities and differences Canada's anti-refugee rhetoric has with Turkiye.

End Notes

1) Gokhan Tuncel, Suleyman Ekici. Gocun Siyasal Etkisi: Suriyeli Gocmenlerin Turkiye Siyasetine Etkisi. Dergipark. 2019.

3) Makovsky, Alan. "Turkey's Refugee Dilemma." American Progress. 2019.

4) Ertekin, Sumeyya. Suriyeliler Isimizi Elimizden mi Aliyor. Fikir Turu. 2020.

6) Tahiroglu, Merve. Goc Politikalari: Turkiye'de ki Multeciler ve 2023 Secimleri. Heinrich boll Stiftung Dernegi Turkiye Temsilciligi. 2022.

7) Cetingulec, Mehmet. Multecilerden Sonra Arapca Tabela Sorunu. Al-Monitor. 2019.

Suggested Reading

  • Appadurai, A. (2006). Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger. Duke University Press.

  • Schrag, P. (2010). Not fit for our society: Immigration and nativism in America. University of California Press

  • Zúquete, J.P. (2023). Global Identitarianism. Routledge


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