Spotlight: In Turkey, mood sours towards Syrians’ prolonged presence

Recent tensions and stories of deportations show a growing exasperation with millions of Syrian refugees who have settled in Turkey, a country hailed internationally for its humanitarian efforts but who is now facing a battered economy.

The Turkish government has repeated that it is working to help Syrians cross back voluntarily into Turkish-controlled parts of northern Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month that around 330,000 Syrians had returned since Turkey launched military operations in Syria three years ago.

Western media and right groups have reported this month forcible deportations of Syrians from mainly Istanbul to war zones such as Idlib in Syria, but Ankara has denied that it was sending back refugees against their will, except for those charged of criminal activities.

The situation is still unclear and the number cited in reports represent only a very small fraction of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

However, there is an anti-Syrian sentiment across the country and its reflections are very palpable on social media, actively used in Turkey where fiery arguments between anti-refugee supporters and opponents create havoc.

The Turkish government announced two weeks ago a crackdown on unregistered migrants in Istanbul. Since mid-July, Turkish authorities have arrested 6,000 unregistered migrants in Turkey’s biggest city among whom only 1,000 were Syrians, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced on television.

Soylu denied any deportation and said that “migrants who are completely unregistered are caught and then sent to camps,” located in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border.

“We never have deported and cannot deport the Syrians under the scope of temporary protection,” a status which grants only limited rights and no freedom to move between cities, insisted the minister.

Around 1 million Syrians live in this metropolis which offers better-paid jobs, though only 550,000 are registered there. Those who are not, have been summoned to return until the end of August to their cities of registration.

Khalid, 30, who fled Aleppo in northern Syria in 2014, works as a server in downtown Ankara’s Kizilay district where there are plenty of shops and restaurants who hire Syrians, legally or illegally.

“Since the Istanbul crackdown, there is some fear among the migrant community. But we have not been bothered by the police or any government officials here. We understand that Turkey wants order to control migrants,” he told Xinhua.

“We have made Turkey our home and do not want to return to Syria unless there is peace there. But if there’s peace, we plan to return with all the family of five,” for which he is trying to provide.

There has been clashes in several towns when crowds attacked Syrian shops, now targets of resentment for Turks who see Syrians as taking jobs and crowding out health and education services. Turkey’s economic downturn has aggravated relations.

A poll conducted in July by the Piar research group found that Turks ranked the Syrian presence as the second most important problem in the country after the economy.

More than 80 percent of respondents said hosting Syrians was not the government’s responsibility and that all Syrian refugees should be repatriated.

More than 400,000 Syrian children have been born in Turkey since the start of the civil war in 2011, according to official figures.

Mohammad, a friend of Khalid, lives in Ankara for more than five years and works in temporary jobs. He also said that he had no problems with authorities, but pointed out that the perception towards Syrians has changed especially since Turkey’s economic woes started more than a year ago.

“They don’t seem to see us as guests like they did before,” the 31-year-old man said.

“Turks probably think that we are swimming in money and pinching their jobs, which is not true. Generally, Syrians are paid less for the same jobs,” said Mohamad, adding that “nevertheless, we still get along with our Turkish brothers without major problems.”

“They have offered us a place to live and we are thankful,” he said.

Turkish Interior Ministry figures say the number of refugees in Turkey was 4.2 million in 2017 and has now reached 4.9 million.

Ankara says that the country has spent nearly 40 billion U.S. dollars so far for the refugees, including European support worth about 6 billion euros (6.63 million U.S. dollars).

The arrival of the Syrian refugees has changed the face of many Turkish cities, where in some cases Syrians outnumber Turks.

As the war is still raging in some parts of Syria, it still needs years of reconstruction and recovery before returning to a state of normalcy.