Why hate crimes against Syrian refugees rise in Turkey

A report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees earlier this year revealed that the global number of forcefully displaced people is the highest on record since World War II. A key contributing factor for this phenomenon is the Syrian Civil War which started in 2011. UNHCR data shows that 6.6 million Syrians were forced to leave their home due to the conflict, mainly fleeing to neighbouring countries Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. 

Since 2014, Turkey has hosted the largest number of refugees across the world, according to the U.N. refugee agency. As of September 2020, it is home to some 4 million refugees, 3.6 million of whom are Syrians and close to 370,000 asylum seekers and refugees of other nationalities[1]. Historically speaking, Turkey’s geographical position – as a crossroads between Europe and Asia – makes it a primary reception and transit country for many refugees. Although Syrian refugees have been living in Turkey since the beginning of Syria’s conflict, there is still a major issue with their inclusion in Turkish society this day.

A majority of Turks blame Syrian refugees for the country’s socio-economic problems. A 2018 study conducted by researchers Emre Erdoğan and Pınar Uyan Semerci from Istanbul Bilgi University found that 71.4 percent of survey-takers believed that Syrians were taking jobs away from people in Turkey. Their findings also showed that 67.4 percent of them agree that Syrians were raising the crime rates; however, statistics from the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM), released months after the study, showed that not only was the percentage of Syrians committing a criminal offence in Turkey low, but it had in fact dropped between 2017 and 2018, to 1.46 percent from 1.53 percent.

If this is the case, why do most people assume that refugees are the cause of Turkey’s socio-economic woes?

There are many studies that explain how the mass media and politicians shape public opinion against refugees. To get a better understanding of the hate speech and crime against Syrian refugees, one needs to view the research on political narratives and mass media coverage on the group.

In 2018, the Hrant Dink Foundation cited Syrian refugees as one of the top three demographics targeted by hate speech in the Turkish media. Furthermore, the Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (IGAM) released a report on the Turkish media’s refugee coverage between June 2017 and November 2018: its findings showed that there were 17,814 news articles related to refugees, most of which associated refugees with violence and crime. Based on these studies, it is possible to say that the mass media's portrayal refugees in a negative light may have shaped public opinion against them.

Another important variable to consider in Turkey’s negative perception of refugees is the country’s politicians. Some right-wing politicians often blame refugees for the nation’s ongoing socio-economic problems, as well as the high level of unemployment.

For instance, Ümit Özdağ, Istanbul deputy for the centre-right opposition Good Party, said in April 2019 that 1 million Syrians were in the Turkish work force while six million Turks were unemployed, and he rebuked Syrians workers for carrying out work-related protests. However, what Syrian refugees were protesting was unfair treatment by their employers: they were getting less money compared to their local work colleagues and were merely protesting this discrimination.

It is known that Syrian refugees are vulnerable in the Turkish labour market due to a lack of legal regulations. They mostly work labour-intensive jobs in precarious working environments without any employment rights. Researchers say that new regulation is needed to prevent further labour exploitation; however, according to the mentality of right-wing politicians, Syrians do not possess any human right to protest labour exploitation – they must work like slaves.

Turkey’s Syrian refugee demographic has become victim to hate crime, as a result of their portrayal in the mass media and politicians’ anti-refugee rhetoric.

There has been a rise of hate speech and crime against Syrian refugees in Turkey, who have recently been exposed to physical and psychological attacks on a regular basis. Six Syrian refugees were murdered in Turkey – three of whom were under 18 years old – within the span of less than a month this year, between July 15 and Aug. 23. People who were forced to flee their home were killed in a country they moved to only for their safety and security. Unfortunately, this hate crime trend only continued into Sept. 2020.

It must be highlighted that it is a shame for humanity to use physical or psychological attacks against vulnerable people in society. The mass media and politicians who keep using anti-refugee rhetoric must understand that Syrian refugees are not tourists passing by, they are victims of war. Increasing awareness about this issue is important to fight against the increasing xenophobia and hate crime in Turkey.

The role of the mass media is especially crucial as it is one of the most important sources of information on human rights violations. Hence, the mass media should try raising the public’s awareness against any type of discrimination rather than fabricating a biased, negative image of refugees.

Politicians, on their part, must stop using anti-refugee rhetoric as such a narrative only creates more problems; they must work instead on creating a peaceful space where both refugees and locals can come together.

It is unacceptable to use hate speech against refugees, and people who commit crimes against refugees should be judged based on the rule of law. Otherwise, this hostile environment will turn into chaos between locals and refugees. Each individual must stand with people who have been discriminated by society. We all should fight against any type of discrimination against refugees, who have no fair and equal chance to defend themselves in public, because we are all equal as human beings.


Notes:
[1] I must explain that Turkey signed the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, but Turkey maintained the geographical limitation. This means that non-European asylum seekers are not granted refugee status in Turkey. Hence, Syrians are legally not refugees; they are protected under temporary protection in Turkey. I will use the refugee terminology for Syrians to comply with international standards.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.