Ahmet Kulsoy
Aug 12 2019

Turkey’s left drops the ball on refugee crisis

Turkey’s socialist left has largely flailed in regards to the country’s Syrian refugee crisis.

As the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has rolled up its sleeves to implement a crackdown on the country’s 3.6-4 million Syrian refugees, the left, for the most part, has been unable to stake-out a clear position on an issue that has become one of Turkey’s biggest problems.

Shortly after the AKP suffered its greatest upset in decades in this year’s local elections, reports began to emerge of raids on Syrian homes and businesses and Syrians snatched in the streets for not carrying identity cards and deported to Syria via bus. Last month, Syrian refugees living in the economic hub of Istanbul, home to as many as 900,000 Syrians, were given an August 20 deadline to leave the city unless registered there. 

The crackdown has caused widespread fear in the Syrian community that is faced with soaring cases of documented attacks and racism. 

Once welcomed with open arms, Turkey’s Syrians have essentially become low-hanging fruit for the entire political spectrum.

Left-leaning political figures and pundits maintain the AKP’s clamp down on Syrian refugees is fueled by resentment against the group, who amid Turkey’s stumbling economy and rising unemployment, are seen as freeloaders and cheap labour. Meanwhile, the country’s left, they say, has fallen victim to populism and fear of Syrians, which they see as an Arab Islamist demographic threatening the secular republic.

Xenophobia is nothing new to Turkey, according to pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker Murat Çepni, and unless the country succeeds in finding social peace, no policy will be effective in combating the long-held disdain for minorities.

“The ruling party has never abandoned polarising, racist and chauvinist discourse as a political tool,’’ Çepni said, recalling that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the March local elections had declared everyone not on board with the AKP’s coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) as terrorists.  

“Such alienating discourse against Kurds, Alevis and leftists has never faded,” he added, including by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Workers’ Party.

The state’s clamp down on the socialist left in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt curbed their ability to organise peaceful politics as a response to the war in Syria, Çepni said. Yet it is telling that many leftists in Turkey have a similar and negative view as the right-wing AKP regarding the autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. 

For Deniz Sert, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s private Özyeğin University, responsibility lies squarely on the government in curbing hate speech and attacks on refugees. Sert maintains the country was coping with Syrian refugees just fine until they realised the group would not be going back home. 

A poll conducted this year by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University found that 68 percent of Turks are unhappy with the presence of Syrian refugees, up from 58 percent in 2016. And another survey by Turkish polling company PIAR revealed that Syrians are ranked as the country’s second most important problem, following its ailing economy.

“Today we are talking about Syrians, but in the next 10 years there will inevitably be hate speech at other ethnicities. Justice and law are absolutely necessary for everyone residing within the borders of Turkey,” Sert said. 

Hakan Ataman, a founding member of the Turkey branch of Amnesty International, points out that socialists in recent years have ridden the wave of populism and embraced anti-immigrant rhetoric to bolster their support. Popular left-leaning figures in Turkish media have not shied away from placing Syrian refugees on the chopping block. 

Opposition journalist İsmail Saymaz, normally an ardent supporter of human rights, created a stir last month when he said Syrian refugees were making a fool out of Turkey by exiting and entering the country as they pleased, despite the claim that Syria is not safe for their return.

For Ataman, Syrian refugees are an easy target because they are adding salt to an age-old wound. “Arabs have always been portrayed to us as the people who stabbed us behind our backs,’’ Ataman said, referring to the Ottoman era uprisings in the Arab world. 

“Today the main opposition CHP, which is concerned about its support base, is stemming from the Kemalist and pro-Atatürk wing of the party, which sees Syrians as Islamist and a threat to Turkey’s secular identity,’’ he added.

Istanbul’s new opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, who is lauded for his inclusive politics, has gone on record saying that  the new arrival of Syrian refugees threatened people’s income.

While İmamoğlu points a finger at the AKP for its mismanagement of Syrian refugees, this has not stopped him from stating that the interests of Turkish citizens should take precedence in the government’s refugee policies.

© Ahval English