Syrians at risk in Turkey after social media smears

With disputes ongoing between Turkey and the United States and European Union, the Turkish press was occupied with long-running and familiar stories this week. But an event that could have an impact on millions in Turkey received a minimum of coverage on front pages.

The Istanbul Governorate’s announcement on Monday that it was searching for unregistered migrants confirmed earlier reports that the authorities had been detaining and removing Syrian asylum seekers from the city.

The complicated legal status of the millions of Syrian asylum seekers registered in Turkey includes stipulations that they must remain in the provinces they are registered in. The governorate, and later Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, said Syrians caught by the authorities without the proper registration in Istanbul had been sent to the correct provinces.

However, reports from Syrians on social media said some had been transported back to Syria – a breach of international law prohibiting refoulement. Later reports published in Ahval and international news outlets backed up these claims.

On Wednesday, the pro-government outlet Daily Sabah said the international outlets had targeted Turkey with an online smear campaign.

The subject of Syrians in Turkey has been a growing source of discontent among Turks, and is one of the reasons cited for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s losses in this year’s local elections.

That public dissatisfaction has in part been driven by reports circulating on social media falsely attributing crimes to Syrians or exaggerating the amount of benefits they receive from the Turkish government.

One genre of image that keeps creeping up, to the outrage of many Turkish social media users, is that of groups of Syrians enjoying themselves on the beach in their host country. The offence comes from the notion that Syrians are living the good life while Turks suffer from the economic squeeze or fight in Syria, or that they are actively disturbing Turks on the beach.

Memes, images and posts carrying these ideas have spread like wildfire under hashtags like #ülkemdesuriyelileristemiyorum (I don’t want Syrians in my country). On Wednesday, an image of a very relaxed man half-submerged in water smoking a shisha on a table propped up in the sea made its way to the front page of the secularist newspaper Korkusuz captioned “Here’s how Syrians enjoy the beach in Turkey”.

The episode highlighted just what shaky ground the media outrage about Syrians on the beach is based on – the man pictured, Turkish fact-checking site Teyit pointed out, was not Syrian at all, but a Turk happily enjoying his holiday.

The Korkusuz headline the picture appeared under also gives pause for thought about the powerful role social media is playing in whipping up resentment in Turkey.

The headline accused Syrians in Turkey of “biting the hand that fed them”, referencing an image of Turkey’s flag redrawn as a sharp-toothed open maw chasing a family that sparked yet more outrage when it was shared on Twitter by a Syrian this week.

There have been warning signs for years that a large-scale clampdown on Syrians could take place in Turkey. Incidents this year again revolved around the beach – two districts run by mayors from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) enforced a ban on the migrants using public beaches in their municipalities.

Elif Çakır, a columnist for the Islamist daily Karar, published two op-eds discussing the attitude towards Syrians in Turkey that she said had shifted from seeing them as refugees and fellow Muslims in need to viewing them in the same light as the CHP mayors.

Çakır said the current crisis has developed due to a lack of integration policy on the government’s part, and lamented how Turkey’s open-door policy, which she said at one time had been a lesson for the world, had taken a 180-degree turn to leave Syrians in danger of discrimination and violence in Turkey or refoulement.