Growing backlash against Syrian refugees in Turkey - NBC

Three years after Turkey signed a refugee deal with the European Union to halt the flow of migrants into the bloc, Syrian refugees in Turkey are facing increasing harassment as Turkey’s economy enters recession, NBC News reported on Monday.

A youth basketball star in his Syrian homeland, Mahmoud Maktabi arrived in Turkey in 2013 and began studying engineering in Istanbul. He joined his university’s basketball team to help him integrate, but a conversation with a cook at his dorm made him feel unwelcome, according to NBC.

“He came to me and said: ‘Hey, what are you doing here? Go back and fight in Syria,’” said the 27-year-old Maktabi.

He told NBC that he often hears such sentiments, from taxi drivers and in stores, and now avoids revealing his nationality.

“When they hear that I’m Syrian, they will treat me bad," he said. "They show their anger, I don’t know why."

Istanbul’s conservative Fatih neighbourhood, where many refugees have settled, is now known as “Little Aleppo” or “Little Syria”, with many shop signs in Arabic.

Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world, including more than 3.6 million registered Syrians, according to the U.N.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened his country’s border to refugees when the war begin in Syria in 2011, and officials of his religiously conservative government talked of the need to support their fellow Muslims.

Monday marks the third anniversary of Turkey’s deal with the EU to stem the flow of migrants, in return for billions to support refugees in Turkey.

“The mood has since changed and tensions are now rising amid concerns about competition for jobs and cultural differences,” said NBC News.

A 2017 survey conducted by Istanbul Bilgi University found 86 percent of respondents wanted all Syrians to return home when the war ends.

In February, a dispute between locals and Syrians in the Istanbul district of Esenyurt turned into a brawl, with men chanting: “This is Turkey, not Syria!”

High schooler Ahmad Alhasan has learned Turkish in the five years since he arrived from Syria, but said he still gets mocked for speaking Arabic in public. While Alhasan was swimming with his female cousins, a group of Turkish men approached and called them the Arabic word for donkey, Alhasan said.

“When it comes to my safety or the safety of others with me, that’s when it disturbs me,” he told NBC.

Turkey's interior minister last year said Syrians have had 380,000 babies in their adopted country since 2011. Some in Turkey, with a population of around 80 million, worry that the influx will mean secular culture is left behind, according to NBC.

Ümit Özdağ, deputy chairman of the nationalist Good Party, worries that Turkey is going to become "a Middle Eastern country".

Özdağ is a lawmaker from the city of Gaziantep, where a quarter of its around 2 million residents are Syrian refugees. “To be integrated,” he said, “is to be ready to die for this country.”

On the campaign trail for March 31 local elections, Erdoğan has promised to “facilitate the return home of all our guests”. The issue looms large for voters as Turkey has entered a recession, with unemployment rising to 13.5 in January, and nearly 25 percent among young people.

“The government grants few Syrians work permits, leading most to work illegally, which allows employers to pay them less, feeding into perceptions that Syrians are stealing jobs and lowering wages,” said NBC.

Maktabi, the basketball player, has no plans to go back to Syria and hopes to become a personal trainer. He became a Turkish citizen last year, allowing him to work legally, but he still fears rejection. “Being a refugee, you don’t know what’s next,” he said.