Opposition mayor of Istanbul promises to open ‘refugee desk’

Istanbul’s main opposition party mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, told reporters on Wednesday that he intends to honour his promise to establish a “refugee desk” to better administer the city’s large population of refugees amid an ongoing crisis, the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper reported.

Speaking to press after a meeting with the Palestinian Ambassador, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) mayor said work was already underway to broaden the scope of an existing refugee department and provide material support for refugees.

“At first for women and children. A refugee desk that will deal both with social problems and with problems related to the future. Of course, a very active and dynamic refugee desk”, İmamoğlu said, describing plans that he said should be complete by the year’s end.

İmamoğlu’s slim victory in the March 31 local elections stunned the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had held Turkey’s largest city and economic powerhouse for decades. The party pushed for a rerun on June 23, but the CHP mayor only widened his lead to over 800,000.

Among the top issues cited by voters was the presence of large numbers of refugees in Turkey. There are 3.6 million registered refugees in Turkey, with over 500,000 Syrians registered in Istanbul. İmamoğlu has said that, when irregular migrants are counted, that figure reaches 1 million.

The CHP mayor said he had discussed the plight of Palestinian refugees, many of whom had moved to Turkey to escape the Syrian conflict after settling in the Arab country years before as refugees from their own homeland.

He said his administration would stand beside Palestinians, as well as setting up the refugee desk to support migrants more generally.

But İmamoğlu has been criticised for his statements on the refugees after complaining that Arabic language signs had damaged Istanbul’s native culture and expressing his concern that Syrian workers were illegally undercutting native Turks.

His comments reflected the public dissatisfaction with the refugees during a period of economic downturn. The Istanbul governorate has responded by ramping up a crackdown on undocumented migrants, raising allegations that some asylum seekers had been illegally transported back across the border into an active conflict in Syria.

Activists have said thousands have been forced out of Turkey, though the interior ministry denies that any have been deported.

Shortly after it was announced, İmamoğlu stated that he agreed with the governorate’s policy, which sets a date of August 20 for Syrians registered in different provinces to leave Istanbul or be forcible removed from the city.

While Syrians are the largest refugee population in Turkey, large numbers of migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North African and Central Asian countries have also been caught in the crackdown.