From ‘guest’ to enemy: Racism and hate crimes towards Syrian refugees in Turkey

Syrians are not legally considered refugees in Turkey but have been labelled as “guests”. This label was not an accident – it was a conscious, politically motivated decision. It is known that “guests” are not given the right to complain about their circumstances and treatment in many regions of the Middle East; they have to accept whatever has been offered.

Syrian “guests” do not have enough legal protection and have been the victims of racism and hate crime for a long time; six Syrian refugees were killed as a result of racism and hate crimes between July and September alone. Three of the Syrians killed were underaged and the people who killed refugees were mostly young locals.

To illustrate, Hamza Ajan was killed by four local people – he was 17 years old. Only one of these four people was above the age of 18. Based on these cases, it seems local youths are killing young and innocent Syrian refugees. In other words, the hate environment and racism are ruining the future of Turkey.

Unfortunately, many Syrians have been exposed to physical and psychological attacks, and this hate speech and crime have continued into January 2021. The first reported incident occurred on Jan 4., when 10-year-old Muhammed al-Ahmed was heavily beaten by a local resident in Ankara.

Muhammed’s brother Ammar told me that around 15 locals who were against the presence of Syrians in their area attacked his brother and mother. “We (Syrians) don’t want anything; we only want to have our freedom as a human being,” Ammar said. Each and every person needs to hear Ammar’s voice to reduce these hateful incidents.   

In another incident this month, Zeki Zainel, 37, was stabbed in Izmir, without any discernible reason. And on Jan. 16, Muhammed Savas and his mother were beaten by their local neighbours, also in Izmir.

Muhammed Savas
Muhammed Savas

All of these incidents have different circumstances, but most people have been attacked just because of their nationality. By the way, I have to declare at this point that I do not mean that all local people are attacking Syrians, nor that they are all guilty of these hate crimes. These racist, hateful attitudes and acts are a global issue. I only try to explain in this article that it is time to raise awareness against hate crimes. Otherwise, this hateful environment will kill everything good in society.

Many studies conducted to better understand the local attitudes towards refugees have found several social, cultural, and economic factors behind them. I think two main actors, mass media and politicians, have made a big impact on the attitudes towards Syrian refugees in Turkey, as I discussed in my previous piece at Ahval. These two main actors mostly portray refugees in a negative light.

For instance, Fatih Altaylı, a popular journalist, blamed Syrian refugees for every bad thing happening in Turkey, on his TV programme Teke Tek. He said: “It seems that four million (Syrians) have taken over Turkey. This is the image we see on the streets. The health system is free for them, not for Turkish citizens. Turkish people are not allowed to go outside (during the pandemic lockdowns), unlike Syrians. They (Syrians) hang out as they want; nobody is disturbing them. Unfortunately, this is the reality.”

Altaylı and the people who agree with him blame refugees for every negative incident in the country because they have prejudice towards Syrians. I wouldn’t be surprised if he blames Syrians for climate change in the near future.

There is a particular antinomy among the many common misperceptions about Syrian refugees in Turkey. On the one hand, many local people blame Syrians for the country’s high unemployment rate, assuming that they are taking available jobs at a lower wage. On the other hand, these same people declare that Syrians do not work and only receive allowances from taxpayer money.

This dilemma explains the level of hate towards the presence of Syrian refugees within society: If Syrians work, it is a problem; if Syrians do not work, it is also a problem. What should Syrian refugees do in order to survive?

It is time to focus on providing solutions to reduce racism and hate crime, rather than on the problem itself. This hate environment did not emerge with the pandemic; many hate crimes happened before this global health crisis. If the legal institutions do not thoroughly investigate these horrible incidents, racism and hate crimes against refugees will likely increase in near future in Turkey. Moreover, mass media and politicians should stop using anti-refugee discourse and instead create a space between the local and refugee communities to live in peace side by side.

The government must also ensure that legal mechanisms and processes are in place to ensure accountability, equality and justice for all. The rule of law is a fundamental principle of strong and stable institutions.

Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson highlighted the importance of strong institutions in their influential book, “Why Nations Fail”. It is the main duty of the government to ensure a functioning legal system based on universal human rights and the aforementioned principles. If a person has committed a crime, their nationality should not matter. That person should be judged based solely on the rule of law.

I hope Muhammed al-Ahmed, Zeki Zainel and Muhammed Savas all recover soon and we can provide a peaceful environment for them to live in.

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