Turkey takes a nativist turn - analysis

Turkey’s ruling party has long sought to offer refuge to its troubled Muslim brethren, but with nativist sentiment on the rise, the government has begun to take a harder line on Syrian refugees, said an analysis for the Arab Center in Washington. 

Reports of harassment of Palestinians in Istanbul and the vandalising of Syrian shops in a migrant-heavy districts of the city point toward rising resentment toward Turkey’s four million refugees, Mustafa Gurbuz, non-resident fellow at the Arab Center, wrote on Tuesday. 

“President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent call to make a series of policy changes regarding Syrian refugees, such as deportation of those who are involved in crimes and an end of free health care services for them, reveals a changing dynamic in Turkey,” he said, linking locals’ increased animosity to economic troubles and divisive election campaigns. 

The Istanbul governor’s office on Monday set an Aug. 20 deadline for Syrian refugees to return to the Turkish province in which they registered on arrival, or face forcible return to those regions, or worse. In the past week, the government has quietly rounded up and sent as many as 1,000 Syrian refugees back to their homeland, according to the Arab News.  

Campaigning for Istanbul mayor, opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu criticised the president’s refugee policies and called for the return of Syrians to their homeland. He also warned of street clashes and complained about the increase in Arabic shop signs. 

Recent survey data shows that most Syrian refugees would like to stay in Turkey, but the Turkish government lacks a long-term policy, according to Gurbuz. The temporary status afforded to Syrians is criticised by many locals who say it enables them to avoid taxes and other employment regulations.

The International Crisis Group estimated last year that as many as 950,000 Syrians worked informally in Turkey, while just 15,000 had work permits. Yet the government says Syrians do not take jobs from locals, but rather accept jobs Turkish citizens do not want, according to Gurbuz. 

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also emphasised its “Islamic brotherhood” with Syrian refugees, which has spurred complaints from Turkey’s Alevi Muslim minority.  

In local elections, the AKP lost almost all major cities with sizable Syrian populations. “Turkey’s highly politicised atmosphere, with frequent elections in the past few years, has fuelled negative perceptions of Syrians, who are often associated with Erdoğan’s ruling party,” said Gurbuz. 

Erdoğan’s suggestion of granting citizenship to Syrian refugees has been met with strong disapproval, with opposition parties arguing that the president sought to expand the AKP voter base, said Gurbuz. 

“The Turkish Republican and official state narratives are not helpful in the face of growing antipathy toward Syrian refugees,” said Gurbuz, highlighting the return of an anti-Arab discourse that originated in the days of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. 

Veteran columnist Emin Colasan, of the opposition Sozcu newspaper, wrote recently about what he called a problematic invasion from Syria and uncivilised Islamic countries, describing it as a plague. 

This underscores how nativism distinguishes the AKP from its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The absence of a long-term refugee policy will not hurt the Turkish-nativist MHP, according to Gurbuz, but it could be a problem for the ruling party. 

“If AKP reinvigorates a pluralistic language and avoids divisive political campaigns with a religious discourse, Erdoğan may find support from liberal circles for developing sustainable strategies for refugees,” he said.