How Turkey’s Erdoğan turned against Syrian refugees - analyst

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had long stood out from his populist peers on the issue of immigration, but economic troubles and rising tensions with Syrian refugees have forced him to change his stance, said an analysis for the Middle East Institute.

Populists like U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban tend to tap into a broad backlash against immigration and talk of building border walls, while Erdoğan has welcomed nearly 4 million refugees from the war in neighbouring Syria and his government provided generous assistance for years. 

“But Turkey’s growing economic woes and rising unemployment are now forcing his hand,” Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, wrote for MEI on Wednesday. “A majority of Turks, especially the nationalists, now see refugees as competitors for government assistance, an economic burden, a security threat, and a danger to Turkey’s ethnic makeup.”

Anti-refugee sentiment played a key role in the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) loss of major cities in the March local elections, as even Erdoğan’s base grew unhappy with the policy, according to Tol. 

“Mounting electoral pressure forced Erdoğan to drop his ‘compassionate Islamism’ and embrace a ‘Turkey first’ approach vis-à-vis the Syrian refugees,” said Tol, adding that Ankara plans to send 700,000 of them to a safe zone it is setting up with U.S. assistance in northeast Syria. 

Meanwhile, Turkey’s government has stepped up arrests and house searches, and urged Syrian refugees in Istanbul to return to the province where they initially registered or face forcible return. There have been several reports of dozens of refugees placed on buses and deported to Syria, a charge Turkey has denied. 

Tol urged Erdoğan to integrate the country’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees economically, politically and socially to prevent further clashes, like the one in Istanbul’s Küçükçekmece district in June, when locals attacked Syrians and Syrian-run businesses.

“But politically this is simply too risky for Erdoğan,” said Tol, pointing to his 2016 announcement that Syrians could eventually be granted citizenship, which sparked a social media backlash. 

Erdoğan’s alliance with Turkey’s nationalists has in the last few years ensured his electoral fortunes, according to Tol. 

“But today, the nationalists are at the forefront of the anti-refugee camp,” she said. “Pursuing sensible long-term solutions to the refugee problem without breaking this alliance could prove to be Erdoğan’s toughest task yet.”