Turkey: Syrian Refugees Facing Growing Backlash?
In a blog post in May, I described the "urbanization" of Turkey's Syrian refugee population -- which now numbers over one million -- and the potential problems this development poses for Ankara, especially in economic terms, with the potential for conflict as struggling Syrians moving into Turkish cities start competing with locals for work.
In recent days, this kind of potential conflict appears to have become a reality. On Sunday, some 1,000 people in the southeastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaraş marched against the presence of Syrian migrants in their city and then reportedly went on to remove Arabic signs from stores and attack a car with Syrian license plates. And today in Adana, a city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, a group of masked men armed with knives and sticks attacked Syrian-owned businesses and shattered their windows.
Writing for the Al Monitor website, Turkish journalist Mehmet Cetingulec provides statistics from southeast Turkey that give some context for the growing tension:
Unemployment is rising faster in provinces where Syrians congregate. Employers prefer to employ Syrians, who make half the average Turkish wages and cost them about a third as much as a Turkish worker overall.
In the town of Osmaniye, for example, there are 10,000 Syrians. Unemployment there increased from 10% to 14% in one year and Syrian refugees are cited as the cause. Instead of the regular daily wage of 50 lira ($24), Syrians work for 20 ($10). In Mersin, unemployment went up by 3% in one year. The chairman of the Mersin Chamber of Retailers and Artisans, Talat Dincer, told Al-Monitor, “Refugees working at wages below the minimum wage and without social insurance cause the increase in unemployment. A solution has to be found soonest.” Dincer also said that some Syrians who don’t have residence and work permits illegally open places of business.
The situation in Sanliurfa, close to the Syrian border, is no different. Sanliurfa, with its population of 1.5 million, now hosts 155,000 Syrian refugees. While unemployment in the province was 6.2% in 2012, in two years it has climbed 16.3%.
But the tension surrounding the presence of a growing number of Syrian refugees might not be limited to the region nearest the border with Syria. In an illuminating piece on the Open Democracy website, Oguz Alyanak, a Turkish PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis, describes how the presence of Syrians -- real and even more so imagined -- has captured the attention of Turks living in Bursa, a quiet city located across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul. From Alyanak's piece:
In Bursa, those I spoke with were aware of the impact of war and violence. However, they were at least as wary of the increasing presence of refugees in their neighbourhoods. Local narratives are full of this ambivalence. Each story started with empathy: “Zavallı insanlar” [Poor souls]. “Allah yardımcıları olsun” [May God help them]. That they left Syria due to a war which has thus far taken the lives of over 160,000 softens many hearts. Nevertheless, Syrians are strangers whose prolonged stay in Turkey’s urban landscape is now becoming problematic for the locals who share the same space as them.
Turkey has been rightly commended for the excellent camps it has built for the refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. But the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of the Syrians in Turkey are now living outside of those camps, creating a situation that will increasingly -- and dangerously -- test Turks' charity and hospitality.