The Syrian community in Turkey has been the target of several violent attacks following the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers in an air raid carried out by Russian planes in northern Syria on February 27. The 3.5 million Syrian refugees who live in Turkey are being confronted with a rising wave of racism, fed by politicians and social media.
"Yesterday, we lost 33 martyrs and they didn’t offer us their condolences,” tweeted one Turkish social media user. He is espousing a sentiment shared by a large number of Turks who see Syrians as “ungrateful” for the refuge they’ve found in Turkey since the start of the Syrian civil war back in 2011.
"Now they are running towards Europe,” he added, referencing the announcement made on February 28 by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would open Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria because Turkey could no longer deal with the large number of migrants on its soil. On March 2, Erdogan called on Europe to “carry its share of the burden” of opening its doors to migrants and refugees. While an estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, there are only around a million in all of Europe.
More than 10,000 migrants converged on the border between Greece and Turkey over the weekend of February 29 after Turkey’s announcement that people would no longer be prevented from leaving. In the meantime, Greek authorities ramped up security on their borders to maximum levels.
In this tense climate, violence aimed at both the Syrian community and migrants more broadly broke out in several towns across Turkey.
On February 29, one of the Turkish soldiers killed in Idlib was buried in the town of Kahramanmaras, which is located in southeastern Turkey. Afterwards, a mob formed and attacked Syrian-owned businesses.
This video shows several men kicking the iron shutters of several closed Syrian-owned businesses on Atatürk Boulevard, which runs through the town centre. You can also see a cordon made up of Turkish police officers trying to protect these businesses. The mob jeers and boos, though it isn’t clear if this abuse is aimed at the Syrian shopkeepers or the policemen protecting them. Eventually, police were able to disperse the crowd and reestablish calm in the area, according to local media outlets.
Afraid that the same thing might happen to them, Syrian shopkeepers in Sanliurfa, which is located 200 kilometres to the east of Kahramanmaras, decided to shut their shops on February 28, according to local newspaper Urfa Birlik.
In the northern town of Samsun, which sits on the banks of the Black Sea, a group of Turkish teenagers beat up two migrant teens on March 1. According to one local news site, the two victims were Iraqi. Turkish news site T24 reported that the incident happened in the Zafer neighbourhood.
Zafer mayor Nursen Açar told T24 about the incident in an interview:
“It was a fight between 15- and 16-year-olds. They were shouting ‘Our soldiers are dying because of you!’ as they chased the refugees. No one was seriously hurt.”
Similar violence against Syrians and other refugees occurred in June 2019 in the Ikitelli neighbourhood in Istanbul after a rumour started circulating that a refugee had assaulted a Turkish child. For the time being, however, the current wave of violence has not reached those heights.
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'This is also fed by a deeply rooted racism against Arabs in general'
Journalist Uraz Aydin is a member of "We want to live together” (Birlikte Yasamak Istiyoruz), an initiative that fights anti-Syrian racism in Turkey.
The racism that Syrians and other migrants face in Turkey comes from all across the political spectrum, from the secular left to the Islamic conservatives who make up the AKP [Editor’s note: Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party]. Many Turkish people believe that the government has accepted too many people – around four million Syrian – and that Syrians have stolen Turkish jobs or contributed to the collapse of the economy.
This is all fed by a more deeply rooted racism against Arabs in general. There are a lot of racist stereotypes and cliches that circulate on social media, like photos of Syrians smoking shisha on the beach while Turkish soldiers die on the frontlines in Syria.
There is a new wave of violence against Syrians in Turkey almost every time that Turkish soldiers die in Syria.
The problem is that the population wants to blame Syrians for this situation and make them the scapegoats. In my opinion, we should be criticising the military intervention.
Khadiga A. is from a Syrian family and is currently studying in Istanbul. She agrees with Aydin that the violence is recurring.
It’s true that there is violence against Syrians every time that a Turkish soldier dies in Syria, but I get the feeling that it is more intense this time because of the large number of soldiers who died. Overall, however, I feel like things have calmed down since June, when the elections meant that there was a large focus on Syrians.
It’s also important to remember that a lot of Turkish people support us. I think the situation is much worse for Syrians who left for Europe or those who are in Greece right now.