ANKARA: Syrian refugees, once welcomed with open arms in Turkey, now live in fear of a rise in hate crimes against them, experts say.
Many believe they are being used as political leverage in the upcoming Turkish elections scheduled for next year.
Syrian teenager Fares Elali became one of the latest victims of the backlash when he was recently stabbed to death in Turkey’s southern province of Hatay.
The 17-year-old, whose father died during the Syrian conflict in 2011, had managed to secure a place to study medicine at a Turkish university and had ambitions to become a doctor. His body will now be moved to Idlib province in northwestern Syria.
Elali worked in a tomato pastry factory and was reportedly killed in a revenge attack following a disagreement with a female worker.
Turkey is home to around 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world. Physical and verbal racial attacks against them have steadily increased in Turkey amid rising inflation and rising costs of living that have fueled hostile attitudes towards foreigners.
The country’s economic downturn has seen the official inflation rate hit 80.2% and the unofficial rate over 181%.
With Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections on the horizon, the issue of the repatriation of one million Syrians to northern Syria has become a hot topic in domestic politics.
Some right-wing opposition figures have capitalized on growing resentment by pledging to send Syrians back to their homeland.
There are no official figures regarding violent attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey.
But in June two young Syrians – Sultan Abdul Baset Jabneh and Sheriff Khaled Al-Ahmad – were reportedly killed by angry Turkish mobs in separate incidents in Istanbul.
On May 30, Syrian Leila Muhammad, 70, was punched in the face by a man in the southeastern province of Gaziantep, and recently a 17-year-old Syrian student was verbally assaulted in the street. by an angry Turkish mob.
Metin Corabatir, chairman of the Asylum and Migration Research Center (IGAM), an Ankara-based think tank, told Arab News that increased provocation was being orchestrated by certain elite circles in Turkey.
He said: “Umit Ozdag, leader of the far-right Victory Party which has pledged to expel all refugees, is using Syrians as a political card to stoke tensions against foreigners ahead of the election.
“Popular media figures are also fueling these tensions by spreading misinformation about Syrians and painting a rosy but unreal picture of their standard of living in Turkey,” he added.
Omar Kadkoy, a migration policy analyst at the Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, told Arab News that Turkish public opinion was becoming increasingly hostile towards foreigners.
He said: “At the same time, the resentment is particular towards the Syrians and this feeling is not new. Along with an ambiguous harmonization policy, the deeper the fall in the economy, the greater the resentment and anger of the Turks towards the Syrians.
He pointed out that Elali’s death highlighted the dangers of what could happen when misunderstandings spiral out of control.
“The deterrent here is the rule of law where the punishment is proportionate to the crime. not informing the public of the punishment of Fares’ killer(s),’ Kadkoy added.
Although Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu conveyed his condolences to Elali’s family, there was little public condemnation of the attack by political parties in Turkey.
Corabatir said all political groups should include in their election manifesto proposals on how they plan to handle the situation of Syrian refugees, adding that under international law Turkey cannot unilaterally send Syrians home .
“Political parties, before the elections, should include their alternative integration proposals in their manifesto in order to convince the voters and contribute to peace rather than trigger more tensions,” he said.
Recent reports have hinted at the prospect of normalizing relations between Turkey and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, but Kadkoy noted that many Syrians are unwilling to return to their country as long as Assad remains in power.
“If Turkey embarks on the path of rapprochement without considering the intervention of the Syrians in any voluntary return, the Syrians will be left between a rock and a hard place. The alternative? The shores of the Aegean again,” he said.