The Afghan diaspora in Turkey live in fear: xenophobic sentiments are at an all-time high, as migrants are being blamed for many of the country's woes. And politicians are trying to cash in on those popular sentiments.
Turkey has been hosting one of the world's largest migrant populations since 2016, when it struck a deal with the European Union to help resolve the so-called refugee crisis — in exchange for cash. Nearly five million refugees, many of whom primarily fled from Syria, are believed to live in the country. Their reception has at best been mixed, with xenophobia against people of Arab origin widespread in Turkey.
The country's economic instability in recent years, which has been considerably exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has only made matters worse, with spiralling currency depreciation and inflation affecting nearly every household.
The price of milk, for example, has doubled over the past decade, according to the Statista pollster, and a far less nutritious kind of bread has been introduced in shops in a bid to keep up with price spikes.
Now, some members of the public are openly expressing their disapproval, using migrants as a convenient scapegoat: Public resentments against migrants and refugees could be seen on national television screens last week when thousands of football fans began chanting "we don't want any refugees in our country" during a World Cup qualifying match.
Scapegoat for failing economy
A survey published by the Turkish Aksoy polling organization showed that 85% of respondents were "worried" about the prospect of another mass arrival of migrants — this time it would be Afghans fleeing the Taliban who took over the country last month following 20 years of war.
Analyst Deniz Senol Sert of Istanbul's Ozyegin University says that this antagonistic sentiment against migrants and refugees in general is likely to continue "(a)s long as this competition for resources continues" in Turkey's failing economy.
She added that this was also bound to remain a major political issue for years to come: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- who once urged Turks to be "compassionate" towards those seeking shelter -- has now started to stress that one in 18 people in the country already is a refugee or a migrant, hinting at ideas like growing foreign infiltration without saying quite as much.
The president appears to be using migration as a political bargaining tool both at home and abroad: on the one hand, he told the West that Turkey was not willing to become Europe's "refugee warehouse," while indicating on the other hand that Turkey needed another pact with the EU in order to consider cooperating.
This might fill the government's coffers for the time being, but with Turkey reportedly edging toward "intense corruption" according to a report the latest Worldwide Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International, those funds may not last very long.
Read more: Smuggling people from Afghanistan to Turkey
But in the arena of politics, it's not only Erdogan who is utilizing these xenophobic sentiments, as his approval ratings have tanked to 38%, according to Turkish pollster Metropoll, following a series of political scandals as well as the mismanagement of public funds.
After nearly two decades with Erdogan in power either as prime minister or president, the opposition in Turkey is seizing this momentum to also fly the flag of xenophobia. The Republican People's Party (CHP) party has hung banners on buildings in large cities showing their leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu declaring: "Our borders equal our honour."
The party, which was established by Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, is rooted in nationalistic pride but has shifted its image from elitism to populism in a bid to come back into power in the next general election in 2023. And in order to attract voters, it has grown increasingly anti-migrant in its rhetoric, trying to unite both religious conservatives and moderate progressives under one roof.
The party, which already is in control of big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, is using whatever power it has to prove to the electorate that it is walking the talk: The Istanbul governor's office is reporting almost daily roundups of unregistered Afghans and other irregular migrants, who are then placed in holding centers. Meanwhile, fewer than one in ten migrants who currently are in Turkey hail from Afghanistan.
Many Syrian refugees have reportedly already been sent back to Syria following such police operation -- regardless of what danger they might face there. Amnesty International in 2019 spoke with refugees who were illegally removed from Turkey and sent back to Syria without a so-called "safe zone" in place. Turkey claims they went back willingly.
War of soundbites
Burkay Duzce, deputy chairman of the CHP Istanbul branch, defended his party's stance, explaining that the party isn't advocating for Afghans to "be delivered to the Taliban. But the question is what we can offer to (newcomers) when they arrive," Duzce told the AFP news agency before adding: "Turkey is not a migrant ghetto."
Some politicians meanwhile seem to prefer turning to outright fear mongering: Lütfü Türkkan, vice chairman of the conservative IYI party, which cooperates with the CHP in an opposition, wrote on Twitter that among the Afghan refugees there might be Islamist extremists.
"The Syrians are apparently not enough, now the Afghans are coming too," he said publicly, as quoted by the private Oda TV broadcaster.
President Erdogan meanwhile appears to stay away from such heated debates while making sure he isn't perceived as being inactive. With Turkey likely to play a major role in Afghanistan under the Taliban in the future, Erdogan does not want the rulers of the newly established, self-styled "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" to be upset by offending their fellow countrymen in Turkey.
Afghans living in fear
The xenophobic feelings of various parties appear to be echoed on the streets of Istanbul, Turkey's largest city with an official population of 15.5 million people. There have been multiple protests against refugees both in Istanbul and in the capital, Ankara, where Turks vandalized businesses run by foreigners recently.
Local Istanbul resident Mehmet Emin alleges that the presence of migrants in the city is driving up rent prices: "Ten or 15 of them come together and share a flat," he told AFP, adding that he doesn't want them to be there. And on the other side of the country in the town of Van, where most irregular migrants cross into the country, there's even more animosity.
Selami Kiye, a 48-year-old shopkeeper in Van, told Reuters that Europe should take in the Afghan migrants instead, saying the local community felt fatigued by the impact they had: "Let them go elsewhere. We don't care about them." Others in Van have said that by undercutting going rates, migrants have stolen their jobs or made them redundant in the competitive building industry.
But some Afghans have been in Turkey for decades: In Istanbul, Afghanistan-born convenience store owner Habib Uzbek told AFP that he feels the pressure even though he received Turkish citizenship back in 1993 already: "Whether it's on a bus or on the street, people point and say: 'The Afghans are here,'" the 69-year-old said. However, at least he has nearly three decades of living in Turkey to look back on.
The newer arrivals are not so lucky. Ghawsuddin Mubariz says he has restless nights worrying about being sent back to Afghanistan. The 20-year-old said he had initially felt welcomed in Turkey when he fled the northeastern Afghan city of Kunduz nearly two years ago. But things changed, he explains, when the police began rounding up Afghans and placing them in deportation centers.
"When I first came to Turkey, it was easy. Now it's quite tough. Wherever we go, we live in fear. We are illegals," Mubariz told AFP, adding that many Afghans were keeping a low profile to remain undetected.
"We are scared of being caught and sent back to Afghanistan. The Taliban have seized whatever we have. We are desperate."
With AFP, Reuters