A Syrian woman at the border between Syria and Turkey
A Syrian woman at the border between Syria and Turkey

In Turkey's urban areas, people have become increasingly hostile towards Syrians, according to a new report. To keep the tensions from boiling over, government authorities and NGOs must take swift action.

At least 35 people, 24 of whom were Syrian, have died in clashes between Syrians and locals in Turkey in 2017. This is the subject of a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), which has been monitoring violent incidents involving asylum seekers in Turkey.

The ICG studied the relationship between Syrian refugees and locals in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir for its paper "Defusing Metropolitan Tensions." About a quarter of Turkey's refugee population lives in Turkey's three largest cities.  

According to the ICG, "the potential for anti-refugee violence is highest" in these metropolitan areas. International donors, however, have focused most of their integration efforts on refugees in border provinces, even though, the ICG states, "there is more cultural continuity and less tension between residents and refugees" in these regions and there is also less of a language barrier, as Turkish citizens there often speak Arabic or Kurdish. (Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir are all located several hundreds of kilometers northwest from the Turkish-Syrian border.)

The main problems between residents and refugees

"The tensions between locals and refugees have to be taken into consideration, both by the government authorities and by international organizations, when they set up programs for refugees,"  says Nigar Goksel, ICG's project director for Turkey.

"The most worrisome development that we saw was that among Turkish citizens, there is a negative stance towards the long-term integration of Syrians across the political spectrum," Goksel told InfoMigrants.

The potential for tension is particularly high in low-income communities and in neighborhoods with a strong presence of ethnic and sectarian minorities, the ICG report states.

Minorities such as Alevis and Kurds, according to the report, "feel that Syrians are granted rights denied to other religious or ethnic groups." However, the ICG points out that "many negative perceptions are based on myths and misconceptions."

'Suddenly everyone came here to help' 

"Nobody ever cared about us as we struggled for years to sustain ourselves. After the Syrians arrived, suddenly everyone came here to help," a middle-aged Turkish citizen from a low-income neighborhood Ankara told the ICG.

According to the report, many Turkish citizens — in particular those less qualified and working informally — face heightened competition for work because of the newcomers, which often forces them to accept lower wages.

The report mentions Izmir's Bornova district as an example. Local shoe and leather producers believe that "Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin […] are considered hard to manage in comparison to 'obedient' Syrians." This has caused permanent tension in Bornova, where Syrians are regularly harassed, beaten up and threatened.

Syrians who run businesses in Turkey tend to do so without government permits, creating tension with Turkish small business owner who are formally registered. The fact that informal businesses do not follow regulations, creates what locals perceive to be an unfair advantage for refugee businesses.

Adding to the problems, the report states, is a tendency by refugees "to cluster with fellow nationals [which] can intensify hostilities on both sides." With little communication between refugees and locals, rumors about alleged misbehavior by refugees can spread quickly, with few opportunities for correcting any misinformation.

How can the problem be solved?

"The easiest and fastest thing that can be done is to change the general message about asylum seekers. The narrative, that Syrians are going to be sent back any time soon, is not helping anyone," Nigar Goksel said.

The report suggests several measures that could be taken by state authorities. To ease the friction over the competing economic interests of refugees and locals, the report suggests that the government should make it easier for Syrians to formally register a business, while also providing job training for both Syrians and locals. 

The report also recommends that reforms to the federal fund distribution should be implemented. While the state currently allocates funds solely based on the number of Turkish citizens living in a municipality, the report suggests that the total number of residents, including refugees, should be taken into consideration to lessen the burden and tension in communities hosting a large refugee population.


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