With the Turkish government struggling to deal with one of the most serious economic crises the country has faced in decades, another troubling problem is rearing its head – the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in the country.
According to the Turkish government, approximately 3.7 million Syrian refugees out of a total of 5.5 million foreigners are living in Turkey.
A total of 200,950 Syrians have become citizens of Turkey after taking refuge in the country since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011.
The Turkish presidency says approximately 320,000 people of other nationalities – predominantly from Afghanistan – are also under international protection in Turkey, putting the total refugee number at more than four million, the world’s largest refugee population in one country.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proudly spoken of his country’s success in hosting refugees, often slamming developed countries for not doing enough to help people in need fleeing from crisis areas.
“Countries like us, which are neighbours to the crisis areas, bear the real burden on the issue of migration and refugees, not developed societies that have a loud voice,” he said in June, adding that Ankara has not rejected anyone, and had a long history of welcoming people seeking refuge.
Most recently, a video of a 17-year-old Syrian being confronted by a group of Turks went viral, with the teenager telling the crowd that he had been forced to leave school because of abuse directed towards him for his nationality.
A study conducted in July by ORC, an Ankara-based polling company, suggests that almost 54 percent of Turks believe that their neighbourhood has a refugee problem. In the Marmara region, where the country’s largest city and economic hub Istanbul is located, it goes up to more than 60 percent.
Ertunc Efe, a 48-year-old Turk who lives in the Istanbul district of Yakacik, argues that recent anti-refugee rhetoric does not fundamentally stem from xenophobia, but instead is a result of recent economic problems in Turkey and cultural divides between Syrians and Turks.
“The issue is Turkey does not have the capacity to handle such a huge burden and this has been much clearer with the recent economic fall,” Efe told Al Jazeera.
“They increase unemployment in low-paid jobs by working for lower than the minimum wage and without social security,” Efe said, adding that he had personally witnessed such a situation recently at a car wash shop.
Cases of Syrian refugees working in the conditions Efe refers to have been confirmed by authorities in the past, including Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, in a statement in May.
“[You] make Syrians work at your factory, abuse them, don’t pay for their social security,” Soylu said, addressing business owners.
Taha Elgazi, a Syrian human rights activist working on refugee issues in Turkey, says the blame cannot be put on refugees.
“The citizens here [in Turkey] think that Syrians steal their jobs, but how is that their responsibility? They would like to work in better conditions, but they are being abused by their employers,” he told Al Jazeera, stressing that state authorities are responsible for monitoring working conditions.
Elgazi added that refugees were also present when the Turkish economy was in better shape, therefore negating any correlation between the two issues.
Firat Faruk, 27, a Turk living in the Istanbul district of Mecidiyekoy, agrees that Syrians fleeing the war in their country should have been helped, but now believes that they should go back home when they can.
“They should return when the security situation that caused them to come here is over, and it looks like that is the case as many have visited their country and came back in the past,” Faruk told Al Jazeera.
The government has recently changed its approach to temporary visits to Syria, which mainly occurred during Eid, the Muslim holidays celebrated twice a year.
On the last two Eids, in May and July this year, Ankara did not allow Syrian refugees to visit Syria, and announced that anyone who did leave Turkey would not be allowed back.
Separately, in June, interior minister Soylu announced a new foreigner residence threshold in Turkish provinces, cutting the limit for non-nationals from 25 to 20 percent per neighbourhood, and therefore increasing the number of neighbourhoods closed to them from 781 to 1169 across 54 provinces.
New regulations have also been introduced obligating taxi drivers to check the inter-provincial travel permit documents of foreign passengers when they carry them out of a province, and the same documents must be provided for foreigners to be able to buy bus tickets to travel between different Turkish cities.
In May, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a project in northern Syria with the aim of “voluntarily” returning one million Syrians, which created fear among some of the refugees, particularly as the conflict in Syria has not ended, and the government of President Bashar al-Assad is still in power.
Many, including Elgazi, link the change in policies to upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023, as the refugee issue, as well as Turkey’s economic crisis, top the political agenda in the country.
Elgazi says the government is adapting its policies under public and opposition pressure, adding that administrative processes Syrian refugees have to deal with are deliberately carried out in a slow and problematic manner.
“Many so-called voluntary returns happen because of this reason. Administrative procedures are harder in many areas of life for refugees now, from registering at schools to acquiring new protection IDs, from opening businesses to hiring people,” Elgazi said.
Opposition party officials have seized upon the growing opposition to refugees in Turkish society to attack the government ahead of next year’s presidential elections, with some saying they will send refugees back when they come to power.
Earlier in July, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition Republican People’s Party leader, said that 700,000 Syrian babies that were born in Turkey should be sent back to their country, after Soylu shared the number.
“Yes, the greatest wealth of every nation is its babies. These babies are the wealth of a torn-down Syria. For Syria to stand again, its children must return to their homeland,” he said speaking to his deputies.
In May, Meral Aksener, Kilicdaroglu’s ally and centre-right Iyi Parti leader, said that she wanted to “shake hands” with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to send Syrian refugees back to their country.
Also in May, a short film funded by Umit Ozdag, the leader of the small far-right Victory Party and the harshest voice against refugees in Turkish politics, went viral on social media.
The film showed a dystopian Turkey, dangerous for Turks and governed by Syrians, where speaking in Turkish is forbidden.
Ozdag has made unfounded claims the number of refugees in Turkey is twice the official number.
Elgazi says opposition parties have been using the refugees as a trump card against the government.
“The rise of right-wing conservative ideas against refugees and immigrants around the world are present in Turkey as well,” Elgazi said. “It is heightened further by the economic downturn and upcoming elections in the country.”