The outcome of local elections might unleash anti-Syrian rhetoric
It was an open secret that Turkish society was getting more and more resentful towards Syrians living in the country.
Currently, the reaction to the presence of millions of Syrians is becoming more visible and vocal.
Shops believed to belong to Syrians were targeted during last weekend as a result of rumors that a girl was assaulted by a Syrian. Unfortunately, one might expect similar incidents to increase.
Why now, some may ask. The answer has many facets.
In contrast to Europe, the presence of refugees has largely been a taboo subject in Turkey. Populist leaderships in the West exploited the immigration issue for political gain. In Turkey, it was due to the government’s open door policy that millions of Syrians sought refuge in the country; in other words, they did not force their way in. As a result, the ruling coalition’s supporters remained silent on the issue while their reaction continued to accumulate.
But even the opposition maintained a careful rhetoric on the issue of Syrians.
Obviously, there were some members of the opposition showing openly their reaction, and there was some hate speech on social media. But when you compare the numbers and the reaction with the West, the resentment levels in the Turkish society remained at moderate levels.
One of the reasons why this is changing is the realization that Syrians are here to stay. Described them as guests, the government gave the message in the initial years that Syrians will not stay too long. Realizing that their return will not happen that quickly, the government started to change its strategy and the effects of it started to sink into the psyche of the ordinary citizen.
To give you an example, Syrian children were not enrolled in Turkish schools in the initial years; now they are sent to Turkish schools, and many parents are concerned that the already problematic quality of education will further deteriorate in overcrowded classrooms filled by Syrians who are not totally fluent in Turkish.
The state of the economy is another factor. Although Syrians are employed in jobs that are unwanted by Turks, with the continued deterioration of the economy, those facing economic hardships will canalize their reaction towards the Syrians.
Syrians are recipients of financial assistance, and in this respect, the ruling elites have become victims of their own rhetoric. Most of the direct financial assistance (which is used to pay the rents of houses inhabited by Syrians and therefore goes to Turkish landlords) comes from Europe as a result of the Turkey – EU refugee deal. But the Turkish leadership chose to say that Turkey did not receive the delivered amount, which, in turn, creates the impression that Turkish taxpayers are paying for the Syrians.
But another reason why the reactions are now coming to the surface has to do with the local elections.
In the eyes of the ordinary citizen, the ruling coalition received a serious blow when it lost the municipalities in several big cities. Seeing the vulnerability of the government might have encouraged those who wanted to finally show their real feelings.
The outcome of the local elections might have, therefore, unleashed the reaction as even the supporters of the ruling coalition felt more confident in speaking against an issue about which the government is highly sensitive.
But people should not fall for the delusion that they can get away with inhumane treatment just because the municipalities are in the hands of the opposition.
And if the opposition, especially members of the municipal administrations, were to use an anti-immigrant rhetoric, they would be blamed for potential violent incidents against Syrians. So the current situation where people are no longer silent about Syrians could prove to be costly for the opposition.
In this respect, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu will play a leading role not only as the mayor of Turkey’s most populous city but also because Istanbul is the city hosting the highest number of Syrians.
In his statements before the elections, he expressed his displeasure about the presence of Syrians, saying he did not want Syrians to change the fabric of the city and that the best was for them to go back home. As a mayor, he does not have the means to send them back. So this is not realistic rhetoric. But he also added that he will be working with national and international institutions to handle the problem.
In the midterm, he will probably come with a strategy. But in the short-term, one hopes he will avoid making any statement that could incite backlash against the Syrians. On the contrary, he has to make sure to pass across the message that violence is not part of the solution.