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'The least worst option': Refugees in Turkey relieved, sceptical about Erdogan victory

With some candidates pushing an anti-refugee line, many asylum-seekers welcome the Turkish president's electoral success - but not all
An estimated 3.9 million refugees are currently living in Turkey (AFP)

While Turkish citizens headed to the polls in high numbers on Sunday to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections, millions of refugees living in the country waited for results with bated breath.

With a refugee population estimated to stand at 3.9 million - the largest in the world - many saw their fate hanging in the balance.

Whether Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan or even Egyptian, refugees knew the election results could have a direct effect on their stay in Turkey.

A warm welcome

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was re-elected with an estimated 52.55 percent of votes, is perceived as being largely favourable to refugees in the country, leading many to back him.

'I fully support Erdogan because he considers all the Islamic countries as brothers'

- Mohammed Hamdan, Iraqi refugee

“I fully support Erdogan because he considers all the Islamic countries as brothers,” Mohammed Hamdan, a 24-year-old Iraqi who fled Mosul in 2016, told Middle East Eye.

“I suffered from the horror of war for a long time in my country and could find no better place than Turkey to resume my peaceful normal life as a human being.

“I am now studying on a government scholarship covering my expenses, they are teaching me Turkish for free… They have been generous in a way I haven’t found in any other country I tried to travel to,” he added.

Others highlighted Erdogan’s political positions on their respective home countries as their main motivation for supporting the Turkish leader.

“My wife and I voted for AKP and Erdogan. Our choice is the logical vote preference for any Egyptian refugee,” explained Ali*, an Egyptian national who fled his country in 2013 following Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup and has since been granted Turkish citizenship.

“The ruling party has been consistent in its opposition to the Sisi regime, and Turkey is the only country that welcomed us as refugees and gave us the right to work.”

Humiliation, repression, politicisation

However, Erdogan’s victory did not garner unanimous praise among refugees.

Osama Domane*, one of 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, recalled being “terribly humiliated” by Turkish security forces upon reaching the country, and was cynical about Erdogan’s professed support for Syria's opposition.

“I despise Erdogan for using Syrians for his own propaganda,” he told MEE. “It is unethical for a politician to claim to fully ally with the [Syrian] opposition, all the while working for his own benefit regardless of the damages it brings to the Syrian people.”

Sanaa*, an Egyptian woman in her thirties, also expressed distrust in Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), saying the Turkish president’s repressive attitude towards the opposition hit close to home given that she and her family fled to Turkey in 2016 after her husband was threatened with arrest for opposing Sisi.

“There are many things about Erdogan that I don’t like,” she said. “He is very intolerant towards the opposition, and I do not approve of that. I know people who were treated unjustly because of his indiscriminate decisions.”

Assad a deal-breaker

But despite many refugees’ critiques of Erdogan, several Turkish opposition parties’ campaign platforms seen as hostile to refugees - including the Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem Ince’s vow to restore relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - led them to be fearful of any change to the political status quo in their host country.

“Although he has made many mistakes, we welcomed [Erdogan’s] victory because the alternative would have been catastrophic for refugees,” Sanaa said. 

“We had been preparing ourselves for the possible win of an opposition candidate, and the first thing we would have done is to leave Turkey immediately."

Although he has made many mistakes, we welcomed [Erdogan’s] victory because the alternative would have been catastrophic for refugees

- Sanaa, Egyptian refugee

“We would not have felt safe in Turkey anymore. Ince’s rhetoric is very anti-refugees, and he would have emboldened his Turkish supporters to turn against refugees,” she added. 

“We left Egypt because of injustice; we cannot live in another country fearing the same injustice.

“If you ask me who I want to be in power in Turkey, I would say I have no idea,” said Alaa al-Mashadane, a 29-year-old Syrian from Aleppo living in Turkish-controlled territory in Idlib province.

“The other candidates are worse than Erdogan. But if he wants to have Syrian support, he ought to stop manipulating us with his speeches and do what he says.”

Domane concurred.

“It's complicated for us, we have no options, as the other candidates had promised their people that they would send Syrian refugees back home and open relations with the Syrian dictator [Assad],” he said.

“Erdogan is the least worst option for us to maintain some dignity. Is he the best? Absolutely not and he never will be. But we can only accept it and live with it.”

*Names have been changed.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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