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Turkey earthquake: Grief gives way to anger as anti-Syrian sentiment boils

Several days after the earthquake devastated the region, sorrow and grief is turning to anger with Syrian refugees anecdotally blamed for looting and acts of criminality
People pass as rescue workers continue to clear rubble from collapsed buildings in Antakya, Turkey, on 12 February 2023 (Associated Press)
By Yusuf Selman Inanc in Antakya and Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Sorrow and grief are turning to anger in several parts of southern Turkey, as xenophobic claims that Syrian refugees are looting shops and people's homes gain traction, following the destruction and chaos caused by last week's earthquakes.

As rescue efforts continue for a seventh day in the worst-affected Turkish cities of Kahramanmaras, Hatay and Adiyaman, anti-Syrian sentiment has mushroomed, with the beleaguered community blamed anecdotally for robberies and other acts of criminality.

'I smashed the face of a Syrian yesterday. Somebody said he was stealing money and jewelry from damaged buildings'

- Turkish police officer

"Do you know what is happening now, here in Antakya? We are being looted. Turks are being looted by Syrians," an Antakya-based resident told Middle East Eye, his voice full of anger.

"We are trying to save people but they are trying to rob us," he added, without expanding on whether or not he had personally seen any Syrians engage in criminal acts.

Turkey is home to nearly four million Syrian refugees, having opened its borders to those fleeing the civil war that erupted in 2011. But in recent years, skyrocketing inflation accompanied by the rapid depreciation of the Turkish lira has caused resentment and xenophobia to spike to unprecedented levels.

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In Antakya's city centre, as a rescue team was trying to keep themselves warm by a fire, racism and xenophobia were on full display.

"We've heard and seen videos of the looting," said one of the men, who travelled more than 250km to help rescue efforts.

The remarks came as far-right politician Umit Ozdag, who is known for repeatedly peddling anti-Syrian messages on social media, told his more than two million Twitter followers that Syrians posed a national security threat. 

On Sunday, Ozdag was confronted by Turkish rescuers over his inflammatory rhetoric, with the politician being reminded that people from different countries, including Syrians and Turkey's erstwhile rival Greece, were helping in relief efforts.

"Here are Syrians, Europeans, people from all over the world, even Greece is helping us," the volunteer rescuer told Ozdag. "We, whether Muslim or Christian, are fed up with hearing this sort of talk."

"Please put on your gloves and pick up the trash."

Brazen attacks

Fears over looting and violence have caused German aid organisations to suspend rescue operations in some of the worst-hit regions.

Muhammed, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee who is staying in a tent with his family of six in Antakya's Ataturk Park, said that even if some of his compatriots were stealing, he was struggling to understand why all Syrians were being tarnished with the same brush.

"Why are we [the Syrians] held responsible for what other Syrians were doing?" he said.

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His father, who was now in tears, said he knew sympathy among Turks was running out despite the family losing their home for a second time.

"First [we lost our home] when the [Syrian] regime bombed us in Aleppo, and now we are homeless again due to the earthquake.

"On top of it, we must convince people that we are not looters. We are so lucky to have found this tent."

Amid the chaotic situation, a policeman brazenly told a group of volunteers that he had savagely beaten a Syrian man following accusations that he was stealing.

"I smashed the face of a Syrian yesterday. Somebody said he was stealing money and jewelry from damaged buildings."

In recent days, authorities have pledged to deal firmly with looters, with state-run media reporting that at least 98 suspected looters were arrested on Saturday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also said his government would deal firmly with criminal behaviour, noting that a state of emergency had been declared.

Do we just expect them to die?

Erdogan and his ruling AK Party, who were riding high earlier this month after a huge boost in spending benefited millions of voters, are now battling criticism that their response to stricken areas was too slow.

It comes at a time when the president, who rose to national power just after the turn of the millennium, is waging his toughest re-election campaign yet.

Furkan, a high school teacher, said he was dismayed by the xenophobia and demanded that they too receive assistance from state and local authorities.

"What should the Syrians do? Do we just expect them to die?"

"I have many Syrian students and they are scared and shy to ask for any help. They have tried to rescue their family members on their own."

Standing nearby, one of his friends brutally interjected: "I understand that they are also in need but we have to prioritise our citizens.

"We have been looking after them for years. Now, we must look after our people. What the hell is the West doing? Let them take these people. We are fed up!"

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