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'Vermin, dirty, freeloaders'... Turks turn on Syrians offered citizenship

President Erdogan's suggestion that 2.7m refugees could be naturalised has sparked mass opposition and vitriol from across Turkish society
Syrians and Turks walk in a street next to shops with signs in Arabic in Istanbul's Fatih neighbourhood (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – After years facing an increasingly uncertain future, Syrian refugees were offered a lifeline earlier this month by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's announcement they could be given Turkish citizenship.

The news was largely greeted with elation by the country’s more than 2.7 million Syrians, but that brief moment of hope was quickly followed by despair - and even fear.

The country, so often politically polarised, has united in opposition to the idea - 83 percent of Turks are against it.

Two opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), quickly stated they opposed it. Some accused Erdogan and his AKP party of a shameless gambit to get the votes of Syrians who gained citizenship.

Right-wing newspaper Sozcu called Syrians “vermin” in one of a series of anti-Syrian front-page headlines.

That reaction was tame, however, compared to views expressed on social media. A Turkish-language hashtag, translated as “I don’t want Syrians in my country,” started to trend on Twitter. Many messages carried obscene, hate-filled rants against Syrians.

And opposition was manifest among many Turks with whom Middle East Eye spoke. Hatice Ozbir, a 64-year-old AKP supporter, told MEE that she was aghast at the idea.

“We can’t have them all staying here forever. They are so dirty. Look at them spitting the shells of roasted sunflower seeds everywhere,” she said.

“They rent flats and leave them in an uninhabitable condition. I hope no one in my building rents to them again.”

Ozbir was also under the impression that laws have been implemented making it illegal to criticise the Syrian refugee presence in Turkey.

“I have heard that we can get fined for talking about them [Syrian refugees]. We are just supposed to shut up and watch as our own children can’t find jobs and suffer,” Ozbir said.

“All they do is sit around all day and make lots of noise. It must be the government they are getting money from.”

Abdullah Topcu, 51, a petrol station attendant in Istanbul, said: "Now they will never go back. It was already paradise for them. Everything is free for them and now they are being given citizenship. Lovely, just lovely."

Anas Maghrebi, 27, who fled Syria for Turkey in 2011, summed up the reaction of many Syrian refugees: “All these disgusting remarks have appeared on social media. They think all Syrians are savages and we are simply classified as ‘those Syrians’.

“I was so pleased when I heard of possible citizenship. We are humans too. But remarks targeting us on Facebook after that were simply disgusting and very hurtful.”

It is such sweeping generalisations that hurt Maghrebi and other Syrians like him. Well-educated and eager, they have tried to become productive members of their new communities after being forced to flee, only to be faced with hostility and vitriol.

Turkish-Syrian ties

The Turkish relationship with Syrian refugees has been complex. Turkey largely opened its borders at the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011. It hosted the Syrian political opposition and propped up rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while vocally calling on the international community to intervene.

Ankara also provided basic protection for registered Syrians, allowing them to access some medical services and local schools.

However, as the war raged and the refugees kept coming, public opinion started to shift.

Turkey has since effectively closed the border, while also bolstering security in the wake of several high-profile attacks inside Turkey linked to the Islamic State group.

A move to try to legalise work permits last year, which was widely praised in the West, has faltered - only 5,500 permits were granted between January and May. 

Murat Erdogan, the director of migration and political research centre at Ankara’s Hacettepe University, told Voice of America’s Turkish service that all surveys conducted by their centre showed that Turks, irrespective of their political inclinations, were becoming increasingly concerned about Syrians being granted citizenship.

Anti-Syrian backlash

Erdogan said that 1.8 million Syrians would be eligible to vote if all refugees were granted citizenship - which could help cement AKP’s hold on power further and allow the party to intensify crackdowns on political opponents and the media.

According to many historians, ever since its formation in 1923, the Turkish republic has consciously nurtured and promoted a nationalist and isolationist mindset.

In addition to that, Arabs are looked upon with particular disdain, with some sociologists attributing this to incidents during World War I when Turks believed they were betrayed by the Arabs, who aligned with the British and collapsed the Ottoman Empire.

The backlash has been so strong following Erdogan’s remarks that a succession of ministers have made comments implying that criteria will be tough and the process will be far from automatic.

Erdogan, in his latest comments on Saturday, said what was being offered should be considered as dual citizenship and it did not mean that everyone who benefitted from it would remain in Turkey.

He did, however, add that Turkey was capable of absorbing such numbers easily as population density was not very high.

With such clarifications and backtracks, is there any hope for the plan to see daylight?

A minority of Turks do support the citizenship plan. But it is hard to hear their voices.

Meliha Ozbek, a 45-year-old housewife, told MEE that she feels ashamed of how Syrians have been targeted. Every single Syrian should have Turkish citizenship if they want it, she said.

“Turkey played a big role in the war that has destroyed their lives. Of course we should grant them citizenship. It is the least we can do. It is the least all countries that have fuelled the war in Syria can do,” she said.

As long as people like Ozbek continue to speak up, and President Erdogan continues to support the initiative, Maghrebi says he will continue to feel safe in Turkey and believes that he will one day be able to apply for citizenship.

“In Turkey, it is all about the government. What the people think doesn’t matter if the government decides to do something,” he said. “I no longer have a Syrian passport. I just want to travel and be normal."

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

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