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ANKARA, Turkey – In a neighborhood still plagued by hate, all Syrian refugees disappeared in one day last week. They have closed their shops. They ran into the streets. It was the anniversary of an anti-Syrian mob onslaught, and officials warned it was better to leave.
The violence began last August when a Syrian youth was accused of fatally stabbing a Turkish teenager, Emirhan Yelsin, during a fight in Ankara’s Altindag district. Gangs of Turkish citizens invaded the neighborhood, looting and looting Syrian shops, houses and cars, shocking for their cruelty and where it happened: on the outskirts of the Turkish capital, a few miles from the presidential palace.
“He was brainwashed,” said Abu Huthaifa, a local Syrian activist who said he received death threats for watching the unrest from a balcony. For Syrians across Turkey, the anger in Altindag was a warning of an upcoming season of xenophobia.
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The surge in anti-immigrant sentiment in Turkey over the past year has led to deadly attacks on refugees and mob attacks on immigrant neighborhoods – a dangerous turning point for Turkey, which once prided itself on welcoming Syrians and was home to at least 4 million refugees. and asylum seekers, more than any other country in the world.
A deepening economic crisis has ignited the anger of a concerned public, outraged by claims that immigrants are changing the character of Turkey and the use of provocative or racist rhetoric by politicians to capitalize on all that fear. Turkey is the latest European country to face the rise of anti-immigrant policies. But its refugees also face an enduring tribe of indigenousism that favors some immigrants — like those from the Balkans — over others, particularly those from the Middle East.
Asli Aydintasbas, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Turkey had “moved in a nationalist direction in every respect”.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who allowed millions of Syrian refugees to come to Turkey, is struggling to respond to the anger as his government alternates between passing new rules protecting migrants and restricting their visibility. – Fought in turns. Facing a crucial election next year, Erdogan has promised to send a million Syrians home, a policy seen as impractical and illegal, and has called for little more action from his opponents. Is.
There are widespread fears among Syrians on both sides of the border that more drastic measures are on the way, including Ankara’s, which could restore long-broken ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which would placate Turkish nationalists who see Erdogan’s support as contributing to the opposition. for the refugee crisis.
The outrage had been building for years and boiled over last summer when a new wave of Afghan refugees reached Turkey’s borders. Now opinion polls routinely identify immigration as the first or second most important issue facing the nation.
“We are like dogs in our own country,” a Turk can be heard shouting on a tram in Istanbul’s tourist district of Sultanahmet this month, seeming to exude national sentiment.
An ultra-nationalist politician named Umit Ozdag has found himself at the center of a riot that has fueled every immigrant controversy and has toured the country to promote his new anti-immigrant. political party.
Local residents remember when he showed up shortly after the violence in Altindag and demonstratively left an empty suitcase as a warning to the Syrian people: “It’s time to go.” Ozdag wrote about the stunt on Twitter.
Syrian activist Abu Huthaifa, who asked to be addressed by his last name for security reasons, said of the thousands of messages he received on the night of the Altindag violence, some were filled with fear, as if he had to Home belongs from Syria during the war. of Idlib province.
An angry local resident told him that if his house was attacked, he would light a gas bottle for cooking. One woman said she was so scared that she urinated on herself. Others have suggested forming vigilante groups to retaliate.
“I didn’t expect to see something like this. In every building there are Turks and Syrians. We are neighbors,” said Abu Huthaifa.
Today, the local government says some buildings in the neighborhood have been reduced to rubble, a long-planned gentrification project. Syrians feared it was part of an effort to evict them from what they dubbed “the second Aleppo.”
Abu Hutaifa said that almost half of the 60,000 Syrian refugees living in the district left the district last year.
At a Turkish-owned shop, the owner was tampering with computers when two young Syrians and Kemal Ipek, a Turk who runs a real estate agency, entered the shop. In Turkey, the conversation turned to immigration.
Ahmed, a 27-year-old refugee from Aleppo who came to Turkey in 2016, said: “Everyone loves their country, but the conditions there are very bad.” “I really want to go back,” he said.
“I know someone. Mohammed Haider. Syrian. He’s in Syria right now, on vacation. He’s been there for six months,” he said. “He’s been there for six months,” he repeated when he lost the word. Was gone : Syria was not as dangerous as the refugees claimed.
“Easy, easy,” said the owner, an argument brewed and the two men backed away.
“It’s been a long time since we were here,” admitted Ahmed.
“It is the prime minister who has tormented us,” the shopkeeper said, referring to Erdogan, who held the post of prime minister before becoming president. Ipec agreed.
“God will, the government is changing and things are changing,” he said.
For the anti-immigrant politician Özdag, critics of Erdogan’s policies are probably voters for his new victory party. His platform focuses on the Turkish leader – who he accuses of creating a “national identity crisis” – but mostly targets refugees, using words like “invasion” to describe his presence.
In a recent interview, he said immigrants have created a “deep existential crisis for Turkish society and the Turkish state”.
His Twitter feed was a source of nationalist outrage, with posts documenting alleged attacks by immigrants or devotion to foreigners, such as signs posted in Arabic instead of Turkish. He says his party is “Turkey’s last exit from the cliff”.
“You cannot integrate more than 5 million Arabs into Turkey,” he said. When asked if he was fueling feelings that threatened migrants, he replied that such feelings were already widespread.
“There’s a lot of anger in the streets,” he said. “And not being in politics really increases the risk of violence. Now we have that anger under control.”
Can Selçuki, director of polling institute Turkiye Raporu, said the recent elections showed “rising secular nationalism in Turkey,” including anti-immigrant sentiment. Mainstream political parties have largely resisted capitalizing on anger, aware of the dangers of stoking public outrage at a time of deep economic troubles.
While the Turkish economy is struggling, Erdogan is going it alone
According to official data, inflation rose to 80 percent in July. Turks are struggling to afford basic goods as stories of the government’s financial support for refugees – many of them untrue – gain traction.
“Umit Özdag burst in with populist words and managed to capture the anger over the issue,” Selkiu said. “The issue was already there. Mr. Ozdag nailed it.”
Although he remains a comparatively modest politician with a few percentage points, this support can be found throughout Turkey, even where there are few refugees, About half of his support, Selucci said, also comes from first-time voters.
Ozdag’s anti-Syrian rhetoric is “unsurprising in Turkish popular discourse,” said Howard Eisenstadt, a history professor at St. Lawrence University. Nativism is “deeply woven into Turkish nationalism, and it is deeply woven into the sense of who the Turks are,” he said.
In this vision there is little room for the Arabs. When people in Turkey think ,Fraternal relations, they think about Muslims in the Russian Empire, in the Balkans – they don’t really think about Muslims in the Ottoman Middle East,” he said.
Yildiz Onon, spokeswoman for the We Are All Refugees platform, said Özdag is not the only one to blame for the growing xenophobia.
Erdogan’s government was slow To counter propaganda circulating in Turkey that migrants receive generous government benefits, she said. As a result, “those who were anti-immigrants—I actually call them racists—started to become more powerful. They started organizing themselves.”
In the years leading up to the Syrian war, “there was a greater sense of solidarity and sympathy,” Aydintasbas said. European Council on External Relations. Turks opened their homes to oppressed Syrians – at a time when European governments were doing everything they could to prevent them from reaching their borders, including paying to keep them out under a 2016 deal that gave Turkey June 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) in aid has been made available.
“The reality is that Syria is still not safe for a withdrawal,” Aydintasbas said. “Turkey will have to live with the reality of the Syrian refugees, which the government is very eager to suppress.”
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Old prejudices collide with new concerns, and a combustible mixture emerges. The insults besmirch the Arabs, an unintended echo of adjectives attributed to the Turks who have settled in Europe for decades. The video says that every few weeks immigrants cause outrage by harassing Turkish women or treating them in unacceptable ways.
The catalysts for the current climate “may be economic and political, but the tools are cultural identity,” said Mustafa Minawi, a professor of history at Cornell University and author of a forthcoming book on the Arab Ottomans of Istanbul in the late 19th century . .
For example, some rhetoric labeling Arabs as “traitors” has deep roots associated with Arab revolts against the Ottomans during World War I, but also with indigenous currents emerging in modern right-wing Europe and elsewhere. Is. “Turkey is no exception,” he said.
On the other side of the unrest in Altindag, there were Turkish residents who stood up for their immigrant neighbors – by offering their homes or bringing refugees food, Abu Huthaifa said. When Syrians temporarily left the neighborhood, some Turkish employers gave them paid days off.
He plans to stay. When he’s not involved in community organization, he gets a job in advertising. His two daughters are studying at a university in Turkey.
He said: “We’re fine. “We just need some stability.”
Beryl Eski contributed to this report.