What fuelled the anti-Syrian riot outside Ankara?

An anti-Syrian rampage by angry residents in the Ankara suburb of Altındağ on Wednesday is a latest sign that Turkey may be approaching a dangerous social tipping point. 

The incident reflects poor policy decisions worsened by hyperpolarised politics and a struggling economy, Cevdet Acu, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Exeter and an expert on migration in Turkey, said in a podcast.

On Wednesday, Turkish citizens in the middle-class suburb of Altındağ, located just outside the capital Ankara, rioted throughout the night after a Turkish teenager was killed in an altercation with a pair of Syrians. Hundreds of people stormed Altındağ's Önder and Battalgazi neighbourhoods, ransacking businesses operated by Syrians and terrifying families before security services took control of the situation.

Acu said the violent and racist riot occurred partly due to Turkey’s failure to secure adequate rights for Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland, leaving them exposed to such incidents. The “temporary protection” status granted to Syrians by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government denies them the rights that would be afforded to them as refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees that Turkey signed and ratified, he said.

The lack of legal protection for Syrians has fed into a false narrative among many Turks that the refugees are economic migrants seeking to take jobs from ordinary citizens. Xenophobic sentiments are being amplified by Turkish politicians and a media prone to negative coverage of Syrians in the country, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made the government less popular, he said.

Some of the rioters on Wednesday night put the blame on Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) for opening Turkey up to Syrians fleeing the war. The Turkish opposition has in recent weeks weaponised politically public frustration with refugees as a new line of attack against the government.

Acu accuses these politicians of favouring division and taking advantage of Turkey’s polarised society for their own gain.

“Most politicians like division, they like polarisation, they try to make groups among the people in society,” said Acu.

“There are particular politicians in Turkey who keep using negative statements against refugees and these statements do not help create a decent, peaceful environment for locals or refugees,” he said.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), promised that if elected at presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023, his government would deport Syrian refugees “within two years”. Other lower-level politicians in the CHP have proposed policies such as charging foreigners more for utilities, tapping into the vein of xenophobia.

Erdoğan has said he will not deport Syrians and his spokesman, Omer Celik, has criticised opposition rhetoric towards migrants as dangerous. Acu said that the form of exclusionary nationalism often used in Turkey by politicians embeds a certain level of hostility towards perceived outsiders. 

The riot in Altındağ took place at a time when Turkish officials expressed public concern about a new wave of refugees entering the country from Afghanistan. The Taliban, the former Islamic hardline rulers of the country, have taken over the capital Kabul after a military blitz against the Afghan national army. Turkey already hosts over 100,000 Afghan refugees, but it is estimated that anywhere from 500 to 2,000 are entering the country daily as violence spreads across their homeland.

Acu says that the European Union and the United States should take refugee problems in Turkey more seriously. Many refugees are hoping to settle in the EU but they are obstructed from doing so under a migration deal between the EU and Turkey in 2016. Individual members of the bloc such as Austria have made it clear that they are opposed to taking some of the burden off Turkey.

Like Turkey, these countries are signatories to the 1951 Geneva Convention and have their own obligations to care for refugees, according to Acu. He described it as “not fair” that political leaders in EU countries expect Turkey to bear the costs of hosting growing numbers of displaced people.

“These countries signed the 1951 Geneva Convention and they can’t just force Turkey to shoulder the burden,” he said. “Collective responsibility is needed to solve the refugee crisis.”

Acu said political discourse concerning existing and arriving refugees should shift to fair burden sharing and seeking out solutions that ensure their protection.

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