Syrian refugees face new threats as Türkiye votes in second round

In the mobile game Zafer Tourism, players catapult Syrian refugees hurrying to Türkiye on trucks to pick them up from where they came from.

“Defend your borders. Don’t let them get through,” the Google Play Store description says.

The game, whose title refers to the anti-migrant campaign of the Turkish far-right Zafer (Victory) party, was released by Turkish publisher Gacrux Game Studio in September, but has since gained attention amid a tense election battle between Turkey’s longtime president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Sunday’s runoff is increasingly focusing on the plight of some 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

In the first round, Erdogan received 49.4% of the vote, and Kilicdaroglu – 44.96%; the third contender, Sinan Ogan, a far-right figure who made sending refugees back central theme of his campaign, achieved surprisingly strong results with 5.17%.

Now the two remaining parties are spending the days leading up to the second round wooing ultra-nationalist voters who they hope will give them a boost to victory.

Erdogan waving on a red background

Erdogan waves to supporters during an election rally in Istanbul May 22.

(Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

For the 69-year-old populist Erdogan, this meant moving from ending calls for the repatriation of Syrians as inhumane and contrary to Islamic values ​​to a statement on CNN Turk on Tuesday highlighting that his government has already returned more than half a million Syrians, with more to follow.

For the quiet 74-year-old Kılıçdaroğlu – known as the Turkish Gandhi – this meant replacing his good-guy image with a sharp-elbowed image meant to demonstrate how tough he can be with migrants.

“We will never, ever turn Turkey into a refugee warehouse,” Kılıçdaroğlu said in a campaign speech Tuesday in Hatay, the earthquake-hit province on Turkey’s southern border with Syria, adding that the people must act before “refugees take over the country.” .

This followed a Twitter campaign video posted on Saturday in which he said: “As if 10 million Syrians aren’t enough, will you let another 10-20 million come in?” (Before the first round, he said there were 3.7 million Syrians in the country.)

Turkey's CHP party leader and National Alliance presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu gestures to supporters.

Kılıçdaroğlu greets supporters during a rally in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, May 12.

(Ali Unal/Associated Press)

Kilicdaroglu also promised to repatriate Syrians once he is elected – it is not clear if this will be on a voluntary basis – and to revise a 2016 agreement with the European Union, in which he paid Turkey billions of euros to prevent refugees from reaching European shores. Meanwhile, his campaign posters read: “The Syrians will go!”

“There has been a radical change in Kılıçdaroğlu’s tone,” said Khalil Nalçaoğlu, professor of communications at Istanbul Bilgi University.

“He had a positive campaign in the first round, but it just didn’t work. Refugees weren’t the top agenda, but it became one because of pressure from various quarters, which means he has to sell the idea that he can be very tough on refugee policy,” he said.

Omar Kadkoy, an expert on migration at the Tepav think tank in Ankara, said the opposition expected economic problems of the country have more influence on voters.

“When you as a politician cannot convince potential voters from across the political spectrum with your own program that focuses on human rights and economic issues, then you have to resort to this populist discourse,” he said.

The tactic seems to have had some effect. On Wednesday, Kılıçdaroğlu enlisted the support of Zafer party leader Umit Ozdag, a far-right figure who estimates the number of refugees at 13 million and funds films that characterize the influx of migrants as a “silent invasion” that will make Turks a minority.

At the same time, third-placed Ogan, who conditioned his support on a tougher policy on refugees and He considers Kurdish groups terrorists – came out in support of Erdogan this week. It’s unclear what he asked Erdogan, who is widely expected to win in the second round, in exchange for support, but the resonance of anti-refugee rhetoric among eligible voters, nearly 90% of whom participated in the first round, has not faded. unnoticed.

Erdogan, changing his position himself, especially set his sights on the reversal of Kılıçdaroğlu.

“If you want to identify a lie, you must look at Kılıçdaroğlu. On what basis do you say these 10 million [refugees]? He is trying to save the day by inciting hatred,” Erdogan said.

A group of people gather near the border crossing

Syrians wait to cross into Syria from Turkey at the Chilwegozu border gate, near Antakya, Turkey, Feb. 19. 21

(Unal Cam/Associated Press)

When Syria first plunged into civil war in 2011millions have fled the violence to neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Jordan. But it was Turkey that accepted the lion’s share of the refugees, granting them privileges – the right to work, access to education and health care, among others – that were denied to them in other host countries. Turkey under Erdogan also supported the Syrian rebels, allowing them to use Turkish border towns as supply depots and staging areas for attacks on Syrian government forces. Erdogan also insisted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resign.

But as the Syrian civil war dragged on and Assad — with Iranian and Russian help — remained in power, the salute has soured.

The ongoing economic crisis that began in 2018 has angered Syrians. Inflation peaked at 80%, although it has since fallen to just over half that figure overall, and experts say it remains in triple digits in major urban centers. Then came devastating earthquakes in february.

While Assad clings to power, Syria remains fractured and a string of US, EU and United Nations sanctions still in place hindering recovery. He also made any talks on the repatriation of refugees from Turkey conditional on Ankara withdrawing its forces from northern Syria. For many, like Ziyad, a 25-year-old resident of the Syrian capital of Damascus, the idea of ​​being deported to Syria is unacceptable.

“I have a work permit. A license. Everything is from the Turkish government and I am 100% legal,” he said. Ziyad first came to Turkey eight years ago and now works in an electronics store in Istanbul’s Fatih district, where one of the largest Syrian communities in the city, he only gave his name to avoid reprisals.

“Every day you see the police here stopping people at random and demanding their documents,” he said. “Yesterday they took the guy from the hairdresser, which he owns. If they suspect any wrongdoing, they send you to a deportation center; In 12 hours you can be in Syria.”

It almost happened to the family of 30-year-old Lujain, a Damascus woman who came to Turkey in 2011 and obtained citizenship after studying at university.

Her family runs a hair transplant clinic and the client forgot his passport, so her father offered to take the man back to the hotel to get the paperwork. But when the police stopped the car, the police accused her father of smuggling refugees. They sent him to a detention center and it took two lawyers, $9,000 and more than a week of detention to get him released. Despite this, the deportation order remains in effect, which means that he could be expelled from the country at any time.

“I try to believe that nothing will happen to us here, that if I do not harm anyone, then no one will harm me. But at the same time, my father was trying to do someone a little favor, and now we have this problem, so you know in this country that you will never, ever be safe, that anything can happen,” Loujain said. .

The opposition has promised to pay attention to citizenship recipients like Lujain, raising suspicions that Syrians like her will lose their Turkish passport.

“For me, if I lose my documents, I will sort it out, but my parents are old and we have no one left in Syria,” she said. “We already had one nationality that lost its value. Now this one could too.