As European and Turkish officials engage in high-stakes negotiations to salvage a 2016 pact to halt the flow of migrants along the Aegean route, patience among the Turkish populace is wearing thin with the 3.6 million Syrians living there.
Once-welcoming attitudes in Turkey toward victims of the eight-year Syrian conflict are worsening daily, creating both a liability and – in the view of some – an opportunity for President Recip Tayyip Erdogan.
Greece’s prime minister said on Friday that Turkey should not be “exploiting” Europe’s migrant crisis for his own ends, even as the Turkish leader threatened again to make a new incursion into northern Syria.
Recent polls suggest many Turks now regard the refugees with growing hostility, while the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Erdogan has also turned increasingly against them.
Erdogan has recently threatened to “unleash” the refugees on Europe, or return many of them to a still-to-be-established ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria.
“We are of course very worried,” one Syrian refugee shop keeper in the run-down Ankara neighborhood of Altindag told Asia Times.
Refusing to give his real name out of fear of reprisals against his family – both here and in Syria – he continued: “We know it’s still very bad in Syria, but here, you never know if tomorrow, you’ll still have a future.”
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, fresh off a visit to Ankara, warned on Friday: “If we do not help Greece, [and other] EU border countries, we will have an irregular migration policy that will lead to deadlock.”
When the first waves of refugees arrived in Turkey in 2011, it was quite a different story.
“Our Turkish neighbors were great,” said Jemlin Mahmud, a Syrian refugee from nearby Aleppo who now lives with his family in the Altindag neighborhood of Solfasol.
In Turkey, some 97% of the refugees live within the host population, according to Unicef figures. “The neighbors gave us spare furniture for the house and helped us get connected to utilities and many other things,” he recalls.
Initially, with the Islamist AKP highly supportive of the Syrian opposition and the expectation that victory would be quick and the refugees would return, the government was also welcoming.
Yet, as the conflict dragged on and the numbers grew, the refugees became increasingly seen as a burden.
“Ankara says it has spent more than $40 billion so far on the Syrians,” Berkay Mandiraci, an Ankara-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Asia Times.
“Overstretch in terms of public services has contributed to negative public reactions.”
To try and offset some of the financial burden – and in response to a wave of Syrian refugees heading to Europe in the summer of 2015 – the March 2016 deal that EU foreign ministers are now trying to revive saw Brussels agree to supply some 6 billion euros to support refugees remaining in Turkey.
Row over financial support
Yet, the Turkish government says that four years on, only 2.2 billion euros have been disbursed. EU agencies accept this, but say that the very nature of the programs the EU funds means that the money will not all be spent at once, but over the course of several years.
The EU’s two largest programs are the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) project, which dispenses monthly financial aid directly to refugees via e-cards, and the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE) program, which pays the families of Syrian refugee children to return their kids to school.
“The money is not a budget support for Turkey,” Claudia Amaral, Head of Office for EU Humanitarian Aid, told Asia Times. “As the projects are rolled out, the money is dispersed.”
Yet this is far from satisfactory for Ankara. “You either give support, or you don’t,” Erdogan told the Turkish parliament in September.
“Sorry, but we can only put up with so much. Are we going to shoulder this burden alone?”
AKP on edge
Meanwhile, there has also been growing alarm in the AKP that its refugee policy has lost it votes at the polls.
An August 2019 survey by research company Metropoll showed that 80.7% of Turkish voters had a ‘slightly negative’ or ‘very negative’ attitude towards Syrian refugees.
Amongst AKP voters, the total was 62.3%. Earlier this year, the AKP also lost the mayoral elections in both Ankara and Istanbul to the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has long criticized government policy on Syria.
The ruling party saw the losses as connected to the AKP’s support for the refugees. “In the aftermath of the elections, the government launched a power display in Istanbul against the most vulnerable: irregular migrants, including Syrian refugees,” Omar Kadkoy, a migration specialist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, told Asia Times.
Recent months have seen increasing reports of Syrians being arrested – around 1,000 in Istanbul in July alone, according to police figures – while there are also many unofficial reports of deportations.
In late September, for example, news came of a military vehicle crashing in Reyhanli in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border. Local press reported the six people killed in the accident as “irregular” migrants being transported back to Syria.
Meanwhile, many Syrian shop owners report, off the record, a jump in harassment from local law enforcement, who have torn down notices in Arabic, while licenses and permits have increasingly been revoked.
“My daughter wanted to get married,” says Mahmud, “but the municipal wedding salon wouldn’t let me hire its hall, as I’m Syrian.”
The Metropoll survey also showed that what bothered Turkish voters the most about the refugees was ‘rising unemployment’.
The Turkish economy went into a downturn last year, which “pit Syrians against Turkish citizens in the informal job market,” Mandiraci says.
“In time, Syrians were also unjustly blamed for the overall economic deterioration.”
The survey also showed some 81.5% wanted to see assistance programs for the refugees cut.
“I can hardly find money for medicine, power and water,” says Ilnur Refik, a Turkish resident of Solfasol and construction worker who lost his job during the recent downturn. “Then I see the Syrians get all this help. What about me?”
Aid agencies are quick to point out, however, that the aid going to refugees never exceeds the level of social welfare services available to Turkish citizens.
Now, President Erdogan has said that he wants to return some two million refugees to a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria, to be carved out by Turkish troops and their allies in territory currently held by Syrian Kurdish forces, which Ankara brands as “terrorists”.
This has caused alarm among aid agencies, as well as the refugees themselves.
“Our policy is quite clear,” the EU’s Amaral says. “Returns need to be done only when conditions are safe – and right now, we don’t think they are.”
Abdullah Habkimi, originally from Damascus and a refugee in Ankara for five and a half years, told Asia Times: “I’m sure all Syrian families would like to go back, but the situation there is really very bad.”
What future he and other refugees will have remains highly uncertain.
“The EU doesn’t want to relive the nightmare of 2015,” says Kadkoy. President Erdogan, on the other hand “never hesitates to use the Syrians for political gains.”