Earlier this week my mother-in-law warned me about going for a walk in Dikmen Valley, the long Italy-shaped park that runs through the center of Ankara, because there are some Syrian families camped out in half-demolished houses across the new bridge from the valley’s upper end. And they could follow me into the park and… disembowel me? ask for change? set their kids loose on the park swings? My husband tells me I’ll worry once I’m a mother too.
Quite honestly the [minimal number of] Syrians in Ankara are about as actually dangerous as Turkey’s street dogs, which are the other thing I’m constantly warned about. Not to suggest that Syrians are like dogs, but that both rarely live up to the threat perceived: Turkey’s street dogs are for the most part fat, friendly and found lolling underneath cafe tables waiting for generous patrons to drop morsels of their meal. Some street dogs, of course, are a little more vicious at heart. Ankara’s Syrians seem to be split into those who actually want to stay and are enrolling as students or setting up house; the very poor (usually women and young children) who somehow ended up here and are found begging on a few street corners; and the inevitable untrustworthy percentage found in any population.
And yet I still came across a man selling purse-sized bottled of pepper spray in Kizilay last Sunday, and near everyone here seems to have a negative attitude towards Syrians. Why?
From my time here there seems to be three factors feeding this negativity and distrust: the size of the refugee population, Turkey’s undesirable middle position, the sense of entitlement of the refugee population, the disdain for Turkey among many refugees, and the refugees seemingly free access to Europe.
First, size: Yesterday I came across this article in the New York Times, in which it appears many European nations are now griping about the surge of refugees, many of them from Syria. Greece is overwhelmed, as is once-welcoming Germany. A host of countries are closing or limiting their borders. Turkey is mentioned nowhere in the article. And yet almost all of those Syrian refugees came through Turkey. Now Europe wants Turkey to keep most of the refugees that enter it’s borders. Numbers are a bit fuzzy, but at present (Feb 15) there seem to be a whopping 2.6 million in Turkey (UNHCR). Others put the figure at 1.9 million +; either way, that’s still far more than any country in Europe. And it’s 3.5% of Turkey’s total population (the equivalent of having around 11 million Mexican refugees flood into the US to escape cartel wars; this actually seems to be fairly close to the current number of Mexican immigrants in the US, which might help some Americans understand Turkey’s situation in better context). Anyway, lots of refugees in Turkey – and,once you look at the graphics, obviously a lot more than anywhere else. Most of Turkey’s cache of Syrian refugees are currently found along the coast (closer to Syria, or from places where they might find a boat to Greece); this also happens to be Turkey’s biggest tourist region, and thus the influx of refugees (coupled with Russia’s ruble slide) has led to a lot of local economic downturn.
However, unlike Europe, Turkey can’t close it’s borders. Notice how no voice from the West is advising Turkey to seal its borders with Syria. No, Turkey’s supposed to let them in one end – and not let them out the other. Back in 1991 when 500,000 Kurdish Iraqi refugees gathered on Turkey’s Eastern border (reference) following the Gulf War and Turkey didn’t let them in the country was vilified by the Western media. Never mind that, like Syria, this didn’t start as Turkey’s war. It seems Erdogan might have agreed to attempt to keep more Syrians in Turkey for €3 Billion in aid – but divided by the refugees already in Turkey that’s a paltry €1153.85 per head (i.e. not enough to actually cover the cost of keeping that many refugees in country for more than maybe a few months). Erdogan has criticized Europe on this double standard (one of the few things I’ve found to admire in his presidency), but there still doesn’t seem to be a solution. For who is responsible for the Syrian refugees? Their closest neighbors? The European countries where some eventually land? The US for invading Iraq and bringing instability to the region? The shadow-state of ISIS? The realm’s original regime? The refugees themselves? Clearly there’s no equal answer, no visible figure to pay for resettlement and reconstruction when and if the war ever ends. So for now many in Turkey feel like it’s being used as a ‘dumping ground’ for ‘less desirable’ refugees as Turkey is needed by Europe – but not offered a seat at the table.
Now let’s address migrant entitlement and resentment towards ‘being stuck in Turkey’. Back to those Mexican immigrants in the US: now imagine that they all want free passage through the US (and use of hospitals, shelter, and roads) on their way to Canada. Because none of them really want to stay in ‘lower North America’. But, wait – Canada doesn’t want them either (and is now building Trump’s giant wall to keep them out). And that’s pretty much the situation right now with refugees in Turkey. Most may never have set foot in Europe, but they’ve heard of this promised land of safety, good housing, social services, and generous welfare benefits – and Turkey, as a middle-income country, is definitely below the bar. To Turkish citizens, however, it seems like the refugees believe themselves entitled to not just access to their country and transport through, but also aid and assistance while in country. If the government’s figures are correct, Turkey has already spent upwards of €6 on the Syrian crisis. And yet, to many, it seems like most refugees aren’t very grateful for Turkey’s aid – to the contrary, they’re spitting on the hand that feeds them. To be fair, some refugees do seem to want to settle in Turkey – it presents some semblance of cultural similarity, and it’s close enough to home that they can return once conflict finishes. The border town of Kilis actually seems to be a positive example of refugees settling in, volunteering locally, and collaborating with the local community (who’s population they now dwarf) to create a temporary home. The flat across the hall from my oldest sister-in-law in the family apartment complex is currently being rented out by a Libyan man and his family waiting out the conflict in their country. He’s enrolled in a MA program, the kids in a local school, they’re learning Turkish, and they’re on friendly, trustworthy terms with all of their neighbors. But there’s definitely a sense of distrust when facing the larger, often far more fluid, immigrant population.
On to our last issue: the refugees’ perceived easy access to Europe. Now I know no-one who has read about the journey that refugees actually take to cross to border int Western Europe would term that “easy”. Physically it’s not – it’s dangerous, uncertain, and expensive. But to citizens of countries (like Turkey) who have been kept for so long on the outer fray of the EU, it still seems like these refugees have comparatively open access to resettlement in and assistance from the West. Europe has never fully accepted Turkey as one of it’s own, and it can still be a rather arduous process for Turkish citizens to get Schengen visas or residence permits for study or work in Western European countries. And yet the refugees, it seems, are welcomed in and given immediate shelter – without visas, often without resources to pay for their own keep. Obviously, if viewed in this light, the situation can seem a little unfair.
Anyway, it’s a difficult topic with no clear answers. I don’t agree with all the perceptions towards refugees I’ve encountered in Turkey, but I can understand where they are coming from – and why many of the newcomers might be seen with distrust.