The latest remarks of Ümit Özdağ, a deputy for the ultranationalist Good (IYI) Party from southern Gaziantep province, reveal the role of opposition parties in a rising anti-Syrian hate campaign sweeping through Turkish cities. A recent interview with the Ayıntab daily, published in Gaziantep, confirms how some Turkish politicians are fueling and exploiting flames of hatred against Syrian refugees, who had to flee their country due to its nine-year civil war.
A former college professor and one of the IYI Party’s founders, Özdağ had previously stated during a meeting of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on October 23, 2019 that Turkey was in danger of becoming a “Middle Eastern country.”
In the interview Özdağ claimed that “Syrians were forced to migrate Turkey in line with a project. The powerful instruments of imperialism will change the demographic structure of the region in order to increase the dominance of different ethnic groups in line with their own strategy and drag the country [Turkey] towards a catastrophic civil war. They [the imperialists] are using migration as a tool of strategic [political] engineering,” adding that “Syrian refugees, unfortunately, are a huge problem for Turkey and Gaziantep.”
“Syrians have been looming over Gaziantep like a nightmare. I can’t call it migration, which not only makes the situation more complicated but also darkens the city’s future. In fact, we are witnessing a covert invasion today,” Özdağ told Ayintab.
Gaziantep is a sprawling industrial city on Turkey’s southern border with Syria a mere 60 miles from Aleppo, a Syrian city devastated by the war. Gaziantep had a pre-Syrian war population of some 1.5 million, but a massive influx of Syrian refugees has in recent years increased the population of Gaziantep by nearly a third.
Turkish media reported several lynching attempts against Syrians in Gaziantep.
According to Özdağ, official figures on the Syrian population in Turkey are not accurate. “The General Directorate of Migration Management [of the Interior Ministry] doesn’t share the facts with the Turkish people. Neither the number of Syrian refugees nor information on Syrians who acquired Turkish citizenship is accurate. They [the authorities] have revealed that Turkey hosts 3,650,000 Syrians. However, we know that 1.3 million unregistered Syrians are also living [in Turkey] … In brief, there are 5.3 million Syrians in the country,” he said.
Özdağ claimed that the number of Syrians in Turkey would reach 11.3 million in 2040, while it is expected to exceed 1.1 million [37.8 percent of the total population] in Gaziantep. “If the ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] insists on keeping Syrians in Turkey, Gaziantep will no longer be a Turkish city due to the silent and covert invasion [of Syrians],” he said.
Moreover, he argued that the financial burden on Turkey caused by Syrians now totals $80 billion and that increasing unemployment has emerged as an important problem in the region. Since an economic crisis hit Turkey in 2018, Syrian refugees have been scapegoats for rising rates of inflation and the economic downturn.
In recent years Syrian refugees have become the main target of nationalist politics in Turkey. In addition to AKP deputies, several MPs from ultranationalist parties represented in parliament such as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and opposition IYI Party, have exposed their xenophobic sentiments toward Syrians.
In 2019 hundreds of Arabic-language shop signs and banners were removed by the Turkish government as a result of increasing racism. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced that all “offending” Arabic shop signs across Turkey would be changed within six months. “There is a standard, and that standard is Turkish. If they want to include small Arabic letters underneath, they can. Everyone will abide by the rules and regulations,” he said in July 2019.
Syrian children seen working in an atelier.
The Turkish government opened the country’s border to refugees when the war in Syria began in 2011. However, Turkish public opinion has shifted against the refugees, and the Turkish government has responded in turn by adopting a nationalist rhetoric regarding Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Following a deadly attack on Turkish troops by Syrian government forces in northern Syria on February 27, 2020, Erdoğan announced that Turkey had opened its western border to Europe in response to refugee pressure from Syria. The Syrian offensive in Idlib has killed dozens of Turkish troops and led to a surge of nearly a million Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting toward Turkey’s sealed border. These developments have also fueled anti-Syrian xenophobia in the country, and the attacks of angry mobs against Syrians, their homes and their businesses have increased.