With the ongoing civil war having displaced more than 2 million Syrians into neighboring Turkey, refugees watched that country’s recent elections with apprehension and uncertainty. Many Turkish opposition parties have expressed an explicit desire to expel Syrian refugees from Turkey.
Among those is the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The CHP chairman, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, promised to send Syrian refugees packing during a campaign speech in April.
The CHP has also accused Syrian refugees of harboring militants from the Islamic State (IS) group. The CHP’s hostility toward refugees has led many to put their hopes in a strong Erdogan government.
Turkey’s June 7 elections maintained the dominance of the AKP party, although it lost its majority. The CHP party gained around 25 percent of the parliamentary seats, while the leftist People’s Democracy Party (HDP), which supports Kurdish rights, won a surprising 13 percent. The results have left Syrian refugees uncertain what the future holds for them in Turkey.
Iman, a 29-year-old mother of three is from the city of Manbij, located on the outskirts of Aleppo. Since being displaced to Turkey, she has worked as a company janitor in the Turkish city of Kilis, near the border with Syria. Explaining that she does not follow politics closely, she was nonetheless profusely worried ahead of the recent elections. “We went through the same stress during the last elections, when everyone said that if Erdogan lost, we would have to go back to Syria,” Iman told Syria Deeply. “But, thank God, he did not lose, and we stayed here.”
Iman cannot imagine having to return to Manbij, which is now under the control of IS. “Where would I go?” she asked. “Manbij is under the control of the Islamic State. I’ll go back there over my dead body.”
Because the AKP party lost its absolute majority, it will likely form a coalition with opposition parties, some of which are not sympathetic to the plight of Syrian refugees.
“I don’t know what happened,” she commented, explaining that she doesn’t know the ins and outs of the Turkish government’s structure. “I know that Erdogan is still in power,” she said. “I know one thing: as long as Erdogan is in power, we will be fine and no one will do us wrong.”
Bassam, a 36-year-old doctor from Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, does not believe Turkey’s election results will affect Syrians. “Nothing has changed for me or anyone I know [so far],” he told Syria Deeply. “It’s true that everyone was a little worried, but unfortunately some people exaggerate.”
In the past, Syrian refugees in Turkey have endured vigilante attacks. Bassam recalled that many Syrians in Turkey circulated concerns on Facebook that they should avoid election centers, party headquarters or political venues on Election Day. “They made it sound as if Turkish people will kill us that day,” he noted, “but, generally speaking, the situation is still the same.”
Turkey, on the other hand, remains divided over the country’s policies on Syrian refugees. The refugees’ presence became a deciding factor for many voters on Election Day. “Syrians are like brothers to us,” Mehmet Ali Delibash, a professor at the University of Gaziantep, told Syria Deeply. “All we provided was a safe place for them to live. That’s all.”
The professor decried the open hostility some Turkish political figures have aimed at Syrian refugees. “I don’t understand how some Turkish politicians even talk about sending them home,” he said. “If we send them back, they will die. It is nonsense and it is immoral.”
Amina Diniz, a 25-year-old Turkish hotel employee in Gaziantep, supports the CHP party and shares its critique of the Turkish government’s Syrian refugee policy. “If I were a decision-maker, I would not have let them in,” she told Syria Deeply. “The number of Syrian refugees is too large.”
“Syrians make up half of the population here in Gaziantep,” Amina complained. “Look at the street. Cars with Syrian plates are everywhere. Even you, you are Syrian. Why doesn’t a Turkish journalist do this interview? Simply because you took his place.”
Amina also blames Syrians for an increase in the cost of living, saying that her rent has risen from 350 Turkish Lira ($130) to 850 Turkish Lira ($316) since refugees started pouring into the country four years ago. “Everything has doubled in price since they arrived,” she lamented. “If we must have them, they should live in camps … not in the cities.”
Fayez Sara, a member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, says it is only natural that Syrians were scared of what might happen after the elections. “Syrians no longer dream of going back home,” Sara told Syria Deeply, explaining that the prospect of being evicted from Turkey is very frightening for them.
“We can’t blame them for being scared. The problem is that some people exaggerate, and this increases the misunderstanding between Turkish people and Syrian refugees,” Sara said, opining that the Turkish election results are unlikely to impact the status of Syrian refugees.
Sara argued that the Turkish government’s policy toward Syrian refugees does not influence its position on the Syrian conflict. Many observers have been concerned that Turkey’s staunch opposition to Kurdish forces will lead it to support the Islamic State.
Fighting between the IS and Kurdish armed groups has intensified in recent weeks. Last week, Kurdish activists and residents accused Turkey of allowing IS to cross its borders before launching a fatal offensive against Kurdish-controlled areas near Kobane, a Syrian border city. Although some reports suggest upwards of 300 civilians were killed during the attack, Kurdish fighters were eventually able to expel IS fighters from the area.
“Some people think that Turkey benefits from the Islamic State’s presence on its borders,” he noted. “It’s true that Turkey isn’t comfortable with Kurdish forces controlling areas near the border, but Turkey isn’t comfortable with the Islamic State either,” Sara concluded. “In any case, no matter what happens, nothing will affect the status of Syrians in Turkey.”