A rising tide of anti-Syrian xenophobia is sweeping through Turkey's cities

Stoked and exploited by politicians, this sentiment has grave implications for some of the world’s most vulnerable people

The rumours spread like wildfire, fanned by social media. In June, a Turkish crowd burned down Syrian storefronts in Istanbul's Kucukcekmece district, following an apparent fake news incident in which a local woman was said to have been harassed by Syrian refugees.

In July, after the secular opposition – which is friendlier towards the Assad regime than President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – won the Istanbul mayoral elections, viral hashtags on social media demanded that "Syrians get out".

For the most generous of Syria’s neighbours in terms of hosting refugees, patience is wearing thin – the result of politicians fuelling and exploiting flames of communal hatred and an economic downturn that has hit ordinary Turks hard.

Turkey hosts the highest total number of refugees in the world. Very few experience the kind of destitution seen in Lebanon, where most refugees are forced to live in crowded tent settlements that flood every winter. Nevertheless, anti-Syrian xenophobia is growing. This sentiment is more dangerous than the kind of prejudice seen in the West, because its aim is the forced return of dispossessed civilians to a barbaric regime.

The idea of sending refugees back home emerged as a mainstream political position in Turkey in 2018, as a pillar of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem Ince’s general election campaign. Mr Ince, a dynamic figure whose rallies drew thousands of people fed up with Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian rule, ultimately lost the election. But one of his key pledges was to re-establish relations with Damascus within 100 days and begin the process of sending refugees back home. This went largely unnoticed in western election coverage, which instead focused on Mr Erdogan’s steady assault on democratic values.

Mr Erdogan was returned to the presidency, but the AKP underperformed at the polls. One possible explanation was that the party was not in tune with ordinary voters on the refugee issue. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Turks, regardless of affiliation, are unhappy about the presence of refugees.

The AKP belatedly picked up on the electoral potential of anti-refugee sentiment, with the party’s mayoral candidate in the recent Istanbul elections vowing to send home Syrians who cause trouble. The inappropriately named ultra-nationalist Good Party set up posters in Fatih, a district in Istanbul with a large Syrian presence, declaring that the area would not be surrendered to refugees.

There is a widespread sense in Turkey that the war in Syria is drawing to a close and many people believe that there are ample safe places for refugees to return to. The fighting in the country is now concentrated in Idlib, which borders Turkey and is the last province to remain under rebel control. The Assad regime is generally assumed to have won the war militarily. Moreover, Ankara has established a sphere of influence in northern Syria, and areas that have been conquered by militias paid for by, and loyal to, Turkey, are functioning in a relatively stable fashion.

However, the truth is that none of these areas are safe. In April, the Assad regime launched the initial salvo of a campaign to reclaim Idlib. More than three million people – many already displaced – live in Idlib. As the fighting draws nearer, large numbers are moving closer to the border and into areas controlled by the Turkish-backed militias.

In the past two years, almost 2,000 Syrians who returned home have been detained, according to estimates by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Returnees are also frequently forced join the Syrian military.

Meanwhile, high inflation and unemployment have created serious tensions in Turkish cities. A report in early 2018 by the International Crisis Group found a rapid increase in intercommunal violence, particularly in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara. It attributed the trend to competition for low-wage jobs between Syrians and Turks. Now, this problem is only getting worse. There are no easy answers. Steps that would integrate Syrians better into Turkey’s economy are political suicide.

There are only two possible solutions. The first is for Europe, other western powers and Arab nations that do not border Syria to shoulder their responsibility for refugee resettlement. It is unconscionable that Turkey hosts four million Syrian refugees and tiny Lebanon a million, while the UK has taken in fewer than 14,000.

Second, Turkey needs to be honest about its strategic objectives in Syria, and push for an inclusive peace settlement that creates genuinely safe conditions for refugees to return to. While Turkish politicians are happy to demonise Syrians at home, they are perfectly happy for Syrians to fight their battles across the border. Syrian rebel fighters have been leading the charge on the ground to oust Kurdish paramilitary forces from the regions abutting the Turkish border. These campaigns have created a de facto partitioned country with no meaningful pathway to peace even being considered.

Kareem Shaheen

Kareem Shaheen

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada