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Turkey Offers Citizenship to Some Syrian Refugees

Some in Country Strongly Opposed

ISTANBUL — Frictions are bubbling over into violence and hate speech amid government declarations of giving citizenship to a sizeable portion of Turkey’s 2.7 million Syrian refugees.

“The tension is much worse than before, and unfortunately it will go on in that direction,” Professor Murat Erdoğan, director of the Migration and Political Science Research Center at Hacettepe University, told the Media Line.

Soon after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly floated the possibility of naturalization for Syrians in Turkey earlier this month, Twitter hashtags saying “No to Syrians” and “I don’t want Syrians in my country” in Turkish started trending globally.

A week later two men, one Turkish and one Syrian, were killed and three wounded in a street fight between Syrians and Turks in the small central town Beyşehir, allegedly because a Syrian kicked a dog. Four hundred police were soon dispatched and many Syrians left the town after their homes were allegedly stoned and furious locals demanded that they be kicked out.

The next day a group of Turkish protesters in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa chanted “Out with Syrians” after a young man was allegedly attacked with a knife and had his cellphone stolen by a Syrian.

“I don’t feel very welcome. People on the streets, they treat me like, ‘Oh, you’re Syrian,’” Hussam Aldin Salloutah, a 27-year-old refugee living in Istanbul for the past six months, told The Media Line.

“I’m very worried. I keep watching and listening to the news. I’m afraid if they get angry at us [there will be] violence or asking us to leave.”

A survey by Turkish research center Metropoll last March indicated that 83 per cent of Turks oppose granting citizenship to Syrians, and less than 10 per cent are in favor.

Two of the major opposition parties came out against the plan, and many newspapers ran antagonistic headlines about Syrians.

“They are dog whistling to Turkish nationalists who reject out of hand that Arabs can become Turks,” Ryan Gingeras, a professor specializing in Turkey at the Naval Postgraduate School in the United States, told the Media Line.

Many opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) think the citizenship proposal is a ploy to gain more votes, assuming most Syrians will reward the AKP for the generous treatment they’ve received.

Professor Erdoğan predicts that over 80 per cent of Syrians would vote for the AKP and President Erdoğan.

Salloutah agrees.

“We love the AK Party [AKP]. They help us in Syria; they support us and they support the rebels,” he says.

Tarik, a 25-year-old Syrian student in the southern Turkish city Mersin who didn’t want his last name used, says the anti-Syrian sentiment has gotten much worse since President Erdoğan’s announcement.

“[Listening] in public places or talking to my friends, they have so many racist views about Syria,” Tarik, who speaks Turkish, told the Media Line.

Professor Gingeras says there’s a long history of resentment towards Arabs in Turkey.

“There is, probably more than any other ethnic group in Turkey, in some ways even more than Kurds, a profound level of social anxiety and xenophobia towards Arabs,” he said.

“This isn’t a law and order issue. This is a cultural issue for many people.”

Salloutah, stressing his respect for his host country, says that life here is difficult for Syrians, mostly because of low paying jobs and the high cost of living.

Syrians aren’t forbidden from working in Turkey, but fewer than 6,000 have actual work permits, and employers often take advantage of those without permits.

Salloutah, who speaks fluent English and has a university degree in business administration, worked for a while in tourism in Istanbul.

“I was being paid less than Turkish people, even though I worked the same hours and the same job. When I asked why, they told me, ‘You’re Syrian. Of course you’re going to be paid less.’”

He also experienced police harassment.

“When I was talking to tourists, police stopped me ten times a day, and they were like, ‘What are you doing here? Why don’t you work in your country?’”

He earned the equivalent of about $13 per day, more than most Syrian workers here, but he pays over $200 per month for his shared apartment. At his new job at a Turkish Airlines call center, he’ll again be paid less than Turkish colleagues, without health insurance.

He’ll make about $550 per month working 50-hour weeks, which won’t even cover his own expenses, never mind give him enough to send to his family back home in Syria.

Salloutah says Turkish employers don’t want Syrians to gain citizenship, because then they’d have to pay them fair wages and provide health insurance.

“If they offer us citizenship, we’ll gain our rights, so they don’t want that.”

Tarik says most Syrians want to leave Turkey.

“So many people will just try to get a Turkish passport to leave. They want citizenship to be able to travel out of Turkey.”

Salloutah says he and all his Syrian friends want to get out.

“They discovered it’s pointless to stay here,” he says.

Since Erdoğan’s initial announcement Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş has said that not all Syrians will get citizenship, only those who are well-educated and with a clean legal record.

Gingeras says that giving citizenship to a large chunk of Turkey’s nearly three million Syrians would change the country forever, both culturally and politically.

“You’d have to be involved in Syrian affairs because you’d have hundreds of thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods and personal interests reside south of the border. That could totally transform the way Turkey functions.”

Professor Erdoğan says citizenship is a big step considering that Ankara still doesn’t have a proper permanent integration plan, which is desperately needed, and Syrians in Turkey don’t even have official protected refugee status.

“The Turkish government hasn’t made an integration policy because everybody thought they’d go back [to Syria].”

But with no end in sight to the war, and western countries accepting so few Syrians, Professor Erdoğan says most aren’t going anywhere.

“They will stay in Turkey forever I think.”