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Turkey’s Refugee Problem Is Reaching a Breaking Point

Turkey’s population is exhausted, and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will only make anti-refugee sentiment more central to the country’s politics.

By , a doctoral student in political science at Brown University.
Afghan migrants wait for transport.
Afghan migrants wait for transport by smugglers after crossing the Iranian-Turkish border in Tatvan, Turkey, on Aug. 15. OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

Early last month, a two-day revolt broke out less than a 15-minute drive from the Turkish Parliament. Angry mobs ransacked businesses and set houses on fire after a local youngster was stabbed to death during a brawl with a group of Syrian refugees. When BBC Turkey visited the neighborhood, called Altindag—a stronghold of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party—residents fumed about foreign-owned businesses evading taxes, locals being pushed out of their homes and stores, ethnic gangs running protection rackets, and state authorities refusing to enforce the law.

Public outrage grew further when a couple of days later six nationalist activists, self-described “Angry Young Turks,” were arrested on terrorism charges for putting up banners reading “The Border Is Our Honor”—a slogan the Turkish military prominently displays at its outposts. Two opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party and the Good Party, responded to the activists’ arrests by hanging similar banners on their buildings across the nation.

The move was almost universally popular: Polling has shown that over half of Erdogan’s own voters, about two-thirds of his nationalist allies, and more than ninety percent of opposition voters agreed with the banners. In an interview, I asked one of the six activists for a single-line description of what angers him and his colleagues. He replied with a verse from Necip Fazil Kisakurek, Erdogan’s favorite poet: “We became strangers in our own homes, pariahs in our own land.”

Early last month, a two-day revolt broke out less than a 15-minute drive from the Turkish Parliament. Angry mobs ransacked businesses and set houses on fire after a local youngster was stabbed to death during a brawl with a group of Syrian refugees. When BBC Turkey visited the neighborhood, called Altindag—a stronghold of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party—residents fumed about foreign-owned businesses evading taxes, locals being pushed out of their homes and stores, ethnic gangs running protection rackets, and state authorities refusing to enforce the law.

Public outrage grew further when a couple of days later six nationalist activists, self-described “Angry Young Turks,” were arrested on terrorism charges for putting up banners reading “The Border Is Our Honor”—a slogan the Turkish military prominently displays at its outposts. Two opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party and the Good Party, responded to the activists’ arrests by hanging similar banners on their buildings across the nation.

The move was almost universally popular: Polling has shown that over half of Erdogan’s own voters, about two-thirds of his nationalist allies, and more than ninety percent of opposition voters agreed with the banners. In an interview, I asked one of the six activists for a single-line description of what angers him and his colleagues. He replied with a verse from Necip Fazil Kisakurek, Erdogan’s favorite poet: “We became strangers in our own homes, pariahs in our own land.”
A hard-line, anti-refugee populist is setting up his own party in a bid to become Turkey’s version of Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

Turkish resentment that millions of refugees are not returning home is longstanding. Now it’s further compounded by the keen interest of foreign governments to use the country as a base to handle a surge of Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban. A hard-line, anti-refugee populist is setting up his own party in a bid to become Turkey’s version of Italy’s Matteo Salvini, the far-right leader who seized on a similar opportunity to become his country’s kingmaker.

The established opposition, meanwhile, is being pressed by its voters to be more combative. Rising stars like Istanbul’s Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara’s Mansur Yavas face a barrage of criticism because they are not regarded as tough enough. Even Erdogan is backpedaling: He once proudly boasted that Turkey stood ready to host needy refugees when no one else would; now he grumbles that Turkey cannot become the world’s “refugee warehouse.”


It did not require an oracle to predict that Turkey’s refugee problem would provoke an angry backlash—I warned of it in these pages two years ago. Turkey accepted more refugees than it could absorb and hosted them for longer than it could afford. It had neither a plan nor the capacity to successfully integrate millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Somalis, and others. For Turkey to absorb more than five million foreigners who are culturally, ethnically, and linguistically dissimilar to its own population borders on the impossible.

Ankara has never had an honest reckoning with the challenges it faces. Instead of developing innovative and lasting solutions to its newfound challenges, Ankara resorted to sugarcoating hastily designed policies with platitudes about a moral duty to oppose Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a shared faith in Islam, and an imminent threat from the Kurds. Yet Ankara knew full well how unpopular this whole enterprise was—as did European countries counting on Turkey to be a first defense against what might become their refugee burden.

Instead of developing innovative and lasting solutions to its newfound challenges, Ankara resorted to sugarcoating hastily designed policies with platitudes.

Public opinion surveys have foretold this crisis for more than half a decade. A recent survey found that three-quarters of respondents supported closing Turkey’s borders and deporting undocumented foreign nationals. According to the same poll, more than 70 percent would vote for the party that promises the toughest action.

Another study, funded by the German Green Party’s Heinrich Böll Foundation, found that about 65 percent of the public considers the refugees an “economic burden” and believes they are receiving “favorable treatment.” An earlier study by Istanbul Bilgi University’s Center for Migration Research found that this is a nonpartisan trend: More than half of those voting for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, arguably the country’s most left-wing party on social issues, and about 65 percent of supporters of Erdogan’s conservative AKP share the same sentiment.

This is not to say that Turkey is blameless for its grossly irresponsible adventures in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. In a break from Turkey’s traditional strategy of avoiding Middle East entanglements unless necessary, Erdogan and his foreign policy A-team, including former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and chief foreign policy advisor Ibrahim Kalin, were convinced that Ankara ought to reclaim its position of power in the region. They had an unfounded belief that millions of former subjects of the Ottoman Empire would welcome a new expansion of Turkish influence, which inevitably led them to false optimism about Assad’s impending ouster, as well as misplaced confidence in their ability to shape what might come after.

It is inexcusable to let vulnerable civilians displaced from their homeland bear the burden of misadventures they didn’t choose and ambitions achieved at their expense. It is also equally important, however, to appreciate the extent of Turkey’s sacrifice so far. After the Taliban reconquered Afghanistan, the prime minister of Estonia, a country of 1.3 million, announced the country would accept 10 Afghan refugees, later tripling the number to 30 after public ridicule. In contrast, Istanbul hosts about a million refugees from Syria alone, with the total number from all countries believed to exceed Estonia’s entire population.

Turkey’s Kilis province, one of the country’s least populous regions with 141,000 people, is home to 105,000 Syrian refugees—almost as many as Italy, which has a population of 60 million, has accepted. All the while a European Union flotilla is chasing away refugee dinghies in the Mediterranean, and Greece is building a border wall that would make Donald Trump envious. There could not be a starker contrast between what Europe says and what it does.


The refugee influx is part of a larger problem. Turkey is undergoing a demographic transformation that is economically disadvantaging its own citizens. Many refugees are employed, often informally, as low-paid manual workers at hazelnut farms, garment factories, and other labor-intensive businesses. To further refugees’ economic integration, Turkey has also initiated numerous EU- or United Nations-funded schemes, lining the pockets of the Anatolian countryside’s pro-Erdogan industrialists, but adding to the sense of injustice felt by the Turkish underclasses—mostly religious conservatives or ethnic Kurds—whose jobs and wages are under threat.

Middle-class Turks are similarly squeezed. To tackle the real estate bubble from Erdogan’s construction bonanza, Turkey in 2016 began a citizenship-by-investment program through which anyone who invests a minimum of $250,000 in Turkish real estate can get a Turkish passport. Foreseeably, the program is popular among middle-class Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, Libyans, Pakistanis, and others to whom it offers personal security, economic opportunities, and international mobility on the cheap.

Although the exact figures are undisclosed, the number of passports granted under this program is believed to be in the millions. Consequently, real estate prices have risen so steeply in popular markets like downtown Istanbul and the Aegean coast—where opposition parties are strong—that most locals can no longer afford rentals, let alone own property. While locals are hurt by the lira’s recent tumble, Turkish stores, eateries, and even taxis are eager to welcome foreigners paying in dollars or euros instead of their local clientele. The result is a general sense of alienation that finds a convenient scapegoat in the refugees.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Turkey’s anti-refugee surge results neither from prejudice nor from hatred. It is the result of exhaustion.

Opposition-leaning secularists and nationalists have two additional fears. First, they worry that Erdogan might exploit his open-door policy to reengineer the electorate and make himself virtually undefeatable. For years, Erdogan has been discussing a pathway to citizenship for more than five million refugees, ostensibly to lift them out of the informal economy. Five million new voters presumably thankful for citizenship and thus inclined to support him would also be a boon for Erdogan’s political fortunes. His opponents, who believe they’re finally within striking distance of beating him at the polls, are concerned this is how he will save himself if he senses defeat. With a powerless parliament and packed courts, there would be little hope of stopping him.

Secondly, there is a genuine fear of jihadist networks organizing underground and dragging the country into chaos—targeting in particular the secular opposition, including Turkey’s Shiite minority. Turkey has been struggling with Islamic extremism since before 9/11. It has already been the target of more than a dozen high-profile attacks by al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Moreover, a significant number of Turkish citizens have left to live in Islamic State-held territory, with estimates ranging from 5,000-9,000, and local journalists are warning that they are reorganizing inside the country.

Yet very little is being done by the country’s leaders or its foreign partners to assuage such fears. Those expressing them are dismissed as dupes and deplorables; their voices get drowned out by idealists giving abstract lectures about moral duties (from which the rest of the world appears exempted), pessimists suggesting nothing can be done to reverse the tide, and opportunists on both left and right fantasizing about millions of refugees bringing about a working-class revolution or an Islamic revival—whichever is their preferred delusion.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Turkey’s anti-refugee surge results neither from prejudice nor from hatred. It is the result of exhaustion, experienced by ordinary Turks who perhaps have done more than anyone for refugees—while many did nothing at all—and can’t keep it up.

Fooled by their leaders, told off by intellectuals, and taken advantage of by European neighbors, these people have had enough. Erdogan and his advisors should pay heed: Absorbing a population the size of a foreign country, finding a way to pay for it, and doing so regardless of whether your people consent is something no leader can be lucky, skillful, or cunning enough to pull off.

The international community also must wake up from the dream that Turkey’s millions of refugees can stay here forever. Quid pro quo deals with Erdogan won’t cut it anymore. Absent a firm and lasting peace in Syria and Iraq that would allow the millions displaced to return home, which is not on the horizon, no viable option appears other than facilitating repatriations to the Turkish-controlled territories in Northern Syria, a strategy that Europe has vigorously opposed thus far.

Many of the world’s top refugee-hosting countries, from Colombia to Lebanon to Pakistan, are in deep political trouble. The Europeans who fear refugees in their midst—and the politicians thinking they can turn a humanitarian crisis into an opportunity for themselves—ought to worry about what happens if Turkey buckles under the burden placed on its shoulders.

Selim Sazak is a doctoral student in political science at Brown University.

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