Cengiz Aktar
Jun 21 2019

Refugees in Turkey, Syrians but also Turkish

World Refugee Day highlights how the issue of refugees has become a constant in Turkey’s news cycle and not for the best. The most striking recent example is the campaign, begun by opposition parties, to keep Syrians off Turkish beaches.

It seems that those who have been criticising Syrians, who left their country because they feared for their lives, are also targeting Turks who are trying to leave their country for similar reasons. Their message seems to be: Syrians shouldn’t come, and Turks shouldn’t leave! 

A more careful examination reveals that this land has been accepting and giving up migrants for centuries. And these migrations have not been entirely external. Internal migrations in Turkey have left very few people living in their regions of origin. Following the decades-long demise of agriculture in Turkey, the country has become a community of migrants. A community without roots, memory, or a history, and just a vulgar, disrespectful and aloof group of people living a transactional existence in the place they were forced to end up, who use and abuse their surroundings.

The debate that has peaked over the status of Syrians unfortunately applies to all who have settled in a new place. Indeed, one of the primary functions of organisations that support refugees is to safeguard areas where refugees live. And it is not an easy task.

The justifications for the animosity shown towards Syrians are also valid for those Turks who have been forced to migrate within Turkey. Those responsible for the destruction of the environment and urban civilisation are people forced to migrate within Turkey long before the Syrians arrived. And today they are the ones lecturing Syrians. 

Regardless of identity and origin, migrants and refugees live with a bleak fate. The status of being a migrant or refugee directly correlates with a country’s human rights record and ability to guarantee the rights of its citizens. No living being migrates for fun.

There is always a social, political, and/or economic reason that forces people to leave the place of their birth. A refugee is someone who, in a legal sense, has lost the protection of the state. His or her life and property are at risk. In places where refugees seek shelter, no one wants to come near them as everyone assumes that they, rather than their government, are at fault for their situation. They are treated like lepers.

Refugees suffer from a lack of proper protection legislation, and are thus vulnerable to different forms of exploitation. Financial and physical exploitation occurs in every place where refugees manage to reach in their quest for safety. The annual revenue of refugee trafficking, from which many entities small and large profit, reaches into the billions of dollars. The problem is that transit and asylum countries often lack effective asylum and migration legislation in order to prevent exploitation.

On the other hand, the vulnerability of refugees and migrants necessarily turns them into easy targets of hate in their host societies. A segment of Turkey’s opposition, which is fed up with the totalitarian regime but feels powerless to replace it, has been directing its negative energy toward Syrians in order to relieve pent up frustration.

On this issue, it helps to examine the state of having lost the protection of one’s own government through the lens of Turkey’s recent past.

The unprecedented violations of the rule of law, which began in 2013 and peaked with the auto-coup of July 2016, have resulted in millions of citizens (including the families of victims) losing the guarantee of life and property the Turkish government is supposed to provide.

As a result, all of the victims of executive orders, which fired them from the state bureaucracy, academia, the judiciary, and the military and sentenced them to a “civil death”, fit the definition of a refugee. Put a different way, these citizens are refugees in their own country. 

Different from the category of Internally Displaced Persons that generally encompasses the Kurdish citizens, these new refugees do not have any rights that are monitored by the state - other than the right to be tortured, and suffer civil and even physical death.

After having their expectations of justice disappointed every day, what is this mass of people to do if not flee abroad? In spite of media campaigns that try to shame people that are considering leaving, it is obvious that they have reached the situation of refugees, who need the protection of another government or international law under the Refugee Convention.  

Let us turn to non-Muslims, who once upon a time wanted to stay in their homeland. Turkey’s non-Muslim citizens always tried to find ways to stay despite deportations and massacres. A certain segment of those forced to leave in the aftermath of massacres preferred to forget what had happened and return. It never worked. Despite how much they wanted to come back, neither their return nor their reunification with their lands was ever accepted. No one told them to stay, and no one told them to come back.

These ample insults, hurled today at those left with no option but to leave, have a shameful history in these lands. On the occasion of World Refugee Day, let us remember this history.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.