ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — Cengiz, a street seller who plies his trade selling bread rings in the center of Istanbul, is usually a fervent supporter of Turkey’s newly-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But on one issue, he begs to differ.
“I support Erdogan. But I must say he made one error and that’s to allow the Syrians into our country,” he said.
Erdogan has maintained an “open door” policy for all those fleeing Syria’s civil war, with the result that there are now some 1.2 million Syrian refugees living in the country.
Some 285,000 Syrians are accommodated in refugee camps in the south and southeast of the country but a far greater number of 912,000, according to official figures, are now living in Turkish cities.
It is these refugees who have become the source of an upsurge in tensions in Turkey, where local authorities appear to have been initially poorly prepared for the huge influx.
The refugees have become an increasingly visible presence in cities including Istanbul, with entire families huddled together on carpets and begging in the middle of the pavement in the city center.
Violent protests against their presence have already taken place in Istanbul and in the southeast but there is little chance of the refugees leaving Turkey in the near future, with no end to the civil war in sight.
“The government wanted to invite them, fine. But it had to keep them under control,” said Cengiz, who competes against newly-arrived Syrians selling bread rings in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
‘Discrimination and xenophobia’
Syrian refugee Sira Mohammed arrived in Istanbul three years ago, alone, aged just 14. “Today, my family is here. We are five in a small apartment. We are working but we don’t manage to pay the rent.”
Turkey does not call the arrivals “refugees” in official parlance and they do not enjoy refugee status. Instead they are known as “guests” and the refugee camps as “tented cities.”
Recent violence saw hundreds of people protest on the night of August 24-25 in the Istanbul suburb of Ikitelli, smashing windows of shops owned by Syrians. Police moved in with tear gas and water cannon to break up the demonstration.
The southern city of Gaziantep, home to one of the biggest concentrations of Syrian refugees, saw several nights of violent protests in August against their presence that left several wounded.
The authorities’ response to defuse tensions was to move several thousand Syrian refugees living in Gaziantep city to refugee camps outside.
For the government, there is no question of changing the open door policy and it is increasingly clear that the refugees are here to stay.
It has already spent some $3.5 billion on looking after the refugees but calls for greater help on the part of the international community have so far fallen on deaf ears.
In a sign of the government’s concern, senior ruling party official Besir Atalay this week admitted that Turkey had to mobilize better to fight “xenophobia and discrimination” against the refugees.
‘Could take years’
Activists complain that for all its hospitality, the government has failed to put in place any long-term strategy to deal with the refugees.
“The arrival of the Syrian refugees has unbalanced society in the cities,” said Volkan Gorendag, the coordinator of the Syrian refugee issue for Amnesty International Turkey.
“But this is not the fault of the local inhabitants or the Syrian refugees. It’s the fault of political officials who did not establish an efficient immigration policy.”
Gorendag added the Syrians should be given a proper status that makes clear their rights and obligations, warning that Turkey was dealing with a long term issue.
“The refugees are not going to return home before the Syrian civil war ends. This could take years. It’s a very long period for Turkey.”
“Turkey needs to learn how to live with these refugees,” he said
On top of this, Turkey is also dealing with a new influx of refugees as thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority cross its borders fleeing the atrocities of jihadist group Islamic State.
With parts of northern Iraq still safe, Turkey is seeking to combat the issue by building refugee camps inside Iraq itself.
But meanwhile, the Syrian refugees in Turkey are not going anywhere and their everyday human suffering continues.
“We left everything behind us to escape this war,” said Syrian refugee Talal, 27. “The situation is not pleasant for us either, our life was better there.”