How Turkey’s Opposition Demonizes Refugees

July 25, 2022

According to the CHP leader, every segment of society, “shopkeepers, farmers, laborers, unemployed, disabled, interns, and others” are deprived of the government's support compared to Syrian immigrants.
Leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks during his party's group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Turkiye on April 12, 2022. Photo by Binnur Ege Gürün Koçak, Anadolu Images

They are all “terrorists” to Victor Orbán, Hungarian prime minister. In the words of Czech President Miloš Zeman, “They do not deserve the slightest pity for embarking their children on rubber boats knowing they could drown.” According to French politician Eric Zemmour, they are “thieves, murderers, rapists.” “What would have happened if Aylan Kurdi and the likes had lived and grown?” asks the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, infamous for its black humor, depicting Aylan Kurdi, whose little body tragically washed ashore at the age of 3, in a cartoon harassing a woman in Germany by touching her buttocks! As the French anthropologist Michel Agier, who is known for his works and books on immigrants, says, the enemies of immigrants envision two worlds: one world is clean, healthy, and visible, and the other is the dirty, murky, sickening, and invisible world of “The Leftovers.”

Muslim minorities and immigrants, who are the target of all kinds of demonization propaganda by far-right and racist parties across the world and especially in Europe, have been the target of Turkey’s main opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and his party members since 2012. However, there are two differences from their European counterparts—the second being utterly ironic. First, CHP is a left-wing party and a member of the Socialist International. And second, even though CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu uses similar expressions as Orbán and Marine Le Pen regarding refugees, he refers to them as “my brothers”!

For example, in response to the possibility of the migration of approximately 1 million Syrians gathered in Idlib in 2021, fleeing the attacks of the Syrian regime advancing with the support of Russia, he stated, “All of my brothers from Idlib are bloody people, they are members of the terrorist organization,” i.e., [ISIS/Daesh]. He has sworn on oath and repeated it over and over to this day: “Be assured, these Syrian brothers, I swear by God, they will be a scourge on the nation. The most important actors of the underworld will emerge from among these people.” Implying that some of them are terrorists, he claims, “We do not know who is a terrorist and who is innocent. You see, in many places, attacks have already started”—this, without bothering himself to explain who, where, when, and how.

Perhaps Kılıçdaroğlu was inspired by the famous Great Replacement conspiracy theory of Renaud Camus, the muse of the French far right, or maybe the mental reflexes of immigrants’ enemies have always worked in the same way. Even though there is nowhere in Turkey where the number of Syrians is higher than the settled population and the total number of Syrians granted citizenship does not exceed 300,000, Turkey’s left-wing main opposition party leader claims “Turkey’s DNAs are being clearly altered” and “If there is an election, our Syrian brothers will win the mayorships. There are Syrians in all 81 provinces. In some of our provinces, the Syrian population is more than the local people.”

Furthermore, Kılıçdaroğlu argues, “Syrians have all kinds of privileges” and unlike Turks, “They do not wait in line at hospitals and doctors examine them first. They enroll at universities without taking the nationwide exam. Their tradesmen and businessmen do not pay taxes and are not subject to any control whatsoever.” According to the CHP leader, every segment of society, “shopkeepers, farmers, laborers, unemployed, disabled, interns, and others” are deprived of the government’s support compared to Syrian immigrants.

“The government gives Syrians the money it should give Turkish people,” he often repeats. “Oh well, never mind, our children can stay poor, unemployed! Syrians are first class, our citizens are second.” Unsatisfied with provoking people based on class lines, he sometimes calls separate ethnic and religious groups to revolt: “You [addressing President Erdoğan] don’t take care about me as much as you take care about Syrians. They are first class citizens. I [Eastern Romans] have been here since Mehmet the Conqueror and I am still a third-class citizen. You shall revolt, you will say we do not accept it.”

Meanwhile a group of CHP deputies and party members sabotaged the construction of a refugee camp, which was planned to be opened in Sivricehöyük in Maraş, on the grounds that the Alevi population there was dense and called the people to protest. Kılıçdaroğlu said, “We, the people of Sivricehöyük, want to comfortably live in our village. We don’t have a problem, but they [the government] open the door of trouble before us.”

There is a formula that Kılıçdaroğlu frequently resorts to in response to Turkey’s struggle against Daesh and the YPG in Syria: “My young handsome children will be martyred in Syria, while their youth will swim on our beaches, will show off, have fun, and stroll around freely.” Sometimes, like all far-right and racist politicians, he claims, “When you fling these up in their faces, they claim, ‘Oh, this is racism.’ No! I just protect the rights of my own people.”

On the other hand, the “Arab” as a discursive category has been an enemy of the CHP ideology for a long time, and there are innumerable kinds of Orientalist discourses used by the party notables who treat Islam as “Arabization.” The CHP leader is not only against the Syrian refugees who fled the civil war and took refuge in Turkey, but he is also against investors from the Arab world. For example, he rebuked the Qatari investments in Turkey, saying, “The millennial state has been Qatarized.” Another time, referring to the government, he tweeted in Arabic while hurling thinly veiled threats, “Are we going to give their Qatari or Saudi Arabian accomplices a respite? Do they think they can be comfortable here?”

If the party leader himself vilifies refugees and incites people against them, imagine, how far the members of his party can go. According to Fikri Sağlar, a former CHP minister, “Syrians carry HIV/AIDS to the country.” Refugees should never “set foot in İzmir, the bright face of our country” according to Özlem Ağırman, an MP for İzmir. “A refugee camp to be opened is a dagger lowered into the heart of İzmir,” claims Aytun Çıray, another CHP MP for İzmir. According to former CHP deputy İlhan Cihaner, “The people of Hatay should never rent out their houses to refugees” and should even “react to and stop greeting whoever greets them.”

While Hayri Türkyılmaz, CHP mayor of Bursa’s Mudanya district, imposed a “coast ban” on refugees, whom he said “live the life of Riley,” Tanju Özcan, CHP mayor of Bolu, said, “We don’t want to see Syrians in Bolu.” Özcan surpassed Zemmour’s far-right statements, giving direct instructions: “Syrians should not be given business licenses anymore.” In the first week he took office, Özcan proudly cut off the food and cash aid to refugees. In Hatay, the CHP municipality removed the signboards with Arabic inscriptions in neighborhoods with a high density of Syrian refugees on the grounds that they created “visual pollution.”

Has the Republican People’s Party not developed any positive discourse or action regarding refugees? It has. Two reports were prepared within the party, expressing the hardships faced by refugees. CHP Deputy Chairman and Istanbul Deputy Gamze Akkuş İlgezdi met face-to-face with Syrian refugees living in İstanbul in 2021 and prepared a report entitled “Syrian Asylum Seekers in İstanbul, Their Tendency to Return and Expectations.” In the report, İlgezdi wrote, “When criticizing the government, we must be careful not to instrumentalize refugees and not to make them the target of racist reactions.” There are findings in the report revealing, albeit indirectly, the view of CHP and its supporters towards refugees: “Syrians generally prefer districts where AKP members primarily live.”

There are other critical determinations in the report such as “it would not be wrong to say that Turkmens, who have less difficulties of integration due to language and are more easily accepted by Turks thanks to their ethnic origins, protect their Arab and Kurdish neighbors” or “asylum-seekers of Kurdish origin, who prefer to come to Turkey instead of Rojava, see solidarity from Arabs and Turkmens, not from the Kurds of Turkey.” In addition, a group of CHP deputies prepared a report entitled “Between Borders: From the Human Drama to the Test of Humanity” in 2016. The report is generally positive, although it has been criticized for some gaps and exaggerations, or for handling the issue from a security perspective rather than a humanitarian one.

However, neither report had any effect on the party leader, the discourse of the party members, and the party’s anti-immigrant policies. In fact, while both reports talked about the need not to target refugees, they did not discuss who and by which politicians refugees were targeted and demonized! Ercüment Akdeniz, a staff writer for the left-wing newspaper Evrensel with the most ethical and principled language of journalism on the subject of “refugees” in the Turkish press from the beginning, asks in one of his columns, “Which CHP should we believe in?” pointing to the contrasts between the statements of the CHP leader and the reports.

The left-liberal Bianet newspaper, on the other hand, criticized the opposition parties in the article “Anti-refugee: Immorality of the Opposition for the Sake of Opposition.” Bianet’s criticism was based on the grounds that Turkey’s opposition parties adopt the rhetoric of far-right parties in Europe about immigrants, foreigners, Muslims, and Turks. In the same vein, it condemned the anti-refugee publications of the newspaper Sözcü, the CHP’s mouthpiece, and asked, “What is the difference between those who set the houses of Turks on fire and the opposition newspaper Sözcü, which targeted the neighborhood where Somali immigrants settled in Ankara?”

Kılıçdaroğlu, who has not criticized Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad even once, has promised to deport refugees if he wins the 2023 elections. Similar to his brilliantly original expression of “my bloody terrorist brothers from Idlib,” the CHP leader awkwardly said, “We will deport them to Syria with drums and horns.” Meral Akşener, the leader of İyi Party, the second strongest political party in the People’s Alliance, like the German far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), stated, “We will talk to Assad and send them back.”

There is yet another political figure, Ümit Özdağ, who resigned from İyi Party a year ago and founded a new party, the Victory Party, focusing all his political discourse on refugees. Unlike Kılıçdaroğlu, he openly targets refugees on social media with his fictional video films accusing them of “perversion” and “harassing Turkish girls and women.”

In the 21st-century world where refugees are treated as garbage, since 2012, Turkey has been the most gracious country, hosting nearly 4 million Syrian refugees, most of whom are children (about 2 million) and women. The state tradition that has turned Anatolia into a home for asylum seekers throughout history continues under the leadership of President Erdoğan.

Despite the fact that lately the language of the opposition has become effective in Turkey, and we are witnessing rising anti-immigrant sentiments, Erdoğan still asks, “Did the Syrians come to Turkey for their own pleasure? Didn’t the fear of death there lead them to seek asylum and migrate to Turkey?” He adds, “We have never expelled them from these lands, nor will we expel them… Our door is open to refugees, [and] we will continue to host them.”

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Kılıçkaya worked as a journalist for Cumhuriyet and Milliyet newspapers. In 1992 she moved to Paris and completed her studies in International Relations. After returning to Turkey in 2009, Kılıçkaya started working for Habertürk. In 2016, she formed a three-part documentary on DAESH.

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