Refugees and a post-Erdogan Turkey: Not a bright future
Akram Bathiesh is from Damascus, Syria. He made it to Denmark in search of a safe and predictable life after the war in his home country. He has most probably been through a dangerous and long journey at the end of which he managed to reach Denmark. Unlike thousands of other Syrians who either drown in the Mediterranean or die on the way to “fortress Europe,” Akram was successful. Back in 2021, the Danish government decided to send the Syrians back, having judged that Syria was a safe country. The Danish bureaucracy acted accordingly and withdrew Akram’s residency permit and asylum status. He was given one month to leave Denmark. Akram’s heart could not bear this shock and stopped beating. He had survived Asad’s regime and the war. He had survived a long and dangerous journey to Europe. He had survived the never-predictable asylum processes in Denmark. But he could not survive the fact that he was to be sent back to Syria, where it is still not safe to live. The Danish government simply decided to withdraw his status, and the withdrawal decision killed Akram. Will the Danish government take responsibility for his death? I doubt it…
As the elections in Turkey approach, it is time to talk about a post-Erdogan Turkey in the context of refugees. What will happen to the more than four million refugees, mostly from Syria, when Erdogan, optimistically speaking, is finally gone? Some hints of the post-Erdogan refugee policies of Turkey can be found in the election declaration of the main opposition front and the video released by their leader about refugees. The Agreement Protocol of the Nation Alliance, which is the main opposition bloc, has chapter focusing on “Migration and Asylum Policies.” For the knowledgeable reader, even the headline itself is telling since it does not directly mention refugees. This is because the Syrians, and all others coming from the East of Turkey, are not granted refugee status. They are left in limbo under a status called “temporary asylum” and thus never be able to access their rights as refugees recognized by the International Convention of Refugees, signed by Turkey in 1951. So, to begin with, the opposition does not have a vision to provide refugee status to those who are residing in Turkey, for more than 10 years now for some, including many who have been born in Turkey. Thus, there is no vision for them to become citizens and so they will always be neglected by the policymakers as non-constituents.
The main opposition’s agreement protocol’s chapter on “Migration and Asylum” would easily be called a racist document in any European country. The whole chapter can be summarized in one sentence: “Sending them back in two years.” That is, the post-Erdogan regime is simply aiming to send Syrians and other refugees back by adding “after we establish peace in their countries of origin.” What is missing in the whole document is how they will establish peace in Syria. As the popular demand dictates, the so-called policy is focused on sending back and thus legitimizing the daily racism refugees are facing in Turkey. Unfortunately, the opposition in which we all have high hopes to change the country has a migration policy that does not go further than what is a mediocre and racist policy by the standards of any other European country.
The Agreement Protocol is also in line with the European standards for border security. The chapter on migration underlines the reinforcement of electro-optic towers, lightning systems, night vision cameras, drones, and if necessary, walls. This part of the document would probably excite some European policymakers such as von der Leyen, Mitsotakis, and Rutte. The protocol also discusses the livelihoods of refugees, stating that “uncontrolled densification and formation of ghettos will not be allowed” and limiting the time refugees’ time spend in cities other than in which they are registered, which is also a common practice in many European countries.
There are fortunately positive policy proposals such as in education and employment. The protocol recognizes the exploitation of Syrians in employment and mentions punishments for those employing Syrians without registration. However, those minor issues do not much change the tone of the protocol, which is openly anti-migration and anti-migrant. Turkey is a new player in the area of migration and is probably willing to catch up with its European peers with these new policies.
Unfortunately, policies related to specific groups are not prepared in collaboration with members of the group, if not representatives. We have experienced a drastic shift in gender-related policies in Turkey in the last 20 years. Women are now mentioned as the pioneering force of change in the country. The Istanbul Convention became part of election campaigns as well as the law on violence against women. Kurdish parties and politicians played a special role in the improvement of women's participation in politics. The main opposition party also had members of parliament from different minority groups such as Roma and Jewish representatives. The HDP, the main pro-Kurdish party, had MPs from many minorities including the Armenian community. It is therefore not a novelty for politicians in Turkey to include traditionally excluded groups. However, it would be unthinkable to have a candidate with a Syrian refugee background during the elections, let alone provide positions in the migration-related bureaucracy. While we take pride in members of parliaments, ministers, and mayors with Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds in European countries, we cannot even conceive of a Syrian refugee in Turkey becoming a candidate in the elections. If we do not struggle altogether not only for citizens but also for non-citizens, what is the rush to change Erdogan’s regime?
Unfortunately, it seems as though the political elite from the right and the left are keen on “sending them back” with or without “establishing peace” but definitely without including refugees’ perspective in the policymaking. We have heard time again the motto “nothing about us without us,” yet in Turkey we still cannot call Syrians escaping war refugees, let alone democratize our policymaking for them.
When even the official documents are so recklessly racist, it is a reflection of the daily reality for Syrians trying to live in Turkey for more than 10 years now. A former minister of culture from the main opposition party, the CHP, tweeted about Syrians and called their presence “an invasion, not migration.” A racist mayor tried to tax Syrians at ten times the regular rate for their water consumption. There were no consequences to this behavior. A restaurant owned by a Somali refugee in Istanbul was stoned due to the colors on its sign. It was not the lynching crowd but the Somali refugee who was taken under custody. In other terrifying cases, Syrians were burnt alive in their workplaces, and no one was punished. Syrian children at schools are discriminated against, or they die while they are exploited by Turkish employers.
Despite all this, the prospective government, which claims it will initiate the second century of the republic, is willing to “send them back voluntarily.” It is difficult to understand how they expect such a policy to be carried out. Do they expect the more than 4 million Syrians to take a bus and leave the country?
It is not difficult to foresee what will happen. This policy will traumatize millions of people who escaped war and lived under normalized racism in Turkey for almost a decade without any rights. As Sirri Sureyya Onder said, “Let’s close the gates of hell first.” It is then obvious that those of us who suffered under the oppression of Erdogan and his gang will do our best to change this inhumane policy of the newly elected government. We will not cease to ask for justice, the rule of law, equality, and accessible rights for everyone, including non-citizens. Have we not all suffered enough from polarization, discrimination, the lack of rule of law, inequality, and a lack of democracy? Is now not the time for the establishment of a government for all?
It is still not too late to turn back from the brink of a grave humanitarian crisis. We will either miss this opportunity to form a new Turkey, one which has learnt from its mistakes, or we will simply repeat actions of the past and cause people to suffer again. If we do not raise our voices as one, we will all have a share in traumatizing millions and causing the death of thousands like Akram. Will you then feel responsible at all?