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Turkey has taken in 3.5 million refugees from the Syrian conflict. After an often perilous journey, the newcomers must still find a place to live – sometimes in the face of hostility.by Filiz Gazi 16 November 2018
As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.
When Adnan Hacadnan and his family fled Aleppo four years ago and arrived in Turkey, their first challenge was to find accommodation. As refugees, this was not an easy task.
“The first question everyone asked was, ‘Where are you from?’ ” the 48-year-old said, adding that the response was not always friendly. As soon as potential landlords found out his family were Syrians, they refused to rent to them.
“Even if someone agreed to rent us their house, the price was set too high and we couldn’t afford it,” Hacadnan continued. He and his family lived with relatives for a while until they finally found a house in the town of Kumburgaz near Istanbul, where they stayed for two and a half years. Even there, the landlord was highly suspicious of his Syrian tenants, and would come by on a daily basis to check on his property.
Hacadnan has since moved to the Sultanbeyli district of Istanbul, popular with many other Syrian refugees. He said that life was currently easier, although he was still troubled by local attitudes towards his community.
“I am all right now. But Turks sometimes ask us, ‘What are you still doing here? Why don't you go back to Syria?’ But where can we go?”
With 3.5 million Syrian refugees spread over more than 80 of its cities – most living in private rather than state-provided accommodation – Turkey is hosting one of the biggest refugee populations in the world. Istanbul alone hosts about 563,000 Syrian refugees.
Blaming the Victims?
Locals in cities such as Istanbul, Gaziantep, Adana, and Izmir see rents rising as a result of demand and blame this on the newcomers, and the search for affordable housing has become a focus of tensions between the two communities. Although rental prices have stabilized over the past several months, that has not made these tensions disappear.
While many Turkish citizens say they have no problems with the refugees and are happy their country is hosting them, others claim that Syrians are taking their jobs and pushing up rent prices. A survey conducted in 2016 by Kemerburgaz University and the University of Kent in the UK showed that more than 90 percent of Istanbul’s residents believed that Syrian refugees made it harder for Turks to find jobs and affordable rentals.
Sitting in a crowded Sultanbeyli coffee house, 30-year-old Turk Halil Celik complained that Syrians were noisy and argumentative.
“If you try to warn them, then the arguments start; sometimes even fights break out,” he said. “This neighborhood changed when they started coming here three or four years ago. Everybody is disturbed.”
Celik denied that Turkish landlords routinely refused to rent properties to Syrian refugees due to prejudice. He said he himself had rented a house to a Syrian, but “as revenge, because I was angry with my family.
“Elderly people and children are okay, but young people should have stayed in Syria and protected their families. When you hear them quarrel, you would never guess that they escaped from war,” he concluded.
Professor Murat Erdogan heads a migration research center at the Turkish-German University, and is the author of a report on Syrian integration into Turkish society.
He stressed that crime rates in Turkey had not increased with the arrival of the refugees and said claims that Syrians took jobs from Turkish citizens were “unfounded.”
Although it was true that at least a million Syrian refugees now worked in Turkey, he noted that these were mainly in low-paid, manual labor – jobs Turks normally avoid.
“The refugees wouldn’t be able to survive if they didn’t work, but they are employed as low-cost labor and are often exploited,” Erdogan continued. “Turks wouldn’t want to do those jobs for such a small amount of money anyway.”
The situation was not helped by the political atmosphere, he continued, saying that both the ruling and opposition parties had promised the electorate ahead of last summer’s elections that the refugees would be sent home as soon as circumstances allowed.
“That only increased people’s expectations,” he said, adding that the ongoing conflict in Syria meant that a mass return was unlikely to happen any time soon.
Prejudices and Stereotypes
Ziya Ulhak Street in Sultanbeyli has become such a haven for Syrian refugees that shops have signs written in Arabic rather than Turkish. Some have dubbed it Aleppo Street.
Shopping in a store full of Arabic groceries, 18-year-old Bedir Azize explained that he himself came from Aleppo three years ago with his parents and four siblings. Since then, he has come across all the usual stereotypes applied to the incoming refugees. Even his Turkish friends had prejudices, he continued. “They claim that Syrians came here and took jobs from Turkish people.”
Another refugee, Nur Karamuslim, first tried her luck in the ethnically mixed border province of Hatay. After crossing Turkmen Mountain on the western side of the Turkish-Syrian border on foot, the 39-year-old and her four children tried to settle near the border.
“Most of the house owners I approached said, ‘We don’t rent to Syrians,’ ” Karamuslim said, adding that, after a long search, she had finally found a property to rent. “In the area of Hatay where I lived, people loved [Syrian leader] Assad. They would often tell us, ‘Assad did nothing to you, you are liars!’ Finally, we moved to Istanbul because Hatay was not safe enough for my children.”
Sumeye Muarret Misrini, 30, from Aleppo, shared a similar story. After her husband was killed by sniper fire, she fled to Turkey with her mother and siblings. She said it took them two months to find accommodation because most landlords refused to rent their property to Syrian refugees or asked for an impossibly high price.
Erdogan noted that decent and affordable housing was a countrywide problem, and not one that the newcomers should be held responsible for.
“If Turks want to blame anyone for the costly rents, it should be the owners of the [rental] houses because they make a profit out of this situation. It is pointless to blame Syrians,” he said.
However, Erdogan acknowledged that sometimes the proportion of refugees to locals inevitably led to tensions.
“For example, in the city of Kilis in south-central Turkey, Syrians make up 92 percent of the residents, while in Sanliurfa, close to the Syrian border, they make up 23 percent. It would be impossible to expect that this would not affect the housing situation in these cities,” Erdogan said.
In Sultanbeyli, he continued, the municipality was quietly working to balance the needs of the Syrian refugees with those of the local population. Their efforts were kept low-key, however, to avoid antagonizing local citizens.
“Municipal services are funded from various sources – those are not the funds that are re-allocated to refugees. But people don’t understand that, so the municipal authorities prefer to help refugees without creating too much fuss,” he said.
Syrians needed more compassion, Erdogan continued, adding that “we should make their lives easier as much as we can. They cannot be blamed for everything that is wrong in Turkish society.”
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