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‘It’s because we are Syrians’: Two months on, earthquakes leave refugees in Türkiye exposed and fearful

‘The disaster made the existing tensions really come to the fore.’

Two large excavators are digging at the sides of two separate destroyed buildings in the aftermath of the Syria and Türkiye earthquake in 2023. Verena Hölzl/TNH
Construction machines tear down apartments in the southern Turkish city of Antakya. The 6 February earthquakes destroyed more than 300,000 homes in Türkiye alone, and affected up to 26 million people across large swathes of Syria and Türkiye.

In Syria, they used to have nightmares about airstrikes. Now it is the shaking of the earth, the memories of complete darkness, and their mother under the rubble that haunts Abu Thair and his family in their sleep.

 

One morning in early March, the curtains of the ground floor apartment they are invited to stay in for a couple of weeks in the southern Turkish city of Adana are closed, the daylight barely shining through. Everyone looks tired.

 

Abu Thair says he walked for five kilometres to find something that resembled a saw. One hour after he finally got through to her, Ilhan, his wife, died. 

 

“Nobody helped us. She was alive!” he cries out, still shaken by the betrayal.

 

For four days, he says, nobody would accept Ilhan’s body for burial, or those of the couple’s two youngest children, who died instantly when the walls crushed them. Abu Thair is convinced he knows why: “It’s because we are Syrians.”

 

His outrage echoes that of dozens more Syrian refugees The New Humanitarian has spoken to across Türkiye’s vast quake-affected zone in recent weeks – many displaced yet again by the 6 February disaster.

 

Allegations of discrimination against refugees in Türkiye – and against the Kurdish minority – are nothing new. But the earthquakes that took more than 50,000 lives in Türkiye and another 7,000 across the border in Syria two months ago have exposed and sharpened long-standing grievances.

 

“The disaster made the existing tensions really come to the fore,” said Melek Taylan, a board member of Citizens Assembly, a Turkish rights group monitoring sentiment toward the 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Türkiye. Half of the Syrians live in the border region affected by the earthquakes, mostly in apartments and houses, not in camps.

 

While other countries shut out refugees, Türkiye has the largest refugee population in the world, giving them access to education, healthcare, and the labour market – a policy shored up by billions of euros in EU funding.

 

Yet anti-refugee sentiment has been on the rise for years. Political parties of all stripes have been scapegoating refugees and asylum seekers for Türkiye’s economic downturn, promising to push them from the country. 

 

Read more: In Türkiye, Syrians and Afghans live in fear ahead of 2023 elections

 

With the political climate heating up ahead of elections on 14 May – President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is looking to extend his 20-year rule – rights activists and refugees fear the situation is only likely to get worse.

 

After documenting hundreds of arbitrary arrests and deportations to Syria last year, Human Rights Watch has warned that Türkiye cannot be considered a safe third country for refugees anymore.

 

A rise in hate crimes and violence towards refugees and asylum seekers resulted in several deaths last year. And Taylan suspects that the recent reports of an uptick in violence and discrimination against Syrians may just be the tip of the iceberg. “Syrians don’t want to speak out openly because they are now threatened in Türkiye,” she said.

 

Disaster fuels further discord

Ahmet Kanbal, a human rights activist from Türkiye’s Kurdish minority, hoped the earthquakes would build solidarity between Turks and Syrians but wasn’t surprised to see the opposite happen: He said he has observed an increase in hate speech, scapegoating, and attacks on Syrians since the quakes.

 

“People were even scared to ask for help in Arabic,” Kanbal told The New Humanitarian. “With all the problems after the earthquake, the people need an enemy. And the enemy are the Syrians.”

 

A report this week from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documenting abuse at the hands of security forces in the earthquake zone revealed that a third of the alleged victims were Syrians, with four cases where “attacks bore signs of an additional xenophobic motivation”.

 

Kanbal recalled how he came to help a group of Syrian and Kurdish men who said they had been arbitrarily detained by police, stripped to their underwear, and had water poured over them in the biting cold after the earthquakes.

 

While the Kurdish men decided to speak up about the incident, the Syrians refused to do so for fear of getting into trouble with Turkish authorities. The incident, in the southern city of Adiyaman, was included in the HRW/Amnesty report but only mentioned the alleged Kurdish victims. Police did not respond to requests for comment by The New Humanitarian.

 

Kanbal said that denying the tensions between host and refugee communities only makes the problem worse, adding: “Only if there is a record, perpetrators can be held accountable and racist attacks be prevented.”

 

Dozens of Syrians who spoke with The New Humanitarian over the past few weeks shared similar accounts of verbal – sometimes physical – abuse and perceived discrimination in the wake of the earthquakes.

 

In Gaziantep, Hiba Jahjah recounted how she was queuing up with her two daughters in front of a public toilet in a temporary camp, and a woman who heard her speaking Arabic to a friend scoffed: “The earthquake only happened because of you Syrians.” Humiliated and scared, Hiba called her husband and begged him to leave the camp immediately.

 

“Since the earthquake, everything is our fault. There, I might at least preserve my dignity. Here, I can’t.”

 

“When the toilet is dirty, it’s the Syrians,” she said. “When there is no food, it’s the Syrians. It’s always the Syrians!” she recalled, after returning to her home when it was finally declared safe after the quake.

 

Faisal, 25, recalled being called a “dirty Syrian”, among other racist slurs, when he was recently attacked with a brick in a Gaziantep camp for those displaced by the earthquakes. He said he was trying to defuse tensions between two Turkish men who were fighting. After four surgeries, he is uncertain if he will be able to use his left eye again.

 

According to Faisal, even though the attackers admitted to the police that they beat him, the police still kicked him and his family out of the camp. Police in Ankara didn’t respond to The New Humanitarian’s request for comment about the incident. 

 

“Since the earthquake, everything is our fault,” said Faisal, who is now thinking about going back to rebel-controlled northwest Syria. “There, I might at least preserve my dignity,” he said. “Here, I can’t.”

 

Kanbal blamed politicians for setting the scene after years of fuelling resentment toward refugees, and he expected the situation to get worse in the lead-up to the elections and beyond. “If the government would talk about Syrians in a good way, people would be more likely to think about them in a good way,” he said.

 

Allegations of aid discrimination

 

The lack of government resources and aid coordination in the first days after the disaster fanned frustrations among those displaced. “Syrians were for sure discriminated against,” said Taylan. “But the situation was also really overwhelming to handle.”

 

She pointed to a tendency to blame Syrians for everything bad that was happening, for example when people went hungry and felt they had no choice but to loot. “Everyone took food from the destroyed supermarkets,” Taylan said. “But it was the Syrians who were accused of stealing.”

 

Tens of thousands of people initially crossed back into Syria after the Turkish government changed travel regulations for refugees, allowing them to visit Syria and return to Türkiye within a six-month-window. Some were going to check on relatives in quake-affected areas; others were going to stay with family, hoping conditions would be better than those in Türkiye for the time-being.  

 

Despite neutrality being seen as a core humanitarian principle, emergency operations have also been muddied by discriminatory behaviour and aid politicisation in the aftermath of the earthquakes.

 

In Kahramanmaraş, one of the cities worst hit by the quakes, the sun logo of the opposition right wing IYI party is emblazoned across a new tent city – IYI’s leader vowed last year to push all refugees out of Türkiye by 2026.

 

Everybody is welcome and party affiliations don’t matter, Osman Ay, a Turkish lawyer who volunteers at the camp, told The New Humanitarian. When pressed, however, he confirmed there were in fact no Syrians in the camp, offering, “they would need an Arabic translator”, as an explanation.

 

Tent city in West Kahramanmaraş against the backdrop of damaged buildings.
Verena Hölzl/TNH
A tent city has sprung up in Kahramanmaraş against the backdrop of badly damaged buildings.

 

In Mersin, a seaside town untouched by the earthquake and housing many displaced people, Mustafa Nawaf Al Ali, a Syrian opposition politician, ran a shelter for 50-60 Syrian families. “Turkish people have no time for Syrian people,” he said when The New Humanitarian visited in late February. “They now have enough problems at hand with their own people.” 

 

That night, three Syrian women – one cradling a sleeping baby in a blanket – appeared in the driveway. An ambulance had dropped them off knowing Al Ali and his team would take care of them. “This is how it goes, day after day,” he shrugged, ushering them in.

 

According to Al Ali, two weeks later, in early March, immigration authorities forced him to shut down the centre with no explanation. “I am very upset,” he told The New Humanitarian by phone, before relenting: “This is not our country. We can’t make any objection.”

 

Concerns over stoking tensions sometimes influence who gets help and who doesn’t, aid workers and refugees told The New Humanitarian. 

 

An Iraqi aid worker who was distributing food packages for a small Turkish NGO in the first days after the earthquake recalled how members of the military overseeing a camp in Nurdağı asked him to sneak in assistance for the 14 Syrian families staying there.

 

He said the soldiers told him that helping the Syrians directly risked angering the Turks in the camp. “I went in like a spy,” chuckled the aid worker, who asked for his name to be withheld because his organisation hadn’t authorised him to speak to the media.

 

Read more: Acts of Solidarity Too

Tensions have become so pervasive that they risk eclipsing plenty of acts of solidarity between Turks and Syrians.  

  

After the earthquakes, Abu Thair’s eldest daughter Farah was airlifted to a hospital in Istanbul, where she underwent surgery twice. The Turkish nurses cared for her as if they were her “own mother”, she raved. But for her, that was not enough to erase years of bad memories from bullying at Turkish schools, and the lack of assistance in the hours after the quakes.

  

The Iraqi aid worker recounted meeting a Syrian family whose Turkish landlord had kicked them out of their apartment in Antakya before the earthquake. When the landlord became homeless after the disaster, they took him into their tent. “The Turkish landlord could not have been more apologetic about kicking them out of his house earlier,” the aid worker said.

  

And racist behaviour doesn’t always go uncontested. Far-right politician Ümit Özdağ is known for his hate speech against refugees: In January he launched a campaign to deport Syrians, called “Bus to Damascus”.

  

His tweet indirectly blaming Syrians for the collision of the tectonic plates that caused the earthquakes was removed after heavy mockery on social media. In a video widely circulated on social media, a Turkish man confronted Özdağ during his visit to the disaster-affected area in mid-February. Syrians had supported the rescue efforts, the man said, telling Özdağ he was “tired” of his verbal attacks on Syrians.

 

Asked about general allegations of discrimination against refugees, UNHCR Türkiye spokesperson Selin Ünal confirmed that the UN’s refugee agency was investigating some reported incidents. AFAD, the Turkish government’s disaster management agency, declined to comment on allegations of aid being withheld to Syrians, as did The Turkish Red Crescent, which referred such questions back to AFAD. 

 

The perceived discrimination also goes both ways.

 

Soha Shaer, a fundraising coordinator with Inara, a small international NGO focused on mental health support, said her organisation initially stirred up anger in non-Syrian communities when it was suspected of only providing help to Syrians. Tensions eased quickly once they didn’t only employ staff with Syrian family backgrounds. 

 

The different communities are also trying to stay separate from each other, Shaer observed.

 

“When our medical aid caravan goes to the camps, we notice that the Turkish communities hesitate to ask for support once they see that we are supporting Syrian communities,” she said. With this in mind, her organisation is now trying to approach the communities separately. “The tension between them is still boiling slowly,” she warned.

 

Verena Hölzl reported from Adana, Antakya, Kahramanmaraş, Mersin, and Reyhanli. With reporting support from Mustafa Karali. A Syrian colleague and a Turkish journalist who also assisted with this article didn’t want to be named due to security concerns.

This project was funded by the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Edited by Josephine Schmidt and Andrew Gully.

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