Refugee scapegoat

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Tuesday 26 Oct 2021

Presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey are still 19 months away, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid, but politicians and political parties are already gearing up for what observers have described as a watershed event

Refugee scapegoat
UNHCR Turkey: Syrian refugee camps and provincial breakdown of Syrian refugees registered in southeast Turkey


Opposition forces are gaining momentum against a backdrop of mounting disgruntlement at the prevailing conditions in the country. They are growing more persistent in their criticisms of the policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as they work to overcome differences between their diverse factions. Meanwhile, opinion polls augur ill not just for the AKP and its partner in the People’s Alliance, the ultra-right wing Nationalist People’s Party (MHP), but also for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. For the first time since coming to power as prime minister nearly 20 years ago, he feels his throne shaking and he is clearly nervous about it. His fall would probably not only end his political career but stir or, perhaps more accurately, re-trigger investigations suppressed several years ago. As the ruling party’s adversaries have suggested on social media, the cans of worms that might open as immunities fall by the wayside could send powerful quakes across the Anatolian plateau.

As policy failures continue to pile up, economic straits worsen and the lira continues to tumble, the regime has cast about for a scapegoat towards which to direct popular anger while simultaneously rekindling the ardour of the regime’s supporters. Threats to avenge recent attacks against Turkish troops in Syria are not viable for this purpose in the long run. The propaganda might result in large segments of the public being charged up, but acting on it is another matter. Erdogan’s manoeuvrability in Syria is limited. He cannot butt horns with US presence there, as much as he likes to rail against Washington’s support for the Kurds. More importantly, he can not act up against Russia, the main backer of the regime in Damascus and the most influential power in Syria.

On the other hand, popular sentiment against immigrants and refugees has been steadily mounting. Now here is something that might serve his demagogic purposes, offering perhaps his last chance to salvage his throne. Accordingly, under their leader’s orchestration, AKP officials have begun to strum crowd pleasing tunes. “Ten years is a long time to host people under temporary protection,” say some. “Syrians need to return home within a year,” say others in an obvious attempt to outbid Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP). He has already scored popularity points on this issue. Several weeks ago, he pledged that, if elected president, he would return the refugees to their homes within two years.In tandem with the rhetoric, police have staged some high-profile raids, starting with the informal garbage collecting and recycling sector. This is “in a country where municipal recycling rates are among the lowest in Europe” and where “many see their work as an important part of helping Turkey reach environmental goals,” as Andrew Wilks observes in Al-Monitor.

As waste recycling is no great vote winner at the national level, the authorities have proceeded to demolish waste-sorting collection sites and confiscate the collectors’ carts. According to reports in the Turkish press, many foreigners were detained and sent to a migrant “collection centre” in advance of deportation. Although the raids target migrants, many Turks from the poorest segment of the population have been caught in the snare. Their economic hardship leaves them little choice but to work alongside undocumented immigrants who also have few options for survival.”This is a sector of irregular labour, and those Afghans, Syrians and Pakistanis working in it are the lowest in the pecking order,” Dogus Simsek told Wilks. “They do it while risking frequent detention by the Turkish police and with the threat of deportation hanging over them.” Simsek is an assistant professor and researcher into migrant and refugee affairs at Kingston University in London.

Some of the Turkish members of the informal recycling sector have called for dialogue, arguing that they are performing a public service. In an interview with Gazete Duvar, one maintained that their earnings were not unjustified but rather gained through toil and sweat. He added, “Our poverty is in our pockets, but our hearts are rich enough to share bread with the immigrant, the Roma, the Kurd and the Turk.”The waste collectors earn up to100 Turkish liras a day, or less than $12, “according to the weight of waste they collect,” Wilks reports. “They receive no health or social benefits and, like other casual workers, have been especially hard-hit by coronavirus restrictions over the past 18 months. They have also suffered as the economy falters and inflation nudges towards 20 percent. The material they collect is sold to private recycling firms or direct to factories, with the street collectors seeing little of the profit.”The irony is that the majority of these firms and factories are owned by members or people close to the ruling AKP. Moreover, they are now competing fiercely to acquire the largest slice possible of the waste recycling pie, according to an MP from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Although targeting migrants and foreigners is hardly new in Turkey or elsewhere, Simsek told Al-Monitor, “xenophobic remarks and actions by those in power are ruining the lives of refugees, who are held responsible for anything that goes wrong in the country. It legitimises a racist discourse.”

Those same authorities have left the refugees few options for survival. “They have no work permit to do anything else,” said Simsek. “There are no alternatives other than begging or crime. The government has created no space for them to enter the labour market legally.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: