The growing dehumanisation of refugees in Turkey

With close to 4.1 million refugees, Turkey is home to the largest number of displaced people in the world. This includes at least 125,104 Afghans, who make up the country’s second-largest refugee population after Syrians.

This number has steadily risen since May 2020, when U.S. and NATO forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan, prompting a renewed surge in violence.  

The growing presence of Afghans in Turkey has seen a public backlash, with hashtags including #ÜlkemdeMülteciİstemiyorum (“I don’t want refugees in my country”) and #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliAfganİstemiyorum (“I don’t want Syrians, Afghans in my country”) repeatedly trending on social media in recent weeks.   

Freedom of expression is a crucial democratic value. But hate speech against refugees can poison public discourse. This dehumanising rhetoric is not unique to Turkey and is common to many other European countries.

Ultimately, it is rooted in a lack of empathy. Those who oppose displaced people mostly ignore the reasons for displacement, be it war, fear of persecution, or natural disasters. They assume refugees move voluntarily, or cross international borders on economic grounds.

Afghans recently interviewed by the BBC in Turkey say it took them roughly 45 days to reach the country, a journey of around 2000 km they took by foot due to fear of persecution of the Taliban. Those attacking these people must ask themselves: Would you take this risk just for economic reasons? Instead of using dehumanising rhetoric, we must sincerely ask ourselves why Afghans or Syrians would leave their family, friends, and homeland.

The issue is exacerbated by the populist approach of politicians, particularly from the far-right. Since the early 1990s, far-right parties in Europe have tripled their vote share from around 5 percent to more than 15 percent, with several studies linking this rise to hostile attitudes to migrants.

However, anti-refugee rhetoric is not solely the preserve of the right. In Turkey, it is the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) that has taken the harshest tone against the Syrian and Afghan populations.

This has helped contribute to an increasingly xenophobic atmosphere, with at least six Syrian refugees murdered in the country during a rise in tensions between July and September 2020.

Politicians must understand that their words have power. Instead of polarising society for their own benefit, they should work towards creating an environment in which both Turkish people and displaced communities can live together at home, while helping ensure peace and security abroad.

People who flee their homeland in search of safety deserve food, shelter, and healthcare, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender.

There must always be space for others on the basis of universal human rights.

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