Syrian Refugees Are No Longer Welcome in Istanbul

Jul 30, 2014 at 2:35 PM ET

You can see them all over the city, sitting cross-legged on blankets along posh streets near Taksim Square or staring out of crumbling buildings in the nearby slums. Some sleep in parks or outside local mosques. Others rest on benches, dreaming under the stars or the metal awnings hanging over bus stops.

Over the past three years, up to 100,000 Syrian refugees have poured into Istanbul, fleeing war and famine. Nearly a million more have crossed the border and settled into other parts of Turkey.

Many refugees were initially welcomed to this nation of 76 million, especially in Istanbul. But lately they’ve been met with a very different response across Turkey, as Syrians continue to flee their home country, where the war has raged since 2011 and left more than 170,000 people dead.

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of people have taken to the streets in southeastern Turkish cities such as Gaziantep and Maras, chanting: “We don’t want Syrians.” In Adana, another city in the south, a mob of masked men attacked Syrian shopkeepers with cleavers and destroyed their businesses.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—a strong backer of the Syrian opposition—has condemned the violent anti-refugee protests and described them as provocations by mysterious unnamed forces.

Yet Erdogan’s involvement in the Syrian civil war is unpopular because most Turks don’t want their country to get sucked into such an intractable conflict. And the cost—roughly $3.5 billion—of food, housing and education for the refugees in 22 camps across the country has led many ordinary Turks to resent the impoverished newcomers, who are often easily identifiable by their Arab-style headscarves and kaffiyehs.

Many refugees are benefitting from Turkey’s largesse. But the vast majority sustain themselves by doing odd jobs and live outside the camps, whether on the streets or with relatives. Nearly all are dirt poor and unable to safely return home. Some willingly avoid living in the camps, but many others don’t have the opportunity; there simply isn’t enough funding.

In Istanbul, where the largest number of refugees reside, most live on the European side of this bicontinental city in the district of Suleymaniye, named after the city’s greatest mosque, built in honor of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent.

The beauty of the mosque’s dome is a world away from the misery of the refugees’ lives. The holy month of Ramadan, which has just ended, provided a little relief. Many Syrians benefited from the charity of locals and from free iftar dinners provided by the municipality.

But local authorities are receiving more complaints about the newcomers than ever before. Huseyin Avni Mutlu, the governor of Istanbul, recently talked about clearing the streets of Syrians asking for charity.

“We warned them continuously and told them not to beg,” he told Reuters. “But they’re insisting. If they don’t give up begging, we will take an administrative decision and send them to a camp.”

Whether or not that will occur remains to be seen. What’s clear, however, is that Turkey has become a prime destination for immigrants fleeing war, poverty and devastation. And for the foreseeable future, the country’s Syrian newcomers are here to stay.