Istanbul, Türkiye – As Turkey enters the final stretch of the decisive presidential runoff on Sunday May 28, politicians are increasing the pressure on migrants and refugees. In Istanbul’s expat-dwelling neighborhoods, political discourse is driving new Turkish citizens into the arms of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The aroma of Kabuli pulao, a heady mix of steaming rice, marinated lamb and toasted almonds, mingles with the delicately herbaceous aroma of mantu dumplings at an Afghan restaurant in Istanbul’s working-class Zytinburnu district.
A waiter brings glasses of chai zafran (saffron tea) with a beaming smile, but there aren’t too many customers in the dining room this afternoon and it’s not the aromas from the kitchen that worry the clientele.
“I feel it, I smell it, I hear it and it’s been on the rise in recent months,” admits Mansour Tawab* as he sips his zafran chai after lunch.
Tawab is referring to the stench of ultra-nationalism sweeping through Turkey ahead of the May 28 presidential runoff between President and re-election hopeful Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
The 37-year-old Afghan citizen has a Turkish residence card and can legally live and work in this country, but cannot vote. However, the speech leading up to the final round affects him deeply and has forced him to rethink some of his political positions that he holds dear.
The 2023 Turkish election was supposed to be all about the economy, with the opposition focused on spiraling inflation and plummeting living standards, due to Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policy of keeping unemployment rates low. interest.
Yet in the tense weeks leading up to the runoff, raw nationalism has sidelined the economy and refugees have become easy targets for politicians plying the intricacies of Turkey’s broad spectrum ultranationalist in a bid to win. votes.
The nationalist turn has seen opposition Social Democrat Kilicdaroglu ramp up anti-refugee rhetoric, while forging uneasy alliances with ultranationalist politicians.
Last Wednesday, May 24, Umit Ozdag, leader of the anti-immigrant Victory Party, announced his support for Kilicdaroglu, confirming the support of the ultranationalists ahead of the last round of the general elections.
Speaking at a news conference in Ankara to announce his decision, Ozdag said his party and Kilicdaroglu agreed on a plan to return migrants to their countries of origin within a year, “in accordance with international law and human rights.”
For the immigrants at the center of the political dispute, it has been an exceptionally difficult time, leading some to draw political conclusions that may not be in the best interest of liberal democracy in Turkey.
What is behind a name
Six years after arriving in Turkey in 2012 from his native Syria, Ahmad Ajjan got a new nationality and a new name.
When the 44-year-old translator, originally from the city of Aleppo, was in the process of applying for Turkish nationality, the subject of his last name came up during an interview with an immigration official.
Ajjan in his new country sounded too similar to the Turkish ‘ajan’, which means agent or spy. He was then asked to choose a Turkish surname and in the turmoil of the moment he settled on Erdogan.
Ajjan, a staunch supporter of the Turkish president, today feels conflicted over his election. “I feel very happy when I meet supporters of (President) Erdogan, but I feel very unhappy when I meet opponents of him,” he explains.
In a country bitterly divided, Ajjan has settled for a name that reflects his dual identities. “I am Ahmad Ajjan and my official name is Ahmet Erdogan,” he points out.
However, on the subject of his political loyalties, Ajjan is blunt. “I support Erdogan because he gave me the chance to live again,” he says, recalling how he fled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on protesters and anti-government activists.
Ajjan voted for Erdogan in the 2018 presidential election, as well as in the first round of the 2023 general election, on May 14. He assures that next Sunday he will once again support the leader who offered him security at the polls.
“Erdogan has an agenda, he has a plan for 2050, 2071. These opposition politicians do not have a plan for the day after the elections,” he says dismissively. “Also, I support Erdogan for a different reason: from the Islamic perspective, he supports Muslims all over the world,” he adds.
“Blame everything on Syrian refugees”
Erdogan was one of the biggest supporters of anti-Assad groups in the Syrian war, providing refuge to predominantly Sunni Muslims fleeing the Alevi Baathist regime in Damascus.
Turkey was the only one of Syria’s neighbors to grant citizenship en masse to people from that nation fleeing the brutal civil war.
As Turkish resentments over the free education and healthcare provided to Syrians grow, rumors have surfaced of a demographic plan by Erdogan to increase his vote base with newcomers.
Since the 2001 uprising, Turkey has provided citizenship to more than 200,000 Syrians, according to the Interior Ministry. The figure is insignificant in a country of 84 million people to influence an election.
But with 3.7 million refugees on its soil, Turkey has become the world’s leading refugee-hosting country, according to the UN. With the economic crisis, the welcome mat for “Sorkys,” a pejorative term for Syrians who support Erdogan in Turkey, began to fray.
“Turks like to enjoy life. When the economic situation becomes difficult, they complain. When they complain, they blame everything on the Syrian refugees,” says Ajjan.
In August 2021, Ozdag formed the Victory Party, an anti-immigrant movement, explicitly calling on the refugees to leave Turkey. And Ozdag’s rise in national politics in just two years, with him endorsing Kilicdaroglu in the presidential runoff, reflects growing anti-refugee sentiment in many sectors of Turkish society.
In the parliamentary elections on May 14, nationalists and ultranationalists swept 22% of the vote, which ranked politicians like Ozdag and presidential candidate Sinan Ogan, who won 5.2% of the vote in the first round. , in a position of kings before the second round on May 28.
Just days after the first round of elections, as opposition supporters battled to accept 49.5% of Erdogan’s vote, Kilicdaroglu posted a campaign video in which the normally affable politician vowed to send home “10 million refugees” if he won the second round.
Defying the Police, a taste of home
Over a sumptuous Afghan lunch in Istanbul’s Zytinburnu district, Tawab describes himself as a leftist, a supporter of Kilicdaroglu and opposed to Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent..
In August 2021, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Tawab was in Turkey completing an MBA. The young Afghan man, who had worked in the NGO sector in Kabul, immediately lost access to his homeland and has not seen his relatives for two years.
Kilicdaroglu’s “10 million refugees” speech felt like a knife wound, Tawab explains. “I am really disappointed with his speech. We are not here to have fun. We are here to add value, to work hard, and you are only asking us to leave immediately, solely to get votes. I am very worried about my future, I am disappointed, ”he remarks.
As a skilled Afghan working remotely for an American company from Istanbul, Tawab is better off than his less fortunate Afghan brothers in this city. But as anti-immigrant sentiment rises, even Tawab is not exempt from police harassment these days.
“I live about 10 kilometers from here. I used to come here a lot for the food, but these days, I don’t come often because I’m scared,” she asserts.
Zytinburnu has long been a neighborhood for Afghan immigrants, reflecting the historical and cultural ties between Turkey and Afghanistan. In recent years, the district developed an irregular look as it became a launching pad for Afghans attempting the migration route to Europe.
While wealthier members of the community live in other parts of Istanbul, the authentic food in Zytinburnu has always attracted Afghans longing for a taste of home, but it’s getting more risky these days, says Tawab.
“When I come here, I always take three pieces of identity with me: my residence card, my driver’s license and my passport. I am a legal resident, but I always fear being detained. The Police always stop us to verify our identifications. Sometimes, even when we have valid IDs, they take us to the detention center and hold us for hours before they release us,” she stresses.
The 2023 election campaign has shaken his sense of security, as well as his political ideals. “I understand why Kemal Kilicdaroglu is doing this. I understand why the citizens do not like that 5 million refugees (closest official figure to the 3.7 million indicated by the UN) come and get all the benefits of free education and health care ”, he indicates.
But with anti-refugee sentiments rising, his personal stakes in the 2023 presidential election have shifted. “Now, I would prefer Erdogan to win these elections,” he confesses. “It’s a very selfish wish, but my life and my safety are more important than who owns this country,” she emphasizes.