Turkey turns against refugees during the rise of nationalism

In a neighborhood still scarred by hate, the Syrian refugees all but vanished one day last week. They shuttered their shops. They hurried through streets. It was the anniversary of a rampage by an anti-Syrian mob, and the authorities had delivered a warning: It was better to disappear.

The violence last August started when a young Syrian was accused of fatally stabbing Emirhan Yalcin, a Turkish teen, during a fight in Ankara’s Altindag district. Gangs of Turkish citizens descended on the neighborhood, vandalizing and looting Syrian stores, homes and cars, in an outburst shocking for its ferocity and for where it occurred: at the edge of Turkey’s capital, a few miles from the presidential palace.

“They were brainwashed,” said Abu Huthaifa, a local Syrian activist, who said he was threatened with a beating as he watched the riots from a balcony. For Syrians across Turkey, the fury unleashed in Altindag was a warning of the season of xenophobia to come.

A surge in anti-immigrant sentiment over the past year in Turkey has brought deadly assaults on refugees and mob attacks on immigrant neighborhoods — a perilous turn for Turkey, which once took pride in extending a welcome to Syrians, and hosts at least 4 million refugees and asylum seekers, more than any country in the world.

The anger has emanated from a public unnerved by a worsening economic crisis, unsettled by claims that immigrants are changing Turkey’s character, and egged on by politicians using provocative or racist rhetoric to capitalize on all the fear.Turkey is the latest European country to grapple with the rise of anti-immigrant politics,but its refugees also face a durable strain of nativism that favors some immigrants — like those from the Balkans — over others, especially from the Middle East.

Turkey has “swung in a nationalist direction in all respects,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who allowed millions of Syrian refugees to come to Turkey, has struggled to respond to the anger, his government alternating between defending immigrants and passing new regulations to limit their visibility. Facing a critical election next year, Erdogan has vowed to send a million Syrians home, a policy seen as impractical and illegal, and it has done little to quiet calls from his opponents for more action.

Fears abound among Syrians on both sides of the border that more-drastic steps are coming, including that Ankara might restore long-severed ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which would placate Turkey’s nationalists, who see Erdogan’s support for the opposition as contributing to the refugee crisis.

Resentments had been building for years, and boiled over last summer when a new wave of Afghan refugees arrived at Turkey’s borders. Now opinion polls regularly identify immigration as the first- or second-most-urgent problem facing the nation.