Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”
Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”
Muhamed (L), a Syrian refugee boy, and his older brother Mustafa (R) work at a small textile factory in Istanbul, Turkey, on 24 June 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 11 minutes

Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”

Sultangazi is home to a mix of religious and ethnic groups – as well as 50,000 Syrian refugees. The district received the refugees warmly. But resentment is rising, as public services suffer and opposition forces suspect the ruling party of using refugees to exacerbate social divisions.

Sultangazi is an inner-city district of Istanbul located on the European side of the Bosphorus, home to more than a half-million Turkish citizens and 50,000 Syrians. What’s happening there reflects nationwide patterns of refugee integration and assimilation – but also growing impatience among the native population.

The district is a microcosm of Turkish society in terms of faith, ethnicity and political persuasion. Pious Sunni conservatives live next door to left-leaning Alevis; Turkish ultra-nationalists rub shoulders with Kurdish movement sympathisers. There are no formal records of religious affiliation, but locals estimate that 30-40 per cent of Sultangazi’s residents are Alevi and the rest Sunni. Alevis, Turkey’s second-largest faith community, profess a variant of Shia Islam (as do the Alawites of Syria, from whom the Alevis are distinct in historical evolution, culture and religious practice). Around half the population are Kurds – of whom slightly over half are social conservatives who vote for the Sunni Islamist formation ruling Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The rest largely support the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

The Syrians who have settled in Sultangazi are mostly Sunni Arabs from rural areas around Aleppo. In addition to the 40,000 who are registered refugees, an estimated 10,000 Syrians are unregistered. There are also approximately 8,000 migrants of other nationalities, mainly Afghans, Pakistanis and Azerbaijanis.

Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul's "District of Victimhood"

Crisis Group’s Turkey Project Director Nigar Goksel talks about identity politics and growing frictions in the job market between Syrian refugees and host communities in the refugee-dense neighbourhoods of Turkey’s major western cities. CRISISGROUP
The Syrians’ socio-economic impact [in Turkey] is becoming increasingly manifest.

In conversations with Crisis Group, residents referred to their quarter as “a district of victimhood” because it brings together so many different people – citizens and non-citizens – who have had to leave their hometowns behind for political or economic reasons. There has been a particularly large influx of Syrians over the past two years, as the Assad regime recaptured parts of northern Syria that had been held by rebels, and as more Syrians moved from border provinces to western cities in search of job opportunities. Sultangazi today ranks among the top five of Istanbul’s 39 districts in the number of Syrians hosted; they now comprise over 8 per cent of its total population.

Many Syrians received a warm welcome in Turkey. But, as their numbers grow in districts such as Sultangazi, some fear that the new arrivals will redraw the demographic map to the detriment of long-time residents. Secularists and leftists, in particular, see the Syrians as pawns in a move by the AK Party government to dilute the concentration – and perhaps, down the road, the electoral strength – of minority constituencies. Such perceptions deepen existing social and political divides (covered in a November 2016 Crisis Group report).

The Syrians’ socio-economic impact is also becoming increasingly manifest. Public services such as health and education, already strained by the district’s rapid expansion, have been further overstretched by the refugee influx. Locals complain about long lines at hospitals, crowded classrooms, skyrocketing rents, packed busses and piled-up trash. The sense that the Syrian influx has worsened the quality of life is sowing resentment among hosts, irrespective of political affiliation. Compassion and solidarity are curdling into hostility.

Crisis Group Turkey Project Director Nigar Göksel talking to a Turkish restaurant owner about the impact of unregistered Syrian businesses in Sultangazi district, September 2017. CRISISGROUP

As underlined by Crisis Group’s 29 January report, Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, the risk of violent clashes between hosts and refugees is higher in places where the stress on public services overlaps with labour market competition and identity-related demographic concerns. Sultangazi is such a place.

The Gazi Hot Spot

The tract of land now known as Sultangazi has witnessed waves of migration, starting in the mid-1970s when people came from across Anatolia. In the 1990s, a large number of Kurds arrived after being forcibly displaced from villages in the south east at the peak of the army’s fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since 2004 or so, the district has also attracted refugees and migrant workers from countries to Turkey’s east. With plenty of affordable housing and low-skilled job opportunities in textile workshops, Sultangazi has continued to boom, absorbing around 100,000 Turkish citizens in the past decade.

On aggregate, voting patterns in the quarter reflect strong support for the AK Party government, albeit with staunch opposition in certain neighbourhoods. In the November 2015 general elections, the AK Party received 163,000 votes (60.6 per cent), while the main centre-left, secular opposition force, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), garnered 60,000 and the left-leaning, pro-Kurdish HDP got 40,000. Over 60 per cent of voters said “yes” to the April 2017 plebiscite asking citizens to approve measures that greatly strengthened the powers of the president. The Istanbul average “yes” vote was 48.6 per cent. Despite this higher overall support, some neighbourhoods firmly rejected the referendum (see map below for a detailed breakdown).

One of them was Gazi, where a majority of residents are left-wing Alevis, either Kurdish or Turkish in ethnicity. A full 78.9 per cent of its voters said “no” to the stronger presidency. Similarly, the AK Party won only 19 per cent of the neighbourhood’s vote in the November 2015 parliamentary elections, while the CHP received 54 per cent and the HDP 23.8 per cent.

A map that shows the 2017 Constitutional Referendum results in the districts of Sultangazi, Istanbul. CRISISGROUP/MIke Shand

Gazi is legendary in Turkey for antipathy to the state. Left-wing and/or Alevi youth there clashed frequently with the nationalist police in the 1990s. On 12 March 1995, the unrest culminated in what is commonly referred to as “the Gazi incidents”. Unknown gunmen in a stolen taxi riddled five teahouses with bullets, killing one person and wounding numerous others. Residents saw the police response as markedly slow; riots broke out and spread to other neighbourhoods, continuing for about a week. The police reaction to the rioters was swift and harsh, with officers shooting into crowds, killing fifteen people. Many believe the incident was instigated by the “deep state” – ultra-nationalists and their allies in the security forces – to discourage the growth of Alevi and Kurdish dissent in big cities.

Anger spiralled into confrontations with police again during the Gezi Park protests in May-June 2013. Some 2-3,000 neighbourhood residents took to the streets for around one week in anti-government protests. Tensions also rose in Gazi on the night of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, when pro-AK Party crowds reportedly marched into the neighbourhood chanting “Allahu Ekber” (God is great). Pro-government demonstrators had been summoned into the streets across Istanbul by state-employed imams using the loudspeakers of mosques. Rumours spread that the demonstrators were planning to attack Alevis, and residents gathered in front of the local cemevi (Alevi house of worship). Police dispersed the pro-AK Party crowd before it reached the area.

Many leftists took this series of events as validation of their view that, under AK Party rule, the invocation of Sunni Muslim solidarity is “party politics”, geared toward mobilising the right-wing, conservative-leaning majority of the electorate. They point to statements they perceive as sectarian by AK Party leaders to back up this interpretation.

Blame Game

Across the Sultangazi district, representatives of the Alevi community and the Kurdish movement view the Syrian refugees’ presence largely through the prism of their own accumulated grievances against the state.

The risk of violent attacks on refugees may increase amid the building anger among Kurdish movement sympathisers at the crackdown on the HDP underway since early 2016. Thousands of the HDP’s members and nine of its 53 MPs – including party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş – were arrested and remain in prison. Another 30 MPs were detained and/or arrested and released since November. “We have no rights. There is police impunity for any action against the Kurdish youth here”, a Kurdish movement figure in Sultangazi told Crisis Group. “This is all building up a frustration [that] can be channelled against the Syrians, many of whom announce Erdoğan as their saviour”.

Alevis also feel worn down by longstanding state discrimination. “We still do not have equal citizenship”, said one representative. “We have so many complaints about our situation that it is hard for us to talk about Syrians …. In a place like the Gazi neighbourhood that locals say is over 50 per cent Alevi, there is a threat perception from the past anyway, and now they think Syrians will be settled here to reduce the Alevis to a minority”.

Distrust runs deep between the authorities and their adversaries [in Sultangazi], leading to competing narratives of violent incidents involving refugees.

The government and its supporters accuse Alevi organisations of being sectarian when they reach out to the minority of Syrian refugees who are Kurds or Alawites. A Kurdish movement representative claimed that the authorities warned Syrian Kurds not to establish relations with Kurdish organisations in Turkey: “Syrian Kurds who came to Sultangazi were told they would be provided all health and education services if they abide by this rule. So, out of fear of being sent back to Syria by Turkish authorities, they have stayed low-profile about their Kurdish identity”.

Kurdish and Alevi oppositionists insist they are not concerned solely with their co-ethnics and/or co-religionists. One Alevi representative said: “At first, we tried to provide support to all the Syrians who came here, regardless of sect or ethnicity. However, when the numbers soared, and since we get no resources from the state, we had to cut down. Since we observed the Syrian Alawites were not so comfortable going to the centres of the Sunni Muslim charities, we concentrated our efforts on them”.

Arabic signs on a shop offer for sale sporting clothes, wedding dresses, pyjamas and lingerie, Sultangazi district, September 2017. CRISISGROUP

People at the Gazi cemevi told Crisis Group they held the potential to help break down sectarian stereotypes, but they lacked the resources: “We provided Turkish language courses for Syrian children and women, and 30 per cent of those who attended were Sunni. It overcame prejudice, but then we didn’t have enough funds to continue”.

Another employee of a mainstream NGO who has been working with Syrians for a few years said that, just as the authorities try to impose an artificial homogeneity of identity and thought on Turkish citizens, they want Syrians to be homogeneous, too. “The government thinks that Syrians in Turkey who have any thoughts beyond support for the Free Syrian Army [a Sunni rebel group fighting alongside the Turkish military in northern Syria] should be invisible”, the NGO worker said.

Widening Local Divides

The Syrian refugee crisis has thus widened the gap between the government’s backers and its critics. The authorities, along with Sunni Muslim charities, blame the negative attitude of hardline Alevi and Kurdish organisations. A local state official who also works for a large Islamist charity, suggested: “Considering they [the Kurds] have also experienced displacement, one would expect them to be more compassionate. However, perhaps because they see the refugees’ presence as being against their interests, I observe that the Kurds speak out less compassionately about the refugees”.

Sign in Arabic on a tree advertises that the Abu Salah Supermarket in Sultangazi district can supply money transfers in all currencies, accommodation for male youths, espresso coffee and all kinds of Syrian goods, September 2017. CRISISGROUP.

Meanwhile, Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin in Sultangazi told Crisis Group they find it unjust that public institutions employ translators for Arabic-speaking Syrians. “There are signs in both Turkish and Arabic in rooms in some hospitals, whereas the Kurdish language has never been tolerated, let alone catered to in such a way”. They point out that many Syrian Kurdish refugees are not fluent in Arabic; hence, translation of signs into Kurdish would merely be an extension of the refugee integration policy. The authorities are trying as well to accommodate Syrian parents’ desire for Arabic language courses in schools, even as the Kurds’ decades-old demands for Kurdish-language education remain unaddressed. Liberal intellectuals privately advocate reforms that would enable service provision in languages other than Turkish in places where demand exists. But open discussion of such options cannot occur at the peak of Turkish nationalist fervour in the country today.

Divergent Perceptions

Distrust runs deep between the authorities and their adversaries, leading to competing narratives of violent incidents involving refugees.

One such incident took place in the İsmetpaşa neighbourhood of Sultangazi on 15 May 2017. A young Kurdish man was killed in a fight with an Afghan, supposedly over who could sit where in a park. Local authorities told Crisis Group that sinister outside agitators, probably members of the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), were planning to use this incident as an opportunity to organise an anti-government protest at the scene of the murder, by claiming the state does not protect its Kurdish citizens. The authorities say they reached out to residents to dissuade them from joining, and that police evacuated 500-600 Afghans and Pakistanis to protect them from reprisal.

The Syrian refugee presence is exacerbating social problems in Turkey and driving a wedge deeper and deeper between the state and the political opposition.

Reflecting a common view among authorities, a deputy mayor in Sultangazi said the far-left elements living in Sultangazi systematically try to sabotage the state’s effectiveness and to rally opposition: “It is no coincidence that there were protests every day in the Gazi neighbourhood before the coup attempt, and then it stopped suddenly afterward. There was an effort to mobilise people for further destabilisation”.

Kurdish/Alevi community representatives, on the other hand, claim the authorities systematically try to provoke Kurdish opposition, in order to create excuses for crackdowns. A local HDP representative said: “This is part of the systematic effort to stir up unrest. Police bully our young men daily. The swarms of Turkish flags in our streets and the playing of janissary [Ottoman soldier] anthems are all meant to provoke our youth. There is police impunity. A young boy was killed by police the other day; they said he disobeyed a stop warning. Who knows? It can’t be proven one way or another”. They also argue that the government is trying to create circumstances that will lead ordinary residents who support opposition parties to move out of Sultangazi, which is becoming lucrative real estate, thanks to its increasingly central location as mega-projects like the planned third bridge over the Bosphorus proceed.

Coming to Terms with Pluralism

At present, the Syrian refugee presence is exacerbating social problems in Turkey and driving a wedge deeper and deeper between the state and the political opposition. But the Syrian influx also has the potential to trigger constructive debates about how to address the demands of the country’s diverse communities, be they tied together by mother tongue, ethnicity or sect.

As long as certain groups feel marginalised by the ruling party, they will be embittered by the integration of Syrians, and social cohesion will be harder to come by. As such, what works in one setting may well backfire in another. In the conservative border province of Şanlıurfa, for example, no one objects to appeals for unity with Syrian refugees on religious grounds. But districts with heterogeneous demographics, such as Sultangazi, need to be approached with more sensitivity to the perception that the government is promoting Sunni solidarity at the expense of minorities.

Tzu Chi, an international Buddhist aid organisation headquartered in Taiwan, has helped fill the gap in aid and service provision to Syrians in Sultangazi, September 2017. Tzu Chi NGO

Government efforts to meet the needs of host communities and Syrians will be more effective and better perceived if the state also reaches out to constituencies who sympathise with opposition parties. Inviting the representatives of NGOs and political parties that are not aligned with the government to refugee-related coordination meetings at the district level in itself would send a message of inclusivity. It would also serve to generate creative ideas about how to bridge divides in localities that are politically divided.

Opposition parties also have a role to play: they need to be careful not to spread misinformation or exploit the growing angst about Syrians among their constituents. Instead, they should work constructively to bridge the divide. Local actors of all political persuasions need to open channels of dialogue, share information and pool capacities to address local grievances and stop trouble before it starts.


Project Director, Türkiye
Senior Analyst, Türkiye

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