Immigrants trapped in rising Turkish nationalism as second round nears
Two days before the second round of the presidential election in Turkey, the opposition is raising the stakes on the migration issue and the presence in the country of millions of Syrians who have fled the war. In the immigrant neighborhoods of Istanbul, this xenophobic discourse pushes foreigners or recently naturalized Turkish citizens into the arms of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At an Afghan restaurant in Istanbul’s popular Zeytinburnu district, the aroma of kabuli pulao – an intoxicating mix of steaming rice, marinated lamb and roasted almonds – mingles with the smell of herbs delicately sprinkled over dumplings of mantu ravioli.
A single waiter brings glasses of “çai zafran” – saffron tea – with a beaming smile. But there is hardly anyone this afternoon and the few customers seated have other concerns than the sweet aromas coming from the kitchen.
“I feel it. I feel it. I hear it, it’s been going up for several months”, worries Mansour Tawab* while sipping his digestive tea.
Mansour Tawab is referring here to the nauseating odor of the ultranationalist wave that is overwhelming the Turkish countryside as the second round of the presidential election on May 28 approaches between outgoing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Holder of a residence permit, this 37-year-old Afghan national can legally live and work in Turkey but cannot vote. However, the political speeches that flourished between the two rounds deeply shocked him and called into question his most deeply rooted convictions.
The economy in the background
Turkey’s 2023 elections were supposed to focus on the economy, with the opposition campaigning on falling living standards and spiraling inflation, caused, it says, by the unorthodox monetary policy of President Erdogan who, despite the rising prices, wanted to keep interest rates low.
But in the tense weeks leading up to Sunday’s run-off, unapologetic nationalism pushed the economy into the background, with refugees becoming a prime target for candidates trying to rally the various fringes of Turkish ultranationalism. .
This electoral maneuver notably led the social democrat Kemal Kilicdaroglu to beef up his anti-refugee rhetoric and to forge unholy alliances with the extreme right. On Wednesday, Ümit Özdag, leader of the Victory Party, a xenophobic formation created in 2021 and calling for the expulsion of all refugees, supported Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the home stretch of this nationalist vote race.
When announcing the alliance in Ankara, Ümit Özdag said his party and Kemal Kilicdaroglu had agreed on a plan to return the migrants within a year “in accordance with international law and human rights”.
“A chance to live again”
Six years after arriving in Turkey in 2012, Ahmad Ajjan, a 44-year-old translator from Aleppo, got a new nationality and a new name. His Syrian surname was a problem in his adopted country. “Ajjan” is indeed very similar to the Turkish word “ajan”, which means agent or spy. An immigration official therefore asked him to choose a Turkish surname and, in the excitement of the moment, he opted for “Erdogan”.
Ajjan therefore makes two names coexist reflecting his dual identity. “I am Ahmad Ajjan and my official name is Ahmet Erdogan,” he explains.
On the other hand, its political color is unequivocal. “I support Erdogan because he gave me a chance to live again,” he said, recalling that he fled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on protesters and anti-government activists.
Unconditional supporter of the Turkish president, Ahmad Ajjan however feels today at odds with his new Turkish name. “I am very happy when I meet supporters of President Erdogan. I am very unhappy when I meet opponents of Erdogan,” he explains.
Read also Polarize to better rule, Erdogan’s winning electoral strategy
He feels that his new surname has sometimes cost him jobs in the translation industry. “Some people told me that with this name, it was impossible to consider working with me again,” he says.
Ahmad Ajjan voted for Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the 2018 presidential election and the first round of the 2023 election on May 14. On Sunday, he will vote again for the leader who gave him the chance to live in safety, he says.
“Erdogan has a program, he has a plan for 2050, 2071, these opposition politicians have no plan after the election. Besides, I support Erdogan for another reason: from an Islamic point of view , he supports Muslims around the world,” said Ahmad Ajjan.
“Put everything on the backs of the Syrians”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a key supporter of anti-Assad groups during the war in Syria and offered refuge to predominantly Sunni Muslims fleeing the Baathist regime. Turkey has thus become the only country neighboring Syria to grant citizenship to Syrians on a massive scale.
But little by little, the resentment of the Turks, hit by a deep economic crisis, began to grow vis-à-vis these foreigners benefiting from free education and health care. With 3.7 million refugees on its soil, Turkey is today the largest host country in the world, according to the United Nations.
Within the population, some even suspected Recep Tayyip Erdogan of wanting to increase his electoral base thanks to these newcomers. Since the 2011 uprising against the regime in Damascus, Turkey has granted citizenship to more than 200,000 Syrians, according to the Interior Ministry. An insignificant figure from an electoral point of view in this country of 84 million inhabitants.
“The Turks like to enjoy life. When the economic situation becomes difficult, they complain. And when they complain, they blame everything on the Syrian refugees”, regrets Ahmad Ajjan “Erdogan”.
In the May 14 parliamentary elections, nationalists and ultranationalists won 22% of the vote, putting political players such as Ümit Özdag and presidential candidate Sinan Ogan in a position of kingmakers ahead of the second round. Sunday.
See also Winning ultranationalism? Far-right arguments dominate the campaign
A few days after the first round, while the opposition was still struggling to digest the score of 49.5% of the votes obtained by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kemal Kilicdaroglu published a campaign video in which he promises to return “ten million of refugees” at home if he wins the election.
“I am very worried about my future”
During a sumptuous Afghan lunch in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul, Mansour Tawab describes himself as a man of the left, favorable to Kemal Kilicdaroglu and opposed to the authoritarian turn of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In August 2021, when the Taliban again took control of Afghanistan, Mansour Tawab was in Turkey, where he was completing a master’s degree in business administration. The young Afghan, who worked with NGOs in Kabul, has never set foot in his country since and has not seen his family for two years.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s speech on the “ten million refugees” had the effect of a stab, explains Mansour Tawab. “I’m really disappointed with his speech. We’re not here to have fun. We’re here to add value, to work hard, and we’re being asked to leave right away just to get votes. I’m very worried about my future,” he said.
As a skilled Afghan working remotely from Istanbul for an American company, Mansour Tawab is better off than many of his compatriots. But with the rise of anti-migrant sentiment, even Mansour Tawab is not spared discrimination and police harassment.
“I live ten kilometers away [du quartier de Zeytinburnu]. I used to come here to eat, but now I don’t come as often because I’m scared,” he said.
Zeytinburnu has long been a neighborhood of Afghan immigrants, a symbol of the historical and cultural ties between the two countries. In recent years it has become a starting point for those trying to reach Europe. While the more affluent members of the community live in other parts of Istanbul, Zeytinburnu’s authentic cuisine continues to attract many Afghans eager to rediscover a taste of their country.
“When I come here, I always carry three identity documents with me: my residence card, my driving license and my passport. I am a legal resident, but I am always afraid of being arrested. The police We are constantly checked to check our identity papers, and sometimes, even when we have valid identity papers, we are taken to the detention center and held for hours before being released,” he laments. .
He admits that this election campaign has shaken his sense of security and his political ideals. “I understand why Kemal Kilicdaroglu is acting like this. I understand why citizens do not appreciate that five million refugees are arriving and enjoying free education and health care,” he explains.
“But today, I would prefer Erdogan to win this election,” continues Mansour Tawab. “It’s a very selfish wish but my life and my safety are more important than who is running this country.”
(*Name has been changed.)
Article adapted from English by Grégoire Sauvage. The original can be found here.