Home / Articles / How the European Union Contributes to Turkey’s Anti-Refugee Rhetoric
The intensification of anti-refugee sentiment in the second round of the elections brought far-right politics and rhetoric to the center of Turkey’s presidential contest, contributing to ongoing de-democratization in the country.
The election demonstrated how the 2016 Turkey-European Union refugee deal has contributed to deepening authoritarianism in Turkey. A more robust and fair policy from the European Union on refugees is warranted.
Two days after the first round of presidential elections in Turkey, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition candidate who trailed Erdogan’s by five points after the first round, published a video in which he cast the refugees in Turkey as a security threat and vowed to send them back home. Diverging from the positive and inclusive tone that characterized his election campaign, Kılıçdaroğlu sounded aggressive. In contrast to most of his earlier videos, shot either in his modest kitchen or in his home office, this one was shot in front of a gray wall with a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. “We didn’t just find our homeland in the street,and we will not leave it to the mentality that has inserted 10 million irregular migrants among us,” said Kılıçdaroğlu. Repeating one of his earlier slogans from 2021, he continued: “Borders are our honor [sınır namustur]. We will not leave our homeland to those who are incapable of protecting our honor and who, with the hope of importing votes, turn a blind eye to the flood of unrestrained crowds infiltrating our veins every day.” He then went on to claim that if not sent back, the number of refugees in Turkey will increase to 30 million in no time, creating a “survival problem” for the country.
This speech was in line with Kılıçdaroğlu’s earlier anti-refugee stance, yet, the unapologetically xenophobic tone was what set the video apart. While in previous statements Kılıçdaroğlu still promised repatriation, he would refer to refugees as “our siblings” and emphasize the need for a “peaceful return,” which would take place over a two-year period in consultation with the Assad government. In contrast, the latest video not only showcased a dehumanizing narrative but also put the number of refugees at a dubious 10 million. In fact, according to the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) February 2023 report, the total number of refugees in Turkey stands at 3.9 million, out of which are 3.6 million Syrians under temporary protection and the remaining roughly 320,000 are refugees and asylum seekers (mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq) under international protection. Turkey’s Presidency of Migration Management puts the total number of refugees in the country at 4.99 million, including the 1.3 million with residence permits. Even when one takes into account that these figures do not include many undocumented and unregistered migrants, the figure of 10 million is a clear exaggeration.
Although this departure in rhetoric appeared stark, there was a tactical rationale behind it. Sinan Oğan, the third candidate in the presidential race, who secured 5.1 percent of the votes in the first round, is an ultranationalist and to convince his electorate Kılıçdaroğlu felt he needed to turn towards a more nationalist discourse. Things got even more concerning when Kılıçdaroğlu signed a deal with Ümit Özdağ, the leader of the far-right Victory Party [Zafer Partisi], promising to return all refugees as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Oğan declared his support for Erdoğan in the runoffs. Though the ATA Alliance of Özdağ and Oğan (which included three other small right-wing parties) got only 2.4% of the votes in the parliamentary elections, Oğan’s agreement with Erdoğan and Özdağ’s with Kılıçdaroğlu have brought far-right ideas from the fringes of the Turkish political arena to its center, further deepening the de-democratization of the country.
According to UNHCR, Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population for the ninth consecutive year. Currently, refugees make up almost 6 percent of Turkey’s overall population of 85 million. However, it was not until the local elections in 2019 that anti-refugee sentiment became politically salient in the country.This was due to the fact that refugees were seen as temporary “guests” and Erdoğan often resorted to the Islamic metaphor of “Muhajireen” (migrants—referring to Prophet Mohammad and his companions fleeing Mecca for Medina) and “Ansar” (helpers—Medinean residents welcoming Mohammad and his companions) to characterize the relationship between Syrian refugees and Turkish citizens. Over time, refugees became politically associated with Erdoğan and started to be seen as a scapegoat for the problems he was causing. The shift in political discourse was reflected in the societal sphere in the form of increasing violence and hate crimes against refugees in 2021 and 2022.
Yet, when it comes to understanding the intensifying anti-refugee discourse in the country, the real elephant in the room is the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal. Signed in March 2016, the deal asked Turkey to prevent refugees’ access to Europe by way of Greek Islands. Any refugee arriving in the islands from Turkey would be returned back and for every refugee returned to Turkey one refugee who had been waiting inside Turkey would be accepted by EU member states. In exchange, Turkey would receive €6 billion for humanitarian assistance and Turkish citizens would be granted visa-free access to EU countries. Seven years on, the deal has created more problems than it has solved. While its implementation has reduced the number of refugees attempting to reach Europe, those who made it to Greek Islands have ended up in limbo, and only a mere 32,472 Syrian refugees have been resettled from Turkey to EU countries. Meanwhile, rather than being granted visa-free travel, Turkish citizens have faced growing rates of rejection in Schengen visa applications. Coupled with the increase in the number of refugees from Afghanistan to Turkey between 2018 and 2022 and the passing of a Greek Joint Ministerial Decision in 2021 designating Turkey a third safe country for citizens of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria, the refugee deal has only exacerbated the feeling among many Turkish citizens that Europe is not doing its fair share in protecting refugees and is exploiting Turkey as a border guard, without any concern for the repercussions of the deal for Turkish nationals.
In such an environment, it was all too easy for far-right politicians to capitalize on this anti-refugee sentiment and push Turkey’s already nationalist mainstream political rhetoric further right. Commentators have rightly criticized the refugee deal for “giving authoritarianism a blank check” and for providing Erdogan with the opportunity to use refugees as bargaining chips. The saliency of the anti-refugee discourse among the opposition in the 2023 elections has demonstrated that the deal’s de-democratizing effect is no longer confined to the ruling bloc. Worrying as this development is, one can only hope that it would work as a wake-up call for the European Union to finally stop externalizing human suffering and come up with a more sustainable and fair solution for the protection of refugees.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.