Istanbul, Turkey – When a mayor in Turkey’s northwest this week announced plans to charge “foreigners” 10 times more for water and waste services, his words were applauded by many across the country.
Tanju Ozcan, mayor of Bolu from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), later made clear which foreigners he was referring to – refugees whose presence has made Turkey home to the world’s largest refugee population.
Doubling down on his remarks, Ozcan tweeted footage of his comments under the phrase “This hospitality has gone on too long.” He added that Turkey had “become a dump for migrants”.
The CHP later distanced itself from his remarks and prosecutors launched an investigation.
While Turkey’s commitment to refugees has drawn praise from the West, particularly European countries protected by a 2016 refugee deal with Ankara, hostility towards migrants in Turkey often surfaces, sometimes violently.
In recent weeks, Turkish media has shown images of hundreds of mostly young men following mountain paths across the Iranian border into eastern Turkey.
Many said their exodus was spurred by the Taliban’s advance as the United States withdraws its forces from Afghanistan after 20 years.
These fresh arrivals seem to have prompted renewed anti-migrant feelings, as evidenced by Ozcan’s remarks and popular social media hashtags such as “I don’t want refugees in my country.”
‘Fear from a Taliban takeover’
According to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, some four million refugees, mostly Syrians, currently live in Turkey. An estimated 200,000 Afghans make up the second-largest group.
The UNHCR says nearly 300,000 people have been displaced inside Afghanistan since January, bringing the total number of people forced to flee their homes to 3.5 million.
Selin Unal, the agency’s spokesperson in Ankara, said it had not seen any “significant arrivals… into neighbouring countries” since May but was monitoring displacements.
But Metin Corabatir, president of the Ankara-based Research Centre on Asylum and Migration, said there had been a rise in crossings into Van province, which lies across the border from Iran.
“Since it’s a highly politicised issue, we should treat claims in the media with some caution but according to our local sources, there’s definitely an increase, a visible increase in migrants in Van,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Van governor’s office said more than 27,000 people, not all of them Afghans, were intercepted crossing the border since the start of the year.
Meanwhile, Ali Hekmat, co-founder of the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association based in Kayseri, central Turkey, said many new arrivals were people who had worked for the Kabul government or foreign organisations and had the most to fear from a Taliban takeover.
Afghan migrants often intend to cross Turkey to big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, where they can work in the grey economy to earn money to get to Europe.
On Wednesday, the Turkish Coast Guard said it had stopped a boat carrying more than 200 Afghan migrants believed to be heading for Italy.
Pressure on EU deal
There are fears that greater numbers of Afghans in Turkey could put pressure on its deal with the EU to prevent migrants entering Europe.
It was the entry of more than a million refugees to the European Union in 2015 that threatened the bloc’s integration project, leaving member nations squabbling over how to deal with the influx and emboldening right-wing populists as internal borders were shut.
This led to a migration deal between Ankara and Brussels the following year.
Under the 2016 accord, Turkey agreed to stem the flow of migrants to Europe in return for concessions and 6 billion euros in aid for Syrians.
While it has succeeded in drastically cutting the number of people reaching Europe, the deal has failed to benefit Turkey in the ways originally envisaged.
Pledges to smooth Turkey’s EU accession negotiations and offer visa-free travel to Turks have not materialised.
But the agreement remains the preferred option for European leaders. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a visit to Ankara in April that the deal “remains valid and has brought positive results”.
Such sentiments, however, appear to be wearing thin in Turkey.
In a July 18 tweet written in English, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu shared his “call to the world” in which he said no one could “declare my country an open prison to refugees”.
Following Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s remarks that “states like Turkey… are definitely a better place [for refugees] than Austria, Germany or Sweden,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Monday issued a statement warning: “Turkey will not take a new wave of migration.”
It added: “Turkey will not be a border guard or a refugee camp for the EU.”
Turkish officials have called for the 2016 protocol to be updated, a demand given greater urgency by the arrival of migrants from the east.
Susan Fratzke, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said the EU’s position is weaker than it was five years ago.
“It has made clear that this is a priority issue and the relationship between the EU and Turkey is a lot worse than it was back in 2016,” she said.
“It seems that in order to address the situation according to the EU’s priorities, they’re not in a good position for negotiating relative to the Turkish government, which has a lot of leverage.”
The US, which has set a quota for 125,000 refugees for next year, could offer a home to more migrants, particularly Afghans.
“Given the responsibility and interests the US has in Afghanistan, that could be a tool that could be employed,” Fratzke added.
Turkey is still pursuing additional elements to the deal, according to Corabatir, such as visa relaxations and an improved EU trade deal, while Brussels is trying to limit the arrangement to funding for refugee-related projects.
Dogus Simsek, assistant professor at Kingston University London, whose research focuses on migrant and refugee issues, called on the EU to adopt a rights-based refugee policy that would do more to protect migrants.
“It’s not good for refugees and it’s not good for Turkey,” she said.
“What will happen is refugees will try to reach Europe in irregular ways and we will see a lot of refugees losing their lives, being left alone in the hands of smugglers and traffickers.
“These policies are really putting the lives of refugees in danger.”