Earthquake fuels anti-Syrian sentiment in Turkey amid desperate conditions

By Maya Gebeily, Ali Kucukgocmen and Henriette Chacar

ANTAKYA (Reuters) – The devastating earthquake that has struck Turkey and Syria has fueled resentment among some Turks over the country’s millions of Syrian refugees, who have been anecdotally accused by some of looting amid the destruction and chaos.

Several Turks in quake-hit cities have accused Syrians of robbing damaged shops and homes. Anti-Syrian slogans such as “We don’t want Syrians”, “Immigrants should be deported” and “No longer welcome” circulated on Twitter.

Syrians made homeless by the earthquake said they were thrown out of temporary camps, and a Syrian opened an emergency shelter in the city of Mersin only for his compatriots after they were confronted with racial slurs.

“We have stopped going to rescue centers to watch because people start yelling at us and pushing us around when they hear us speaking Arabic,” said a Syrian who asked not to be named. “People accuse us of looting all the time, but that’s just to create discord.”

The combined official death toll in Turkey and Syria from the quake now stands at more than 37,000 and is expected to rise further as hopes of finding many more survivors dwindle.

Hundreds of thousands have been left homeless, waiting for days in some areas for food and shelter. Looting has been reported by residents and aid workers, and several foreign aid teams have been temporarily suspended due to a deteriorating security situation.

Turkish authorities arrested 48 people for looting, the justice minister said on Sunday, without saying where they were from. President Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to crack down on looters.


Turkey is hosting nearly 4 million Syrian refugees after opening its borders to those fleeing the civil war that broke out there in 2011. Many are concentrated in the south of the country near the Syrian border. Almost half a million Syrians live in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which was badly hit by the earthquake, which corresponds to a quarter of the population.

Resentment towards the Syrians is not new, but the earthquake has exacerbated tensions.

Turkey has spent more than $40 billion housing the refugees since 2011 at a time of great economic hardship in the country. Some Turks see Syrians as cheap labor taking jobs and services, and the issue of Syrian refugees should be a key issue in this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

“Syrians walk around with their empty backpacks and fill them up in shops. There was a lot of looting here,” says Ahmet, a dentist sitting across from the rubble of his former practice.

Some offers of help on social media were openly anti-Syrian.

“Survivors of the earthquake are welcome to stay in my house in Ankara for a year on condition that they are not Syrian,” the tweet said, which included a picture of a wooden villa. Other offers of help or emergency shelters have set the same condition.

Syrian former opposition politician Mustafa Ali runs a temporary shelter for about 250 Syrians in Mersin and said he had an agreement with local authorities to keep them away from shelters for displaced Turks.

“There’s a difference in culture, in the way of life, in the language, and that separation could solve a lot of those problems,” he said.

“At first, many homes didn’t ask people if they were Turkish or foreign. But the next day, when there was anger and some racist comments, we thought maybe there could be issues that they and we can do without.”

Many Syrians initially saw Turkey as a stepping stone to a new life in Europe, but then got stuck after Turkey signed a deal with the European Union to halt the flow of migrants to Europe.

Some Syrians living in Turkey undocumented and displaced by the earthquake are afraid to ask the authorities for help, fearing it could expose them to possible deportation.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday that a new influx of refugees from Syria to Turkey was “out of the question”.

Abdallah Aqdi Al-Tayyar, 22, a Syrian refugee from Idlib who was evicted from his home in Maras, said his request for a tent was denied so he took shelter in a mosque.

“Some people say the earthquake is our fault,” he said. “This racism has happened before, but now it’s worse. It’s hurtful.”

(Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Christina Fincher)


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