Ancient Haven for Refugees Sees Signs of Strain

Ceyland Yeginsu, New York Times, July 31, 2014

A Syrian boy stood on a white stool under a giant Turkish flag in Taksim Square, selling cold water one hot evening last week. His sales efforts went mostly unnoticed, until a Turkish teenager approached him and pulled him by the ear, berating the boy for working on his territory.

“These Syrians have no shame–stealing our spots when we go to break our fast for an hour,” said Ibrahim Esin, 18, referring to the daily fast during the month of Ramadan, which ended Monday. “They stick around here like flies, either begging on the streets or stealing our customers. It’s a real nuisance.”

A few days later, the Syrian refugees, who had been a familiar sight in the streets, sleeping in parks and squatting in abandoned homes here over many months, were difficult to find in central Istanbul.

“The municipality came and swept them all away,” said a restaurant worker on this city’s main shopping boulevard, Istiklal Street.

Turkey has kept its borders open to displaced Syrians fleeing that country’s bloody civil war, taking in more than a million refugees since the fighting began three years ago. Many of the refugees began spreading out from border towns and refugee camps into cities in search of jobs and more permanent places to live. The government says there are 67,000 registered refugees in Istanbul, though various reports from nongovernmental organizations put the unofficial figure at 200,000. Their presence is fostering resentment here, and some Turks have demanded that Syrians in Istanbul be sent back to the camps.

The government has responded in the past week by rounding up Syrian refugees across the city, putting them on buses and sending them back to camps in the south.

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Syrian beggars meander through dense traffic, sometimes selling water and tissues, but more often infuriating drivers by tapping on windows with open palms extended. Other refugees have taken on street trades in what they say is an attempt to preserve their dignity, but their efforts have created resentment from Turkish vendors who do not want the competition.

The Turkish government, an opponent of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, did not anticipate that the war in Syria would last this long. When Turkey opened its border to refugees in 2011, the government presumed that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered and refugees would soon return home.

Now Turkey faces its own security threats in an increasingly unstable region. There are jihadist fighters taking refuge on its border with Syria, and their extremist counterparts in Iraq have taken hostage dozens of Turkish diplomats. The influx of refugees is transforming the social fabric of major cities, sparking violent protests.

In one recent demonstration in Kahramanmaras, a city in southeast Turkey, knife-wielding demonstrators chanting, “We do not want Syrians!” attacked Syrian shopkeepers.

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