Syrian Immigration in Turkish Party Politics
Abstract: Syrian immigration to Turkey has become a controversial topic since the first wave of refugees arrived in 2011. While the immigration issue initially largely remained outside of party politics, it began to occupy a more central place in political debates over the second half of the last decade due to the increasing number of Syrians and their prolonged stay. More specifically, security concerns, increasing economic distress, and the emergence of anti-immigrant parties in Turkish politics transformed the issue into a polarizing element of party politics. By analyzing the position of the five largest political parties in the Turkish Grand National Assembly on Syrian immigrants, this piece illustrates that immigration has become a new dimension of party politics in Turkey. It excludes both smaller parties (i.e., Saadet and Demokrat Parti) and newly established parties such as Gelecek, DEVA, Memleket, and Zafer from the analysis, as these newly established parties have not yet participated in an electoral race and thus lack fully-fledged electoral manifestos. In general, both AKP and HDP adopted pro-immigrant policies, while MHP’s initial emphasis on anti-immigrant policies ceased to exist after its electoral alliance with AKP. In contrast, CHP has recently begun to adopt a more anti-immigrant position as the 2023 Presidential elections approach. Finally, İYİ Party appears to have the strongest anti-immigrant position which shows certain parallels with the European far-right. Future research would particularly benefit from analyzing the position of Zafer Partisi (Victory Party), which has an even more extreme position towards Syrian immigrants compared to İYİ Party.
The humanitarian cost of the Syrian civil war so far is beyond comprehension; causing more than 600,000 deaths and displaced 12 million people, while more than 14,300 individuals were subjected to torture.[i] Nonetheless, a peaceful resolution remains out of hand. Turkey, with the longest borders with Syria and deep social and historical connections, became involved in the conflict since the very onset of protests. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) government viewed Syria as the “jewel in the crown” of its ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy. Party elites were therefore confident they could convince the Assad regime to undertake democratic reforms.[ii] AKP quickly realized the futility of such efforts, however, and declared Turkey’s support for the mainstream opposition in Syria and displayed solidarity by pursuing an open-door policy for those fleeing from the conflict.
Turkey’s anti-Assad stance made the country a safe zone for millions of Syrians. Turkey received the first wave of refugees with the arrival of 58,000 Syrians on 29 April 2011. This number soon exceeded 1.5 million towards the end of 2014, 2.5 million by the end of 2015, and 3 million by early 2017.[iii] As of December 2021, there are 3,737,369 Syrian refugees living in Turkey under “Temporary Protection” status.[iv] Given that based on the 1951 Geneva Convention Turkey only grants refugee status to immigrants from European countries, Syrians are left in a legally ambiguous position with limited access to fundamental rights and services, making them more vulnerable to xenophobic attacks.
Without a legally defined status, Syrians have become the object of political polarization. Furthermore, Turkey’s own domestic political and economic instabilities and regional crises made their presence an even more contested topic. The 2013 Gezi Park protests, the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, and the polarizing elections in 2018 (national) and 2019 (local) deepened the existing cleavages in Turkish politics. In addition, Turkey suffered substantial losses that were directly and indirectly related to the ongoing conflict in Syria. In 2012, a Turkish scout plane was shot down, terrorist attacks targeted the cities of Reyhanlı and Cilvegözü near the Syrian border,[v] while terrorist attacks from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the YPG, the military wing of the PKK’s Syrian offshoot PYD, further destabilized the country. Furthermore, the increasing tensions with Russia caused by the downing of a Russian jet in Syria in 2015 brought Turkey to the verge of a military conflict and suffered significant economic losses from the consequent Russian embargo. In short, the political turmoil of the 2010s transformed the issue of Syrian immigrants into a question of national security as well as polarized party politics, making Syrians more and more vulnerable to increasing xenophobia.
This study analyzes the positions of the five largest political parties in the Turkish parliament (AKP, CHP, HDP, İYİ Party, and MHP) toward Syrian refugees. In general, this piece argues that AKP and HDP adopted pro-immigrant attitudes. While the former justifies the presence of Syrians in the context of religious solidarity, the latter refers to universal human rights and freedoms. Furthermore, MHP appears to be less hostile towards refugees especially since its formal electoral alliance with AKP, while CHP began to adopt a more anti-immigrant position that depicts Syrians as an economic burden. Finally, this piece contends that İYİ Party has an anti-immigrant policy position that shows certain similarities with the European far-right given the strong emphasis on cultural differences.
The next section gives an overview of the general perception of Syrian immigrants in Turkish society as well as the economic exploitation that they are subjected to. In this first section, the goal is to present how and why Syrian immigrants have become a polarizing issue in Turkish society and politics. The following part analyzes parties’ positions and shows that immigration was a novel issue in party politics in Turkey. The penultimate section presents a comparative analysis of the politics of immigration by focusing on the policies adopted by far-right parties in Europe. The final section presents concluding observations.