The refugee crisis in Turkey and the fight against nationalism, racism and xenophobia

Murat Karin
Migration is as old as human history. From the migration of tribes that changed the course of history, to migration to avoid war; from exile, to the search for a land of peace, freedom and human rights; from the quest to have a better life, to emergency evacuation to avoid hunger or natural disaster. 
The formation of nation states came hand in hand with nationalism. Nationalism in turn nurtured xenophobia, and usually an ethnic cleansing process. Today, nationalism and xenophobia in many parts of the world are mainly targeting refugees. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia divide the working class, while letting those who are in reality responsible for the underlying reasons forcing people to migrate off the hook. It is our duty to expose them and counter their rhetoric. 

Nationalism and the attacks on “foreigners” are closely connected to the historical formation of the Republic of Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire was a multicultural empire as it was inhabited by people from various national and religious backgrounds.In the 19th century, the Ottoman sultans sought the solution for the survival of the empire in modernizing reforms – imperial edicts, the declaration of a constitutional monarchy, establishment of a modern army, etc. However, despite all these modernization efforts, the empire was crumbling. The Union and Progress Party, which came to power at the beginning of the 20th century, realized that the “survival of the empire” could only be possible if modernization was realized within a nation-state, based on a national capitalist class. But here they faced another problem: a strong capitalist class did not exist, and those who held the majority of the capital were largely non-Muslims. Therefore, the Union and Progress Party started a process of “nationalizing” capital, to transfer the wealth from non-Muslims to “Turks and Muslims”. They then proceeded to create a single “type” of citizen. The definition of this “model citizen” was simple: they should be Turkish and Muslim. The road to creating this model citizen passed through genocide (of the Armenians) and population exchange (in 1922 between Greece and Turkey) etc. 

This policy of creating a “model citizen” continued even after the foundation of the Republic. Two examples of this policy are the imposition of an arbitrary and disproportionate Wealth Tax on Non-Muslims in 1942, and the Istanbul Pogrom, orchestrated by the governing party itself, on September 6-7, 1955, against the Greek minority. 

Nowadays, during the reign of the AKP (the Justice and Development Party of Erdogan), nationalism still continues to play a key role in state policies. Indeed, the AKP regime is characterized by its neo-Ottoman dreams: to recreate the Ottoman empire by expanding Turkey geographically (though not, of course, to return to its multicultural character). In the first years of its rule, the AKP strongly opposed the founding principles of Kemalist ideology, including traditional Turkish nationalism. But as has been seen, particularly after 2015, they did not ditch nationalism as they once claimed they would, but simply put it on the shelf for later use. Indeed, the AKP entered into a coalition with the fascist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) after the elections in June 2015 and continued to implement very fierce nationalist policies.

Neo–Ottoman aspirations and the role of Turkey in Syria and Afghanistan

When the Syrian civil war broke out, the coalition of AKP and MHP was already in place. 

The drama in Syria initially started with some protests as part of the Arab Spring and was a reaction to the repressive Ba’ath regime, its dictatorial rule and the economic conditions and misery brought about by it. However, it quickly turned into a bloody civil war. Many imperialist powers, including Turkey, got involved in the process. We have to make it very clear: Turkey is one of the biggest culprits in the Syrian civil war. Just as the USA saw this war as an opportunity to overthrow the USSR-residual, pro-Russian Ba’athist regimes in the Middle East, Turkey saw it as an opportunity to realize its neo-Ottoman dreams and to block the aspirations of the Kurdish people on its southern borders. 

Erdogan supported jihadist groups in Syria to achieve his aims. Financial aid, weapons and logistical support was provided to jihadist groups, border controls were relaxed, jihadist organizations were allowed to recruit militants and to use Turkey as their base etc. The Turkish regime did not hesitate to make the lives of the Syrian people hell to fulfil its imperialist dreams and bears a large part of the responsibility for driving people to become refugees.

Afghanistan was a different story. There was a long-lasting civil war in Afghanistan and there was a certain flow of Afghans migrating to Turkey in recent years due to this. Recently, with the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, there has been an increase in the number of people who want to leave the country. Turkey seems “safer” for them, or at least a step towards Europe. 

Deep exploitation of refugees

For Erdogan and Turkey’s ruling elite, the refugees are a source of income and a bargaining tool in its relations with the EU. With the agreement on refugees signed in 2016 as a result of long negotiations, the EU committed to pay €6 billion to Turkey. Even after this agreement, Erdogan continues to use refugees as a threat to Western powers. He made it clear some years ago, when he forced refugees to flee to Greece at its northern borders along the Evros river. 

At the same time, the refugees serve as a source of income for the ruling elite. Immigrants and refugees are exploited as illegal workers and therefore a cheap source of labor. How important this is for the ruling class is summed up in AKP member Yasin Aktay’s statement that “if we send the Syrians back, the economy will collapse”. The exploitation of immigrants and refugees is also used as a tool to drive down the wages of native workers. 

At the same time, refugees and immigrants are being used to shape internal politics as well. Last August, after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the regime used xenophobia against Afghans to launch another attack on Syrian refugees. Racism and xenophobia were stirred up by images of thousands of Afghans crossing the border and videos of Afghans lowering the Turkish flag and unfurling the Taliban flag on social media and mainstream media outlets. This video proved to be fake, as the Taliban flag was unfurled by a Turk in a youth center in 2018, where flags of many countries, including Afghanistan, were lowered. Nonetheless, this propaganda resulted in a pogrom in Ankara, in the Altındağ area, where attacks were carried out on Syrians’ homes and workplaces. 

With the anti-refugee, xenophobic and racist propaganda, Erdogan is once again trying to divert the attention of the working people, only some months away from a very important election. It will not be the first time. He has done it before, by declaring war on the Kurds, trying to divert social anger towards a different target by throwing the nationalist card on the table whenever he is cornered.

The opposition is also taking advantage of refugees

Unfortunately, it is not just the AKP regime that is blatantly using refugees and immigrants for its own purposes. The main opposition party (Republican People’s Party – CHP) chairman, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said in an interview in July: “We will say our goodbyes to our Syrian guests and will send them to their homes in two years during our rule. This will be one of the five priorities of our administration. Our plans and programs are ready.” …  “The real survival problem of our country is the flood of refugees. Now we are caught in the Afghan flood.” 

The CHP mayor of the Bolu province, Tanju Özcan, announced plans to charge “foreign nationals” 10 times more for water and waste services. He said “We want them to leave. This hospitality has gone on for too long. Turkey has become a dumping ground for migrants”. Ilay Aksoy from the IYIP (the Good Party), an offshoot from the fascist MHP and another big opposition party, praised the words of Özcan. “I sincerely congratulate Bolu Mayor Tanju Özcan. We expect the same seriousness and determination from Istanbul and Ankara (municipalities).”  

In addition to those, a study conducted by Istanbul Bilgi University’s Center for Migration Research found that more than half of those voting for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), arguably the country’s most left-wing party on social issues, and about 65 percent of supporters of Erdogan’s conservative AKP, consider refugees an “economic burden” and believe they are receiving “favorable treatment”.  

This anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric is directing the anger about the current economic and political situation towards the victims of this problem rather than those responsible. This only benefits the ruling elite, rendering them unaccountable for their policies. 

Is there a problem with refugees? 

Migration is a global phenomenon. It is a byproduct of events that take place on a global scale, and for this reason, a realistic and permanent solution can only be achieved on a global scale – through the struggle to end wars and hunger. That is, through the struggle to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a system that does not oppress human beings.

However, this does not mean that we should not make demands on nation states, here and now. 

Turkey has had an inflow of refugees for a long time now, and the regime is using them for reasons of domestic and foreign policy. The Left should confront the rhetoric against refugees with specific arguments, and not adapt itself in an opportunistic way in order to swim with the tide. 

One of the arguments being used against refugees is that the country has no “excess capacity”. But what is the national ‘capacity’ of a country? Meaning, who controls the wealth and how it is distributed to meet the needs of the population?

But even if we suppose for a minute that Turkey has “exceeded its capacity”, who is responsible for that? The Erdogan regime and its neo-Ottoman aspirations in Syria has a major responsibility for creating millions of Syrian refugees. Even if we would agree that there is a national capacity problem (which we don’t), in any case the refugees are not to blame for it. Instead, there are necessary steps that can be taken to ease the pressure of people being squeezed together to live in very small areas. 

Refugees are packed into specific cities in the south-east, which are already impoverished. Granting them travel documents so they could leave the country, building infrastructure like housing, hospitals and schools for everyone, granting them welfare and workers’ rights are some of the measures that can be taken to tackle the problem for both native people and refugees, which is created by mass movements of populations. All this should be paid for by those who profited wildly from the Erdogan administration, the bankers, developers and other capitalists.

Blaming the refugees does not offer a solution in any form, unless this so-called capacity problem is intended to be solved by genocide or ethnic cleansing! 

Another argument used in Turkey against refugees, is that militants from jihadist groups such as ISIS and the Taliban can enter the country disguised as refugees. This is an argument that is understandable and should be taken seriously. Jihadist militias may have actually entered the country to be used by the regime at crucial times. 

However, the government does not need such dirty tricks in order to bring in jihadist militias. They control the borders and are free to let anyone in. The regime does not even need to “import” jihadists in a country where there are thousands of “local” jihadists. If the regime in Turkey needs the help of jihadists in order to stay in power, just as it did after the June 2015 elections, it is able to do so without relying on “foreign jihadists”. Not wanting jihadists in this country is a valid aspiration of the people, and it is a huge problem that jihadist militias are in the country and at Erdogan’s disposal. However, not accepting refugees into the country is not the solution to this problem. Equating the jihadist militia problem in the country with the refugee problem is a colossal manipulation. 

Finally, the opponents of asylum seekers put forward an argument about the hypocrisy of Western countries in this regard. Indeed, Western countries see Turkey as a “refugee ditch”, or a “refugee dam”. Merkel, the German Chancellor at the time, made a statement about Afghan refugees and said: “We should work together with Turkey on this issue”, seeing Turkey as a barrier to stop the migration wave before it reaches EU borders. However, immigrants are not responsible for this hypocrisy, on the contrary, they are another victim of it. 

Fight against nationalism, racism and xenophobia

The refugee crisis is not a crisis of the AKP and will not be solved once they are gone. On the contrary, it may escalate. Refugees are not responsible for the major problems the Turkish people face. Economic depression, devaluation of Turkish Lira, impoverishment, inflation, poverty and being futureless are the results of the neoliberal policies of the Turkish ruling elite and of the crisis of capitalism. These problems will not be eliminated just by changing the ruling party. And they will not be eliminated even if every last refugee is sent back to their home country. On the contrary, refugees are victims of the economic depression, just as Turkish nationals are, and they can be a part of the solution. Refugees and Turkish citizens can fight together for better salaries and living conditions. Their oppressors are exactly the same, namely the ruling elite and capitalism. The stronger the forces that fight against them, the better. 

Therefore, we must stand against this discriminatory, racist, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant rhetoric. We know it will spread unless we fight against it. Racism is not limited to Afghans and Syrians. Based on the interests of the ruling elites, social, national and religious groups such as socialists, Kurds, Alevis and Armenians are also the targets of it. 

As members of the working class, our enemy are not the refugees fleeing war, and the barbarism of ISIS or the Taliban. Our enemies are the ruling classes that have made both the lives of refugees, immigrants and ours a nightmare. As socialists, it is our most fundamental duty not to be deceived by this propaganda of the rulers and to reveal who is responsible for the problems we face.

We fight together:

  • against poverty and exploitation – for investment in infrastructure in our cities and neighborhoods, in housing, roads, hospitals and schools for everyone. Make the rich pay for all these!
  • for decent housing for all, for welfare provision to the ones in need and jobs with full rights for everyone.
  • for a humane refugee policy – grant the refugees asylum and the right to move freely within the country or travel documents to leave the country if they want to. Create humane reception centers, that will receive the refugees and help them become integrated into local societies. 
  • No more war! We fight together against the capitalist system that is based on profit and exploitation, for a socialist society where the working people will have the control and management of the means of production regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality or sexual orientation. 
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