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Tensions Rise in Turkey Over Syrian Refugees

FILE - In this March 19, 2017 photo, Syrian refugees walk past stores with signs in Arabic and Turkish, in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey.
FILE - In this March 19, 2017 photo, Syrian refugees walk past stores with signs in Arabic and Turkish, in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey.

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, and three million of them are Syrians. Most live in towns and cities across the country. But this year, a series of clashes between Turks and Syrians could be a sign that for some Turks, patience is running out.

Earlier this year, Istanbul witnessed unprecedented violence against Syrian refugees after they were blamed for the death of a Turkish youth.

In Istanbul’s Esenler district, which is home to about a half million people, almost one-fifth are Syrian refugees. It is one of the poorest areas of the city. Local elected representatives like Mustafa Guven are on the front line of coping with the strains of a large refugee population. Guven says the recent clashes are a worrying sign.

"The people of the Republic of Turkey are not monsters. They help Syrians as much as they can; they share their bread with them. Those Syrians who don't appreciate this are in the wrong. Of course, we see disputes and conflicts among the youth. But Syrians should be quieter. They are in a foreign country after all – a country that gave them refuge. They should keep a lower profile and be more grateful, but they don't have this sensitivity," said Guven.

In the Ali tea shop, it’s not hard to sense the growing unease among local Turks. Sipping his hot tea, Ozan, a hairdresser, who owns a salon, is quick to vent his frustrations.

"Our patience is running out and our point of view has changed. Over the last five years, a large number of people have migrated here, and their number is constantly growing. Our state has already spent over $30 billion on the Syrians. There is no financial contribution from Europe either," said Ozan.

The Nasim barber shop is popular among Syrians. All but one who work here are from Syria. Esenler has been good to shop owner Mahmoud Al Aian. He arrived from Syria when he was 19. Five years later, he has three businesses: a barber shop, a restaurant, and a clothing company. Al Aian is keen to play down tensions.

Al Aian said, "The Turks won’t come to attack Syrians. I mean we haven’t seen anything like this where we are. No such things happen here. If anything happens, you call the police of the Turkish government and they immediately come and solve it."

Turkish authorities appear to be increasingly concerned about the tensions. In some areas of Istanbul, as in other parts of the country, signs in Arabic touting businesses belonging to Syrians have been removed in a bid to lower their profile. The move comes as the Turkish media continue to devote a great deal of coverage to issues involving Syrian refugees. A recent study found that Syrians are the main targets of hate speech, second only to Jewish people, in the Turkish media.

Professor Ahmet Icduygu, an expert on migration and refugees at Istanbul’s Koc University, says Turkey is facing a growing problem over the presence of the refugees.

"There is a kind of tension growing in Turkey and there’s already debate, like in other Western countries, that they are taking our jobs, they are getting privileges such as, for instance, Syrian students can go directly to university, etc. I think we can hear more and more events of unfortunate kinds of attacks on the migrants, some tensions growing, increasing discrimination, xenophobia increasing, those kinds of things," Icduygu said.

Opposition parties are set to make the government’s Syria refugee policy a key issue in the months ahead.