Anger and fear among Syrians amid Turkish opposition's anti-immigrant campaign

By Khalil Ashawi and Ali Kucukgocmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Like many Syrians in Turkey, Ghaith Sameer is awaiting the result of Sunday's election runoff with trepidation, fearing a win for an opposition candidate who promises to swiftly repatriate migrants.

Sameer fled Syria's civil war in 2012 and is now one of over 3.4 million Syrians living in neighbouring Turkey, where economic woes have aggravated a rising tide of hostility that has washed into the presidential election.

"The opposition's promises frighten me and make me angry as well because they make Turkish citizens hate us," said Sameer, who took Turkish nationality two years ago and plans to vote on Sunday for President Tayyip Erdogan.

While Erdogan has a good chance to win the runoff after falling just short of an outright first-round victory two weeks ago, his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has embraced anti-migrant rhetoric to try to turn the race around.

Kilicdaroglu has teamed up with a far-right nationalist party and promised to repatriate all migrants within a year as posters bearing his face have sprouted across Turkish cities vowing that Syrians will leave.

Although Erdogan has been more welcoming to Syrians and other migrants in Turkey, which has the world's biggest refugee population of 5 million, he has also made moves to accelerate a return of migrants to Syria.

For Syrians, the election and the anti-migrant turn in Turkish politics have cast new uncertainty over their future, causing many to wonder if they will have to start again having already fled a deadly war in their homeland.

Sameer, 38, said many of his friends and relatives were putting off plans until after the election when things would be clearer, with his brother even waiting to replace a broken food processor.

"Most Syrians now feel as if the course of their entire lives depends on the results of the elections," he lamented. Even though he has Turkish citizenship, Sameer has still been making alternative plans "in case anything happens".

He has even considered moving with his wife and two small children to a country where conditions for Syrians might be better, such as Egypt or the Kurdish region of Iraq.


When Kilicdaroglu announced a deal on Wednesday for far-right Victory Party leader Umit Ozdag to back him in the runoff, Ozdag said their promised departure of migrants would lift "the burden" on the economy and stop Turkey becoming "migrant-istan".

Playing on xenophobic stereotypes that accuse Syrians and Afghan refugees of theft, sexual harassment and other crimes, Ozdag said repatriating migrants would "make the streets safe again".

Such language and Kilicdaroglu's new anti-migrant posters that hang from lamp posts and over underpasses have been particularly alarming for Syrians.

"Can anyone with even a shred of humanity accept to see signs hanging on the walls of schools and crowded streets threatening to deport Syrians?" asked Ahmad, a 40-year-old Syrian who like Sameer now has Turkish nationality.

Ahmad, who withheld his family name fearing repercussions, said he was worried how the signs would affect Syrian children who can read Turkish because they are educated in the language, and described it as "repulsive and disgusting hate speech".


Most major warfare has been paused in Syria for years, with Turkey controlling enclaves across the border where it backs rebels against President Bashar al-Assad and which are already crowded with displaced people from other parts of Syria.

Life across the border is brutally hard, with damaged infrastructure, a ravaged economy and the constant threat that war could suddenly erupt again. People in rebel-held territory fear reprisals if the government retakes those areas.

With their fate a growing political issue, many Syrians may still feel unease even if Erdogan beats Kilicdaroglu on Sunday, noting his administration's plans for new housing projects across the border to accelerate their eventual repatriation.

Like other regional leaders, Erdogan is also mending fences with Assad, raising the possibility of a rapprochement that could worry many Syrians in Turkey.

Saad Abdalkader, who has lived in Turkey since 2015, said he could envisage no stability in Syria while Assad held power and was considering travelling onwards to Europe in search of safety.

He recounted an incident when a friend was robbed but feared he would be assaulted if he went to the police to illustrate the precarious position many Syrians feel themselves to be in in Turkey.

Omar Kadkoy, a Syrian working at the Ankara-based economic think tank TEPAV, said Syrians still faced "misery and fear" in their home country which would feel like a foreign land to their children.

"It isn't an easy decision to make," he said of returning voluntarily, adding that for Syrian children in Turkey: "They're moulded by everything that is Turkish. To them, Syria is a bed-time story."

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi and Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Angus McDowall and Nick Macfie)