Migrants bear the brunt of rising nationalism ahead of Turkey’s presidential runoff

ISTANBUL, Turkey – As Turkey enters the final stretch to Sunday’s crunch presidential runoff, politicians are turning up the heat on migrants. In Istanbul’s immigrant neighbourhoods, the political discourse is driving migrants and new Turkish citizens into President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s arms.

The aroma of Kabuli pulao – a heady mix of steaming rice, marinated lamb and toasted almonds – mingles with the delicately herby whiff of mantu dumplings at an Afghan restaurant in Istanbul’s working class Zytinburnu district.

A solitary waiter brings out glasses of chai zafran – saffron tea – with a beaming smile. But there aren’t too many customers in the eatery this afternoon and it’s not the aromas from the kitchen that are preoccupying the clientele.

“I feel it. I smell it. I hear it, and it’s been increasing over the past few months,” admits Mansour Tawab* as he sips his post-lunch chai zafran.


Masood Tawab at a virtually empty Afghan restaurant in Istanbul's Zytinburnu district on May 25, 2023.
Masood Tawab at a virtually empty Afghan restaurant in Istanbul’s Zytinburnu district on May 25, 2023. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24


Tawab is referring to the stench of ultra-nationalism sweeping Turkey ahead of the May 28 presidential runoff between the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the opposition’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

The 37-year-old Afghan national has a Turkish residence card, and can legally live and work in Turkey. But he cannot vote. The discourse in the lead-up to the final round however affects him deeply and it has forced him to rethink some of his dearly-held political positions.

The 2023 Turkish elections was supposed to be all about the economy, with the opposition focused on spiraling inflation and plummeting living standards due to Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policy of keeping interest rates down.

But in the tense weeks ahead of Sunday’s runoff, raw nationalism has sidelined economics, with refugees turning into an easy target for politicians maneuvering the complexities of Turkey’s vast ultra-nationalist spectrum in a bid to win votes.

The nationalist swing has seen the nominally social democrat Kilicdaroglu to turn up the anti-refugee rhetoric while forging uneasy alliances with ultra-nationalist politicians.

On Wednesday, Umit Ozdag, leader of the anti-immigrant Victory Party, endorsed Kilicdaroglu in the latest lap of an electoral race for ultra-nationalist support. At a press conference in Ankara announcing his decision, Ozdag said his party and Kilicdaroglu agreed on a plan to send back migrants within a year “in line with international law and human rights.”

For the migrants at the heart of the political fracas, it has been an exceptionally trying time, leading some to draw political conclusions that may not be in the best interests of liberal democracy in Turkey.

What’s in a name?

Six years after he arrived in Turkey in 2012 from his native Syria, Ahmad Ajjan got a new nationality and a new name.

The 44 year-old translator from Aleppo was in the process of applying for Turkish nationality, when the subject of his surname came up during an interview with an immigration official.

“Ajjan” in his new country sounded too similar to the Turkish “ajan” which means agent or spy. He was asked to choose a Turkish surname, and in the flurry of the moment, settled for “Erdogan”.

A die-hard supporter of the Turkish president, Ajjan today feels conflicted about his choice. “I feel very happy when I meet supporters of [President] Erdogan. I feel very unhappy when I meet opponents of Erdogan,” he explains.

At times, his new surname has cost him translation jobs, he believes. “Some people told me that with that name, you can only dream of working with us again,” he recounts.

In a bitterly divided country, Ajjan has therefore settled for a nomenclature coexistence that reflects his dual identities. “I am Ahmad Ajjan and my official name is Ahmet Erdogan,” he explains.

On the subject of his political loyalties though, Ajjan is unequivocal. “I’m supporting Erdogan because he gave me a chance to live again,” he says, recalling how he fled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on anti-government protesters and activists.

Ajjan voted for Erdogan in the 2019 presidential election as well as the first round of the 2023 vote on May 14. Come Sunday, and he will vote again for the leader who offered him safety, he says.

“Erdogan has an agenda, he has a plan for 2050, 2071, these opposition politicians don’t have a plan for the day after the vote,” he dismisses. “Also, I support Erdogan for another different reason: from the Islamic perspective, he supports Muslims around the world.”

‘Blame everything on Syrian refugees’

Erdogan was one of the biggest supporters of anti- Assad groups in the Syrian war, providing refuge to predominantly Sunni Muslims fleeing the Baathist Alevi regime in Damascus.

Turkey was the only one of Syria’s neighbours to provide citizenship en masse to Syrians fleeing their country’s brutal civil war. As Turkish resentments over the free education and health care provided to Syrians mounted, there were whispers of a demographic plan by Erdogan to increase his vote base with the new arrivals.

Since the 2001 uprising, Turkey has provided citizenship to more than 200,000 Syrians, according to the interior ministry. The figure is too insignificant in a country of 84 million people to sway an election.

But with 4 million refugees on its soil, Turkey today has become the world’s largest refugee-hosting country, according to the UN. With the deepening economic crisis, the Turkish welcome mat for the “Sorkys” – a mix of “Syrian” and “Turk” – began to fray.

“Turkish people like to enjoy life. When the economic situation becomes difficult, they complain. When they complain, they blame everything on Syrian refugees,” notes Ajjan.

In August 2021, Ozdag formed the anti-immigrant Victory Party, which explicitly calls on refugees to leave Turkey. Ozdag’s rise in just two years in national politics, with his endorsement of Kilicdaroglu in the presidential runoff, reflects the growing anti-refugee sentiment in many quarters of Turkish society.

In the May 14 parliamentary elections, nationalists and ultra-nationalists swept 22% of the vote, placing politicians such as Ozdag and presidential candidate Sinan Ogan, who won 5.2% of first-round vote, in kingmaker position ahead of Sunday’s runoff.

Just days after the first round, as opposition supporters struggled to come to terms with Erdogan’s 49.5% vote share, Kilicdaroglu released a campaign video featuring the normally mild-mannered politician promising to send “10 million refugees” home if he wins the runoff.



Braving the police for a taste of home

Over a sumptuous Afghan lunch in Istanbul’s Zytinburnu district, Tawab describes himself as a man of the left, sympathetic to Kilicdaroglu and opposed to Erdogan’s crackdowns on dissent.

In August 2021, when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, Tawab was in Turkey, completing a master’s in business administration. The young Afghan, who had worked in the NGO sector in Kabul, immediately lost access to his homeland and has not seen his family members for two years.

Kilicdaroglu’s “10 million refugees” speech felt like a knife wound, Tawab explains. “I’m really disappointed with his speech. We’re not here for fun. We’re here to add value, to work hard and you’re just asking us to leave right away just to get votes. I’m very worried about my future, I’m disappointed,” he explains.

As a qualified Afghan working remotely for a US company from Istanbul, Tawab is better off than his less fortunate Afghan brethren in this city. But as the anti-migrant sentiment rises, even Tawab is not exempt from police harassment these days.

“I live around 10 kilometers away from here. I used to come here a lot for the food, but these days, I don’t come here often because I’m scared,” he explains.

Zytinburnu has long been an Afghan immigrant neighbourhood, reflecting the historic and cultural ties between Turkey and Afghanistan. Over the past few years, the district developed a rough edge as it turned into a launching pad for Afghans attempting the migrant route to Europe.


Zytinburnu has long been an Afghan immigrant neighbourhood, reflecting the historic and cultural ties between Turkey and Afghanistan.
Zytinburnu has long been an Afghan immigrant neighbourhood, reflecting the historic and cultural ties between Turkey and Afghanistan. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24


While more affluent community members live in other parts of Istanbul, the authentic food in Zytinburnu has always attracted Afghans longing for a taste of home. But it’s getting riskier these days, Tawab explains. “When I come here, I always carry three identity documents: my residency card, my driver’s license and passport. I’m a legal resident, but I always fear I’ll be detained. The police is always stopping us to check our IDs, sometimes even when we have valid IDs, we’re taken to the detention centre and held for hours before we’re released,” he notes.

The 2023 election campaign has rattled his sense of security as well as his political ideals. “I do understand why Kemal Kilicdaroglu is doing this. I understand why citizens don’t like 5 million refugees coming and getting all the benefits of free education and health care,” he notes.

But with the rise in anti-refugee sentiments, his personal stakes in the 2023 presidential election have changed. “Now, I would prefer Erdogan to win this election,” he confesses. “It’s a very selfish wish – for my safety. My life, my safety is more important than who owns this country.”

(* Name changed due to security concerns.)

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