Friday night in the early hours of the morning, hundreds of photos and videos flooded the internet. Images of Istanbul and Ankara bring to mind scenes of the war in neighboring Syria. The tense situation brought on by a failed military coup gripped the country for hours. Thousands of Turks flooded the streets in protest despite the threat of violence looming from the presence of tanks, fighter jets, and helicopters patrolling the cities. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s return to Istanbul was met with intense celebration from the Turkish people as He promised to retake the cities and prosecute those responsible. The aftermath of Friday’s violence has left many nervous for the future of democracy and governance in Turkey. President Erdogan, a heavily contentious political figure, has been praised by the religious community who see him as a religious reformer and champion of Islamic values while secularists see him as the end of Kamal Ataturk’s secular nationalism. The coming days and weeks, mass arrests and crackdowns will take place as Erdogan will solidify power and remove all remnants of participants and sympathizers of the coup. What will this mean for Syrian refugees?
In the middle of this political turmoil, the recent events could have major implications for the millions of Syrians currently settled in Syria or moving through Turkey into Europe. While it is still early to evaluate the direct impact of the coup, these events could negatively impact the EU-Turkey deal that provides an expedited process for Syrian refugees entering from Turkey into Europe in exchange for the deportation of Syrians from Greece back to Turkey. The deal led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Erdogan has been widely criticized by many in the humanitarian community including Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) who recently rejected EU funding in protest to the deal. Additionally, prior to the coup, Erdogan announced the government’s decision to allow Syrian refugees the opportunity to acquire Turkish nationality in efforts to ease the migration to Europe. While the policy was welcomed by many as a humanitarian step toward a solution, many in Turkey including the political opposition didn’t agree. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish political analyst and columnist, told reporters that this move might be seen by the opposition parties as an attempt by Erdogan to “import voters” who would support him out of gratitude. The twitter hashtag #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliİstemiyorum (#Idon’twantSyriansinmycountry) was trending internationally via Twitter shortly after the plans were announced as users capitalized on the opportunity to criticize the Turkish president’s policy on social media. The polarization of political opinion regarding the Turkish President following the coup could lead to a further increase in anti-refugee sentiment building in the country.
As a nation largely praised for its “open border” policy, Turkey could see drastic changes in foreign policy particularly regarding the war against the so-called “Islamic State”, support for the Syrian opposition, and relationship with the European Union. With millions of Syrians in Turkey, the coming political decisions made by President Erdogan majorly impact the country’s support for Syrian refugees. Hundreds of non-government, aid, and humanitarian organizations operating in Turkey will be affected as will their ability to respond to the needs of both Syrians in Turkey, but also those Syrians assisted in cross-border humanitarian operations.