Syrian Refugees in Turkey – Only Muslims after all

In September 2012 Angelina Jolie visited Turkey in her capacity as United Nations Special Envoy for Refugees. At that time the civil war in Syria had been going on for eighteen months, and there were approximately 80,000 men, women and children who had fled across the border to escape the violence. Ms Jolie and the UN High Commissioner António Guterres expressed high praise for the twelve well-organised camps set up by the Turkish Government to house the displaced Syrians. At the same time, they also urged other UN member states to recognise the need to provide tangible assistance to neighbouring countries like Turkey that were directly affected by the influx of destitute refugees.
Syrian refugee family in Istanbul 2014
That was then – this is now. There are currently 224,000 Syrians in those camps near Turkey’s southeastern border. The UN estimates that to be less than one third of the 700,000 they believe are in the country. The Turkish Government puts the number higher, at around 900,000. Whichever is correct, it is evident that those government camps, however, well-organised, are no longer able to cope with the vast numbers fleeing the war – and hundreds of thousands of homeless, jobless Syrians have now made their way to the larger cities in search of work and accommodation.
Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been in Jordan meeting with Mr Guterres and other regional foreign ministers. According to an article in Hürriyet Daily News, ‘the U.N. refugee chief criticized the international community for “not contributing enough” to solve the issue’.
“Let me be very clear, there has been very little support. There must be massive support from the international community at the level of government budgets and development projects related to education, health, water and infrastructure,” he said. He stressed that the problem of refugees was not only the responsibility of regional countries, but of “all countries in the world.”
“To share the responsibility that has fallen upon the neighboring countries, every country should open its doors to Syrian refugees,” Guterres added.’
For his part, Mr Davutoğlu suggested that what was really needed was international aid to protect Syrian citizens in their own country. While Turkey maintains an open border policy and does not turn refugees away, the huge numbers are placing great stress on the economy, and there is a danger that resentment against them will grow and lead to undesirable outcomes.
This influx of refugees, however, is by no means just a recent phenomenon. The first major wave of immigration was large numbers of Sephardic Jews fleeing from religious persecution in Spain at the end of the 15th century. The so-called ‘reconquest’ of the Iberian Peninsula involved the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews whose families had lived there for centuries. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed Jewish settlers into his empire, reputedly saying “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched us”. By the 19th century, the Ottoman city of Selanik (now Thessaloniki in Greece) was home to the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Many of them relocated to Istanbul after the Greek occupation, and later to the new state of Israel. There are still, however, many synagogues to be found in Istanbul, their congregations worshipping in the archaic Spanish dialect known as Ladino.
It is generally agreed that the Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power during the reign of Sultan Suleiman around the middle of the 16th century, although it continued to extend its territorial reach until the armies of Mehmet IV were notoriously turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683.
From that time, the seemingly invincible Ottomans began losing battles and ground to, in particular, the rising and expanding powers of Habsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia. Habsburg expansion occurred primarily in the Balkan region, much of which had been under Ottoman rule for centuries. For the Russians, a major goal was annexing territories that would give them access to warm water ports on the Black Sea and ultimately the Mediterranean. These territories, Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus, while not directly under Ottoman control, were inhabited predominantly by Muslims and definitely within their sphere of influence.
As Habsburg and Russian forces seized control of these regions, vast numbers of Muslims were killed or uprooted. It has been estimated that between five and seven million refugees flooded into the shrinking Ottoman Empire between 1783 and 1913. More than half of these were Crimean Tatars and Circassians displaced by the Russian southward advance. Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration in the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, in an article entitled Refugees, Exiles, and other Forced Migrants in the Late Ottoman Empire, suggests that an understanding of historical context is essential in the study of refugees. She argues that  ‘by and large the circumstances, experiences, and influences of refugees and exiles in modern history are ignored’. Her article focuses on ‘the forced migration of millions of largely Muslim refugees and exiles from the contested borderland between the Ottoman Empire and Tzarist Russia’. In particular, Professor Chatty examines the plight of the Circassians, hundreds of thousands of whom sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after Russian conquest of the Caucasus was completed in 1864.
In March 1821, encouraged by Lord Byron and other romantically poetical, classically indoctrinated English aristocrats, ‘Christians’ on the ‘Greek’ peninsula began a revolt against their Ottoman rulers. Certainly there were decidedly unromantic atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict, but the end result was that Muslims, whose families had lived there for centuries, and others perceived as Ottoman sympathisers (eg Albanians and Jews) were pretty much exterminated on that side of the Aegean Sea. Those who managed to escape sought refuge on the opposite coast.
This is the context in which we need to the view the later sufferings of Armenians and Orthodox Christians in the early years of the 20thcentury. Ottoman Muslims (who had long coexisted with Christian minorities within their own borders) had learned that defeat by ‘Christian’ powers would quickly result in extermination or expulsion of Muslims from the conquered lands. They had also learned that a tactic of those powers was to incite Christian minorities to rebel, then claim the right to ‘defend their co-religionists’ from reprisals.
A sad result of Britain’s encouragement of the Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919 was the event known to Greeks as ‘The Asia Minor Catastrophe’, when, after their defeat in 1922, more than a million Orthodox Christians were forced to relocate to Greece, their places taken by almost half a million Muslims sent the other way. Other refugee flows to Turkey occurred as a result of state-sponsored terrorism in Bulgaria and Romania from the 1940s to the 1980s when Muslims were forced to change their Turkish-Arabic names. It is estimatedthat 230,000 Muslim refugees and immigrants sought refuge in Turkey from the Balkans between 1934 and 1945, and 35,000 from Yugoslavia from 1954 to 1956. In 1989 a further 320,000 Bulgarian Muslims fled to Turkey and perhaps 20,000 from Bosnia.
In the end, of course, these events are all in the past, and to be fair, some Bulgarian Muslims were able to return to their former homes after the collapse of the Communist regime. In general, however, the developing economy of Turkey (and before it, the struggling Ottoman Empire) has been obliged to deal with huge inflows of impoverished refugees displaced by events occurring beyond their boundaries and control. In large part, they have done this without complaint and with little assistance from wealthier nations. Now, it seems, they are doing it once more.
Again, to be scrupulously fair, the British Government agreed in February to take five hundred of ‘the most traumatised Syrian refugees’. The decision came, however, only after stiff and protracted resistance to UN pleas for support. Even New Zealand has offered to accept 100, which, on a per head of population basis, is about three times more generous. Still, when you set it against the numbers flooding into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (without getting into a comparison of per capita GDP) both look like token gestures.

I too feel sorry for those two hundred schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria, but I can’t help feeling that anger in Western nations seems disproportionate when compared with their lukewarm response to the unfolding human tragedy in Syria. And I can’t help wondering whether, had those Nigerian girls been Muslim instead of Christian, the cries for action would have been quite so strident and widespread.
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5 thoughts on “Syrian Refugees in Turkey – Only Muslims after all

  1. I'm right there with you just about till the end. I agree that more must happen for the Syrian refugees and it was heartbreaking to see the little family you pointed out to us on Friday. It is impressive, too, to read the historical record of Turkey in absorbing refugees, all the way back to the 15th century. But – as one who has been trying to call people's attention to the Nigerian situation – I do not agree that people have been more vocal because the girls are Christian. That thought never crossed my mind nor have I heard anyone say or read anything that suggest that is the case. In any case, weren't they Muslim and Christian? If they were all Christian, I missed that. I think it is difficult for people to hold in their minds all the suffering in the world, and perhaps it is the case that a few hundred girls capture the imagination more than thousands of men, women, and children. My understanding (based on what I've heard on the radio, admittedly), that it is difficult for fundraisers for Syrian refugees to convey to those outside the country a clear sense of which side should be supported, so there is a concern that contributions will actually fall into the hands of the wrong people. To be continued, and thank you.

  2. Just reviewed the numbers….about 17 or so are Muslim, the remainder Christians. Again, to me the issue was about these extremists' hatred of the idea of educating girls – or perhaps that is a smokescreen for simply wanting to wreak terror and get young girls for their own desires.

  3. Yes, Margie, I think your point is valid about people being unable to empathise with all the suffering in the world – and the best they can do is choose a particular cause to support. Still, I and the UN Commissioner for Refugees think the West could take a little more interest in the plight of the Syrians.

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