Leader of right-wing party warns Turkish citizens of ‘Syrian threat’ in anti-migrant social media post

Ümit Özdağ, leader of the newly established far-right Victory Party (ZP), warned Turkish citizens of a “Syrian threat” in a video shared on Twitter on Monday, sparking outrage among academics, activists and politicians.

In the video Özdağ visited a shop run by Syrian owners and asked them if they had a permit for the shop. He then  asked them if they ever thought about returning to Syria. When the owner said he did not want to go back, Özdağ left the shop.

Sharing the video on Twitter, Özdağ said there were 900,000 shops in Turkey owned by Syrians, which constituted a threat to Turkey. “This man came seven years ago and can barely speak Turkish,” he said. “He has acquired Turkish citizenship and even a gun license. He was able to open a shop, and there are thousands of Syrians like him.”

Mustafa Yeneroğlu, a deputy from the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), said the real threat was xenophobic people like Özdağ. “This man is targeting ordinary people who are just getting on with their lives,” he said. “What is even more dangerous is that the mainstream media allows such people a place on their platforms.”

Nesi Altaras, the editor of Avlaremoz, an online magazine focusing on topics concerning Turkey’s minorities, said Özdağ had no right asking the shop owners about permits. “Migrants are so intimidated by the increasing xenophobia, they can’t even protest this ridiculous request by Özdağ,” he said. “Özdağ is behaving as if he is superior to the Syrians and has the right to do anything.”

Altaras drew attention to the 12,000 people who had liked Özdağ’s video and said they were potential perpetrators of hate crimes.

Journalist Erem Şentürk criticized Özdağ and said he was a right-wing populist in search of new victims.

This is not the first incident in which Özdağ has targeted migrants. In November he  started a signature campaign to throw Syrian and Afghan refugees out of Turkey. Sharing a link to the campaign on social media, Özdağ urged people to participate to curb the “migrant invasion.”

Refugees in Turkey have been increasingly targeted by hate speech and hate crimes and are blamed for many of Turkey’s social and economic troubles.

Turkish media including both pro-government and opposition outlets have fueled and exploited the flames of hatred against people who fled their countries and sought refuge in Turkey.

Last week news of three Syrian men being burned to death in western Izmir province emerged.

A Turkish man named Kemal Korkmaz poured gasoline over the Syrians, identified as Mamoun al-Nabhan, 23; Ahmed al-Ali, 21; and Muhammed el-Bish, 17, while they were asleep and set them on fire on Nov. 16. The perpetrator admitted in his testimony to a prosecutor to have committed a hate crime.

Prominent public figures shared their outrage on social media and said the hatred of refugees and migrants had come to a point where they were being set on fire. Some people pointed out that hate crimes had become so normalized in the country that nobody was even talking about the terrible incident.

According to the latest figures provided by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on Nov. 22, Turkey is home to a total of 4,038,857 refugees from around the world. Speaking to parliament’s Planning and Budget Committee, Soylu said 3,731,028 of these were Syrian refugees who are residing in Turkey under temporary protection status. The number of refugees with international protection status is 307,829.

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