Teenage Syrian refugee killed amid wave of racist attacks in Turkey

Ahmet Handan El Naif, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee worker, was killed in Antalya on Tuesday as racist attacks on Syrians have been spreading across various Turkish provinces since Sunday, the Artı Gerçek news website reported.

El Naif was confronted by three individuals who arrived on two motorcycles. He was reportedly beaten and stabbed by one of the assailants, leading to his death at the scene. Following the attack, police arrested three suspects, identified as R.Ö., Y.Y. and İ.Ö., all of whom have prior criminal records.

The assault comes after a series of violent attacks on Syrian refugees in Kayseri, where locals targeted their homes, workplaces and vehicles. The unrest quickly spread to other cities. In Gaziantep on the Syrian border, groups chanted nationalist slogans while vandalizing Syrian-owned vehicles and businesses. In response to the violence against Syrians in Turkey, protests broke out in Syria’s northwestern regions controlled by Turkey on Monday. Protesters attacked Turkish trucks and pulled down Turkish flags.

The incident has prompted strong reactions on social media. Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a prominent human rights advocate and opposition MP, posted on X, criticizing the political climate that has fueled such attacks. “Do you feel any shame or regret?” Gergerlioğlu wrote, addressing Ümit Özdağ, a politician known for his anti-Syrian stance. “How many times did I tell you to abandon these irresponsible policies? Here are the results of your provocative politics. Are you happy?”

Özdağ, leader of the far-right and anti-migrant Victory Party (ZP), has been a vocal critic of the Syrian refugee presence in Turkey, advocating for their mass deportation and often blaming them for various social and economic issues. Özdağ previously warned Turkish citizens of a “Syrian threat” in a video shared on X. His rhetoric has been accused of inciting xenophobia and contributing to a hostile environment for refugees in Turkey.

In recent years refugees and minorities have become the groups most targeted by negative political rhetoric and hate speech. In such an environment, Syrians have been at the center of anti-refugee sentiment, expressed in particular on social media and often by political parties. With inflation soaring in recent years, they have been blamed for many of Turkey’s social and economic ills.

While accusations increased as the country’s economy deteriorated, anti-Syrian sentiment among the Turkish public reached a tipping point following massive earthquakes in southern Turkey in February 2023 that wreaked widespread devastation. More alarmingly, anti-refugee and anti-Syrian rhetoric has been picked up by opposition politicians who have resorted to racist and xenophobic speech, thinking they are criticizing the government.

In 2023 Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the soft-spoken former main opposition leader and presidential candidate, said refugees need to be urgently expelled from the country.

Discriminatory discourse and hate speech have a long history in Turkey. Since the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic, hate speech has been used in political campaigns. Armenians, for example, have been portrayed as enemies and associated with violence, terrorism and massacres (in the context of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict). Greeks were targeted following escalating tensions between Greece and Turkey over drilling and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Jews have also been a target of hate speech, particularly after Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

Some Turkish media outlets has in recent years become an important instrument in demonizing migrants and refugee groups, in particular Syrian refugees, by circulating hateful political rhetoric and discriminatory remarks.

However, hate crime as a legal term did not appear on the public agenda until the murder of Armenian journalist and activist Hrant Dink in 2007. Since this tragic incident, hate crime has been used and discussed more frequently in the Turkish media and by the general public.

report by the Stockholm Center for Freedom titled “Hate Speech and Hate Crimes Against Syrian Refugees in Turkey” delves into the history of xenophobic and discriminatory speech in the country. It explains how refugees and minorities have become the groups most targeted by negative political rhetoric and hate speech. The report also examines the communication tools used to spread hate speech, the inadequate integration policies and the reasons behind the normalization of hate crimes. It includes reported cases of hate speech and hate crimes against Syrian refugees and concludes with recommendations for the Turkish government, international organizations, EU institutions, civil society, rights groups and media outlets.

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