The earthquake and Ozdag’s propaganda: Syrians in Turkey are also victims
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
The Turkish city of Mersin became a shelter for earthquake-affected Syrians and Turks affected in the southern province of Hatay, with the disaster turning most of the city’s buildings into rubble.
A Syrian family who survived certain death after the collapse of the building in which they were staying in the city of Antakya, like the rest of the city’s residents, went to Mersin, close to the province of Hatay. City authorities directed it to live in a university dormitory temporarily.
Among the Syrian families who have decided to settle temporarily in Mersin is Omar’s family (45 years old), who hopes that the discrimination that Syrians have long experienced in Turkey will indeed end, he told Enab Baladi.
Omar arrived with his family in Mersin on the morning of February 11, five days after the earthquake. Upon their arrival in the city of Mersin near Hatay, the authorities directed all displaced persons to the province’s university dormitories, where they settled.
According to Omar, more than 150 Syrian people were in that university dormitory, along with far larger numbers of Turkish citizens.
At midnight of the same day, Omar was sitting with his children near the window of the room inside the university dormitory when he saw large numbers of police vehicles gathered at the entrance of the building, followed by the arrival of the “Gendarmerie” (Border Guards) and army forces, carrying elements deployed around the said building.
An hour later, loudspeakers began calling for Syrian refugees, informing them to gather at the entrance to the university dormitory to receive instructions from the army forces in the area.
Omar and his family, along with more than a hundred other people, came to join the gathering and found buses awaiting them to take them to another location not identified by the authorities and not known to the displaced.
The security forces completely evacuated Syrians from the said building, transporting them through a group of buses that did not take the same route, each taking a separate route. Some of these buses went to another province, while others left families in uninhabited areas.
Omar was lucky, he told Enab Baladi, as his bus did not leave Mersin province. A police car accompanied them to one of the religious centers dedicated to teaching the Quran in the city to shelter displaced Syrians temporarily.
“The sheikh in charge of the building refused to house us. The police officer nearly kissed his hands until he persuaded him to open the center doors for families to sit there temporarily”, Omar added.
Expulsion “in disguise”
Omar was not looking for a special place, he was just looking for a place to protect himself and his family from the rain and cold, he told Enab Baladi.
“We were happy to enter the religious center, which had a small mosque headlined by a Mihrab, where families gathered in its surroundings because air conditioners were distributed in this area. However, the sheikh refused to have everyone sit in one place, asked the women to sit on the second floor, and the men remained on the first floor”, added Omar.
After organizing the rows of displaced persons inside the center, the sheikh proceeded to a small safe containing the building’s electricity switches, cut off the power from the building, then left the door open, Omar told Enab Baladi.
Families had no choice but to leave the building, which had become as cold as the street, with no blankets or even lighting, Omar continued.
After a harsh night spent with another group of Syrians on the streets of Mersin, he went to the northern city of Trabzon, where his relatives live, to stay with them temporarily.
They took us to the middle of nowhere
Social media activists circulated videos of Syrians transported by Turkish authorities from the city of Mersin via buses to an unknown destination.
It later turned out that neither the authorities nor the drivers of these buses were aware of the destination, as the buses stopped outside the city on a highway, asking passengers to get off the bus.
Activist Waleed Ezel posted on his personal Facebook account a video showing three buses that he said carried Syrian refugees transported by authorities from the city of Mersin.
After these buses left the city, they demanded that the displaced people get off near a road in the middle of nowhere, while the passengers refused to get off and demanded that they be transferred to an area containing at least houses.
The time of the earthquake in southern Turkey came as Turkey’s presidential elections approached, with opposition parties striving to exploit the issue of Syrian refugees for political gains.
The tragedy that struck 10 Turkish cities did not deter Turkish politicians from this anti-refugee rhetoric, which ultimately led to the expulsion of Syrians from the university dormitories in Mersin.
The Turkish politician and leader of the Zafer Partisi (Victory Party), Ümit Özdağ, known for his hostility to refugees, was the first to begin spreading rumors about refugees during the earliest days of the earthquake, namely that Syrians were looting destroyed buildings and robbing shops in Hatay province.
These statements were circulated by social media activists during the days following the earthquake, along with a host of other misinformation.
With the Turkish government announcing the reception of displaced persons from earthquake-stricken areas in university dormitories, Özdağ called on his supporters to gather in front of the Mersin university dormitory to demand that Syrians be removed from universities and replaced by Turks.
Turkish politician Ümit Özdağ set February 9 as the date for protests he previously called for to expel Syrians from university dormitories.
While the Turkish Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, announced that the information circulated on social media about the Syrians was false and unfounded, the police and army teams were already expelling Syrian families residing in the Mersin university dormitory.
Among the Syrians who were expelled from the university dormitory were those who also held Turkish citizenship, but the police forces dealt with them as Syrians, according to cases monitored by Enab Baladi.
We also interviewed Syrians who hold Turkish citizenship and who had been expelled from university dormitories; they said that the police gave them a choice between staying or leaving, but they preferred to leave.
While Omar, who was forced out of the university dormitory, holds Turkish citizenship, part of his family resides in the country under Temporary Protection; the police told him that he did not have to leave but that his family could not stay in the same dormitory.
This was not the first time racist rhetoric has escalated against Syrian refugees in Turkey, but the voluntary relief campaigns carried out by young Syrians during the earliest days of the earthquake have been the talk of Turkish activists till now.
In the first reflection of these campaigns by Syrians, Turks, and activists of other nationalities on the reality of the situation in the country, the Turkish politician Ümit Özdağ was expelled from several cities he visited during the days following the earthquake.
In Gaziantep, a member of the rescue team called Özdağ out on his racism and xenophobia, as events on the ground proved that people of all nationalities were here working to save lives.
Official Turkish government figures repeatedly appeared to belie Özdağ’s news of the opening of the border for Syrians to enter the country due to the earthquake and other information about Syrians residing in university dormitories as if it was a tourist resort.
The mayor of Isparta, Şükrü Başdeğirmen, also came out to talk to Özdağ during the latter’s visit to the city. During the conversation, he denied a number of rumors that Özdağ had started earlier.
Police hunting down the source of rumors
On February 13, the Turkish General Directorate of Security (Emniyet Genel Müdürlüğü) announced that it had arrested 14 people out of a total of 56 wanted persons, accused of spreading rumors about the recent earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey, noting that the police are tracking down the rest of the wanted people.
According to a press release published by the said directorate on its official website on Monday, February 13, it launched online “virtual patrols” operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to prosecute this type of cybercrime.
The patrols were being followed up by the Directorate General of Security’s Department of Cybercrime, it stated.
The statement added that 475 online accounts were being tracked for posting “provocative posts” on social media platforms about the earthquake “in order to create fear and panic.”
The total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is about 3.5 million, and approximately a million and 750,000 of them reside in the recently earthquake-stricken cities of southern Turkey.
Gaziantep hosts the largest proportion of Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, with 460,150 refugees, followed by Hatay with 354,000 Syrian refugees, Urfa with 368,000 refugees, and Adana with 250,000 refugees.
About 550,000 refugees live in Kahramanmaraş, Kilis, Adıyaman, Osmaniye, Diyarbakır, and Malatya, according to the latest statistics issued by the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management on February 2.
A large number of Syrians in Turkey died as a result of the earthquake, which affected 10 Turkish provinces, with the province of Kahramanmaraş as its epicenter.
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