As Ankara’s Altındağ is gripped by violence, Turkey’s refugee issue emerges as a political juggernaut

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by Leo Kendrick

The highly publicized influx of Afghan migrants into Turkey’s eastern provinces in recent weeks has reignited a national debate surrounding immigration policies and the country’s ability to deal with a flow of refugees emanating from Syria, Afghanistan, and beyond. This national debate turned violent this past week in Ankara’s Altındağ district, in which two Turkish citizens were allegedly wounded by a Syrian perpetrator in a knife fight. One of the victims, an 18-year-old male, later died of his injuries.


Beginning on Tuesday evening and stretching into Wednesday, Altındağ, a central district of the capital city, was rocked by rioting and mob violence directed at the neighborhood’s Syrian inhabitants. Syrian-owned businesses, vehicles, and homes were destroyed and damaged in the unrest, in which rioters used stones and arson to destroy property owned by refugees. Medyascope’s local coverage of the incident reported that in Turkish-owned and inhabited pockets of Altındağ, residents had to explicitly yell “Turkish house! Turkish house!” to approaching rioters in order to spare their homes from damage.

Much of the discussion following the unrest in Altındağ has centered on the ruling Justice & Development Party and Nationalist Action Party (AKP-MHP) coalition’s ability to control and manage the flow of migrants arriving from war-torn regions beyond the country’s borders. Past agreements, such as a 2016 deal with the European Union allowing refugees to stay in Turkey in exchange for hefty cash payments and relaxed visa restrictions for Turkish travellers, have come under heavy criticism of late, as public opinion has soured on the ruling coalition’s ability to deal with the refugee issue.

Official figures list Turkey as the world’s number one host to refugees, as conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and even as far as Africa have caused an surge in migration in recent years. Domestic concerns over this refugee influx center around economic, political, and cultural reasons, with voters across the political spectrum uneasy about the long-term effects of unchecked migration. Specific concerns such as the replacement of low-wage workers with refugees, Islamification and Arabization of Turkey’s cultural fabric, and importation of radical elements such as the Taliban or ISIS typically take center-stage in anti-refugee rhetoric.


While concerns over the long-term cultural effects of this migration, such as the loss of Turkey’s secular character, are more often associated with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the recent events in Altındağ are unique in that they seem to transcend typical partisan divides. The Altındağ electoral district, which voted 65% for the ruling AKP/MHP coalition in the country’s most recent elections, is not an opposition stronghold, and a large portion of this past week’s rioters are believed to be AKP voters indeed, disenchanted with their party’s management of the refugee issue.

As the unrest in Altındağ has brought to the surface once again Turkey’s ongoing struggle with its refugees, many eyes have turned to the issue’s potential to be a salient political force in the upcoming 2023 elections, one that could threaten the electoral hegemony of the AKP-MHP coalition. The issue has become a consistent sticking point for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose past remarks on the issue have been unsatisfactory to constituents hoping for a long-term resolution to the refugee question. Many believe that failure to adequately address the issue could render the existing coalition politically untenable in the elections two years from now, in which the presidency itself will be contested. Opposition parties have already pounced on the Altındağ events as an opportunity to weaken the AKP electorally, with CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu claiming in a cabinet meeting on Thursday:

 “If you give us the power, we will send all our Syrian brothers back to their country within two years.”

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