A clash over access to public beaches has become this summer’s latest battle in ongoing tensions between the Turkish public and Syrian refugees.

In June, the mayor of Mudanya district in north-western Bursa province called for Syrians to be banned from public beaches.

Mudanya mayor Hayri Türkyılmaz, from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), posted a tweet arguing that “No one has the right to disturb other people or curtail their freedom. 

“I can’t stand watching [Syrians] enjoy and bother our people while our soldiers are being martyred [in Syria], and the economy is deteriorating.”

A few days later, the CHP-led municipal council in Gazipaşa district of Antalya – the hub of tourism in southern Turkey – also called for similar measures.

And in the coastal town of Sinop in the Black Sea region of Turkey, a banner written in Arabic and Turkish recently appeared, hung in front of a beach restaurant.

“Those who do not fight for their homeland cannot enter our beaches,” it read. “Long live the Turkish race.”

According to Turkish laws, everyone has the right to use public beaches, regardless of their place of origin. 

The proposed bans highlight how Syrian refugees are increasingly being depicted as a burden on the Turkish economy and a threat to its culture. According to the ministry of internal affairs, Turkey hosts about 3.5 million Syrians, although due to operational and bureaucratic reasons most have not been officially recognised as refugees.

Eight years after they began to arrive, antagonism towards these refugees is increasingly being expressed in populist and discriminatory policy. 

Back in April, for example, the newly elected CHP mayor of the city in Bolu in north-western Turkey, Tanju Özcan, announced that his municipality would stop funding refugees because “they live more comfortably than our own people”. 

Nationalists on all sides of the political spectrum in Turkey have supported this kind of rhetoric.

In response to the mooted beach ban, some well-known public figures, such as journalist İsmail Saymaz, supported the ban, tweeting, “Is this the coast? Of course, these tents must be removed.”

Others have been appalled, including Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a lawmaker from the Democratic People’s Party (HDP).

“Those who would be against this ban if it were aimed against Turks living abroad are now applauding,” he tweeted. “In fact, that is how fascism works… Racist practices cannot be justified, all human beings should be equal.”

In Gazipaşa, mayor Mehmet Ali Yılmaz vetoed the municipal council’s motion to ban Syrians from beaches, citing “the need for their human rights to be respected”. 

However, Mudanya mayor Türkyılmaz refused to succumb to pressure and instructed police to remove tents set up by Syrians along the coastline. He said that residents had complained about people swimming in their underwear, littering the area and preventing others from using the beach. 

Experts warn that Turkey still lacks a well-framed policy that would enable Syrian asylum-seekers and local people to integrate. 

Ercüment Akdeniz, head of news at the Evrensel daily newspaper, said that many people believed that Syrian refugees received financial support directly from the Turkish government and the public budget. 

“Annual costs or sources of funding are not explained in detail by the government, and that feeds the feeling of unfairness among the regular Turkish people,” he said. “Faced with the economic fluctuations and recession, people direct their anger towards Syrian refugees whom they blame for their problems.”

In this context, the recent anti-refugee rhetoric used by these newly elected mayors was not surprising, Akdeniz continued.

“These attempts by local officials to exclude Syrians from public places are meant to fulfil the expectation of local, nationalist supporters of CHP. That is, of course, a big mistake in the long run because discriminatory policies feed conflicts in a society,” he said. 

Photo: Ercüment Akdeniz, head of news at the Evrensel daily newspaper. (Credit: İlknur Bilir)

Despite the statements of some of their representatives, he continued, the CHP had measured policies on refugees, including a recent well-prepared report on migrant policy in Turkey and proposals to put hate speech against refugees in the same category as hate crime. 

“The only problem with CHP is that they are not implementing consistent policy on Syrian refugees throughout the country,” he concluded. 

Pınar Uyan Semerci, head of the Center for Migration Research at İstanbul Bilgi University, noted that despite the stark ideological differences between many political party supporters in Turkey, they often coincided on their hostile approach to Syrian refugees, as their research on polarization also demonstrates.

She argued that the tone set by politicians and the media when talking about migration policy should be calm and measured, not divisive.

“Until recently, people in Turkey believed that Syrians would eventually return to their homeland,” Semerci continued. “But it turned out that they will stay in Turkey for an unknown period, and this transition from ‘temporary guests’ to ‘neighbours’ has changed the way Syrians are now perceived by Turkish society.”

Photo: İlknur Bilir (left) and Prof. Pınar Uyan Semerci. (Credit: İlknur Bilir)