One of the first things that Tanju Özcan, newly elected mayor of the north-western city of Bolu, did on taking office in April was to cut all aid to refugees living in this small city.
“The municipality of Bolu will stop giving financial support to foreigners because they live more comfortably than our own people,” Özcan said on Twitter soon after he won the March 31 elections.
Observers believe that Özcan’s harsh rhetoric was one of the main reasons why the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate managed to wrest control from his predecessor Alaaddin Yılmaz from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who had governed Bolu for the last 15 years.
Turkey hosts over 3.5 million refugees from Syria, more than any other country in the world, and anti-immigrant sentiment is building across the country and is being exploited by politicians.
Bolu has a population of about 130,000 people and it hosts almost 12,000 refugees. About 2,400 of them are Syrians, while the rest are from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Arab countries. They receive aid mainly from the World Food Program (WFP), the Turkish Red Crescent, and the Ministry of Family, Work and Social Services. Last year, only 50 refugees received support directly from the Bolu municipality, which has now been cut completely by the new mayor.
The unemployment rate in Bolu is relatively low – about 10 per cent – which is less than the national average of 14 per cent. And police data from recent years shows that the crime rate is also low and that no major criminal acts have been committed by refugees.
Nonetheless, many locals insist that refugees are taking their jobs and driving up crime rates.
“Refugees already receive so much aid from the state government, not just from the municipality,” said İsmet Küçük, a university student from Bolu who voted for Özcan. “Their presence has reached a disturbing level and women don’t feel safe outside in the evening anymore,” he said.
“The refugees have opened up grocery stores and coffee shops here – they are better off than we are. I am a student but I have to work to support myself. Many of the refugees who come to my shop are better dressed than the locals. I totally support Mr Özcan.”
“Mr Özcan did the right thing when he decided to cut aid to refugees. Five years ago, I asked for financial aid from the municipality because I needed it badly, but they said they couldn’t help me because they had so many refugees to take care of,” she said. “If I can’t receive help when I need it because of refugees, then I don’t want them in Bolu.”
In a statement issued just after his election, Özcan alleged that “foreign nationals in our country” had received international and domestic aid worth 37 billion US dollars.
“We are giving money to them from our children’s pockets… I will not give a single penny to a Syrian from the budget of the municipality of Bolu,” he said, going on to make it clear he would refuse Syrians business licenses because “I don’t want them to settle in Bolu and Turkey. I am saying it everywhere; these guests have stayed here for too long”.
However, not all his constituents agree with this harsh stance. Local retiree Mustafa Baş does believe that refugees should receive help.
“Those people are our neighbours and our brothers. We should not forget that they escaped war. The municipality should not cut the aid,” Mustafa said.
His brother Davut agreed.
“We fought together in Çanakkale [Gallipoli]. Their men came to our help in WWI, so should we turn our back to them now? How do we know that one day we would not find ourselves in the same situation?” Davut said.
Nizamettin Yildirim is a lecturer at the Vocational School in Bolu and a columnist at the Bolu Gundem newspaper.
In a survey he carried out in Bolu on public attitudes to the newcomers, two-thirds of the 1,441 respondents agreed that “refugees have to go back to their country”.
Yildirim says that he personally doesn’t like the amount of freedom that refugees in Bolu enjoy. “They should live in refugee camps, not in the city,” he commented.
Muhammed Fadhil Salman Al-Ozzami came to Bolu seven years ago from Iraq and now works as a translator at the department of migration management.
He says that during the first four years of his life in Bolu he faced a lot of antagonism, even racism, which changed when he learned Turkish.
“Now that my Turkish is very good, they don’t realize that I am a foreigner. But I witness so many bad situations that the refugees go through every day, mainly verbal violence,” he said.
“When locals in Bolu see something bad in a foreigner, they assume that all foreigners are bad. Locals and foreigners just don’t get along very well,” Al-Ozzami concluded.
Some believe that Özcan’s approach was dangerous and could have far-reaching consequences.
“People who rule this city and this country should promote peace and co-existence. They should be the role models for the society because people look up to them,” said Rabia, a fine arts student from Bolu who asked to remain anonymous. “When the mayor says that refugees should not receive any aid from the local government and that they are a burden, he shapes the public opinion and everyone starts believing that, too. That is not right.”
Özcan did not respond to requests for interview.