ISTANBUL — A Syrian boy stood on a white stool under a giant Turkish flag in Taksim Square, selling cold water one recent hot evening. His sales efforts went mostly unnoticed, until a Turkish teenager approached him and pulled him by the ear, berating the boy for working on his territory.
“These Syrians have no shame — stealing our spots when we go to break our fast for an hour,” said Ibrahim Esin, 18, referring to the daily fast during the month of Ramadan, which ended July 28. “They stick around here like flies, either begging on the streets or stealing our customers. It’s a real nuisance.”
A few days later, the Syrian refugees, who had been a familiar sight in the streets, sleeping in parks and squatting in abandoned homes here over many months, were difficult to find in central Istanbul.
“The municipality came and swept them all away,” said a restaurant worker on this city’s main shopping boulevard, Istiklal Street.
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Turkey has kept its borders open to displaced Syrians fleeing that country’s bloody civil war, taking in more than 1 million refugees since the fighting began three years ago. Many of the refugees began spreading out from border towns and refugee camps into cities in search of jobs and more permanent places to live.
The government says there are 67,000 registered refugees in Istanbul, though various reports from nongovernmental organizations put the unofficial figure at 200,000. Their presence is fostering resentment here, and some Turks have demanded that Syrians in Istanbul be sent back to the camps.
The government has responded recently by rounding up Syrian refugees across the city, putting them on buses and sending them back to camps in the south.
Istanbul, a city of 14 million, has been attracting refugees since the late 15th century, when Jews from Spain fled the Inquisition and settled in the Ottoman capital.
Syrian beggars meander through dense traffic, sometimes selling water and tissues, but more often infuriating drivers by tapping on windows with open palms extended. Other refugees have taken on street trades in what they say is an attempt to preserve their dignity, but their efforts have created resentment from Turkish vendors who do not want the competition.
The Turkish government, an opponent of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, did not anticipate that the war in Syria would last this long. When Turkey opened its border to refugees in 2011, the government presumed that Assad’s days were numbered and refugees would soon return home.
Now Turkey faces its own security threats in an increasingly unstable region. There are jihadist fighters taking refuge on its border with Syria, and their extremist counterparts in Iraq have taken hostage dozens of Turkish diplomats. The influx of refugees is transforming the social fabric of major cities, sparking violent protests.
In one recent demonstration in Kahramanmaras, a city in southeast Turkey, knife-wielding demonstrators chanting, “We do not want Syrians!” attacked Syrian shopkeepers.
Government officials have started to acknowledge that the refugees will stay in Turkey for a while, but analysts say Turkey has no long-term strategy to accommodate them.
“The attacks against the refugees that we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks are alarming and the government needs to take precautions, but that doesn’t mean pulling the refugees out of cities and cramming them into the camps,” said Piril Ercoban, the administrative coordinator of the Association for Solidarity with Refugees, a Turkish nongovernmental organization. “Sending people to these camps by force and isolating them from society is against human rights, and though it may sound harsh, such actions are starting to make these camps look like concentration camps.”
In some low-income neighborhoods in Istanbul’s historic Fatih district, refugees are working illegally, and large extended families live in tiny apartments. Mustafa Shihabi, 30, lives with 16 family members and guests in a three-room apartment.
In the main room, which has two couches, a television and a shared Quran, family members watched recent news reports about the war back home in Syria.
Shihabi recently lost his job at a bag factory where he was making $150 a week. His two brothers, the only other family members to have found work, have been able to pay only half their $750 monthly rent.
“Last month my boss didn’t pay me,” Shihabi said. “He shut down his workshop and left for Adana without any explanation. Our landlord is annoyed and told us that if we don’t pay up we’ll be kicked out without notice.”
Shihabi’s anxiety is shared by his family and the many refugees here who, without the protection of Turkish labor laws, are vulnerable.
“I hear they are going to send people back to the camps. Is that true?” asked Shihabi’s father, Adnan, who described the camps as prisons. Shihabi tried to reassure his father, telling him the government’s efforts are directed at the beggars.
Outside the apartment, life plays out harmoniously for the Turks and the refugees, but some locals are skeptical that the peace can be sustained.
“The Syrians are good people, but it’s hard to tolerate 32 people sharing one room,” said Cemal Nazlica, a Turkish furniture-store owner, who said the refugees would be better off in the camps. “They make too much noise and have a long way to go to learn our ways,” he added.
While Nazlica sat on his doorstep reading a newspaper, two of Shihabi’s relatives walked by complaining about the expensive produce that they had bought in the local market.
“Every day you have to spend money in Istanbul,” said Saniha Adbad, 54. “At least at the camps everything is free. In Syria I had a job. I was a tailor and my wallet was bursting with money.”
“Now look what I have,” she said, pulling out a 10-cent piece from her pocket. “Nothing.”