Turkey will take “drastic measures” to deal with the influx of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees into its biggest city Istanbul, including forcibly sending them to camps in the southeast, the city’s top official said.
Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu on Wednesday said there were now 67,000 Syrian refugees in the city and legislation would be adopted that could see them effectively expelled from the city of 15 million to refugee camps closer to Syria.
Mutlu said authorities would take “drastic measures” to contain the negative consequences of Syrian refugees in Istanbul, including sending those begging in the streets back to the refugee camps “without their consent”.
His comments came amid signs of growing tensions over the increasingly visible presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey as well as protests in several southeastern cities.
Mutlu said 500 were already sent back to a tented camp in southeast Turkey last month.
Turkey, a vocal critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, currently hosts more than a million Syrian refugees after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced an open-door policy for those fleeing the conflict.
Less than a third of these are living in camps along the volatile border and hundreds of thousands are eking out a precarious existence in big cities, including Istanbul.
Syrian refugees have become a familiar sight in Istanbul, with whole families huddled together on street corners and begging for money in upscale and tourist areas.
Although refugees living in Istanbul are “much more qualified” than those living elsewhere in Turkey, Mutlu claimed that those begging in the street are disturbing other parts of the Syria refugee community.
“Representatives of the Syrian community in Istanbul are unhappy that their compatriots are begging in Istanbul. They say those people are damaging their image as a refugee,” he said.
Mutlu said Istanbul authorities knew where refugees were living, as well as their education and income levels, and would consider this information in determining further action.
His comments sparked a furious debate on social media, with some accusing Mutlu of discrimination and others using the chance to complain bitterly about Syrian refugees.
“Isn’t [a camp on the border] a kind of concentration camp for refugees?” prominent social studies researcher Foti Benlisoy asked on Twitter.
“They have invaded the busiest streets of the city. How long do we have to put up with this horrible situation?” asked another Twitter user, Sebla Tanik.
Tensions over the influx of Syrians into Turkey – where in some towns refugees now outnumber locals – have boiled over in recent days.
Police clashed with demonstrating locals on Sunday in the southeastern city of Kahramanmaras. Angry protesters on Sunday burnt Syrian-owned shops and cars.
On Monday, a group of masked men wielding knives and clubs attacked several shops run by Syrian refugees in Adana, another southern city.
In the latest flare-up on Tuesday, locals attempted to lynch a Syrian driver after he hit a Turkish family with his car, injuring a mother and her five-year-old daughter.