Ukrainian refugees, Russian exiles seek shelter in Turkey

Already a host to millions of Syrians, Turkey emerges as a safe haven hub amid Europe’s war.

Ukrainians living in Turkey protest against Russia
A woman kneels as Ukrainians living in Turkey protest against Russia's military invasion of Ukraine at Ulus districit in Ankara, on March 5, 2022 [Adem Altan/AFP]

Istanbul, Turkey – For more than a hundred years, Turkey, Russia’s southern neighbour across the Black Sea has hosted waves of refugees and exiles.

In the 19th century, Circassians fled to the Ottoman Empire from a genocide by tsarist Russia.

Then in the early 1920s, an estimated 200,000 took shelter in Istanbul from the Russian Civil War, increasing the city’s population by a fifth. They included the famous author Vladimir Nabokov.

Few stayed, however, with the majority resettling in Paris, London and New York. More recently, the 1990s and 2000s saw refugees arrive from war-torn Chechnya.

Now, as Moscow continues its military campaign in Ukraine, many anti-war Russians have flocked to Turkey.

And while the majority of Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighbouring EU countries, a significant number are also settling in the country.

The interior ministry announced on March 7 that upwards of 20,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in the country, though that figure is likely to have increased substantially since then.

On the evening of March 14, in a crowded passport queue at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport, where hundreds of people waited for about half an hour to pass through, it appeared as if more than half of those in line held Ukrainian passports.

On March 5, Kristina, 36, left Kyiv with her two sons – aged three and 16 – and her mother by car to the Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi, where they boarded a bus to Istanbul that passed through Romania and Bulgaria.

The journey took a day and a half.

In a snap decision, Kristina had decided on Turkey because she thought she might be able to seek refuge with her ex-husband, the father of her younger son who lives in Istanbul.

But upon arrival, he refused to let them stay with him.

The family ended up on a basement floor in Turkey’s largest city before volunteers helped them find a spacious, suburban modern apartment where they now live with another Ukrainian family.

In Ukraine, she packed just one bag with some clothing, medicine, travel documents and her teenage son’s computer, Kristina told Al Jazeera by phone.

The apartment’s owner is allowing Kristina and her family to stay for three months, rent-free.

Meanwhile, according to some estimates, at least 200,000 Russians have fled their country since the war began in late February amid a crackdown on anti-war sentiment and growing fears for the economy.

With European airspace closed, they have left for destinations to the south and east, such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan – and Turkey.

But because of Western sanctions against Russia, many are unable to access their bank accounts and are struggling to get by.

“This is just a useless piece of plastic to me right now,” said 25-year-old Diana, brandishing a bank card from her wallet.

While Russia was partially banned from the global SWIFT payment system, and Visa and Mastercard stopped their operations there, Russians can still pay with their bank cards inside the country.

But those who are abroad are unable to use their funds, which includes stranded holidaymakers and people who have fled in recent weeks.

Diana, who was working as a motion designer in St Petersburg, now earns $4 a day working at a small café in the Fatih district of Istanbul after the owner took pity on her. But this is not enough to cover the rent at the hostel where she stays, she said.

“As I understand, the owner of the hostel understood this was a mass refugee crisis and even cancelled other people’s reservations so we wouldn’t be kicked out on the street,” she told Al Jazeera. “I don’t even know where to go. I hope that I can find a job and relocate somewhere.”

‘Our doors and hearts are open’

The influx of newcomers came as Turkey already hosted some four million refugees, the majority of whom are Syrian.

As Turkey’s economy has declined in recent years, the tendency among the public to blame refugees has increased, and polls indicate that most citizens want Syrians to return.

Tensions have boiled over into violence, with attacks against refugees and the neighbourhoods they live in reported in Istanbul and Ankara

“The anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey has a great deal to do with depicting especially Syrian and Afghan males as the ones who fled without fighting for their countries. On the other hand, the first convoys carrying Ukrainians to Turkey consisted of women and children,” Omar Kadkoy, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, told Al Jazeera.

“As such, populist media outlets and politicians could use similar images to draw a painting of favoured/unfavoured asylum seekers and refugees, and further inflate the anti-sentiment towards specific vulnerable groups,” Kadkoy added.

Following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasised that Turkey is a safe place for refugees.

“We will continue to keep our doors and our hearts open,” he said in a speech last week.

“Yesterday, they came from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, they have come from Ukraine, and we don’t know where they will come from tomorrow. Do not worry, this country will always continue to be a shelter for the oppressed.”

Kadkoy said, “Welcoming Ukrainians fleeing the war is ethically unquestionable. Furthermore, Turkey has been sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Extending open arms to Ukrainians is another way of sharing responsibility with Ukraine and other countries that took in Ukrainian refugees.”

Another recent arrival is Greg Mustreader, a popular YouTuber and blogger who fled to Turkey from Moscow with his girlfriend a week ago, afraid of political persecution for being outspoken against the war, which he insists on calling a war and not, as it is officially known, a “special operation”.

Mustreader told Al Jazeera he considers himself quite privileged compared with others in his situation, explaining that he is fluent in the field of cryptocurrencies and able to convert these to dollars or lira at cryptocurrency exchange offices in Turkey.

He planned to stay in the country for now and keep producing content on both his Russian and English YouTube and TikTok channels, urging his Russian followers to use VPNs as more and more social media is blocked; Russia has recently targeted Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

“I feel that I have to try to do my best to at least do something to influence the situation in my country, even while being abroad,” he said.

‘Delicate balance’

As well as managing several groups of refugees, Ankara also has to tread carefully as an ally of both Russia and Ukraine – and has taken on the role of mediator, along with France and Israel.

Although Turkey is part of NATO, its relationship with Moscow is more complicated than the rest of its allies.

For example, it has not closed its airspace to flights from Russia, nor has it imposed any sanctions. At the same time, it has sold combat drones to Ukraine which have inflicted attacks on Russian forces.

“From our point of view, it may look a bit weird but from Turkey’s point of view, it makes sense. And it’s consistent with the type of relationship that Ankara has with Moscow,” Eleonora Tafuro, a research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, told Al Jazeera.

Turkey has many delicate interests it does not want to jeopardise by upsetting Russia, Tafuro said, including the continuing conflict in Syria, to which both countries are a party, as well as a Black Sea pipeline carrying Russian gas directly to Turkey, a pipeline which could help make Turkey a crucial energy hub as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates.

Turkey hosted the first meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, in Antalya.

While the talks did not lead to any tangible results, Tafuro argues it was at least a diplomatic success on the side of the Turks.

“It’s a delicate balance, and Turkey needs to maintain it,” Tafuro summarised.

Source: Al Jazeera