Study finds misperception hinders public embrace of Syrians

Published 26.10.2017 21:27
Updated 26.10.2017 21:33
A Syrian student at a school for refugee children in the southern city of Hatay holds a Turkish and Syrian flag.
A Syrian student at a school for refugee children in the southern city of Hatay holds a Turkish and Syrian flag.

A study by police academy researchers revealed that prejudice is the main factor fueling negative public opinion of Syrian refugees and shows that perceptions do not corroborate the facts in terms of refugees' impacts on society

"They are taking our jobs." "They are criminals." These are the common beliefs of people hostile or at least unsympathetic to refugees in any part of the world. Yet, these opinions are not entirely true in most cases. The same apparently applies to Turkey as a new study by a group of researchers from the country's police academy shows. Titled the "Perception of Threat about Syrian Refugees: Prejudice and Facts," the study says people are wrong about almost everything they believe about refugees, particularly when it comes to their impact on society.

For instance, 86.6 percent of the interviewees say the arrival of refugees from war-torn Syria contributed to an increase in unemployment. However, in the case of the capital of Ankara, which hosts a large refugee community, the unemployment rate was 11.4 percent, compared to 12.11 percent in 2010, one year before the beginning of the unrest in Turkey's southern neighbor Syria. One in five people interviewed by researchers found Syrians "dangerous," but they also admitted that they had never encountered a Syrian refugee on the street.

Associate professor Salih Zeki Haklı, one of the authors of the study, says there is no scientific proof of the perceived negative impact of Syrians in the Turkish economy or public.

Turkey hosts 3.2 million Syrians according to the official figures, and a small fraction of them live in refugee camps concentrated in the cities bordering Syria. Istanbul hosts the greatest number of Syrian refugees with 511,380, followed by the southern border provinces of Şanlıurfa with 445,584 and Hatay with 416,589. For the third consecutive year, Turkey has hosted the largest number of Syrians worldwide, which accounts for around 45 percent of all Syrian refugees in the region, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) June statistics. The country was also declared the world's largest refugee-hosting country on World Refugee Day this year.

The sudden influx of refugees was unprecedented for Turkey which saw such a large flow of people fleeing conflict before and during the Gulf War in Iraq. Turkey pursues an open-door policy for Syrian refugees and has been praised for its humanitarian assistance. Nevertheless, refugees faced outrage in isolated incidents, especially in small Turkish towns where rumors about crimes they were allegedly involved in sparked unrest. Social media is also awash with comments denouncing refugees by far-right groups and individuals. Still, the general public is mostly hospitable toward them according to experts.

The police academy study says that, although problems are inevitable with such a huge number of refugees, the factors feeding the hatred toward them perpetuate lies and disinformation.

The study delves into the "economy, crime and socio-cultural" concerns, and how people's views of Syrians corroborate with reality.

On the economic side, apart from the previously mentioned unemployment data for Ankara, the study says no major changes were recorded in the rates in cities that host a high number of refugees. For instance, the unemployment rates in Gaziantep, Kilis and Adıyaman, cities near the border, dropped below 10 percent in 2015 from above 10 percent before the war erupted. Interviewed Turkish citizens also say the state decreased social aid to poor families, allegedly to allocate more aid to Syrians. A total of 70 percent of the interviewees agreed with this, yet, the real numbers on the social aid show the contrary. The number of social aid recipients in the Turkish population reached to 12.4 million in 2016 from 10.5 million in 2010, and the total social aid amount rose to TL 199 million ($53 million) in 2016 from TL 185 million in 2014.

The study also shows that Syrians contribute to the growth of the Turkish economy, contrary to the public perception that they live off taxpayers' money. Syrians were partners in 1,764 of the companies established last year, with a combined capital amounting to TL 272 million.

On crimes involving Syrian refugees, the study, compiled of official statistics, found Syrians convicted of a crime in 2015 - the year with latest available crime figures - made up only 0.59 percent of the year's total convictions. Criminal incidents involving Syrians only totaled 1.32 percent of the total criminal incidents that year, according to Interior Ministry figures.

The study concludes that the problems "linked" to the presence of Syrian refugees were not as high as claimed, and the main problem was people associating the isolated and temporary problems with the entire community. "In particular, recipients of public services tend to associate problems in those services with the presence of Syrians," the authors said. The study acknowledges that refugees still have an impact on social and economic life but not as high as widely perceived.

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