Tanju Özcan, the controversial mayor of the northern Turkish province of Bolu, has defied calls to restrain his anti-refugee policies again and plans to add to the plight of Syrian refugees in the province.
Özcan Monday announced that he would propose to the city’s assembly a motion to charge a tenfold fee for the water bills of "foreigners," in reference to refugees from neighboring Syria. Özcan, elected as mayor from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in 2019, drew the ire of human rights organizations for cutting off aid to refugees.
Özcan came under fire on social media for being "populist" and "fascist" with some even calling to file a racial discrimination complaint against him.
The Turkish Human Rights and Equality Agency (TIHEK) late Monday stated that the statements by Özcan were followed closely.
“Our institution tasked with securing the right for equal treatment by focusing on human dignity, preventing discrimination in using legal rights, freedoms and acts toward the relevant principles, is following the statements within the framework of law No. 6701 of the Human Rights and Equality Institution.”
Ankara deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Emrullah Işler, also criticized the statements, saying: “I ashamedly listen to the racist and provocative words of CHP Bolu Mayor Tanju Özcan toward Syrians. It is our humanitarian duty to help those in need and share our bread.”
Mehmet Bekaroğlu, Istanbul deputy of the main opposition CHP wrote Monday on Twitter that "this mentality is not only against the Constitution but also conflicts with conscience and humanity."
"CHP is a social-democratic party, its program does not include xenophobia, it will never accept such an initiative that smells of hate speech," he said.
CHP Deputy Chairperson Seyit Torun responsible for local administration said Tuesday that starting these discussions of withholding a basic right such as water conflicts with the party’s policies. “Our party’s red line is that no one is subjected to discrimination and mistreated on the basis of ethnicity or religion.”
Meanwhile, Ilay Aksoy of the Good Party (IP), known for her anti-refugee stance, has praised the words of Özcan. “I sincerely congratulate Bolu Mayor Tanju Özcan. We expect the same seriousness and determination from Istanbul and Ankara.”
Özcan on Tuesday continued to defend his words saying: "I stand behind everything I said."
Özcan did not step back despite criticism and was as defiant as ever when he spoke to reporters Monday about his new decision. “They didn’t go when we cut off the aid. They didn't go when we ceased issuing business permits. So, we have now decided to take new measures,” he said.
Özcan said they would also charge "foreigners" tenfold in solid waste tax collected by the municipality. The decision, which will be subject to the assembly’s approval, will cover all foreigners in the city but Özcan’s displeasure is particularly directed at Syrian refugees, who consist of a minority in the province.
The proposal will be discussed by the assembly next week. Representatives of Özcan’s party and CHP ally, the IP, make up a majority in the assembly, five more than assembly members from the AK Party and its ally Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The mayor said he was doing it so that “foreigners” will leave. “They overstayed their welcome. If I had authority, I would deploy municipality officials to throw them out by force,” he said, reminding that he allocated buses for free for refugees when Turkey briefly opened borders to Europe for them.
“Let them sue me. I openly say the reason for the decision I made,” Özcan, a lawyer, said. “I don’t hide anything and I know the municipality will be subject to an investigation by inspectors (of the Interior Ministry) after this decision. I know people will file complaints against me. I know people will talk about human rights and they will call me fascist. I simply do not care,” Özcan defiantly said.
The decision comes amid a rising anti-refugee sentiment among supporters of opposition parties, propelled by an alleged influx of Afghan migrants to the country, with more people fleeing the Taliban in the Central Asian country.
Turkey is home to the biggest Syrian refugee community in the world, around 3.8 million. Through charities and funds from abroad, Turkey takes care of refugees as the war in neighboring Syria seemingly has no end in sight.
Refugees are widely embraced by the public, but the opposition parties often look to fuel a xenophobic, anti-refugee discourse. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu repeatedly pledges to “send back” Syrians to their homeland if his party wins the elections.
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