Turkey’s Far-Right Firebrand Umit Ozdag Wants to Expel All Refugees. | #socialmedia

Maps of Turkey and portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the modern republic’s founder, decorate the walls of Umit Ozdag’s office at the Victory Party’s headquarters in Ankara. One stands out. It includes Syria and Iraq, colored in green and red. Turkish cities with the highest numbers of Syrian refugees are colored in yellow, and pro-Kurdish areas in the east, dominated by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), are in purple.

According to Ozdag, yellow hordes of some 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey will eventually outnumber Turks in the arid south, and the region will soon fall into a civil war exacerbated by the climate crisis. Meanwhile, a purple tide of Kurds from the east will attack Turkey, joining the red and green forces of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rushing to their aid from Syria and Iraq. The 61-year-old politician carries a smaller version of this map to his prime-time TV interviews, warning ordinary Turks of a “silent invasion.”


Thousands of refugees and migrants arrive at the Pazarkule border crossing between Greece and Turkey and were denied passage to enter the European Union on Feb. 29, 2020, despite prior claims by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would open the border gates for migrants from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Syria. Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ozdag founded his political party in August 2021. The Victory Party is the latest addition to a long tradition of ultranationalist movements in Turkey. But unlike its predecessors, it has adopted hostility toward immigration as its primary cause, introducing a new brand of far-right politics.

Following a similar pattern to Italy’s League, the Victory Party advocates for welfare policies for native members of Turkish society while reducing access for outsiders. But the party takes its nativist rhetoric one step further, claiming that refugees are being deliberately settled in Turkey to destabilize the country.

The Victory Party’s founding manifesto has numerous references to modern Turkey’s founder Ataturk and his nationalist revolution after World War I. Ozdag defines the mass refugee influx from the Middle East to Turkey as “strategically engineered migration”—a renewed imperialist plot, resurfacing a century after the republic’s inception.

Only this time, Ozdag suggests, the imperialists will not use a “rental Greek army” to upend Turkey’s sovereignty; they will instead install a Sunni Arab population of refugees to undermine Turks’ national identity.

Syrian refugee children play in front of a poster of Turkish President Erdogan

Syrian refugee children play in front of a poster of Erdogan at the Kahramanmaras refugee camp in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on Sept. 19, 2019. Burak Kara/Getty Images

Although Ozdag is critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year-old Islamist government, his main target is the opposition. He frequently accuses the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Ataturk in 1923, of abandoning the founder’s values.

At least 16 percent of voters in Turkey define themselves as undecided, and the majority of this group is believed to be displeased Erdogan supporters. The CHP and its center-right ally the Good Party are trying to attract this pious voter group and maintain an alliance with smaller opposition parties founded by former heavyweights of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The strategy is often executed at the expense of the secular electorate.

Ozdag is striving to fill this electoral vacuum—targeting lifestyle concerns and neglected anger about uncontrolled immigration.

While opponents of Erdogan have yet to agree on an economic program that could beat him in next year’s presidential election, Ozdag has declared neoliberalism dead and proposed an era of rebuilding.

A key proposition of his is to increase social benefits and boost employment, which Ozdag claims can only happen if Turkey gets rid of its refugee burden—an echo of the welfare chauvinism that far-right parties in Scandinavia have used to attract former left-wing voters and that Marine Le Pen used to successfully court former Communists and Socialists in France under the banner of “national preference.” His party’s flagship proposal is to ship all refugees away within a single year—whether they want to go or not.

“If these [refugees] stay here, in 10 years the borders of the Middle East will begin from Turkey’s northwest. We planned everything to not let that happen,” Ozdag told Foreign Policy, introducing a project he calls the “Anatolian Fortress.”

“On a single trip, we are able to ship 7,500 refugees from Istanbul to Latakia [in Syria]. … They can be easily transported.”

The Anatolian Fortress entails a forced return of all refugees in Turkey and proposes an even more gruesome border security protocol than former U.S. President Donald Trump’s steel wall. The Victory Party advocates for Turkey’s withdrawal from the 1997 Ottawa Convention in order to place anti-personnel landmines along the borders, essentially proposing to kill all trespassers.

When asked if he is worried about the humanitarian toll of this mission and the optics of it, Ozdag seems to have no qualms. “Nothing would be worse than Turkey tumbling into civil war,” he said.

Victory Party Chairman Umit Ozdag to the media in front of the Turkish Grand National Assembly

Ozdag speaks to the media in front of the Turkish parliament on May 6. Tunahan Turhan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

To disseminate his anti-immigration rhetoric, the media-savvy politician uses provocative tactics to ensure a constant presence in the news cycle. In May alone, he gave more than 15 interviews on major networks and newspapers. He challenged the interior minister to a duel, picked up polemics with other political leaders, and commissioned a widely circulated dystopian short film titled Silent Invasion, in which a Syrian party wins the Turkish elections in 2043 and declares Arabic as the official language.

The producer of the film, Hande Karacasu, who was briefly detained by police for “spreading disinformation about refugees,” is a former sales consultant and radio presenter. She now has more than 170,000 followers on Twitter and is part of the network of internet users disseminating Ozdag’s rants, interviews, memes, and alleged video footage of refugees crossing the border.

There are signs of an “alt-right” culture breeding online, closely resembling the social media ecosystem of the Trump era in the United States. Pseudonymous users frequently mock minorities, marginalized groups, and those advocating for them. Editors of social media-driven, anonymous websites, YouTube producers, and Twitch streamers offer commentary in the form of “news” to a young and politically disengaged audience.

The current wave of online anti-immigration rhetoric is often combined with anti-European Union sentiments. “With the refugee deal in 2016, Europe completely sidelined its own normative democratic values and reached a very pragmatic agreement with the government of Turkey,” said Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a lecturer at SOAS University of London. “They essentially told Erdogan he could do whatever he wants inside, as long as he keeps the borders guarded.”

But despite his supporters’ staunch criticism of the EU, Ozdag’s relocation plan for Syrian refugees does not include a safe passage to Europe for those who wish to leave. “We are not interested in threatening Europe,” Ozdag said.

“We can build northern Syria together: Europe can finance it, Turkish companies can build it, and those we send back can work. This is in Europe’s best interest, too,” he added. “A destabilized Turkey would be nothing like Yugoslavia or Syria or Iraq. It would vacuum the entire region like a black hole.”

A banner that reads "Not a single asylum seeker will remain in Turkey!" and a picture of by Umit Ozdag is displayed on the Victory Party headquarters in Turkey.

A banner that reads “Not a single asylum-seeker will remain in Turkey!” and a picture of Ozdag (center) are displayed at the headquarters of the newly founded Victory Party in Ankara on Nov. 6, 2021. Burhan Ozbilici/AP

The majority of Ozdag’s critics downplay his potential impact and attribute his current popularity to sensationalist tactics and the media’s disproportionate interest. Neither pro-government nor pro-opposition pundits are willing to admit that someone like Ozdag could impact next year’s tight presidential race. But immigration will be a major topic in the 2023 elections, and Ozdag is a symptom of the growing resentment that will have implications for both Turkey and the wider region.

“There are two reasons for anti-immigration sentiments becoming much more visible since 2018: the economic crisis and the public’s frustration with the AKP government,” said Sinem Adar, an analyst at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies in Berlin.

Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, yet over the years the credibility of official figures has eroded so much that there is no consensus on the actual number. The official figure given by the government is 4.8 million out of a population of 86 million. The opposition claims the real number is at least double that.

The Turkish Interior Ministry says 500,000 Syrians have returned home as of April 2022, while the number verified by the United Nations is around 81,000. And despite reported returns, data from Turkey’s migration agency shows an increase in the number of Syrians in the country.

“There is definitely a governance crisis here,” Akkoyunlu said. “The Turkish government operates behind closed doors with unchecked, unaccountable policies, paving the way for opportunists.”

The transition to an executive presidential system in 2017 gave Erdogan absolute hegemony over every institution in Turkey. But since then, the living conditions of citizens have deteriorated each year. To maintain power, Erdogan’s government has to control every bit of information that goes out to the public.

Lack of institutional transparency gives Ozdag a lot of room to operate. He claims there are more than 10 million foreigners in the country and says the Turkish government has spent $100 billion on refugees, deepening the country’s economic crisis.

Turkey’s declining economy is a strong factor in simmering tensions. The lira has lost more than 40 per cent of its value since 2018. With inflation rates above 70 percent, the living costs are unbearable for many households. The exploitation of refugees as a cheap workforce enables employers to lower wages everywhere to native workers’ dismay.

In a recent interview, interior minister Suleyman Soylu unwillingly admitted the widespread practice of undocumented refugee labor: “You employ Syrians in your factories without insurances and still dare to ask: What’s going on with these refugees? One million [Syrians] will leave. Do you know who will complain then? The business owners.”

There are also sociocultural tensions that are open to exploitation. A field study by the International Crisis Group found that minority groups who tend to vote for the opposition like Kurds, Alevis, and secularists consider refugees as “a threat to Turkey’s demographic balance” and believe the government “strategically settles refugees” to weaken opposition blocs.

A popular conspiracy theory in opposition circles is Erdogan granting citizenship to millions of refugees in a bid to secure more votes, potentially robbing the opposition of a long-awaited election victory.

“There are two things happening at the same time. In addition to Syrian refugees, Turkey receives irregular immigration from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Meanwhile Turkish citizens immigrate from the country, often to Europe, Canada and the U.S.,” the analyst Adar explains.

Ozdag recently stormed the gates of the Interior Ministry and claimed more than 900,000 Syrians have been granted citizenship along with 260,000 people from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Qatar.

Whatever the true numbers, “A change of demography exacerbates existing fears that Erdogan will get to transform Turkey into an even more Islamist country,” said Adar, noting that a new-wave of nationalism is spreading among the country’s youth, especially among those who no longer see a future for themselves in Erdogan’s Turkey.

Last year, the president’s interest in securing the Kabul airport after the Taliban’s takeover invoked fears of a new refugee deal in a bid to please the West and caused major backlash. A group calling themselves “Angry Young Turks” hung banners around Turkey that said “Border is Honor” and “I Don’t Want Refugees in My Country.”

A demand for refugees’ repatriation is now a nonpartisan trend among the public and the opposition bloc takes the lead. A recent survey found that 90 percent of CHP supporters, 88 percent of pro-Kurdish HDP supporters, and 98 percent of nationalist Good Party supporters want refugees to be sent back.

A Kurdish woman runs from a water cannon during clashes with Turkish soldiers near the Syrian border.

A Kurdish woman runs from a water cannon during clashes with Turkish soldiers near the Syrian border after Turkish authorities temporarily closed the border on Sept. 22, 2014. BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

The opposition parties are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they refuse to engage in Ozdag’s anti-immigration debate, they risk appearing uninterested in the concerns of their voters. If they choose to keep up with Ozdag, they risk dragging the mainstream parties deeper toward his narrative, letting a new party with zero seats in parliament dictate policy.

A day after Ozdag challenged him to a televised debate, the main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu released a compilation clip of his speeches vowing to send refugees back. Good Party’s Meral Aksener also addressed the issue saying her party is in favor of a humanitarian return.

Although all politicians—except for Ozdag—refrain from implying a use of force, relocation is now the mainstream narrative. Currently, the public debate is exclusively shaped by how refugees could be sent back. An alternative scenario in which refugees stay or cannot return, is never discussed.

Earlier in the year, President Erdogan said Turkey would continue hosting refugees in need. But the government recently shifted gears and promised a “voluntary return” of at least one million Syrians. The government also announced a new offensive into northern Syria in a bid to defang the PKK and relocate Syrian refugees.

Erdogan had been careful to ignore Ozdag, but following the political tornado he caused, the president recently caved and responded.

“This debate about Syrian refugees in recent days, is part of a filthy plan. We understand what these Intelligence leftovers are aiming at” he said in May, implying Ozdag is an operative working for foreign intelligence—a popular jibe in Turkish politics.

“What worries us is the leader of the main opposition chasing these small polemics too.” Erdogan added, admitting Ozdag’s growing influence.

This is an ideal outcome for Ozdag and his eight-month-old party. “After we established the Victory Party, both the government and the opposition have started changing their policies. No one should doubt that we are the ones leading the opposition in Turkey” he told Foreign Policy.

“I’m genuinely concerned with the current direction.” “Ozdag is setting the terms of the conversation,” Akkoyunlu said. We may not be speaking about him in the near future but we will be talking about the issues he brought up. Those are not going anywhere.”

Victory Party currently polls below the 7 percent electoral threshold and it is not expected to win any seats next year. In the near future, the party might share a similar fate to Greece’s Golden Dawn or Britain’s UKIP—either shut down due to increasing extremism or dissolve into irrelevance after achieving its defining objective.

But Ozdag doesn’t necessarily need any seats to influence policy. In less than a year, he has managed to establish himself as the leading spokesperson on Turkey’s refugee problem and intimidated all mainstream political actors into following his lead.

Whoever wins the 2023 elections will have to answer to the collective anger he has mobilized.

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