Syrian refugees, gullible celebrities and violence on the beach

A nationalist MP who says Syrian refugees get their cars checked for free was mocked on social media, celebrities who recommend ginseng against COVID-19 get slapped with a fine and a mystery over the assault of a Ukrainian model at a posh beach in Turkey carries on.

İYİ (Good) Party’s Istanbul deputy Ümit Özdağ is particularly skilled at sowing the seeds of hatred against Syrian refugees in Turkey. Two years ago, when he was still the party’s deputy chair, he sparked much ire after posting on Twitter that “27.7 percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey are obese while 1.25 million Turks are under the hunger threshold” – a blunt example of his efforts to depict the refugees as an easy-living, lazy group that has unfair access to subsidies, housing and education. During the local elections in 2019, he extended his support to Ilay Aksoy, the party’s candidate for Istanbul’s district of Fatih, when she campaigned for ousting Syrian refugees and pledged to “remove all signs in Arabic” from the district, which hosts many Syrian refugees. 

Özdağ sharpened his blade against the refugees once again this month by tweeting that Syrian refugees got free car controls. In Turkey, car owners are required to get their cars controlled every year and pay about 350 TL for it. Minutes after the tweet, the Interior Ministry’s Directorate General for Migration Management announced that this was erroneous. The reaction on the Twittersphere was more impactful as hundreds came up with absurd and mythical statements on the so-called favoritism toward Syrian refugees under the hashtag #umitozdaging.

“Syrians get mayonnaise and ketchup free of charge at Burger King” read one tweet, while another claimed “Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has the vaccine for COVID-19 but gave them to the Syrians free of charge.” Another mocked Özdag by tweeting that “The Syrian refugees’ timelines on social media is free of Özdag’s statements” and yet another said, “I am a Syrian. When I go to a market to buy eggs, all of them have double yolks.”

The academic-turned-deputy, undeterred by the corrections and mockery, retorted by holding a press conference on Aug. 6. “So the news I posted was a wrong interpretation of what is happening,” he said. “But that does not rule out the fact that there are 3.8 million registered and 1.5 million unregistered Syrian refugees, all of whom are soaking on Turkey’s scarce resources. Some $58 billion were spent on them.” Aware of the mockery he received online, he added, “We now have Syrian trolls in addition to the Aktrolls [that of the ruling party]. I tell them – know your place…90 percent of Turks want Syrians to go home and leave Turkey at once.”

A recent study conducted by Dr. Murat Erdoğan, the chair of the Research Centre on Asylum and Migration at the Turkish-German University, maintains it would be unrealistic to expect the return of the refugees in the short or medium run. While Murat Erdoğan concedes that the Turkish society’s “acceptance” of Syrian refugees is wearing out in certain parts of the country, he pointed out that there is no systematic or political action is being implemented against the Syrians. “Some say that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost Istanbul because of its stance on Syrians,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s the case. If that were the case, they’d have lost the local elections in Gaziantep, Kilis and Şanlıurfa [where there are many refugees].”

Celebrity endorsement

Turkey’s Ministry of Trade slapped a fine of 104,000 TL on some of Turkey’s most popular artists for promoting a ginseng-based food supplement as the perfect remedy to keep COVID-19 away. Singer and TV host Seda Sayan, style influencer Şeyma Subaşı and others promoted the product, which is called “No Attack.” Their posts did not only promote the product as a measure to boost the immunity system but also as a “cure” for various viral infections, including Covid-19. The influencers had posed with the product on their Instagram pages in March, at the height of growing concern over the spread of the virus. 

“These [influencers] gave the impression [through their posts] not only that this product would protect the user from viruses, including Covid-19, but that it would even cure people who were positive. They presented them as if there had been a proven medical study about them,” said the statement of the ministry, reminding that any such statement would require the authorization of the Ministry of Health’s Medicine and Medical Supplies Department.

The celebrities claimed that they the producer had tricked them and led them to believe that the food supplement had been fully authorized. “I would not dream of advertising something that is not already on the market,” Seda Sayan said.

The owner of the company Cüneyt Alacacı denied that he had launched a promotion plan before they had even launched the supplement, placing the blame on his “marketing manager” who had sent dummy boxes to celebrities without him knowing about it. “I do not see how these celebrities would be so ignorant as to promote something that is not authorized,” he said. Still, the company was fined.  

Turks have come up with their own creative cures to counter the pandemic and are lauding cultural practices that allegedly boost the immune system. Abdurrahman Dilipak, an arch-conservative columnist of the daily newspaper Yeni Akit who recently called supporters of the Istanbul Convention “prostitutes,” said the remedy to the global pandemic lied in hemp. Tripling hemp production would make Turkey a global leader in the battle to fight the virus, he wrote. Others, such as the health guru Canan Karatay, suggested drinking sheep leg soup, the good old paça.

Battle on the beach

Though Turkish authorities ordered the closure of Çeşme’s popular Momo Beach Club for 15 days as part of an anti-coronavirus measure after Ukrainian model Daria Kyryliuk said that the entertainment venue’s security guards had assaulted her and her friends, the controversy carries on. The venue’s lawyers, who released a dark video footage, claim that the model’s boyfriend Baran Güneş had beaten her. Both Kyryliuk and Güneş denied this, saying that Güneş was trying to soothe his girlfriend as she suffered a panic attack. “My girlfriend was brought up in Europe. She wouldn’t tolerate a harsh tone, let alone violence,” he told Hurriyet.

Thank you on behalf of those born and raised in Turkey!

September 10, 2021 Turkey's small festivals