ISTANBUL (Al Jazeera) – As Turks go to the polls for a presidential run-off, millions of Syrian refugees in the country are watching anxiously, uncertain about how the outcome could shape their future.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu face off in the second round of the vote after neither secured a majority in the first on May 14. Erdogan won 49.5 percent and Kilicdaroglu 44.9 percent.
Immigration has been a central issue in the elections. The campaign has seen several opposition politicians pledging to expel refugees and migrants while the government has highlighted its plans to press ahead with what it calls “voluntarily” repatriations of Syrians.
According to the United Nations, Turkey has taken in 3.7 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. In the year leading up to the polls, pressure grew on refugees and migrants, in particular Syrians, during an economic crisis with soaring inflation, a plunging lira and a deepening cost-of-living crunch.
The situation has left many Syrians in Turkey deeply worried about their future in the country.
“I don’t know what will happen after the election,” said Habib, 23, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
“They [politicians] say they want to send all Syrians back. We all suffer from anxiety in this period,” said the man who was displaced eight years ago by the foreign-backed war in Syria and currently resides in Istanbul.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, the vast majority of refugees in Turkey – 3.6 million – are Syrian living under “temporary protection status”. About 200,000 Syrians have been given Turkish citizenship since the war erupted in Syria in 2011, according to government figures.
While Turkey initially welcomed the refugees, provided shelter and access to education with billions of euros in European Union funding, anti-refugee sentiment has grown in recent years, and refugees have become scapegoats for Turkey’s economic troubles, which has occasionally led to violence.
Muhammad Siddik Yasar, who runs the Tarlabaşı Solidarity Association, a refugee solidarity group in Istanbul, said anti-refugee sentiment sharpened in the run-up to the elections.
The rising anti-refugee sentiment manifested itself at the ballot box in the first round of the elections as nationalists delivered a strong performance, notably the far-right nationalist presidential candidate Sinan Ogan, who won an unexpected 5.2 percent of the vote.
Ogan ran as the candidate of the ATA (Ancestral) Alliance, led by the anti-migrant, ultranationalist Victory Party. He has since endorsed Erdogan.
Since the first round, Kilicdaroglu, who is backed by a broad coalition of opposition parties, has doubled down on his position regarding deportations.