The Intersection of Refugee Rentierism and Domestic Politics: The Anti-Refugee Far-Right in Türkiye

Ezgi Irgil, Swedish Institute of International Affairs

 

Introduction

How is refugee rentierism reflected in domestic politics, and how is rentier state behavior adopted by domestic political actors? Refugee rentierism refers to state behavior that commodifies refugees to extract material gain or to maintain power and control over populations (Tsourapas 2019). This phenomenon has gained attention in recent years due to the Syrian refugees’ arrival in other countries, including neighboring states, particularly in the Middle East (Lynch and Tsourapas 2024). Refugee rentierism, which can take a variety of forms ranging from rent-seeking to the weaponization of refugees (Greenhill 2010), commodifies refugees as a tool in diplomacy. It analyzes how other state policies can be used in exchange for this commodification, such as development aid for burden sharing, border control regulations, and labor opportunities for the citizens as well as refugees (Yahmi 2024). This theoretical perspective encompasses an exploration of how nations situated in the Global South commodify refugees as a means to extract material resources from their counterparts in the Global North. This approach could be enriched through closer attention to the repercussions of refugee rentierism on domestic politics in the Middle East (Dhingra 2024; Irgil, Norman, and Tsourapas 2023).

Discussions of domestic politics in the Global South overlap with the rise of anti-refugee far-right sentiment in the Global North, as evidenced in the rhetoric of political parties in the European Union (EU) in the last decade. Western political party literature has focused on the immigration issue, highlighting economic grievances, security concerns, and cultural differences between the citizens and the refugees (Chueri 2022; Downes, Loveless, and Lam 2021; Heisbourg 2015; Kayran 2022; Mudde 2016). Framed as “populist discourses” (Hogan and Haltinner 2015), anti-refugee, or anti-immigrant in a broader sense, such rhetoric follows a similar path in political discourse as that concerning nationalism and xenophobia. Fueled by “exclusionary populism” (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2013) to appeal to the general public in the democracies of the Global North, these parties are driven by scapegoating and advocate a range of restrictive policies, from containing refugee spillover to nationalistic economic policies that prioritize natives. Anti-refugee far-right parties, through populist discourse, exploit anti-refugee sentiment to gain and secure political power, often based on the belief that refugees pose a threat to national identity and security. In the Global North, anti-refugee parties also emphasize the anti-Islamic discourse, which is framed as conflicting with Western values (Akkerman 2005; Betz and Meret 2009).

However, what is overlooked is the reflection of anti-refugee far-right discourses in refugee rentier states’ domestic politics and the emergence of anti-refugee far-right political parties in the countries of the Global South, which has led to diversification of refugee commodification (Almasri 2024). Most of the refugees in the Middle East come from neighboring states, so the host society and refugees share common elements, mainly religion. But anti-refugee rhetoric has fueled the rise of populist attitudes and parties in the Middle East, manifesting itself as refugee rentierism in domestic politics through political rather than material gains.

In this contribution, I focus on the establishment and rise of the anti-refugee far-right Victory Party (ZP) in Türkiye. Syrians started coming into Türkiye in 2011. Refugee migration had not been a prominent issue within domestic politics for years and only gained traction after the local elections in March 2019. This is noteworthy considering that, between 2011 and 2019, Türkiye had seven elections—two presidential elections, four general elections (one of which was held simultaneously with one of the presidential elections), and two local elections. Moreover, studies found no significant impact of Syrian refugee inflow on election outcomes between 2012 and 2016 (Altındağ and Kaushal 2021; Fisunoğlu and Sert 2019), and the refugee issue was not a key component of electoral campaigns until 2019 (Yanasmayan, Ustubici, and Kasli 2019). However, following the local elections in the summer of 2019, the unexpected defeat of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in major cities including Istanbul, coinciding with decreasing public support for Erdoğan and economic instability (Biskin and Babat 2019), marked a turning point in domestic politics.

This turning point paved the way for the commodification of refugees in domestic politics, which occurred in the electoral campaign in the national and presidential elections of May 2023, when Ümit Özdağ, the leader of the anti-refugee Victory Party, exploited these tensions by commodifying the refugees as a topic for political gain. Özdağ is an experienced figure in Turkish politics, having served as a member of parliament and deputy leader for the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) until 2016. Subsequently, he joined the right-wing Good Party (IYIP), where he also served as deputy leader before being dismissed for disregarding fundamental principles such as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law (Avundukluoğlu 2020). Consequently, when Özdağ founded the Victory Party, he already had a well-established political presence (Irgil and Balcioglu 2022; Tahiroglu 2022).

This is not to argue that anti-refugee statements are new in Turkish domestic politics and specific to the Victory Party, as other opposition parties (with the exception of the Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP]) also adopted anti-refugee rhetoric to criticize the incumbent’s refugee policy and foreign policy (Yanasmayan, Ustubici, and Kasli 2019). However, the first example of an explicitly anti-refugee far-right political party in Türkiye advances our knowledge of political party behavior in the context of the Middle East, especially since the discussions concerning Türkiye and the Syrian refugees have been cast predominantly in an international framework, focusing on Türkiye’s refugee commodification strategies—known as “refugee rentierism”—and how they influenced its relations with the EU (Tsourapas 2019; Adamson and Tsourapas 2019; Norman 2020).

Therefore, I argue that refugee rentierism is not limited to political incumbents or the state; other political domestic actors also commodify the refugee issue, extending refugee rentier state behavior into domestic politics in ways that make potential domestic political actors relevant that might have been irrelevant otherwise. Focusing on the example of the Victory Party, I demonstrate these arguments by detailing the refugee rentier behavior in domestic politics in which the refugee issue is a bargaining chip for political power (see Figure 1).

I further argue that, although the politics differ regarding the content, populist discourse in the Global South enables the use of refugees as a bargaining chip for political power in the same way that it does in the Global North. Hence, I contribute to the literature on refugee rentierism by expanding its focus on the commodification of refugees as a bargaining chip at the domestic level by demonstrating an example from the Middle East that could be expanded to similar cases in the region and the broader Global South where the host community and refugees have common elements.

 

The Victory Party in Turkish Politics

The 2016 EU–Turkey Deal engendered a prevailing public sentiment that refugees have a more enduring presence in Türkiye (Erdoğan 2018), hence discussions about refugees in domestic politics were mostly concerned with the number of registered and unregistered Syrians in Türkiye (Holleis and Knipp 2022), the number of Syrians who had been granted citizenship (Koser Akcapar and Simsek 2018), and the escalating frequency of criminal activities involving—and those directed against—Syrians (International Crisis Group 2018). In 2020, political parties began issuing statements on how to address the Syrian refugee situation, leading to the commodification of refugees and creating a political space for domestic political gain. These public discussions intensified over the following years, particularly with the noticeable influx of Afghan and Iraqi refugees, resulting in a significant anti-refugee sentiment.

Capitalizing on this sentiment, the anti-refugee far-right Victory Party emerged in August 2021 under the leadership of Özdağ. The primary objective of this party is to target and repel immigrants and refugees. Previously, far-right political parties in Türkiye, such as the MHP, focused on nationalism and opposed ethnic minorities like the Kurds. The Victory Party broadcasts anti-refugee rhetoric specifically, relentlessly propagates such views, and shapes the domestic political landscape on the issue. This is akin to nationalist movements in Europe, but the Victory Party uses refugees as a bargaining chip even in non-refugee-related matters, such as supporting a presidential candidate.

The Victory Party outlines its anti-refugee strategy through a three-step approach: first, proposing the repatriation of Syrians as an immediate measure to address the current situation; second, advocating for long-term measures to prevent future waves of migration; and third, promoting the return of the Turkish diaspora to the country, coupled with social and economic reforms. The 2021 Party Manifesto harshly criticizes the “Palace Regime,” referring to President Erdoğan, and its refugee policy. Proposing the change in foreign policy through criticism of the incumbent’s policies, the manifesto states: “the fundamental changes in the foreign policy, of course, involves the relations with the EU and rather than relations based on tension, we will aim for policies that will be beneficial to both sides.” Notably, the manifesto emphasizes the perceived negative impact of Syrians on Türkiye, portraying the party as the last defense of the Turkish nation and characterizing the influx of refugees and immigrants as a deliberate, strategic attempt to alter demographics and disrupt the nation’s unity.

 

Refugee Rentierism in Domestic Politics

The AKP regime decided to host refugees in Türkiye, and it continues to support the hosting of refugees (Presidency of the Republic of Türkiye 2023). This creates a discursive space in which other political actors can challenge the incumbent’s refugee policies, as evidenced in the frequency with which aspects of the topic appear in critical domestic and foreign policy debates, even though it is hard to differentiate parliamentary parties’ stances on the issue (Apaydın and Müftüler‐Baç 2021).

However, the Victory Party, which is not in the parliament and differs from other political parties in Türkiye, has always adopted the anti-refugee stance as its core ideology. In its Party Manifesto (2021: 6-10), the Victory Party claims that: “Erdoğan and his consultancy team encourage Syrians to stay and believe that racism is actually targeted at Turks.” The manifesto also criticizes the opposition parties by calling them “Yellow Opposition [Sarı Muhalefet]” in reference to the term “Yellow Union [Sarı Sendika],” which collaborates with employers and prioritizes their interests rather than employees’ interests (Irgil and Balcioglu 2022). Reiterations of this stance intensified and reached a peak in the election period before the May 2023 presidential and general elections. Moreover, up to the end of the first round, the Victory Party was critical of both the incumbent and the opposition parties and put forward its own, third, presidential candidate, Sinan Oğan. Oğan gained 5.17% of the votes, Erdoğan gained 49.51%, and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the main opposition presidential candidate, gained 44.88%. Thus, the presidential election process went to a second round with a parliament composed mostly of nationalist parties, indicating that the general public had a tendency for nationalism (Hamsici 2023) and rousing speculation as to who Oğan, hence Özdağ, would endorse.

Building on this nationalist tendency and its well-known stance against refugees, the Victory Party adopted a refugee rentier behavior within domestic politics, which I view as an extension of the incumbent’s refugee rentier state behavior. I contend that, unlike refugee rentierism at the state level, which commodifies refugees as a population, refugee rentierism at the domestic level commodifies refugees as an issue that becomes a bargaining chip for political power in domestic politics.

Demonstrating a clear example of the bargaining process, the 14-day period between the first and second rounds of voting was dominated by the question of “who will support whom.” On May 22, it became clear that Sinan Oğan was going to endorse Erdoğan and encourage his voters to support him too (BBC News Turkce 2023). However, Kılıçdaroğlu also asked Özdağ for his endorsement in an attempt to attract nationalist votes. On May 24, four days before the runoff, Özdağ and Kılıçdaroğlu announced their collaboration and signed an official protocol with the leader of the Victory Party (Yazicioglu and Karabulut 2023). The first two points in this seven-point protocol focused on protecting Turkishness. In the third point, both sides agreed to send back “all the refugees and immigrants within a year, starting with the Syrians” (Sayin 2023). As it is well known what the Victory Party stands for and in support of, which is the return of refugees, tightened border policy, and restrictive migration policy, its endorsement of Kılıçdaroğlu signaled agreement on a shared ideology and was sealed by the protocol. Thus, although the Victory Party was not represented in parliament in the latest national elections, legitimizing its ideology among other domestic political actors marked it as a crucial actor and made it relevant in contemporary political debate.

Following the runoff and the loss of the opposition party leader as the presidential candidate, the protocol became obsolete. Whether there will be further deals with the Victory Party remains to be seen. However, the Victory Party and its leader’s constant criticism of the incumbent’s stance on refugees, as per the EU–Turkey Deal, continues. After the elections, Özdağ stated in a media interview that: “We wanted the Interior Ministry to have leverage over the EU–Turkey Deal, where this leverage could have made the topic of refugees a core issue in Turkish public opinion” (Zafer Partisi [Victory Party] 2023a). While whether the Interior Ministry has been unofficially offered to Özdağ has not been confirmed by the protocol’s other parties, the anti-refugee far-right Victory Party dwells on the refugee issue to criticize both the incumbent and the EU to consolidate its presence as a crucial domestic actor with bargaining power.

 

Brief Emphasis on the Differences Within Cultural Proximity

Based on the discourses adopted by the Victory Party, I further argue that this bargaining for political power is enabled through a populist discourse, much like its counterparts in the Global North, yet differs regarding the content of the discourse due to cultural proximity, which refers to the objective elements shared by different individuals and groups (Adida 2011), between the host country and the arriving population. Focusing on this, Adida (2011) analyzed the integration of the incomers into host societies in culturally similar contexts and found that the immigrant community leaders emphasized the differences between the two groups, such as ethnic cleavages. As the extensive literature on anti-refugee far-right party politics demonstrates, in the Global North, mainly Europe, such parties and their leaders promote anti-Islamic elements as the primary difference between refugees and the host communities, in addition to the rhetoric of economic grievances and security (Akkerman 2005; Betz and Meret 2009; Kayran 2022; Mudde 2016). Adopting specifically “populist” and “exclusionary” discourses (Hogan and Haltinner 2015; Mudde and Kaltwasser 2013), anti-refugee far-right parties in the Global North scapegoat refugees as the source of multiple issues and prioritize host community members.

Such discourses are also evident in culturally similar contexts, which I demonstrate with the example of the Victory Party and its leader Ümit Özdağ, through highlighting differences within the similarities. Considering the shared element of religion, that is, precluding the anti-Islamic rhetoric employed in the Global North, Türkiye and Syria are considered culturally proximate, which is supported by Syrian refugees’ perceptions of both host community members and Türkiye as a country (Kaya 2017). This has also been one of the key points highlighted by Erdoğan to accept refugees, namely to “host our religious brothers and sisters” and to legitimize humanitarian aid (Korkut 2016). However, this cultural proximity has not been reciprocated by host community members, as shown by a survey conducted with both the host society and the refugees in Türkiye (Erdoğan 2018).

This sentiment of the host community and “exclusionary discourse” on ethnic differences is the very attitude being reiterated by the Victory Party. In addition to its manifesto, the Party Program (2021) uses the term “silent invasion” to refer to ongoing refugee arrivals, constantly reiterating the ethnic and racial differences between the refugees and host community members.[i] Like the anti-refugee political parties in the Global North, this “silent invasion” also emphasizes security threats posed by the incoming population. However, this threat is linked to the refugee rentier state behavior of the incumbent and how that behavior has allowed refugees to come to Türkiye, hence the security threat. For instance, Özdağ stated in one of his media appearances that “Erdoğan said, ‘We made the EU a safer place by limiting the arrival of millions of refugees’ and I ask, ‘Were you [Erdoğan] able to provide the safety of your youth in Turkey?’” (Zafer Partisi [Victory Party] 2023b). Linking this aspect to the differences within similarities, the Victory Party situates itself in domestic politics by stressing Turkishness, Turkic ancestry, and conflict between Turks and Syrians to fuel the security aspect of “exclusionary” and “populist” anti-refugee far-right discourses.

 

Conclusion

Delving into the domestic political implications of refugee rentierism, I have analyzed the anti-refugee far-right Victory Party in Türkiye. I argue that refugee rentierism, characterized by commodification of refugees for material gain or political control, often goes beyond international dynamics and deeply influences domestic politics. This analysis reveals the rise of anti-refugee parties, such as the Victory Party, and how it harnesses the growing tension around refugees in Türkiye’s political landscape, enabling refugee commodification at the domestic level.

The Victory Party, although not successful in securing parliamentary seats, effectively infiltrated Türkiye’s political discourse by promoting an anti-refugee stance and commodified the refugees as an issue in domestic politics, unlike the commodification of refugees as a population at the state level. Emphasizing the differences rather than similarities within the cultural proximity of host community members and refugees, the Victory Party adopted an “exclusionary populist” discourse to commodify refugee rentierism as an issue. This allowed to establish the position of the Victory Party in domestic politics and consolidate an ideology that unites anti-refugee far-right discourses. Demonstrating an example of an anti-refugee far-right party in the Middle East, hence the Global South, the establishment of the Victory Party and its use of the refugee issue as rentierism as a topic for blackmailing in domestic politics has the potential to be expanded to similar contexts of forced migration. Considering the importance of refugee rentierism in the Middle East and contemporary cross-border mobility in the region, refugee rent-seeking will be one of the influential topics in regional discussions as more actors at different levels adopt the same behavior (Lynch and Tsourapas 2024).

 

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[i] This term was later used as the title of the short film that was uploaded to YouTube in which Özdağ announced on Twitter that he had funded the film.