Turkey: A Reluctant Home for LGBTQ Refugees

By Merve Pehlivan

TAMER*, a 29-year-old Syrian queer man, doesn’t feel safe living in Turkey, anticipating that he might be kicked out one day, or beaten up.

“I suffer very much.” he admits.

“You’re Syrian, [locals say,] you don’t have the right to come to Turkey. You are not civilized.”

Tamer’s experience is by no means a rare one.

“More than 99% of the people who get in touch with us want to resettle in a third country,” Koray Arkadaş, a social worker at Refugee Rights Program run by Kaos GL, Turkey’s first official LGBTQ association, tells Redaction Report.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Syrian nationals have been living under a temporary protection regime in Turkey, granting them a right to stay in the country until “a more permanent solution is found”, according to UNHCR.

He added:“Since around 2017, the increasing number of asylum seekers alongside Syrian refugees, rampant xenophobia in third countries and a gradual reduction of quotas meant that Turkey became a [de facto] permanent home for LGBTQ people.”

Turkey is becoming an increasingly difficult place for LGBTQ refugees to stay and their lives are more insecure than ever. State-backed homophobia, meanwhile, can be traced back to a turning point in recent Turkish politics.

In June 2013 tens of thousands of people joined the Istanbul Pride on İstiklal Street, drawing the biggest crowd of LGBTQ individuals and allies, some of them bringing their children to the festival of rainbows, chants, banners and humor.

Since the ruling AKP lost their parliamentary majority in June 2015 and went into coalition with the nationalist MHP, pride marches have been banned, resulting in severe police intervention and arrests.

Arkadaş thinks that with increased visibility came increased antipathy. AKP’s waning popularity also played a part, they add, as the party sought to unify its base and the wider society around LGBTQ hostility.

Indeed, Turkey’s spiraling economy has steadily chipped away at the support the AKP has enjoyed throughout its nearly two-decade rule.

With sharp-tongued backing from its nationalist ally, the AKP has advanced on the populist culture battlefield: from dimming rainbow lights on a metro line in Istanbul to disallowing Netflix Turkey to film a series with an LGBTQ character. In 2021, president Erdoğan decided to pull Turkey from the Istanbul Convention on grounds that the country’s social and family values were incompatible with homosexuality.                               

The government’s overt hostility to the LGBTQ community encourages impunity for homophobic/transphobic attacks, with trans individuals becoming the most vulnerable. On January 17, a 48-year-old trans woman was stabbed to death in her apartment building, the fourth hate assault in a month against trans women in İzmir alone.

As the economic crisis bares its teeth in Turkey, Syrians have, as a whole, become victims of racism, with main opposition party leaders joining the xenophobic bandwagon.

İyi Parti chair Meral Akşener accused Erdoğan of “crimes against humanity because he employs Syrian workers rather than Turks.”

Last year, opposition mayor of Bolu, Tanju Özcan, imposed a tenfold water bill increase for non-Turkish residents, specifically targeting Syrians. A recent report on attitudes toward Syrian refugees in Istanbul revealed high public support for political discourses marginalizing Syrians. Since December 2021, a 19-year-old Syrian man was stabbed at home and Syrian businesses were attacked by a mob in Istanbul, while three Syrian workers in İzmir were burned to death.

 Amid growing xenophobia, LGBTQ refugees are doubly marginalized.

Sara*, a 21-year-old transgender straight woman, has nothing positive to say about her life in Turkey.

She doesn’t feel at home because she faces rejection and racism at work and on the streets. Sara’s isolation morphed into depression during the pandemic.

Hamed*, a 21-year-old transgender person, was stuck at home with almost no money and went without food for three days in a row early in the pandemic.

Many refugees who got into contact with Kaos GL at the time were unable to pay their rent and bills; a lot of them were thrown out of their flats. While the rest of the world struggled to adjust to the new normal, the LGBTQ community was long familiar with how lockdowns felt like.

Numerous members told Arkadaş: “This is nothing new to us. Homophobia and transphobia viruses had already driven us home.”

 Tamer doesn’t like war. He fled military service in Syria and came to Turkey nine years ago, only to hear locals telling him to go fight in his country. As the economy declines and xenophobic populism gains ground, LGBTQ refugees are left with very few reasons to call Turkey home.

Merve Pehlivan is a writer, translator and interpreter based in Istanbul, Turkey. You can follow her on Instagram.

* The names of the individuals interviewed have been changed to protect their identities.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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