Syrian refugees in Turkey face deportation over viral banana videos
Taiwanese bananas for sale are on display at a fruit stall in Taipei, Taiwan, Monday, September 20, 2021. © Chiang Ying-ying, AP

The banana has become the surprising symbol of the growing tensions between Turks and the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Viral TikTok videos in which young Syrians film themselves eating the yellow fruit have sparked the wrath of Turkish police, and Ankara has ordered the deportation of 11 Syrians who posted banana videos.

It all started with a video filmed in Istanbul showing a heated exchange about the role of refugees in Turkey's economic crisis. In the clip, a Turkish man lashes out at a Syrian student, whom he accuses of buying "kilos of bananas" while he can't afford to "eat a single one". Another woman intervenes and accuses Syrians of living comfortably in Turkey rather than returning to their country to fight (Syria has been gripped by civil war for over a decade). The student tries to explain that she has nowhere to go in Syria, but her words fall upon deaf ears.

Mocking xenophobia with banana videos

Inspired by the video, young Syrians living in Turkey turned to TikTok. Using derision to denounce the everyday xenophobia experienced by Syrians in the country, they made videos of themselves eating bananas using the sound clip from the original video.

Other Syrian users shared images of the Turkish flag with the crescent replaced by a banana. Users also made light of the country's economic situation, posting videos of themselves cutting a banana into pieces to share with their families or images of American bills photoshopped to include bananas (a reference to the sharp depreciation of the Turkish lira against the dollar, especially in the past few months).

Authorities have responded forcefully to the banana "campaign", clamping down on Syrian users who participated. After being arrested last Thursday by Turkish police who accused them of insulting Turks and inciting hatred, 11 Syrians who posted banana videos are now facing deportation. Other refugees, still under investigation, may follow.

Syrian journalist Majed Shamaa, who posted a satirical video report about the banana challenge, was also arrested last Sunday.

He is currently being held in Gaziantep and faces deportation, with Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) campaigning for his release.

As the country struggles with economic and financial woes, these banana videos have also touched a nerve among Turks, particularly those who blame Syrian and Afghan refugees for taking their jobs. "The real problem is the danger [these refugees] pose to Turkey's future," said a Turkish editorialist.

Turkey's Syrians have become Erdogan's burden

Ten years ago, Turkey opened its doors to Syrians fleeing their country's civil war and President Bashar al-Assad's repression. However, authorities did not expect the refugees to stay for so long. Since then, Turkey's economic situation has deteriorated even further, with the income gap between Syrians and Turks widening. This situation explains Turkey's reluctance towards accepting new refugees, for example from Afghanistan.

Politically, Turkey's Syrians have become a burden for Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party. On the other hand, they have become a possible advantage for the Republican People's Party (CHP) opposition. In a country where the share of foreign births remains very low compared to the OECD average, the party epitomises Turkish resentment towards foreigners.

The governor of Bolu, situated in the country's northwest, imposed a curfew on migrants in his city to encourage them to "respect the culture and traditions of Turkish society". A few months earlier, the mayor of Bolu, also a member of the CHP party, aroused controversy with a proposal to increase water prices for foreigners. Meanwhile, the party's president Kemal Kiliçdaroglu has repeatedly said that he wants to send "his Syrian brothers" home.

The war in Syria was initially an electoral boost for the AKP. Ankara's military operations against the Syrian Kurds boosted Erdogan's popularity, while his electoral base saw the president's openness to Syrian refugees as embodying a new humane and generous Turkish leadership in the Muslim world.

However, support for Erdogan has eroded with the economic crisis. Many Turks can no longer handle gags about the state of their country, and for the Syrians facing deportation from Turkey, the bananas aren't a joke anymore.

This article was translated from the original in French.