Halkların Köprüsü: Report of Torbalı visit after attack on refugees in April

Via Halkların Köprüsü – We re-issue a report by the association Halkların Köprüsü (Bridging Peoples) in Izmir, who visited refugees after they got attacked by locals in Torbalı in April this year. Having spoken to many people involved in the incident, they claim that in order to avoid such tensions in the future, the state should provide them with a safe and long-lasting legal status as close to citizenship as possible.

The report was published already in May and can also be read on the homepage of the association.

Association of Bridging Peoples:
Report of Torbalı visit after attack on refugees 11.5.2017

On Saturday, April 8th, we learnt about the “lynching attempt” aimed at refugees living in Torbalı. The events had taken place on April 5th and 6th.

On Saturday and Sunday, we contacted our local friends and the Torbalı Gendarmerie Commander by phone. We were informed that the events had calmed down and there was no urgent problem. We learnt that one person, who had been wounded with a cutting tool during the events, was a Torbalı local and had been taken to the hospital. We tried to find out details about the person from the Gendarmerie, communicating that we wanted to visit the patient in the hospital. We were told that he was at Izmir Atatürk Hospital. We called our friend who is the hospital’s surgical clinic’s officer, but he found no such patient in the records.

On Monday morning, April 10th, we met with our volunteers at the association to evaluate the situation and discuss with the authorities. About 15 people, among them a professor of public health, a number of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists, left for Torbalı taking along some supplies and donations that were stored in the association.

Meeting with local journalist

We met with the local journalist who had first published the news. We had the local journalist confirm the news we had read about in the press and listened to his individual testimony. It was understood, that while trying to separate a fight between Syrian refugee and local children in the Torbalı Pamukyazı neighbourhood, the elders also got involved in the fight. During these events that lasted for 15-20 minutes, people from both sides were beaten and unfortunately someone became injured by a cutting tool. The wounded was taken to the hospital. Upon hearing about the events, approximately 100-200 people of the Pamukyazı neighbourhood went to the tents and houses where the refugees were living and destroyed the tents and some of their belongings. Out of fear, the refugees had already left the tents before this group arrived, which prevented the events from escalating even more. There was no encounter with the refugees when the angry crowd reached the scene, but the refugees’ living spaces became physically attacked. In the meantime, security forces arrived in order to intervene.

Meeting with Dayıbaşı

Our second meeting was with the dayıbaşı (= middleman) who had brought the attacked refugee families to Torbalı. After talking to the dayıbaşı on the phone, we met with her in the in Pamukyazı neighbourhood. 2 people came. While usually the dayıbaşı are men, this one was a woman. She explained that they had been doing this work in Torbalı for 35 years, that they had been bringing seasonal workers from South East Anatolia for the agricultural sector, that they had been bringing Syrians for the past 5-6 years, that the agricultural workers had always been satisfied with the landowners and herself for always paying them properly. On the day of the events, the dayıbaşı and her family were not in Torbalı. They were in Diyarbakır for a funeral. The security forces called her to the scene, but she could not come, as she was out of town. She told us not to make a big deal out of it, that the events were caused by an argument between children, that she could have prevented it, had she been there by chance: “Too bad, we weren’t there, the people from the village know us, which is why they would not have attacked the refugees, that we have brought. It was very unfortunate, that we weren’t there that day.” When we asked her about what had happened to the people, she said “…the tent site where the refugees had been living, was destroyed and set on fire, their belongings were ravaged, many families left or tried to leave for other places, the remaining sought shelter in tents and houses of acquaintances.

Meeting with the refugees

When we said that we wanted to meet with the families that had left, the dayıbaşı reached a group of refugees by phone that was on their way to Aydın. As she could not speak Arabic, it was one of our Arabic-speaking group members, that spoke to them on the phone. Indeed, out of fear for their safety, close to 20 families, a total of 100-150 people including children, left for a village in Aydın by bus and mini bus. They took as many belongings with them as possible and left the rest behind. On the phone, they could not tell where exactly they were, nor did they give us their address, but they could share their location with us online. We decided to visit these families later on in Aydın. We wanted to visit the remaining families. The dayıbaşı first lead us to two families living in a basement of a house downstairs just outside Pamukyazi, trying hard to gather their goods and leave that place. Here, we talked to the refugees, their mother tongue was Arabic. They told us that they had not had anything to do with the events and only found out about them afterwards. There were many children and infants in both families. We also talked with the women. Everyone, including the children, was upset. They said, they could not stay where they currently were for security reasons. They were trying to upload their few belongings onto a tractor in order to get to a place with more people. We distributed the goods that we had brought with us, such as clothes, diapers, baby food, and shoes etc. It was not much, but we were trying to share their burden.

The 2nd refugee group (4 families) had settled in another refugee tent area about 20 km away. 30 km away from the Pamukyazı district, there were nearly 10 tarp tents at the edge of some land. They had covered the surroundings with sheets, so that the tents were not visible from the road. The refugees here were also very anxious. The families who had newly arrived due to the events had no tents. They asked us for tents. At least three tents were urgently needed. There was only one tent frame, but no canvas, hence was not useable. Taking along two of the refugees, we went to the city centre of Torbalı and bought the canvas that they thought appropriate. For the other tents, we went to the industrial district and ordered two sets of tent frames from a blacksmith. He would be able to deliver them within 2 days at the earliest. The total cost of a tent was 900 TL (700 TL for the frame, 200 TL for the canvas). We returned to the tent area. There were a lot of women and children. They had lost all their possessions. We left all the quilts, blankets, clothes, shoes, baby products and hygienic materials we had brought with them. When they found out that we had a doctor among us, they brought a sick baby. The one-year old had a fever and ear infection. We examined the child and our pharmacist group members went to get medicine from the city centre and gave it to the family. The family and the sick child did not have IDs. This is how we found out that some of the Syrians there were registered while others were not. While we were there, another dayıbaşı came and told to the dayıbaşı that had taken us there, “this is my territory, you cannot bring workers here.” The dayıbaşı people had a brief argument with each other. We told our dayıbaşı that it is very critical that there aren’t any new problems that will upset the refugees. “You are right”, she said. We left after telling the refugees that we would come back to Torbalı and this tent area and that we would not leave them alone.

Meeting with the district governor

We had an appointment with the Torbalı Governor’s Office at 2 PM. Half of the team stayed behind with the refugees, while the other half went to the Governor’s. We were received with hospitality. We were supposed to meet for half an hour, but we ended up meeting for more than an hour. The Governor has been working in Torbalı for 3 months. We talked about our previous work in Torbalı (for 3 years) and our meetings with the previous district governor and the mayor. We told him that the reason for our visit were the latest events and about our observations and findings of that day. The governor told us about the work he had done and problems he had faced with the refugees since he had started his post. He said, that there was no immediate danger, that the events had calmed down and that the security forces were taking precautions. According to him, there had for a while been many problems in the daily life between the locals and the refugees arriving in the region to work, that these problems had been accumulating, that the quarrel between the children had grown out of these problems, that this was a burst of anger, rather than a lynching attempt, that the security forces were taking measures, and that there was currently no immediate security issue.

He talked about the work he had been doing regarding the dayıbaşı system in order to resolve these problems. The governor stated that the landowners and the dayıbaşı men should provide better living conditions for the people they bring to Torbalı to work, that these were their responsibilities, that the dayıbaşı work should be officially classified as a profession required to be registered and work under compliance of the law, and that the authorities had the responsibility to carry this out. He went on to say, that this issue required more elaborate work, that the dayıbaşı men had the responsibility to prepare the place to live and the social environment for the people before they would bring them to work, but that this had so far not happened, but that future work had to be carried out like this.

We also passed on our observations and work from the morning. We talked about our long-standing history with the seasonal agricultural workers in Torbalı’s, that we had come to Torbali hundreds of times for health and field screenings in the past 3 years, had written reports on refugee agricultural workers and the dayıbaşı system, and shared these with the authorities and the public. We stated, that as long as agricultural work continued, so would refugee agricultural work, and that by next year’s spring and summer, there would be newcomers to this region, so that we should also explore short term solutions.

We have exchanged views on how to overcome the negative atmosphere caused by this recent situation. We proposed to organize a children’s festival after a while to bring together Syrian and local children, for example, in a kite or other event, to hold neighbourhood meetings, to tell the locals about the problems the refugees experience, to try to educate them about misinformation on refugees (e.g. that they receive salaries from the government, etc.) and to listen to locals and understand their tensions and problems.

The governor said that similar measures had been started and would continue. He emphasized that a commission had been established, which had delegated responsibilities, and that it was working towards the dayıbaşı system creating a more permanent solution for the temporary agricultural workers. We responded that we, as an association, could contribute to this and similar work. We said, we would first visit the young injured (of whom we had heard he was doing well) and his family. We communicated that we would like to establish contact via the municipality with the people in the neighbourhood and the locals affected by the events. We said, that at the same time we would visit the refugees who had to leave the region and try to alleviate the impact of the scary incident they had experienced and to attend to their urgent needs. As we had ensured that one of the tents could still be used, we talked about the urgent need of 2 more tents, but were told that the district governor could not help us with this, as providing tents required the permission of the provincial governor.

Interview with the gendarmerie

After our meeting with the district governor, we went to the headquarter of the gendarmerie. The gendarmerie commander was out on duty, not in his office. We talked to him on the phone and he arranged for us to meet with the officer who was filling in for him. We met with the deputy commander and the security officer of the intervention in the events. The officials said that the news reports had been exaggerated, that rather than close to 30 wounded, there had been 4 wounded, that it had been a neighbourhood fight rather than a lynch attempt, that it had easily been under control and that there was currently no security problem. We passed our morning observations on to them and told them, that the refugees were anxious, that some of them had not left their house in two days, that they could not return to get their stuff, that some families had departed, that the remaining were preparing to leave for another area scared that something could happen to them. They told us that in general there was no security problem, that they were constantly patrolling the neighbourhood and the surrounding area, and that everyone should feel comfortable and at peace. We thanked them saying we’d call them if we were concerned about security. The commander said, “our doors are always open, our phones are open, you can always call.” We asked again about the injured person saying that we did not find him in the hospital and that we wanted to visit him. The Gendarmerie officials said he was still in the same hospital, that his family had visited him that morning, and that his condition was good.

By calling our physician friends in Torbalı State Hospital and İzmir Atatürk Hospital, we checked again whether the injured was in these hospitals, but we could not reach the patient.

Kipa meeting (internal evaluation)

The Torbalı visiting team met at the Torbalı Kipa to evaluate the day. We talked about, what needed to be done next, that the urgent needs had to be resolved quickly, that knowledge should be shared with other CSOs, that we needed to meet with the psychologists to discuss and determine strategies to reduce the tension and hostility there. As there was no time left, we were not able to visit the district mayor. We decided that our next visit would be to the mayor’s.
We decided that it is important to reflect this issue properly in the public, without adding fuel to the fire, without paving the way for another hostility, or without reinforcing the people’s victimhood.
On the other hand, we decided that it was important to make the refugees feel, that they were not alone, that they were people who followed up on their rights and supported them, and protect them from attacks by the dayıbaşı men or the locals. The general response of the dayıbaşı men is to get new workers and continue to make money; this is their first priority! It is not realistic at this stage to expect the dayıbaşı men to ensure rights, status or more humane living conditions for the refugees. The temporary agricultural labour sector is a sector based on labour exploitation and this has been the case for many years. Refugees’ participation in this exploitative system is new and even worse. Temporary agricultural workers who had to work in some form of slavery are now imposing similar terrible conditions for non-refugees and refugees.

However, it is important that at least the dayıbaşı men know, that we are in the field and that from now on we will come back frequently.

It was important that when going to buy the tent, we went together with the refugees, we went to the city centre and chose the material together.

The municipal authority’s general attitude towards us and our association was favourable. Better work can be done together. We can work on preventing these kinds of incidents.

We know that the real problems are the labour exploitation, the dayıbaşı system, the temporary agricultural work, that the land owners using cheap labour and the dayıbaşı men earn commissions are the ones responsible, and that the true culprit is the state that is allowing this system to happen. We know that this was not a simple child quarrel, but these tensions had been piling up for 5 years.

Everyone is aware of how the Syrians who have been considered “guests” have in the past five years increasingly become a permanent part of both work and social life. But there is a group of people thinking that this has negatively affected their lives, their lifestyle, their job opportunities, their earnings, and their income. For example, some unemployed who cannot find work say: “The Syrians find jobs, we cannot find any, they work at a low wage, while we stay unemployed because we don’t work for the same low wage.” These arguments are not unjustified, but it’s not the Syrians who are responsible for this!

Local or central authorities do not allow Syrians to live in tents. If they settle in tents, they force them to vacate them. If they don’t offer the refugees alternative accommodation, they force them to continue to migrate and the evacuations do not fulfil their purpose. People do not just evaporate! They keep on migrating from one field to another, from one village to another. The ones not migrating try to rent a house in the city centre. The local population who is generally against Syrians and reluctant to rent to them, only does so for very high rents or they provide flats in extremely bad conditions. We saw with our own eyes how 43 people were sleeping in one room in Torbalı.

The locals complain when the rents rise because of the Syrians renting the houses. Apartments that used to be rented for 200-300 TL are now rented for 700-800 TL. This is also a legitimate argument, but again it’s not the Syrians who are responsible for this!

The Syrians have rented many empty shops as houses and have used them as shops at the same time. The locals respond, “I pay taxes, I pay withholding tax, I prepare twenty documents, but when the Syrians even open a bakery, they do not prepare any documents, they do not pay taxes.” This too is a justified argument, but again it’s not the Syrians who are responsible!

Parallel lives emerge because the state has not taken realistic, permanent steps for a living together! Some rules apply to some, different rules apply to others! This is the only cause of all the problems!

The locals think Syrians have more benefits. Policies targeting Syrians, using hate language, spreading misinformation pave the way for negative prejudices against Syrians in society. On the other hand, for Syrians living here is a struggle for life – let alone advantageous. Tomorrow they will again try to survive by selling their labour without even knowing whether they will be evicted from the houses and tents or not. They do not know their rights, their laws…


If this refugee issue is not solved by giving them status at first, if the state does not share information and solutions with the public, these kinds of tensions will be inevitable. Today it is Torbalı, tomorrow it will be another place, today it is a fight between children, tomorrow a fight between neighbours will escalate.

We should start our work by telling the public that Syrians are not guests, that a large part is now permanently living here, by giving these people refugee status, and telling the public that refugees have international rights.

It is the duty of the state to grant those Syrians and other refugees who want the right to citizenship, or residence permit – the closest thing to citizenship, and to create new forms of status to ensure coexistence by improving the legal framework. They are already way too late!

Without these actions, it is no longer possible to let this gigantic issue hang in the air, not putting a label on this issue, not developing any solutions, and not disclosing the full facts to the public!

This approach is the general public’s oxygen of the feelings of doubt, anxiety, anger, and even hate towards the ‘other’.

The use of refugees as pawns of political discourse guided by cyclical needs in politics be they domestic (e.g., the Syrians will vote) or international (e.g., beware or I will send the Syrians towards Europe) is also causing a negative environment. This rhetoric is stirring up people and increasing tension.

Since the first day, the naked essence of the issue has been in front of us: for five years, we have had to live with 4 million people living in this country!

The incident in Torbalı shows that we should take action immediately! Must be taken into consideration