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When Wildfires Fan the Flames of Anti-Immigrant Discourse

Climate Change, Conspiracy Theories, and the Need for Transparent Governance

Gülay Türkmen

In summer 2021, wildfires raged through Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. Between July 28th and August 13th, 299 wildfires broke out in 54 provinces, leaving 9 dead and thousands homeless. Several towns and villages were evacuated; a large number of animals perished. While wildfires are endemic to the Mediterranean, this summer’s fires were the most destructive-ever in Turkey’s modern history: By mid-August, more than 180,000 hectares were burnt, corresponding to almost nine times the seasonal average for the period from 2008-2020.

For those in the know, this was hardly surprising: After below-average rainfall in the second half of 2020 (the driest of the five past years), the country was experiencing intense drought by January 2021. With decreasing precipitation and a 2°C increase in average monthly temperature, May 2021 turned out to be the warmest May in over half a century. The second half of July 2021 witnessed a much ferocious heat wave, with some regions recording temperatures of up to 12°C higher than the average. On July 20, Cizre, a city in Southeastern Anatolia, registered a temperature of 49.1°C, breaking Turkey’s 60-year temperature record.

Other countries in the Mediterranean Basin also got their own share of this unprecedented heat wave and scorching fires. In August 2021, a temperature of 48.8°C was recorded in the island of Sicily, setting an all-time heat record for not only Italy but also Europe. Similarly, Greece had a national temperature record set, when the National Observatory of Athens registered 46.3°C in the town of Makrakomi. France, Spain, and Portugal all issued high temperature alerts, while Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya also suffered from wildfires. Taken together, these developments have confirmed the estimates that the Mediterranean, categorized by the latest UN IPCC report as a climate change hotspot, will disproportionately experience the consequences of global warming, such as an increase in the probability of extreme drought and the irreversible loss of certain ecosystems.

Despite all these facts, in Turkey, the initial reaction was to attribute wildfires not to climate change but to “unknown arsonists”. After the first fires broke on July 28th, theories pointing to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as the culprit abounded. For example, on July 31st, pro-government daily Star argued that the most likely suspect for the fires was the PKK. Similarly, on July 29th, Yeni Şafak, another pro-government daily, published a news article with the title “PKK is burning forests: It has undertaken numerous arsons in the last 30 years.” These theories only intensified, when on August 1st, “Children of Fire”, a PKK splinter group, issued a statement claiming responsibility for fires. In the wake of this statement, President Erdoğan said, in a TV interview, that, “the police arrested some people whose families are related to the PKK and they are looking into whether these people are behind the fires.”

“PKK as the likely culprit of wildfires” is a recurring trope in Turkish politics. One hears this claim almost every summer. Another recurring claim entails pro-government construction companies that have only kept growing under the unprecedented construction boom led by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Under this construction boom, the size of forest areas that have been zoned for tourism or commercial purposes has increased immensely. In addition, thousands of hectares of forests have been cut down to make way for mega construction projects such as airports, highways, hotels, etc. There have also been numerous instances where burned coastal forest areas were used for construction of luxury hotels and resorts. Building on this history, especially voters of opposition parties tend to point to the construction companies as “arsonists” when wildfires break out.

Yet, this past summer saw the emergence of a new, unexpected “culprit” in social and political discourse: Afghan refugees who arrived in Turkey in large numbers a few weeks before the wildfires. According to UNHCR, as of September 2021, the number of Afghan asylum-seekers in Turkey stands around 125.000 and the total number of Afghan refugees around 300.000 (though some estimate this number to be around 500.000). Most are young men fleeing their war-torn country with the hopes of finding a job that will enable them to send remittances back to their families in Afghanistan. Because Turkey does not grant full refugee status to migrants from non-European countries and reserves Temporary Protection status only to Syrian refugees, Afghans can only apply to International Protection, which gives them fewer rights and leaves them in limbo while they are waiting for a Refugee Status Determination appointment. Since 2018, when the UNHCR transferred responsibility for the processing of applications from non-Syrians to the Turkish government, fewer Afghans have applied for individual protection for fear of being rejected and deported. Still, according to a March 2021 report, Turkey remains the most important transit country on Afghans’ perilous journey to Europe and “Afghanistan has been the main country of origin for newly arriving refugees in Turkey” in the last three years.

In the wake of the US’ withdrawal announcement and the Taliban’s expanding takeover of Afghanistan, a fresh stream of refugees started crossing the Iran-Turkey border. Throughout the month of July around 500 to 2000 Afghans were estimated to make their way into Turkey daily. With numerous news reports framing them as “a security threat” an anti-Afghan discourse formed in a matter of few days. On July 29th, the secular-nationalist daily Cumhuriyet published a news article with the title, “Critical research on Afghans: Do migrants constitute a security problem?” In the meantime, social media users started sharing videos of young Afghan men walking by highways, especially around cities like Ağrı, Van, Iğdır and Niğde. Questions of “who let them in” and “whether Turkey’s borders were unattended” accompanied these videos. The main opposition party—Republican People’s Party (CHP)— even came up with a slogan that read “border is chastity” (sınır namustur).

As anti-Afghan discourse was brewing, wildfires broke out, creating a perfect moment for conspiracy theories to emerge. On social media, claims of Afghan refugees setting the forests to fire arose. “An acquaintance saw the group of Afghans who set Mazıköy to fire; he caught one of them and turned him into the gendarmerie, who then set him free,” read one Whatsapp message sent to a nature conservation group in Bodrum, a coastal town by the Mediterranean. On August 2nd, İlay Aksoy, a founding member of the nationalist Good Party [İyi Parti], shared a video on her Twitter account. Alleged to be shot in Datça, the video showed a group of young men squeezed to a hill atop the sea by the locals, who announced that they “caught all the refugees and called the gendarmerie, who are on their way.” Aksoy asked: “Since Datça-Marmaris motorway is closed due to fires who brought these people here and with what aim?” Another video uploaded to Youtube, with the title “who is burning our forests?”, showed yet another group of men in a forest area in Meşelik, accompanied with the claim that “lots of Afghans have been caught in the forest; many more are said to be in there and the gendarmerie is conducting a search.”

In response to these attempts by “angry citizens” to act as self-proclaimed security forces, the gendarmerie had to ensure that “everything is under control” and asked the locals to stay at home. This did little to prevent some from taking on unasked responsibility though. Environmental activists helping the evacuation of villages and towns complained about groups of “angry locals” conducting random ID checks and stopping passenger cars to check whether they were carrying any Afghan refugees. An activist in Bodrum, with whom I spoke during my visit in August, recounted: “As if we had nothing else better to do, we had to deal with these men who ‘warned’ us to not wander around too much if we didn’t want to cross paths with a stray bullet.” In a press statement dated August 6th, Bodrum Prosecutor’s Office announced that an investigation was started into the complaint that civilians blocked Milas-Yatağan motorway on August 5th. 

Turkey’s fires are indeed anthropogenic to a great extent. Yet, not in the way these “angry locals” think them to be. “Human activities, such as land clearing, industrial development, extraction of non-wood forest products, resettlement, and hunting” are all common causes for forest fires. Under scorching temperatures, glass bottles left in the forests that act as magnifying lenses or BBQ picnics held in forest areas also contribute to igniting some of the fires in these already dry regions. Although arsons cannot be completely ruled out, official figures show them to be rare. According to the General Directorate of Forestry, out of 12.604 wildfires that took place between 2015 and 2019 only 664 were started on purpose. So, how and why did the rumors about Afghan refugees igniting the fires spread so easily?

As research demonstrates, conspiracy theories go hand in hand with low levels of interpersonal, institutional, and political trust, and high levels of polarization. According to OECD and World Values Survey data, Turkey is among the countries with the highest levels of distrust and polarization. In an environment where people trust neither the media nor the politicians conspiracy theories rule the day. The lack of transparent governance and accountability contributes to the further spread of such theories. In the wake of the wildfires and the arrival of Afghan refugees, rather than sharing transparent information concerning its immigration policy or its roadmap for fighting with the repercussions of global warming the government embraced a defensive attitude. For example, in early July, the ministry of interior issued a statement claiming that the videos showing the arrival of Afghan refugees “did not reflect the reality” and they were “circulated on purpose, as part of ‘a perception operation’ provoking people into believing that the government has no control over Turkey’s borders.” Similarly, when wildfires broke out, government officials went on to criminalize a social media campaign started by concerned citizens. The campaign aimed to raise donations for fire-affected areas and ask for international assistance in combating fires, as it turned out that Turkey’s own firefighting planes were unfit to fly. While prosecutors started investigations into posts with the hashtag #HelpTurkey, the government labeled the campaign as “a purposeful attempt to make Turkey look weak.” It then started its own rival campaign #StrongTurkey, with posts lauding government response to fires.

Transparent governance is not a panacea for anti-immigrant attitude, as displayed by Denmark, where Syrian refugees are facing the risk of deportation despite international reports showing Syria to be unsafe for return. Yet, as the Turkish case demonstrates, in a country characterized by high levels of polarization and nationalist rhetoric across the political spectrum, the lack of transparency and accountability helps feed conspiracy theories that bring together seemingly separate issues, such as migration and climate change—two topics that usually intersect only under the rubric of “climate migrants.” As such, transparent governance emerges as a necessary but not sufficient element in fighting with anti-immigrant discourse, as well as with climate change.