Istanbul, Turkey – For more than a hundred years, Turkey, Russia’s southern neighbor on the Black Sea, has hosted waves of refugees and exiles.
In the 19th century, the Circassians fled to the Ottoman Empire from the Tsar’s genocide.
Then, in the early 1920s, an estimated 200,000 people took refuge in Istanbul after the Russian Civil War, increasing the city’s population by a fifth. They include the famous author Vladimir Nabokov.
However, a small number of people stayed with the majority resettling in Paris, London and New York. More recently, the 1990s and 2000s saw refugees from war-torn Chechnya.
Now, as Moscow continues its military campaign in Ukraine, many anti-war Russians have flocked to Turkey.
And while the majority of Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighboring EU countries, a significant number are also settling in the country.
The Interior Ministry announced on 7 March that more than 20,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in the country, although that number may have increased significantly since then.
On the evening of March 14, in a crowd queuing for passports at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport, where hundreds of people waited for about half an hour to pass, it appeared that more than half of those queuing had Ukrainian projection.
On March 5, Kristina, 36, left Kyiv with her two sons – aged 3 and 16 – and her mother by car for the Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi, where they boarded a bus to Istanbul, passing through Romania and Bulgaria .
The journey lasted a day and a half.
In a flash, Kristina decided to go to Turkey because she thought she could seek refuge with her ex-husband, the father of a young son, who lives in Istanbul.
But when he arrived, he refused to let them stay with him.
The family ended up in a basement in Turkey’s largest city before volunteers helped them find a spacious, modern suburban apartment where they now live with a Ukrainian family. other.
Kristina told Al Jazeera by phone in Ukraine she packed a bag with some clothes, medicine, travel documents and her teenage son’s computer.
The owner of the apartment allowed Kristina and her family to stay for free for three months.
Meanwhile, by some estimates, at least 200,000 Russians have fled their country since the war began in late February amid a crackdown on anti-war sentiment and growing concern over the economy. economy.
With European airspace closed, they left for destinations to the south and east, such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan – and Turkey.
But due to Western sanctions against Russia, many are unable to access their bank accounts and are struggling to get by.
Diana, 25, brandishing a bank card in her purse said: ‘This is just a useless piece of plastic for me right now.
While Russia is partially banned globally FAST payment system, Visa and Mastercard have stopped working there, Russians can still pay with bank cards in the country.
But people abroad are unable to use their money, including stranded holidaymakers and those who have fled in recent weeks.
Diana, who is working as a motion designer in St Petersburg, now makes $4 a day working at a small cafe in Istanbul’s Fatih district after her employer took pity on her. But this amount is not enough to cover the rent of the motel where she is staying, she said.
“As I understand it, the innkeeper understood this was a mass refugee crisis and even canceled other people’s bookings so we wouldn’t be kicked out,” she told Al Jazeera. “I don’t even know where to go. I hope that I can find a job and move somewhere. ”
‘Our doors and hearts are always open’
The influx of new arrivals has come as Turkey has already taken in about four million refugees, most of them Syrians.
As Turkey’s economy has shrunk in recent years, there has been a growing tendency for the public to blame the refugees, and polls show that most citizens want Syrians back.
Tensions have flared into violence, with attacks against refugees and the neighborhoods in which they live reported in Istanbul and Ankara.
“The anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey has a lot to do with depicting especially Syrian and Afghan men as people fleeing without fighting for their country. On the other hand, the first convoys carrying Ukrainians to Turkey included women and children,” Omar Kadkoy, an analyst at the Turkish Foundation for Economic Policy Research, told Al Jazeera.
“Thus, populist media and politicians can use similar images to paint a picture of favored/disliked refugees and refugees, and at the same time reinforces hostile sentiment towards specific vulnerable groups,” added Kadkoy.
After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasized that Turkey was a safe place for refugees.
“We will continue to keep our doors open and our hearts open,” he said in a statement last week.
“Yesterday, they came from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, they come from Ukraine, and we don’t know where they will come from tomorrow. Don’t worry, this country will always continue to be a haven for the oppressed. ”
“Welcoming Ukrainians fleeing the war is morally unquestionable,” Kadkoy said. Furthermore, Turkey has been sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Opening arms to Ukrainians is another way to share responsibility with Ukraine and other countries that have received Ukrainian refugees.”
A recent newcomer is Greg Mustreader, a popular YouTuber and blogger who fled to Turkey from Moscow with his girlfriend a week ago, fearing political persecution for his outspoken opposition to the war, which he insists on calling war and not, as officially. known, a “special operation”.
Mustreader told Al Jazeera that he considers himself quite special compared to others in his situation, explaining that he is well versed in the cryptocurrency space and can convert them to dollars or lira at various locations. Cryptocurrency exchange offices in Turkey.
He plans to stay in the country for now and continue producing content on both his Russian and English YouTube and TikTok channels, urging his Russian followers to use a VPN as the day comes. the more social media are blocked; Russia has recently targeted Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
“I feel that I have to try to do my best to at least do something that affects the situation in my country, even while abroad,” he said.
In addition to managing certain groups of refugees, Ankara must also be cautious as an ally of both Russia and Ukraine – while taking on a mediating role alongside France and Israel.
Although Turkey is part of NATO, its relationship with Moscow is more complicated than that of the rest of the allies.
For example, it has not closed its airspace to flights from Russia, nor has it imposed any sanctions. At the same time, it sold anti-drone to Ukraine, which has sparked attacks on Russian forces.
“From our point of view, it may look a bit strange but from the point of view of Turkey, it makes perfect sense. And it fits the kind of relationship Ankara has with Moscow,” Eleonora Tafuro, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, told Al Jazeera.
Mr. Tafuro said that Turkey has many delicate interests that it does not want to jeopardize Russia, including the continuing conflict in Syria to which both countries are a party, as well as a road map. Russia’s Black Sea gas pipeline goes directly to Turkey, a pipeline that could help Turkey become an important energy hub as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates.
Turkey be held the first meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, in Antalya.
While the negotiations did not lead to any tangible results, Taruro said it was at least a diplomatic success on the part of the Turks.
It’s a fragile balance and Turkey needs to maintain it.