The danger of xenophobia is rising in Turkey as controversy grows over millions of refugees and irregular migrants in the country, ahead of elections next year.

The issue goes beyond the Syrian refugees that Turkey has hosted since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. Popular resentment has been fueled by the growing number of illegal migrants and has come to affect even Middle Easterners and Asians arriving as tourists. As facts and figures are being jumbled, popular anger at severe economic hardships is being dangerously channeled into a general animosity toward foreigners.

Turkey’s migration agency reports a complex makeup of 5.5 million foreigners in the country, with Syrian refugees and foreigners with residence permits representing the largest groups.

The number of Syrians under temporary protection – the officialese for the refugees – stands at some 3.7 million. Turkey has been the world’s No. 1 host of refugees since 2015, and officials say the number of refugees has remained unchanged since 2017.

The second category is comprised of 1.4 million foreigners with residence permits, including students, business people and property owners. Nationals of Iraq, Syria, the Turkic republics in Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan make the largest groups in this category, according to last year’s data.

Illegal or irregular migrants, who sneak into the country clandestinely without passports or visas, represent a third category in which the figures are ambiguous. The authorities release figures only about those who are caught, and they are mostly Afghans, Pakistanis and Syrians. The total of illegal entries remains unknown.

The fourth category is international asylum seekers, who number roughly 350,000.

Finally, there are the foreigners who arrive legally as tourists for a period of up to three months, but some of them are actually job seekers who join the unregistered labor force. Three fourths of the 5 million foreigners who entered Turkey in the first three months of the year were nationals of Middle Eastern and Western Asian countries in Turkey’s vicinity.

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Written by Mustafa Sönmez