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Turkey: Three Syrian workers burned to death in apparent racist attack

Turkish human rights groups say suspect set a room ablaze with gasoline where three young Syrians had been sleeping in Izmir
A reflection shows people in Istanbul waving Free Syrian flags as an aid convoy to Aleppo organized by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation is about to leave on 14 December 2016 (AFP)

Turkish human rights groups said in a press conference on Wednesday that three Syrian factory workers were brutally murdered in Izmir by a suspect motivated by racism and xenophobia. 

Led by the Izmir branch of Human Rights Association, 14 rights defender groups said that on an early morning in November, an unnamed Turkish citizen poured gasoline into a room in a stone factory complex where Mamoun al-Nabhan, 23, Ahmed al-Ali, 21, and Mohammed al-Bish, 17, had been sleeping and set it ablaze.

Other factory workers immediately tried to help the victims after hearing their calls for help. However, the Syrian workers succumbed to their wounds a week later at a local hospital, according to the statement.

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“The police initially ruled out the incident as triggered by a malfunctioning heater. However, the locals reported to the police that the suspect told them that he was going to kill the said Syrians, which led to an investigation,” the human rights groups said.

“He was caught after trying to stab two other people and confessed in his testimony that he had indeed burned the Syrians to death.” 

A report by the local Ilkses paper said that in his testimony, the suspect said that he used to work at the same stone factory where the Syrians had been employed, but after their arrival, the factory stopped contracting him for jobs at the plant.

The suspect had also made remarks that indicate he was not of sound mind as he claimed that he had wanted to scare the Syrians on the orders of the long-dissolved Turkish gendarmerie intelligence, known as JITEM. 

'Send Syrians home'

Taha Elgazi, an activist with the Asylum Seeker Rights Platform, said in an op-ed after visiting the crime scene that locals were friendly with the three Syrians and they were recognised as hard workers and good people.

Elgazi said that the attack was the sad result of provocations by Turkish politicians. 

In recent months, opposition leaders in Turkey have increasingly weaponised the subject of refugees, vowing to prevent neighbourhoods from being "taken over" by Syrians, and pledging to send refugees back to their countries of origin. 

Turkey currently hosts 5.2 million migrants, of which 3.7 million are Syrian refugees, according to a statement by the Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu in November. 

In July, Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, chairperson of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said that if elected, Turkey "will say our goodbyes to our Syrian guests and will send them to their homes in two years".

Elgazi said the politicians must immediately stop using rhetoric that scapegoats refugees and migrants for the root cause of the country's problems, and which may also trigger public lynchings and attacks. 

Some other politicians have recently taken even more radical anti-refugee action.

Tanju Ozcan, the mayor of the northern province of Bolu, proposed a motion to increase water bills tenfold for "foreigners", and raise fees for marriages. The bill passed in November with the approval of the Nation Alliance group, which consists of the CHP and the Good Party (IP).

Ozcan is reportedly under investigation on charges of "misconduct in office" and "hate and discrimination".