Political Spectrum and Discourse on Refugees: A Comparison of the EU and Turkey


The recent refugee crisis and the diverse range of responses given from different states and different political parties raised questions about what determines their stances. The literature suggests that the position of a political party on the left-right political spectrum explains the discourse mobilized by them regarding the incoming refugees. This study, however, reveals that not every case can be explained by political orientation, although it might be relevant sometimes. By using the method of comparative case study, we investigate two prominent yet contrasting cases that are the European Union and Turkey. Whereas the former case, which is identified with the rise of right-wing populist parties, suggests that the existing expectation might be true; the latter one challenges this claim strongly, with right-wing using a relatively more welcoming discourse for refugees. We conclude by arguing that political interests are more influential than political orientation in determining the discourse on refugees. 

Keywords: EU refugee crisis, political orientation, right-wing populism, migration policy, party discourse.


Classifying political parties in accordance to their ideological orientation has been perhaps the most mainstream way of distinguishing between them, as they have been placed on the political spectrum and characterized as either left- or right-wing. Within this spectrum, right-wing parties have traditionally been identified with their nationalist attitudes whereas the political left has been more associated with internationalism. Consequently, one initially expects the left-wing to be more welcoming of immigrants within their country and right-wing to have more anti-immigration sentiments. But then the emerging question is whether this is always the case.

Looking at various parties’ overall immigration policy in order to see whether there is a sharp correlation between their political orientation and their stance on immigration would be very hard, if not impossible, given the broad range of situations the term “immigration” covers. However, in a global political climate that is being more and more defined with the so-called refugee crisis of the 21st century, looking at the political parties’ discourse on the refugees might be a good starting point to answer this question. However, this does not mean that any party’s approach towards refugees is a clear indicator of their stance on every immigration issue. Instead, our discussion here concerns specifically forced migration and our aim is to explore the link between the political orientation and anti- or pro- refugee sentiments and discourse.

Looking at the last decade, the influx of Syrian refugees has catalyzed a process which can roughly be named as the rise of right-wing populism in many parts of the world. Although the refugee crisis is by no means the only reason behind this fact, the populist rhetoric against the refugees has definitely distinguished right-wing parties from their rivals and contributed to their rise, especially in Europe. Initially, this might make sense, considering the conventional expectation that right-wing should lean toward having relatively anti-immigration sentiments. However, this is a misleading expectation on two fronts. Firstly, no one can argue that all the populist parties which object to the idea of admitting refugees into their countries are against the entrance of all immigrants in their countries; given that most of the time a negative discourse is merely used for specific types of immigrants, that are the low skilled ones and/or refugees. Secondly, this situation in Europe has not been the case in precisely every part of the world, including the most striking example that is Turkey. Whereas the former front is not an explicit concern of this paper, the latter one is the exact situation we seek to understand and of whose reasons we hope to explain. Thus, the aim of this research is to investigate whether there is a clear correlation between left-right political spectrum and the discourse on refugees.

Literature Review

Does ideology shape party stances and government policies concerning asylum seekers and refugees? Classical articles and a brief look at the literature would suggest that it does, given that the political spectrum is inherently based on attitudes like this. Common anticipation is that parties with a right-wing orientation are far less likely to support granting the asylum seekers with refugee status and granting refugees with socio-economic rights, whereas left-wing is a lot more probable to advocate rights for vulnerable groups of immigrants (de Haas and Natter, 2015). Since the answer is so expected and straightforward when the question is oversimplified and since our question under examination here has a very specific focus; before looking for a direct answer, trying to conceptualize the left- and right-wing parties’ attitudes by going over the existing literature might be better for the purposes of this research.

Why are right-wing parties thought to be so critical of admitting refugees to their countries and left-wing parties are not? The answer is hidden in the very definition of the right-left divide: Traditionally, right-wing is expected to “uphold the existing social order” whereas left-wing is “characterized by a commitment to change” (Heywood, 2019, p. 248).

Right-wing holds the state sovereignty as one of the highest values and cares deeply about the notion of nation, hence sees immigrants as a threat to their country. Research shows that voters view parties with a right-wing orientation as tougher on immigrants (Thränhardt, 1995). On the contrary, but bearing in mind that not every left-wing party holds the same values dearly and appeal to same audience and that they differ a lot within themselves, most of the time left-wing gathers its votes from the citizens who have a relatively higher education and income level, therefore advocating universalism and egalitarianism in line with their liberal stance (Alonso and Fonseca, 2012). This explains why they are more liberal in terms of immigration policies when compared to the right-wing as well.

Circling back to the topic of this research, we can summarize the debates in the literature by referring to three arguments in particular. Prior to the Syrian refugee crisis, Koser argues that, in line with the other scholars, “the emergence of right-wing parties has had anti-immigrant effects across the political spectrum” (2007, p. 100). Although this is not an up-to-date claim, it still shows that not only there is a relation between the attitudes towards refugees and the political orientation, but that relationship might also be bidirectional.

When we turn our faces to the more recent literature, we see that Prooijen et. al. (2017) claim the current crisis made it obvious that there is a sharp distinction between the left and right attitudes towards refugees, given that right-wing parties are promoting stricter border policies for the sake of their citizens’ safety and the left-wing is highlighting the importance of humanitarian aid. This is a very assertive claim, albeit not surprising, considering that sharp distinction might not be valid for every specific case.

Most recently, a research shows that whereas immigration, and refugee in particular, policies pursued by governments do not necessarily change in line with their ideological stances, a clear difference in terms of discourse still remains (Natter and de Haas, 2020). This claim is relatively more related with the focus of this research, and it essentially suggests that discourses usually change according to the political stances.

In conclusion, when we look at the literature with a chronological order, we can see that every research added on top of each other’s arguments. Therefore, with slight differences, there seems to be a consensus regarding our question implying that at the very least the discourse on refugees, even if not the policies, is directly influenced by the positions of governments or political parties on the political spectrum. Whether these claims are always valid or not will be discussed in our case studies; however, it should be noted that making this kind of generalizations based on primarily one example that is Europe, is a slippery slope which can be very misrepresenting.

Hypothesis and Method

Anyone who is familiar with the situation regarding Syrians in Turkey would initially think that the consensus in the literature concerning the right-wing’s anti-refugee discourse and policies is misleading, even though the rise of political right in Europe suggests otherwise. Since these two cases imply very different outcomes to our research question, we will be using the method of comparative case study to investigate whether there is a clear correlation between left-right political spectrum and the discourse on refugees.

Without any further information, the initial hypothesis this research is based on is that there is no hard left-right divide concerning refugee policies. However, even if this is the case, we need to be able to explain what other factors are decisive in determining the stances of governments and political parties on refugees. In order to be able to give answers to these questions, we will be discussing two prominent cases, namely the European Union (EU hereafter) and Turkey, and compare the stances of their well-known political parties, since the case of the EU suggests there might be a correlation, and the case of Turkey strongly challenges this supposition.

Some things concerning the thermology and the scope of this research needs to be clarified. Using terms such as “asylum seeker” and “refugee” comes with challenges including but not limited to contested definitions, overlapping scopes, blurred distinctions and the possibility of transforming from one category to another (Koser, 2007). In order to avoid any kind of confusion, it should be noted that the case studies under examination here only focus on the discourse concerning the forced migrants who have become mobilized in the last decade, and that the words refugee and asylum seeker are used interchangeably from time to time. It should also be noted that the usage of the word “refugee” does not always point to a legal status and is sometimes used to cover the Syrians under the temporary protection in Turkey as well.

Case Study: the European Union

Before proceeding with the first case study, defining populism and conceptualizing right-wing populism are essential as the rise of the latter trend in Europe will be discussed afterwards. Heywood defines the populist political tradition as the “belief that the instincts and wishes of the people provide the principle legitimate guide to political action” and the populist politicians as the people who “make a direct appeal to the people, and claim to give expression to their deepest hopes and fears” (2019, p. 53). He also distinguishes right-wing populism from the left-wing by arguing that the right-wing tends to classify people with regard to their ethnicity and focus heavily on the interests and the culture of the nation. Therefore, right-wing populist discourse gives precedence to sociocultural matters such as immigration.

When we look at response of the EU countries to the recent refugee crisis, we see that this issue, combined with the growing concerns over Islam, gave rise to the extreme right-wing populism (Kaya, 2018). How and why did this happen exactly is an issue we need to dig deeper. As explained above, populist parties are inherently and constantly looking for opportunities to criticize the political elites. The influx of refugees, which led to a massive crisis in Europe, provided that opportunity to the populist politicians. But what concerns our research is the question of why the right-wing populism rose and not left-wing.

Arrival of an unprecedented number of refugees to Europe paved the way for cultural conflicts, and this tension resulted in a narrative of fear which frames the refugees as a threat to the economy, welfare and the security of the state (Hameleers, 2019). As can be seen, such a narrative matches perfectly with the nationalist and often times xenophobic discourse of the right-wing parties. Therefore, the traditionally ethnocentric attitude of the political right made it possible for the right-wing populist parties to mobilize votes by seizing upon this narrative. Ivarsflaten (2005) argues that an average voter is skeptical towards immigrants. Therefore, in a time in which the political climate is very much influenced by the salient issues like the current refugee crisis, it becomes exceptionally easier for right-wing parties to compete with the left-wing by mobilizing a nationalist discourse and shaping the public opinion.

As a result of these processes, the world witnessed the rise of far-right movements across Europe. Populist parties including but not limited to Alternative for Germany, French National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom and Sweden Democrats experienced extraordinary support by framing refugees as a threat to their countries’ sovereignty. This discursive framing that is highly characterized by the word crisis, demonstrates how the right-wing politicians’ response to this crisis overlapped with the behavior patterns that were expected from the political right. In the end, the situation in the European Union suggests that there might be a correlation between the ideological orientations and the hostile discourse that is being mobilized in Europe. But as noted above, making generalizations from a single case would be misleading. In order to avoid such a mistake, we will also examine a distinctive second case.

Case Study: Turkey

Turkey, as the country that currently hosts the largest number of refugees, is an essential case to investigate when we discuss an issue related with refugees. But that is not the only reason why Turkey is chosen as our second case. The fact that the discourse mobilized by the right-wing politicians and media in Turkey concerning the incoming refugees is quite contrary to discursive framing in the EU countries makes Turkey a crucial example for the purposes of this research. Why the government and the political parties in Turkey follow a completely different route from the EU countries is a mystery with which has been insufficiently dealt in the literature.

Initially, anyone would expect that the problems related to the refugees should be a lot more salient in the politics of Turkey than in any European country, given their share in the population. But recent findings in the literature demonstrate a contradiction between this expectation and the actual discourse mobilized by the government officials. Sert and Danış, after an extensive analysis on the newspapers of the country, state that “When we investigate the ways political institutions and actors have framed migration, we observe, unlike in European discourses, the complete absence of the word ‘crisis’.” (2020, p. 1). The authors claim that whereas European countries do not refrain from using the word “crisis”, absence of this specific word in the Turkish government’s discourse demonstrates the conflicting interests of Turkey and the EU, which means that political interests and gains are important factors in determining the discourse.

This fact is considered as a means by which the government tried to frame the situation as under control (Sert and Danış, 2020). Considering that the majority of the seats in both the parliament and the cabinet of Turkey are occupied by the members of right-wing parties, the fact that the government officials imply the situation is perfectly under control and there are no major troubles caused by the refugees demonstrates a contradictory situation with the one in our first case study. Different scholars claim that this is an attempt to use the refugees as a policy tool and as a means of bargaining both in domestic affairs and foreign politics (Soykan and Cantek, 2018; Sert and Danış, 2020).

This discourse is not specific to the government officials. The way incoming of refugees is stigmatized in the media is very much influenced by the political stance of the owners of the media outlets (Sert and Danış, 2020) and when “many domestic media outlets came under the dominance of the government” (Soykan and Cantek, 2018, p. 1) this also had an undeniable effect on the discourse mobilized by the citizens and especially right-wing leaning voters.

A very recent study by Cope and Crabtree (2020) shows that if Turkish citizens with a right-wing stance were informed about the liabilities of admitting the Syrian refugees to their countries, they would in fact be more likely to not want them; instead of calling them with the word “guest”, which has very nice historical connotations. This research again shows the contradiction between the reality in Turkey and the initial expectation that the right-wing is not supposed to be very welcoming to refugees.

But what is the situation with the left-wing in Turkey? Whereas the pro-gov, therefore right-wing, groups and media channels seem to be relatively more okay with the Syrians in the country, left-wing seems to be more skeptical towards the issue. As the study by Sert and Danış (2020) shows, the left-wing party officials and media channels do not refrain from using the word “crisis” for the context of Turkey. This attitude, which can be labeled as critical when compared to the counter examples, again contradicts the expectation that the left-wing should be more liberal in terms of immigration policies. Soykan and Cantek (2018) argue that this is a practice that has been used by the left-wing parties and media outlets to criticize and compete with the government’s policies.

Therefore, it can be argued that the stances of political parties regarding the refugees, especially Syrian ones, in Turkey is not necessarily determined by their political orientation and position on the political spectrum, but rather with political gains and interests of the parties. Government officials and other pro-government actors mobilize a relatively welcoming discourse as a tool of mutual bargain in the foreign policy, as the 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey demonstrates explicitly. The influx of refugees to Turkey and the positive response given by the government provides the country with a political advantage in international affairs vis à vis the anti-refugee Western counterparts (Soykan and Cantek, 2018; Sert and Danış, 2020). The country’s internal dynamics are also decisive in determining the stance of left-wing parties, of whose policies can be mostly defined as the opposite of the government. In sum, whereas right-wing’s, and the governments, attitude in the country is defined by their seizing upon the opportunity to criticize Western counterparts; left-wing opposition parties’ discourse is defined by their taking advantage of the situation to criticize the government.

Analysis and Conclusion

It was explained before that the existing literature suggests the refugee discourse, sometimes the policies as well, enacted by governments and political parties leaning on either the left or the right differ. This is a claim based on precisely the situation in the EU which can be summarized as the rise of political right. Therefore, they remain mostly Eurocentric claims. Although other countries such as the United States have also undergone similar processes, this still does not justify an overall generalization. As our second case study shows, the situation regarding the political orientation of the government, political parties, even the media and the discourse on refugees mobilized by these actors, proves to be the exact opposite of the common expectation. Therefore, our case studies, and by implication our research, demonstrates that in a world in which forced migration has become a key factor in political attitudes, there is no clear distinction between left- and right-wing stances in terms of discourse on refugees.

After looking at the case of Turkey and seeing that the initial expectation might not always be valid, one also questions the validity of that expectation in the case of the EU as well. If we can explain the refugee discourse mobilized by different political parties of Turkey by political gains and leverages instead of their ideologies, can we also perceive the situation in Europe as a coincidence?

Although it can never be argued that the situation is entirely coincidental due to the reasons explained in the first case study, considering the effects of the discourse mobilized by the political parties on the voting behaviors of the citizens, it can be claimed that the situation is more identified with the electoral competition than with ideology. This means that although the rise of political right instead of the left in Europe can be in favor of a positive correlation between the right of the political spectrum and anti-refugee sentiments, the rise of populist parties instead of mainstream parties can be an indicator of the prominence of political leverages over political ideologies. After all, the right-wing populist parties in Europe need the refugees they supposedly do not want so that they can be able to demonize them and then mobilize votes.

Hence, governments’ and political parties’ political orientation does not necessarily determine whether they pursue more or less welcoming discourse on refugees. Instead, other factors like electoral competition, as in the case of the EU; and political leverages that can be used in international affairs, as in the case of Turkey, are decisive. It is not always about left- and right-, but it is almost always about the gains and interests. This is a fact that became evident through the politicization of the asylum, as we witnessed the usage of refugees as a means of negotiation.


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Alonso, S., & Fonseca, S. C. D. (2012). Immigration, left and right. Party Politics, 18(6), 865-884.

Cope, K. L., & Crabtree, C. (2020). A nationalist backlash to international refugee law: evidence from a survey experiment in Turkey. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 17(4), 752-788.

De Haas, H., Miller, M. J., & Castles, S. (2014). The age of migration: International population movements in the modern world. Palgrave Macmillan.

De Haas, H., & Natter, K. (2015). The Effect of Government Party Orientation on Immigration Policies. IMI Working Paper Series. Oxford, UK: International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.

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