Turkey unveils an initiative that would send one million Syrian refugees back

Syrian mother and child in Istanbul. Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

The plans to send close to one million Syrian refugees living in Turkey back to Syria are in an “advanced stage” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a video message on May 3, on the occasion of the inauguration of thousands of prefabricated homes built for refugees in Idlib, the last remaining province under the control of the rebels in northwestern Syria. The decision is largely viewed as a tactical step for the president given thay Turkey, marred by internal economic challenges is headed to presidential and parliamentary elections come 2023.  Anti-immigrant sentiments are high and there has been a significant spike in attacks on Syrians living in Turkey.

Video message by President Erdogan on the occasion of the opening of Idlib Briquette Houses

While the return would be voluntary and involve assistance of local as well as of international organizations, the President did not elaborate on the details of the plan. The return is planned for the areas in northern Syria including Azaz, Jarablus, Al-Bab, Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn. 

So far, some 500,000 Syrians have already returned to their country according to government officials.

Change in refugee narrative

The announcement is a shift in Erdoğan's views on refugees. In 2019, he said his country would not send back Syrians who escaped “barrel bombs.” The same year, he also threatened Europe by saying he would send 3.7million Syrians to Europe if Brussels labeled “the country’s military incursion in Syria as an occupation.” Here is he referring to the incursion that took place in October 2019 into Kurdish-held northeastern Syria with the goal of pushing “YPG [the People's Protection Units] fighters at least 30 kilometers away from the borders of Turkey.” The YPG fighters are considered to be the offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a group designated as a terrorist entity by the US and Turkey.

The intention was to establish a so-called “safe zone” in parts of Syrian territory in order to return Syrian refugees. In response, Turkey was condemned by both the European Union (EU) and the US with “EU foreign ministers agreeing to stop weapons exports to Turkey, and Washington issuing sanctions.”

As recent as March, 2022, the President vowed once again not to send Syrians back, while slamming the opposition parties for their immigrant policies. Speaking at an award ceremony in Ankara, President Erdoğan said, “We will not leave anyone, including our own people, in a state of grief. Because this is what our values require of us.’’

The change in narrative became visible ahead of Eid al-Fitr holiday this May. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on April 22 in a televised interview that Syrians wanting to return to Turkey after visiting their homes for holidays would not be allowed back. Similar sentiment was reiterated by the leader of the Nationalist Movement (MH) Party, an ally of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, Devlet Bahçeli, who said that Syrians who intend to visit their homes for holidays should not come back, while those caught crossing into Turkey illegally should be deported. MHP is in the alliance with the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party.

Exemptions only apply to those holding official permission to attend special occasions, including funerals, or health related issues, reported by Hürriyet Daily News.

Anti-immigrant fervor is real

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that some 4 million refugees, mostly Syrians, live in Turkey. Afghans make up the second largest group. But patience is running thin “as living standards deteriorate, giving right-wing politicians an opening” and more opposition politicians are calling for sending refugees home if they come to power in the next election. Among them is the 61-year-old nationalist leader of Zafer [Victory] Party Ümit Özdağ, who has made “immigration the centerpiece of [the party's] election campaign,” as Bloomberg reported in April, 2022.

Özdağ commissioned a video that was published on May 3, titled “Silent Occupation”. It depicts a dystopian future in Turkey in which Syrians have taken over the country by 2043, where Turks are not welcomed, banned from speaking their language and deprived of white-collar jobs – all linked to uncontrolled immigration of Syrian refugees that started in 2011. By May 6, the video received more than 3.5 million views. The film's producer Hande Karacasu was reportedly detained for “manipulating the information on refugees and irregular migrants,” on May 4 while the Deputy Interior Minister, Ismail Çataklı said the Immigration Authority of Turkey would file “criminal complaint against Özdağ,” and two others “over their remarks marking the Syrian refugees as targets.”

Good morning Turkish nation. On World Press Freedom Day, as a journalist, I was taken from home to testify because of the movie #sessizistila [Silent invasion]. I would like to thank the hundreds of patriots who waited outside the police station in the cold of the night, and the hundreds of thousands of you who said #Handekaracasuyalnızdeğildir [Hande Karacasu is not alone].

Following her release, Karacasu said in a tweet, “I am not a racist. I am just a patriot who believes in Ataturk’s Turkey.”

Özdağ was also unmoved with the threats of a criminal complaint. “Come and sue me if you are not a coward,” she tweeted adding, “It is you who will be tried and convicted by the national conscience of the Turkish Nation in the Turkish history court.”

Unrealistic plans raise questions

The return envisaged by the ruling party is rather unrealistic experts say. Speaking to the New York Times, Murat Erdoğan, a fellow of the Center for Applied Turkey Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Studies, and the director of a migration research center at Ankara University said:

Finding 1 million Syrians to voluntarily return doesn’t seem very realistic at all. They don’t see a future in Syria, the war there has become chronic, they don’t trust al-Assad, Turkey is a better place, they set up a life here.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Berlin-based anthropologist Ayşe Cavdar, said, “it is unlikely that the ruling party would come up with a solution to the refugee crisis, which has so many interwoven components, both domestically and internationally.”

Meanwhile, the leader of opposition Republican People’s (CH) Party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu described President Erdoğan's plan of voluntary relocation of one million refugees as unrealistic on May 3. Instead, the opposition leader urged the President to strengthen the country's borders requesting the security forces not to allow “a single fugitive to cross the border,” according to reporting by Hürriyet Daily News.

Human rights organizations are also wary of the “voluntary” return policies. In 2019, Human Rights Watch reported evidence of forced returns. “Turkey claims it helps Syrians voluntarily return to their country, but threatening to lock them up until they agree to return, forcing them to sign forms, and dumping them in a war zone is neither voluntary nor legal,” said at the time, Gerry Simpson, associate Emergencies director at the Human Rights Watch.

With elections a year away, rights and aid groups fear Syrian refugees are becoming scapegoats in national politics.

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