Ankara’s “Hospitality” Strategy: Syrian Refugees in Turkey
Photo: I took this picture while waiting outside Ankara’s migration management office to renew my temporary residence documents with so many other refugees, during the summer of 2017.
Turkey is one of the largest hosts of refugees in the world, with an estimated 5-7 million people seeking refuge in the country, mostly from Syria. In recent years, Turkey has been dealing with a significant increase in the number of refugees it hosts, as the Syrian conflict continues and new move of people arrive seeking safety.
As the upcoming presidential election draws near, political parties are making a variety of promises on how to handle the refugee crisis. Unfortunately, one of the topics dominating election news is the potential deportation of refugees back to their home countries in order to stem the flow of movement across borders.
A leading expert in Middle Eastern conflict resolution, Professor Dr. Veysel Ayhan, has highlighted the complexities and challenges surrounding the issue of Syrian refugees returning home. Recent opinion polls have indicated that between 70 to 85 percent of citizens in Türkiye want the return of Syrian refugees, however, a 2022 study among Syrian refugees themselves revealed that 80 percent have no intention of returning.
This poses a significant challenge for policymakers, as both international law and Islamic law prohibit the forced return of refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, or people under protection. Any attempt to do so could create a highly conflicted and volatile situation, which would have long-lasting repercussions. Moreover, the suggestion by some that immigrants should simply be left on the other side of the border, even if through forced deportation, does not align with the realities on the ground.
This scholar have emphasized the multifaceted nature of the process, which requires addressing a range of needs and concerns. One such expert, who has extensive experience in the Middle East region, notes that voluntary repatriation work must prioritize the restoration of the national protective framework in the country of origin (in this case, Syria), as well as the establishment of mechanisms to address both national and individual security concerns during the reintegration process.
Other key priorities include the development of sustainable livelihoods, ensuring access to basic services, and promoting full reintegration into communities. To achieve these objectives, a comprehensive and coordinated approach is necessary, one that addresses the physical, legal, and material security concerns of returnees.
It is essential to keep in mind that the primary goal of voluntary repatriation is the early and permanent reintegration of returnees. To this end, programs must be designed to encourage full integration, while also taking into account the complex and sensitive nature of the repatriation process. This includes prioritizing efforts towards reconciliation, and ensuring that secondary migration waves are avoided wherever possible.
Overall, it is clear that voluntary repatriation work requires a high level of coordination, expertise, and sensitivity. However, with the right approach, it is possible to ensure the successful and sustainable reintegration of returnees into their communities of origin.
Syrian refugees in Turkey
According to the latest data available, as of September 2022, the number of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey stands at a staggering 3 million 622 thousand, including those born in Turkey. This represents a significant increase from the estimated 2 million refugees in 2015.
Despite the intervening years and the birth of new generations, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has remained relatively stable, with no significant change observed since July 2019. This can be attributed in part to immigration to third countries, as well as to the fact that a significant proportion of the Syrian population in Turkey has been living there for seven or eight years.
However, it is important to note that while the number of registered refugees has remained stable, some refugees have returned to their home country, and some have obtained citizenship in Turkey. The situation in Syria remains complex and volatile, and it is likely that many Syrian refugees will continue to rely on Turkey for support in the years to come.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party and President Erdogan’s primary opponent in the Turkish presidential election, frequently speaks about the obligation to repatriate refugees to their home countries. During a caucus meeting with his party members, he asserted that if he becomes the winner of the election, he will ensure that refugees residing in Turkey are sent back to their countries within a maximum of two years. For over a decade, Erdogan’s policies have caused the opposition to focus on internal issues, such as the Kurdish issue, democratic crisis, and economic crisis. In light of the recent earthquake in Turkey, discussions about refugees have not garnered significant attention in the Turkish public opinion. Kılıçdaroğlu claims that the refugees will return voluntarily.
AKP-MHP Government Policies
This just in: Immigrants in Turkey are being used as pawns in a political game, with the AKP-MHP government exploiting their vulnerable position to serve their own interests. Turkey continues to use arbitrary practices and flout international law, despite ratifying the 1961 Geneva Convention, which defines the legal status of refugees.
While many immigrants and refugees come to Turkey seeking asylum or a better life, they are often subject to “temporary protection” status established by Turkey, rather than being granted UN refugee status. This means they are denied vital security such as work, food, education, health and shelter, and are far from integration into the environment they live in. With millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Palestine and other countries, the AKP-MHP government is using them as bargaining chips with EU countries, resorting to different and risky pursuits to maintain their own interests.
This cynical exploitation of immigrants has been ongoing for more than a decade, with the government promoting their efforts to host registered and unregistered asylum seekers, which corresponds to 8 percent of the population of Turkey. Meanwhile, the government has been blaming refugees for the country’s economic woes, despite the fact that they are not responsible for the collapse of the economy and living standards. It is a fact that they are parties to social and vital fights and conflicts.
In response, nationalist and racist forces have been leading a chorus of hatred and xenophobia against refugees, with the likes of Zafer Party, Vatan Party, IYI Party, and other groups, alleging that refugees are the culprit of the economic crisis in the society.
In a recent development, it has come to more light that the AKP government has been forcibly sending Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers and refugees back to their countries. This move is seen as an attempt to maintain the government’s image of “hospitality” and garner support from the EU.
However, reports indicate that the government’s supposed voluntary return policy to a “safe” area in Syria is not reflective of reality. Instead, these areas are populated by the families of jihadist members of the “Syrian National Army” who are still under the protection of Turkey and fighting against the Assad government.
The reason for settling these individuals in adobe houses in the “safe zone” is because if Ankara-Damascus relations were to normalize, these forces would be unable to cross back into Turkey with their weapons. Therefore, it is necessary to protect them by keeping them in these adobe houses.
Turkish occupation of northern Syria
The Turkish occupation of northern Syria has been ongoing since 2016, when Turkish military forces entered Syria in an operation known as “Euphrates Shield” to so calle it clear the border region of ISIS militants and Kurdish militia. Since then, Turkey has established a military presence in several areas of northern Syria, including Afrin, Jarablus, al-Bab, and Tel Abyad. This occupation caused the massive movement of Kurdish refugees. The operation displaced nearly 300,000 Kurdish inhabitants only from Afrin.
The Turkish government claims that its military operations in Syria are aimed at combating terrorism and creating a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return to their homes. However, many Kurdish and Syrian opposition groups accuse Turkey of seeking to expand its influence in the region and suppress the Kurdish population in northern Syria.
In October 2019, Turkey launched a new military operation in northern Syria, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” aimed at establishing a buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border and pushing back Kurdish-led forces. The operation was widely criticized by the international community, as it resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians and accusations of war crimes by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups.
In March 2020, Turkey and Russia agreed to a ceasefire in Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria that was the last major stronghold of Syrian opposition forces. As part of the agreement, Turkey agreed to withdraw its forces from certain areas of northern Syria, including Tell Rifaat and other parts of Aleppo province. However, Turkey has maintained its military presence in other areas of northern Syria, including Afrin and Jarablus.
As of the latest information available, tensions between Turkey and Kurdish forces in northern Syria continue to simmer, with occasional clashes reported in the region. The situation in Idlib remains fragile, with sporadic violence reported despite the ceasefire agreement. The ongoing conflict in Syria as a whole has resulted in the displacement of millions of Syrians and a humanitarian crisis that continues to this day.