Erdoğan Wants to Send a Million Refugees Back to Northern Syria

The pre-electoral atmosphere and the severe economic crisis that has hit Turkey these past months have revived the xenophobic rhetoric against the country’s four million refugees. The Turkish president is proposing the voluntary return of a million of these to the area in northern Syria controlled by Ankara.

Şanlıurfa (southeastern Turkey), 17 May 2022. Fatima Ibrahim, who came from Kobane, with her children
Ozan Kose/AFP

A few months ago, a Turkish MP burst into a jewellery store on the Aegean coast with a video camera to interview the owner. He demanded to see his ID, his shopkeeper’s licence and recorded their conversation without asking permission. Soon afterwards he posted the video on the social networks, introducing the jeweller with the following message:

“He came to Turkey seven years ago. Acquired citizenship. Has a permit to carry a handgun. Opened a jewellery shop in Izmir with a licence obtained in Sanliurfa. There are 900,000 other Syrians like him. Turks, are you aware of the danger?”

This MP’s name is Ümit Özdag. He is the leader of a new nationalist party, The Victory Party (Zafer Partisi, ZP), which has launched a highly viral campaign on the social networks calling for the deportation of nearly four million Syrian refugees exiled in Turkey. For several weeks now, his party has posted unchecked videos showing migrants harassing Turkish women on the streets, refugees mocking the Turkish flag and even a dystopic fiction portraying a future Turkey as a divided country where the official language is Arabic.

The massive rejection of refugees

This xenophobic rhetoric on the social networks has frightened the refugee population who live in fear of a recurrence of those events which took place last summer in Ankara when an angry crowd of nationalists wrecked Syrians’ shops and tried to attack their homes after a brawl which had resulted in the death of a young Turk.

The Victory Party’s attacks are not simply the isolated outbursts of a populist extra-parliamentary movement. The main opposition party, the social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) also uses the hostility towards refugees as a weapon against the government. It recently proposed to organise a referendum so that the people could decide how to settle the refugee problem and announced that if it wins the 2023 election, it will send the Syrians back home.

Ayhan Kaya, an academic specialising in migration at Bilgi University in Istanbul, believes that the hostility towards refugees is due in part to the way in which the government controlled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dealt with the reception of refugees in its official rhetoric. “Since 2015, when Syrians began arriving in large numbers, the AKP has justified welcoming them on religious grounds. This has led Turkish society to accepting Syrians as Muslim brothers on a temporary basis and not in terms of their right to asylum as human beings“, he explains.”The problems began when that temporariness overstepped the population’s tolerance threshold. The rhetoric which involved presenting the Syrians as our guests is no longer meaningful," he adds.

Opinion polls confirm this. According to Metropol, the country’s most prestigious polling institute, 82% of the Turkish people hope the Syrians will go back to their own country. Among the AKP electorate, the figure is 85%.

“Voluntary” return or resettlement

As part of this debate, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began by claiming that Syrians “may go back home whenever they wish,” but that Turkey “will never force them out of the country”. Soon afterwards, however, he qualified this statement, announcing his plan for the “voluntary” return of a million Syrians to northern Syria. A plan which involved the construction of homes and the provision of services in areas under Turkish control. While Erdoğan provided certain details of this plan, such as the number of houses to be built, and specified that 500,000 Syrians have already gone home over the past few years, he left out other vital information. No-one knows exactly how this plan will be implemented, who will ensure the upkeep of these sites nor if they will benefit from EU support.

Ayhann Kaya does not believe this will be a voluntary return, but rather resettlement. “No Syrian officials have been consulted. What Turkey is proposing is a sort of re-localisation or resettlement of these Syrians elsewhere, and elsewhere which happens to be in Syria but is under the control of Turkish security forces,” he says. Moreover, the issue of just what kind of labour market will be set up on these sites has not been clarified either.

A decade of war has deeply affected the Syrian economy and many young people are afraid to go home for fear of being intercepted by Bashar Al-Assad’s army. And Kaya does not believe there are many refugees in Turkey tempted by the prospect of relocating to northern Syria. “Those who might be prepared to do so are the very poorest inhabitants of Turkey. The Turkish government offers this option to those who are in the most difficult circumstances,” he explains. “But in order for this return to be safe and durable, the diplomatic channels must be brought into play as well as a degree of cooperation with international institutions.”

Didem Danis, a sociologist who founded the Association for Research on Migrations (GAR) also wonders whether Syrian refugees will really want to settle in north Syrian localities like Azaz, Al-Bab or Tal Abyad which are not their hometowns. “Former inhabitants of Aleppo or Homs would be resettled in the north of the country. New regulations would raise another issue, that of their integration into these places”, she says. Furthermore, many refugees have been living in Turkey for six or seven years. Around 40% are minor and some 500,000 were born on Turkish soil. “So, a large share of this population has spent most of its life in Turkey. How are they going to settle in a country they probably do not know at all? Many of these children are more familiar with Turkey than with Syria,” Danis explains.

A process of integration undermined by several crises

The debate about the handling of migration and the xenophobic rhetoric come at a time when Turkey is experiencing severe inflation (70%) which has reached the wallets of ordinary citizens. In the streets one often hears recriminations against the welcoming to refugees considering the present economic crisis. There are rumours that refugees receive state aid, steal jobs from the local population, are responsible for the overcrowding of hospitals and schools. Yet of some two million Syrians of working age, scarcely 200,000 have work permits. The rest are forced to work in the informal sector, easily exploited and paid much less than the minimum monthly wage, i.e. 4,250 Turkish pounds.1

In 2016, the government adopted new regulations allowing Syrians to acquire a work permit, but their employer must apply for it and pay the necessary fees, which many have refused to do. Didem Danis explains that this regulation has created tensions with the local population who feel that it gives Syrians an unfair advantage in the jobs market. “Our main advantage on the world market is our cheap labour. Because of inflation, many Turks cannot survive with the present wages, while the Syrian labour force is obliged to accept poor working conditions,” she says. “It is a great advantage for a firm to be able to replace Turkish workers, protected by the labour laws, with a low-cost workforce,” she adds.

Another government measure which has been criticised for its opacity has been the granting of citizenship to certain Syrian refugees. The authorities announced that some 200,000 had been given Turkish citizenship but no details were provided as to the criteria for choosing these individuals, thereby casting a shadow on the whole initiative.

The EU ignores the issue

The government disregards these criticisms and points its finger at the European institutions. On several occasions it has demanded a revision of the agreement signed in 2016, rendered inapplicable by the pandemic, and which provided for all the illegal immigrants landing on the Greek Islands from Turkey to be sent back where they came from. In exchange, the EU was to resettle the same number of Syrian refugees coming from Turkey. The deal was never respected, and the EU resettled only 28,000 Syrians. For the moment, experts doubt that Brussels is interested in discussing the agreement with Ankara. “The deal does not concern the Syrian refugees alone, it also contains clauses on the liberalisation of visas for Turks, the modernisation of the customs union and the normalisation of relations between Turkey and the EU, "Kaya explains. “In the current circumstances, I do not think the EU is interested”, he deplores.

1After revaluation in January 2022. The present equivalent is $257, taking inflation into account.