With his eye on parliamentary and presidential elections in mid-2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently unveiled a plan for the “voluntary return” of a million Syrian refugees from Turkey to northern Syria.
In a speech marking the inauguration of a housing complex for returned refugees to north-western Syria, Erdogan said that “the project will be quite comprehensive and will be carried out in 13 areas,” mentioning Azaz, Jarablus, Al-Bab, Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn. “It will cover all the needs of daily life from housing to schools and hospitals, as well as a self-sufficient economic infrastructure from agriculture to industry.”
Erdogan hopes to prevent the political opposition in Turkey from using the increasingly contentious refugee issue against him in the election campaigns. Some have called the government out on the fact that refugees have been allowed to travel home for holidays and then return to Turkey, leading it to abolish “holiday leaves” to Syria for Syrian refugees and warn that any refugees who travel to Syria will not be allowed back into Turkey.
But Erdogan’s motives may not be so simple, given his long resistance to mounting anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey. Central government and municipal actions, especially in the cities where most of the refugees reside, reflect a new official attitude towards the Syrian refugee presence in Turkey.
Two days after Erdogan’s announcement, Interior Minister Ibrahim Soylu announced plans to build 250,000 housing units in northern Syria for the “voluntary return” of a million Syrian refugees. The ministry has also begun preparations for a new incursion into northern Syria with the stated purpose of securing more land for the return of refugees.
On 24 April, Soylu announced that the government had completed 837 km of the border wall it is constructing along the Turkish-Syrian border in order to control refugee crossings. In March, Turkey closed the offices of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Coalition, in Ankara. Established in 2016, its purpose was to coordinate with the Turkish Interior Ministry on Syrian refugee affairs.
The plan Erdogan recently announced is also not the first. In 2019, the government announced a scheme for the voluntary return of refugees and the deportation of criminals. The interior minister announced that Istanbul was “henceforth closed to Syrians” and that measures would be taken against illegal migrants.
The authorities appear to have been caught off guard by the mounting anti-refugee hostility in Turkey, putting them on the defensive. In October 2021, the Interior Ministry deported seven Syrian refugees and arrested several others for sharing videos of themselves on social media eating bananas “provocatively”. The videos were a response to a TV interview with a Turkish shopper who complained she could not afford to eat bananas while Syrians were “buying them in kilos”.
They have also tightened restrictions on the movement of refugees inside Turkey, with the security forces beginning to detain them and return them to the municipalities in which they are registered.
In February, the government banned registered Syrian refugees as well as foreigners from settling in 16 provinces and 800 neighbourhoods in the country’s 52 provinces. The police are getting tougher in their crackdowns on illegal migrants, conducting random searches of commercial establishments for Syrians without work permits and stopping people in the street and asking for residence permits or refugee cards.
Playing on the rising hostility to the refugees, some Turkish politicians have launched campaigns demanding their deportation and sometimes fuelling hatred. The ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party’s (AKP’s) partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has become increasingly strident in its discourse against the Syrian refugees. On 18 April, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli said in a speech shortly before the end of Ramadan that Syrians thinking of going home for the Eid Al-Fitr holiday should not be allowed back into Turkey.
He said that any person under Turkey’s temporary protection who disrupted public order would be deported immediately.
As the economic crisis in Turkey becomes more far-reaching, the antagonism towards the refugees has grown more explosive, erupting in attacks against refugees and their homes. In one widely reported incident in August 2021, a young Turkish man was killed in a brawl between Turks and Syrian refugees, sparking deadly riots in the capital when hundreds of locals descended on an area with a large Syrian refugee community and attacked businesses and homes.
Turkish social media teems with hashtags calling for the return of refugees to Syria and similar anti-refugee campaigns. Such slogans and slurs have migrated from virtual space to urban ones, especially in Ankara and Istanbul where violence has flared. In February, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi acknowledged that the large number of refugees in Turkey had generated inter-communal tensions, especially in major urban centres, and urged donor nations and international organisations to do more to help Turkey in this regard.
A public-opinion survey conducted on 23-28 April by Optimar Research, a leading Turkish polling firm, asked people how they felt when they met a Syrian refugee. 21.3 per cent of the respondents said “hate,” while other responses included “victimization” (17.3 per cent), “rage” (11.2 per cent) and “oppression” (6.6 per cent). Only 4.4 per cent answered “compassion”.
When those who said “hate” were asked to explain their answer, 38.2 per cent said that the refugees were “usurping my rights,” 29.2 per cent said the Syrians were taking jobs away from Turks, and 18.8 per cent said that “the thought of them staying here [in Turkey] scares me.”
Electoral considerations clearly play a large part in Erdogan’s U-turn on “our Syrian brothers,” as he had earlier referred to the refugees. Much of the anti-Syrian sentiment comes from within the Turkish right and from the support base of his coalition partner, Bahçeli, whom Erdogan needs by his side as the elections approach.
The downturn in the Turkish economy has been the major cause of the mounting disgruntlement and of sharply declining popularity rates for the AKP. Turkey’s reception of nearly four million Syrian refugees has severely strained the economy, playing a role in rising food and housing prices, as well as in employment rates and wages.
Such effects became more palpable with the 40 per cent plunge in the value of the Turkish lira against the dollar and the economic repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Large numbers of refugees are straining supplies of commodities, as well as public services from transportation to schools and hospitals. The southern provinces, where many of the Syrian refugees reside, have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
Erdogan’s thinking could also be influenced by the fact that the refugees have lost their value as a trump card in his dealings with the EU, whether to secure more funding and aid or to obtain concessions in other areas. They are of no use in areas that concern him the most, such as oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Erdogan hopes to persuade Europe to legitimise Turkey’s maritime boundary claims or at least to back off from his disputes with Cyprus and Greece.
Turkish opposition circles have long eyed Erdogan’s and the AKP’s policies towards the Syrian refugees with suspicion. Whereas the AKP was inclined to grant Turkish nationality to Syrian professionals in areas in which Turkey was short of skilled personnel, such as medicine and engineering, the opposition read this as an AKP attempt to expand its loyalty base. Segments of the population believe that Erdogan and his party plan to convert large numbers of Syrians into Turkish voters.
Some segments of Turkish society also fear that the longer the Syrian refugees stay in Turkey, the greater the chances are that they will affect the country’s cultural and ethnic identity. Before the Syrian war, Turkey already had some 1.5 million citizens of Arab origin. That number now is estimated at 4.5 million, or 5.1 per cent of the Turkish population.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.