The general elections of June 2023 in Turkey will have consequences on their 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees, with anti-refugee rhetoric and policies that color the debates. Last month, current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a plan to resettle one million Syrians to safe areas in northern Syria. However, the identified resettlement areas are being ravaged by rebel shelling and clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. The idea that Syrians would be voluntarily repatriated to these regions is far-fetched. Returning them against their will is illegal under international law. Kamel Kilicdaroglu of the People’s Republic Party, who ran as an opposition presidential candidate, repeatedly declared that “I will send the Syrians back to their country when I take power”.
President Erdogan, slated for re-election in 2023, has promised that Turkey will not “expelled” Syrian refugees, but plans for the “voluntary repatriation” of more than a million refugees, an increase in refugee audits and inspections in Istanbul, and alleged deportations undermine his commitment. Ahmed Dinar, a legal Syrian refugee in Turkey who claims a policeman forcibly deported him, told Middle East Eye: “I gave him my residency papers, but he took me to the police station. Nadia Hardman of Human Rights Watch clarified that “returning people to Syria when they fear persecution could violate Turkey’s non-refoulement obligations”. While Erdogan’s policies towards refugees may be covertly hostile, opposition parties have made no secret of their antipathy. Umit Ozag, leader of Turkey’s Victory Party, told Syrians: “Your visits are over; the Turkish community no longer welcomes you; go back to your country. The director of the Syrian Lawyers Association in Turkey, Ghazwan Koronful, warned that “it is possible that the situation for Syrians in Turkey will deteriorate significantly until the next Turkish presidential elections in 2023”.
Regarding the statements of the authorities, the anti-refugee behavior of Turkish citizens is increasing. Refugees reported widespread discrimination, false accusations and harassment against them. Muhammed, a Syrian engineer living in Turkey, said: “We are grateful to the Turkish nation for hosting us for the past seven years, but the harassment and lack of work was quite awful. Anti-refugee statements and anti-refugee sentiment in Turkish society made it difficult for us to meet our basic needs…Turkish companies paid us less wages and did not register us. When I seek legitimate salaries, the harassments have become threats.
Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means that it is obliged to practice non-refoulement by prohibiting the return of any refugee who would be in danger in their country of origin. However, northern Syria – where Erdogan wants the refugees to resettle – is heavily contested by Turkish, Turkish-backed Syrian and Kurdish armies or militias. Many analysts say that far from being a desire to help refugees return home, Turkey’s aggressive seizure of ‘safe areas’ is primarily aimed at changing demographics on the Syrian-Turkish border, diluting the population Kurd with whom Turkey has long-standing animosities. Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, has warned the attacks are ‘undermining regional stability’, and Kurdish militants have pointed out they are creating more refugees.
Of the more than 7 million refugees from the Syrian war, most have landed in neighboring countries, including about 4 million in Turkey, making it the largest host of refugees in the world. Although the World Bank, the European Union and other NGOs have tried to help Turkey accommodate the influx, it has been difficult to provide adequate living conditions and opportunities.. As Turkey’s economy enters a deeper crisis, many policymakers and citizens have turned to blame for the refugees. A poll by the Turkish-German University Research Center on Migration and Integration shows that more than 70% of Turkish respondents reported a “generally negative perception” of Syrians.
Turkey must honor its commitment to refugee protection, end military incursions into Syria and seek avenues to ease its infrastructure and refugee needs, which does not include returning people to a torn country by the war in which the leader, Assad, regards any dissident as a terrorist. At the same time, the international community must recognize the disproportionate service Turkey has rendered by hosting Syrian refugees. Continuing to provide resources and policy suggestions and stamping out the practice of turning refugees back at the EU border is the only way to recognize Turkey’s heroism in its response to the nightmare at its backdoor.