Turkish politics and the future of Syrian refugees

8 min read
10 May, 2022
Analysis: Amid Turkey's economic crisis, rising public anger against refugees has been seized upon by the political opposition.

Like all countries which border Syria, Turkey has had to react to the worst of that country’s decade-long civil war. Millions of Syrians have fled, and tens of millions have been displaced.

According to United Nations numbers, Turkey is currently hosting up to 3.6 million Syrian refugees – although the true number is likely larger. Many Syrians are not registered either with the Turkish state or with UN agencies.

That number of people poses an administrative and financial challenge, but even more so, it is a political problem.

Over the past ten years, Turkey’s government has dealt with hostility on the subject from many sides. Internationally, European states see Turkey as the ratchet controlling migration into the Mediterranean region via the Greek islands.

"The Turkish opposition saw refugees as an opportunity to gain votes and strike the ruling AKP party. Now that the economy is bad, hostility against the refugees is rising"

Turkey’s name was mud in Europe for years because it was considered too lax in allowing migrants to pass from its territory, becoming a European problem.

Now Turkey and EU states have reached an uneasy compromise. Turkey is paid – not enough, according to its officials – by European states to keep back migrants.

But European hostility to Turkish geopolitical activities has broadened and now encompasses conflict in the entire eastern Mediterranean region, the fate of Libya, and hostility to Turkish support for Azerbaijan against Armenia.

In Turkish politics, the hostility comes from domestic political opposition to Turkey’s refugee population. Syrian refugees within Turkey are frequently attacked by locals. They are accused, as refugee populations often are, of lowering wages and bringing crime.

In early May, a dystopic video called Silent Occupation was released by the ultranationalist Victory Party. It envisioned Turkey in 2043, overrun by Syrian gangs and with a Syrian-led party in power in Istanbul, where Arabic was now the official language.

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“Their treatment had changed drastically by the end of 2015,” Suhail al-Ghazi, an analyst with ORSAM, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, told The New Arab.

“The Turkish opposition saw refugees as an opportunity to gain votes and strike the ruling AKP party. Now that the economy is bad, hostility against refugees is rising. Another factor is that the ultra-nationalist opposition parties IYI and Zafer are using the refugees as a card to push the voters away from the nationalist MHP which is an ally of the [governing] AKP,” he added.

“Turkish policy towards the refugee issue has always been reactionary [...], every time there's an incident (brawl, pogrom, murder\violence, security incident and even viral tweet\post) it takes decisions that harm the stability of refugees which makes it impossible for better integration within Turkish society,” al-Ghazi said.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) has made significant capital of its opposition to Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Its leader has said that Turkey does not want and cannot accept any more Syrians. More recently, the opposition party’s chairman declared a plan to send all Syrians in Turkey back to Syria within two years.

Separately, he declared illegitimate any plan for Turkey to offer refugees citizenship, calling it a political ploy by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to shore up electoral support.

Over the past five years, Turkey has become increasingly involved in the Syrian civil war. It has formed new rebel groups within Syria to administer parts of the north and sent its own soldiers into observation posts in Idlib, Aleppo, al-Hassakah, and Raqqa provinces.

Turkish police try to arrest an ultranationalist protester who is protesting against demonstrators gathered to support the refugees, in Istanbul, on July 27, 2019
Turkish police try to arrest an ultranationalist protester who is protesting against demonstrators gathered to support refugees in Istanbul on 27 July 2019. [Getty]

Turkey has, at times, become an active participant in the Syrian war, primarily fighting the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but when the Assad regime seemed likely to attack Idlib with force, Turkish intervention was decisive in ending that offensive in March 2020.

This is a burden for Turkey but has also proven an opportunity. Turkish politics has largely coalesced around the idea that refugees need not come to Turkey if they can be housed in Idlib – and that the primary goal of the Turkish presence in the country is to make a region of Syria safe enough for refugees currently in Turkey to return to.

This month, Erdogan announced a plan to return a million Syrians to Turkish-administered regions in Syria. These returns would be voluntary, Erdogan insisted, as part of a larger plan spoken of since the beginning of 2022 to return willing volunteers to Syria.

“The number the Turkish government has publicised, of a half a million returnees, is incorrect. Many of them are people who have been forcibly deported from Turkey, in violation of international law,” Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the New Lines Institute, told The New Arab.

"Turkish politics has largely coalesced around the idea that refugees need not come to Turkey if they can be housed in Idlib"

Questions abound about where these returnees will live – and whether they will be safe in an Idlib overcrowded with refugees internally displaced from other parts of Syria, and under continual attack and the threat of further hostilities from the regime.

“Syrians are willing to go back to areas controlled by the Syrian Interim Government and to Idlib – both of which are protected by the Turkish military,” Ömer Özkizilcik, a foreign policy and security analyst, told TNA.

“However, as millions of Syrians from inside of Syria took refuge in these Turkish-protected areas, around 5 million Syrians are now crowded in a small territory without the necessary infrastructure. The initial high rate of returnees dropped as there was not enough housing and infrastructure,” he said.

“One out of three people in this region lives in IDP camps or makeshift homes. Safety is relatively assured by Turkey, but it can be improved by deploying [new] air defence systems. To ensure a dignified return for Syrians, the Syrians need to be sure that they will not be persecuted after returning to Syria,” Özkizilcik added.

This is a difficult promise to make and keep. Control over regions of Syria has stabilised, in what many analysts believe is either a frozen conflict or a de facto partition. But these borders are not formally established and may change.

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Returnees to Syrian government territory have disappeared entirely, and others have faced attacks, torture or intimidation. Few Syrians, especially those aligned with the opposition, wish to return to territory which may yet fall to the Syrian regime, either by force or through a future diplomatic deal.

“In this regard, the Syrian Interim Government and the Syrian National Army [Turkish-backed entities] provide necessary guarantees,” said Özkizilcik. In Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – even though a natural threat – is limited by the moderate armed Syrian opposition and the Turkish Armed Forces as well as its agenda to portray itself as an acceptable actor.

Other analysts are not so optimistic. They note persistent problems with the possibility of political persecution, and the cost of living which are high everywhere, but especially in Syria – which has persistent food and fuel shortages and a lack of housing and infrastructure.

“The project includes residential units in 13 towns and cities in northern Syria. It is still not clear if the housing of returned refugees will be for free or for rent. The fact is, the majority of Syrians don’t want to go back because of the lack of employment. In addition, the wave of high prices worldwide has hit Syria as well,” Mazen Hassoun, a Syrian journalist, told TNA.

“Even the areas controlled by Turkish-backed forces are not safe. A few days ago, a car bomb exploded in Jarablus killing one man. Another similar attack occurred in Al-Bab and Azaz,” Hassoun said.

The security of northern Syria and its capacity to house, employ, and feed new arrivals remain in question.

"Turkish policy towards the refugee issue has always been reactionary [...] every time there's an incident it takes decisions that harm the stability of refugees which makes it impossible for better integration within Turkish society"

“With regards to the one million number, unless extensive coercion is used, essentially mass deportations, the only alternative for the Turkish government would be to significantly invest in not just creating housing projects … but also create[ing] an economy that would be able to absorb all these individuals,” Tsurkov said.

The economy is “highly dependent on humanitarian assistance, on money transfers from abroad”, she added. Due to the constant threat of new conflict in the region, returnees to Idlib will be “exposed to threats to their lives as well as economic adversity”.

A precarious economic house of cards such as this could tumble even in ordinary times, but when an already swollen population of five million absorbs a fifth more of its number, things could become difficult very quickly.

Turkey has previously planned to return refugees in large numbers to Syria in ways which have not panned out. Before Turkey’s intervention in Syria in 2018, the operation and its successors were presaged on the promise that they would create a Syria safe enough for refugees to return to. This did not prove possible in reality.

Many returnees have gone back not out of desire, but because their alternatives are limited. Volunteers to return to a Syria still at war are unlikely to top one million.

“It is possible to send people back to Syria in large numbers,” Hassoun said. “But the question is, is it legitimate?”

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, Prospect, National Review, NOW News, Middle East Eye and History Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell