More refugees to be returned to Syria, Erdogan says amid Ankara-Damascus-Moscow talks
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that the number of refugees returned to Syria will increase when ongoing diplomatic talks with Damascus and Moscow yield results.
Erdogan made the announcement on Wednesday during a speech at the International Ombudsman Conference held at the Presidential Complex in the Turkish capital Ankara.
"The number of refugees returning to their country will increase whenever the diplomatic contacts that Turkey has been conducting for some time with Russia and Syria bear fruit," Erdogan said.
The Turkish president said the returns would "accelerate" once northern Syria is "more stable".
Turkish officials have claimed repeatedly that around 500,000 Syrians have been returned to so-called safe zones in Syria, which has been ravaged by war since 2011. The forcible return, or 'refoulement', of refugees remains illegal under international law.
Hundreds of refugees - particularly men and boys - have also been arbitrarily arrested, detained and deported by Turkish authorities, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Scores of refugees have recounted stories of torture, abuse and being driven to border crossing points at gunpoint between February and July 2022, while Syria remains unsafe for their return.
Syrians have also expressed fear that they could be tortured by Assad regime security forces upon returning to the country. The regime has been accused of countless counts of torture, abuse and detention against its citizens throughout the course of the country's conflict.
Earlier this month, a Syrian refugee attempting to cross back into Turkey after being deported was shot dead by Turkish border guards.
Erdogan has increasingly discussed the return of refugees to Syria in the run-up to Turkish elections due to be held in June this year.
Turkey currently hosts approximately 3.5 million Syrian refugees but they have increasingly been subjected to racism and xenophobia, with politicians from various parties scapegoating them for the country's economic woes.
The foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Turkey are due to meet some time this month, according to senior officials, though a date and place have yet to be confirmed.
The meeting will be the highest level of talks between Ankara and Damascus since the war in Syria began. Turkey broke ties with the Assad regime after it brutally suppressed pro-democracy protests in 2011 and has backed anti-Assad rebels.
A senior official told Reuters that the foreign ministers’ meeting will discuss political issues aside from security, and will eventually "pave the way" for a meeting between Erdogan and Assad.
The Turkish and Syrian defence ministers held talks in Moscow last month to discuss border security and other issues, while Erdogan said last week that he "might meet Assad" following the foreign ministers' upcoming meeting.
The warming of ties between Turkey and Syria has prompted outcry and protests from the Syrian opposition, who have urged Ankara to reassure them of its support.