The issue of Syrian refugees returning to their home country from Türkiye has become the second hot electoral topic after the economic crisis.
The public discussion came to a point that recent polls indicate Ümit Özdağ’s Victory Party, the real promise of which is to send the Syrians to Syria immediately, gaining 3 percent of the total votes; a remarkable gain within a few months, surpassing most opposition parties.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has already stated that the opposition “agrees to send” the refugees, “with a humane program”. After Kılıçdaroğlu’s move, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan changed his position and started to talk about “sending them”. He had been approaching the refugee issue differently with a motto “they are guests we are Ansar” which is an Islamic term that refers to “local inhabitants of Medina, who took the Islamic prophet Mohammad and his followers into their homes when they emigrated from Mecca.” Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu says that 70 percent of Syrians in Türkiye want to return to their country.
However, the facts on the ground do not fully confirm this.
According to the information and findings revealed in an online migration seminar organized by the Ankara Policy Center on October 18, it is impossible for the majority of Syrians to return. The main reason is that the conditions of return are not limited to providing them shelter and livelihood in Syria.
Malta’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Evarist Bartolo, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ankara Representative Philippe Leclerc and Turkish-German University Faculty Member Prof. Dr. Murat Erdoğan was the speaker of the seminar.
EU is shortsighted and hypocritical
One of the most interesting pieces of information we got from the seminar was that Malta, one of the smallest countries of the European Union, located in the middle of the Mediterranean, complained about the hypocritical asylum policy of the EU as much as Türkiye does. Here are summaries of what Bartolo had to say:
• Malta’s is 316 square kilometers, one 77th of Türkiye’s capital Ankara. Therefore, 1000 refugees’ effect on us would be of 1 million refugees coming to Türkiye. Two-thirds of the Central Mediterranean routes from Africa to Europe are in this region. We can’t let people drown. That’s why we cooperate with the Libyan Coast Guard. But EU policy focuses on prevention, not rescue.
• Therefore, we are in a vicious circle of irregular migration. The EU has no will to take this seriously. Most EU governments are coalitions. What the small parties say usually have an effect and they are often nationalist and anti-immigrant.
• Colonialism continues in other forms. I was recently in Naples, Italy. The fields remain uncultivated because there is no one left to work on it. There is a labor shortage of 6 million in the EU, yet they are not taking any. The EU is going to “demographic suicide”. AB is shortsighted and hypocritical. Those who receive Ukrainian immigrants do not receive others; there is a double standard.
Migration crisis peaks in 2022
According to Leclerc, the global refugee crisis had reached its worst state in 2022, since 1950, when UNCH was founded; There were 100 million people that no one wanted to accept. On top of the crises in Syria and Afghanistan, Russia’s war on Ukraine had mounted. Some of Leclerc’s striking statements are as follows:
• Countries with immigration problems are the neighboring countries to conflict zones. One example of this is Türkiye. The source of migration is the Syria conflict, which has entered its 12th year. It is very difficult to say that the conflict environment in Syria will end in a short time. The refugee problem cannot be resolved unless the political conditions in the source countries improve.
• The shift of rich countries to the policy of “responsibility shift” instead of responsibility sharing complicates the situation. An example of this is the UK’s discussion of sending 1 million asylum seekers to Rwanda. There are 100 million refugees in the world that no one wants to receive.
• 95 percent of those who had to leave their country in the global plan do not want to go back. Currently, a quarter of the Lebanese population consists of refugees. The country is in an economic depression, the conditions they live in are incomparably worse than Türkiye, but they do not want to return. Giving money to the ones who want to return is not a solution either, because we see that they use that money to escape again as soon as possible.
The return of the Syrian refugees is a political fantasy
According to Murat Erdoğan, who has been working on Syrians in Türkiye from an international perspective, including the EU, for years, it is a political “fantasy” for Syrians to return without peace in Syria. What he said can be summarized as follows:
• 70 percent of Syrians do not want to go; but they want to return if the Bashar Assad regime in Syria changes, if peace is achieved and if they have the opportunity to return to their own homes they left. This is currently unrealistic. 5 million people live in and around the security zones established by Türkiye. The Syrian administration imposes on the withdrawal of Türkiye as a condition of peace. This may cause the majority of the people who went there to return to Türkiye.
• The perspective on Syrians in Türkiye has changed. Previously, they were regarded as guests who came to save their lives, but over the years they have started to be seen as “the ones that have to go”. However, the number of Syrians (in official figures) is 3 million 656 thousand 197; 4.5 percent of Türkiye’s population. Since the start of the migration in 2011, the number of Syrian children born in Türkiye is 820 thousand. The number of Syrians of working age is more than 2 million 200 thousand.
• The EU does not give enough support to Türkiye, but wants it to stop the refugees. Germany opens its doors to those who come with “high qualifications”. 35 percent of Syrians in Türkiye are not even literate. But they are very satisfied with the aid, health and education services in Türkiye.
“There is no hope for a solution”
Bartolo, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of EU member Malta, says “I have no hope” for an international solution to the immigration problem due to the “hypocritical” policy of the EU and the rich countries.
“How can I be optimistic?” UNHCR Ankara Representative Leclerc said. His words sums up the situation.
“I don’t think any Syrian parent raising their children in Türkiye would want to take them back to Syria. Maybe some of them if the conflict ends and peace is established. But at the moment, it is not possible to talk about a political solution in Syria,” he added.
Therefore, we seem to be left alone with the reality of Syrians in Türkiye as a result of the Erdogan governments’ Syria policy between 2011 and 2016. Discussions and claims that Syrians are needed as a cheap labor force, that they will be given citizenship and vote in the elections, and increasing hate speech intensify the situation.
The policy of re-establishing a relationship with Assad and ensuring the “voluntary” return of Syrians, which is implied by the government at the moment, hits the wall with the fear that Assad will not keep his promises and that those who return will lose their freedom and maybe their lives. The demonization propaganda that has been going on for years also has an effect on this.
Responsibility is of Erdogan
The promises of the opposition parties that they will ensure Syrian’s return seem to depend to some extent on the peace between Türkiye and Syria, especially the end of the war in Syria and the establishment of a new regime. It is not in the hands of Türkiye alone.
Because, first of all, Assad does not dominate all of Syria. The USA, which uses the PKK’s Syrian arm, the YPG’s shield organization SDG, as ground troops in the east of the country; Russia in the west of the Euphrates; Iran, which supports the Assad regime in Lebanon with Hezbollah and the Quds Force militia; and Israel as a secret actor, as well as and Türkiye are all in the field. The UN’s Geneva talks are currently under the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war; The world’s attention is on the conflict between the US-EU and Russia.
Since Türkiye will not pursue a policy of collecting and deporting Syrian (and other) asylum seekers settled all over the country by force, it has to produce a more permanent policy regarding the presence of Syrians in the country. This applies to opposition parties as well as the ruling party.
However, the greatest responsibility undoubtedly falls on President Erdogan, who chose to take a side in the Syrian civil war in 2011 and is now trying to rectify the situation.