President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced Turkey’s intention to return 1 million Syrian refugees to those parts of northern Syria under its control. His new stance is a sign of the rise in domestic pressure about refugees ahead of next year’s general election. A poll carried out last year suggested that more than 70 per cent of Turks would vote for whichever party promises the toughest action on refugees. As the sixth EU-convened conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” begins today in Brussels, European policymakers need to proactively react to Erdogan’s announcement before it has consequences that harm their objectives, which officially include granting safe, voluntary and dignified returns for Syrian refugees.
Syrian refugees represent the vast majority of Turkey’s overall refugee population – of the 4 million refugees in Turkey, officially 3.6 million are Syrian. The interior ministry claims this figure is higher and that Turkey hosts 6 million. In any case, there is no doubt that Turkey hosts the highest number of Syrians and has the largest refugee population in the world, whose number also includes Afghans, Iranians, and Iraqis.
The issue has started to come to a head lately in the lead-up to elections. Most recently the Turkish government banned Syrian refugees from travelling from Turkey to northern Syria for Eid al-Fitr due to criticism led by opposition candidates who argued that, if Syrians are able to travel for Eid celebrations, they should remain in Syria. And in February, following pressure from the opposition, the Turkish government set a quota that no more than 25 per cent of a neighbourhood’s population should be non-Turks. The authorities relocated Syrians where the percentage of the population went beyond this amount and closed 16 provinces to new arrivals of refugees and foreign migrants. Politicians’ anti-refugee discourse has spilled over into hate crimes and violence: in August, ultranationalist-led riots in Ankara resulted in the stabbing and death of a 18-year-old Turkish boy. In December, three Syrian young men died in Izmir due to a fire set by a Turkish man. In January 2022, a Syrian refugee was stabbed in Istanbul.
Figures from across the political spectrum are laying the blame for Turkey’s economic crisis at Syrians’ door. Turkey’s opposition, now united and mounting a challenge to Erdogan’s two decades in power, regularly attacks the government over open borders and its refugee policy. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), a secularist party with social democratic leanings which represents the main opposition, is calling for the normalisation of relations with the Syrian regime. The party’s chairperson, Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, has declared that, if elected, Turkey will send Syrians back in two years’ time, in consultations with the Assad government. The CHP’s deputy chairperson, Engin Ozkoc, made similar remarks. And a new nationalist, right-wing opposition party, Victory (Zafer) Party led by Umit Ozdag – who is from the city of Gaziantep, which borders Syria — has built a platform on the promise to send Syrians back. Ozdag has gone as far as commissioning a nine-minute short film on YouTube called “The Silent Occupation”. It portrays a dystopian future where Turks are pushed out of their neighbourhoods by Arab real estate agents and the Turkish language is banned. The party has also launched a “Send them back immediately” campaign, warning that Turkey “is becoming a Middle Eastern country” and promising to send millions of refugees back.
Until just a few weeks ago, Erdogan was maintaining his pledge “never” to send the Syrians back; this was part of his broader anti-Assad position. But now the president is in a particularly vulnerable position given his downward approval ratings and risk of losing the upcoming election. Notwithstanding Turkey’s overall open-door policy, Erdogan is clearly now feeling the pressure.
To assuage wider opinion, the president has sought to emphasise his country’s role in providing new homes for Syrians inside Syria to facilitate their return. In the video message delivering the news on 3 May he pledged to build “daily life” infrastructure in collaboration with local assemblies in 13 areas held by Turkish-backed forces in Syria. The Turkish government has already built more than 57,000 homes in Idlib province. Erdogan promised to increase that number to 100,000 homes in other parts of northern Syria where Turkey holds sway, such as Azez, Al Bab, Jarablus, and Tal Abyad.
The government is also trying to present its policy of forming safe zones inside Syria as a panacea to this issue. Established in 2016, safe zones fulfil two of Turkey’s key objectives in its Syria policy: creating a buffer with Syrian Kurds and the repatriation of Syrian refugees, which Turkey has undertaken on occasion over the last few years. While it may have been reluctant to state this publicly, Ankara has been toying with the idea of returning refugees to Syria since 2018. To the domestic audience, the Turkish authorities claim that nearly 500,000 refugees have already gone back, but there is no international corroboration of this figure. The United Nations has recorded around 130,000 voluntary returns but said that not all returns have been recorded. While the exact data remain uncertain, the Turkish authorities are believed to have deported 155,000 Syrians between 2019 and 2021 – a step that effectively represents forced returns.
Erdogan’s new proposal to return Syrian refugees to the north is hardly workable at this juncture. Three-quarters of Idlib province’s population of 4 million people are already internally displaced and Idlib remains highly unsafe, with the population already suffering from a shortage of core services. The war in Ukraine could also create negative spillover effects on the north-west of Syria, including the potential end of cross-border UN humanitarian access, which Russia could block when the mandate comes up for renewal at the UN Security Council in July. The dominant power in the area, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, is still labelled by many, including the European Union and the United States, as a terrorist organisation. This is despite attempts to present itself as less extreme by cutting ties with al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups, contributing to efforts to counter the Islamic State group, and coordinating with Turkey and Russia to enforce the ceasefire in northern Syria. Adding a surge of new Syrian refugees to this environment would not only be destabilising and create further humanitarian problems, but would also run directly contrary to international commitments to not force Syrians to return to country until it is safe to do so. A further complicating dynamic is that many Syrians in Turkey do not come from northern Syria.
Europeans are naturally preoccupied with developments in Ukraine, but they ought also to pay attention to the dynamics in Turkey. They should actively push back against moves also by other countries in the region to force Syrians to return home prematurely. Failure to do this may lead to new Syrian arrivals in Europe. Most Syrian refugees are stuck in limbo and many will look west if forced to return.
As part of this effort Europeans should proactively raise concerns over Erdogan’s announcement in their interactions with him and his administration, and should press Turkey not to engage in forced returns. This week’s Syria conference also provides an opportunity for Europeans to show their continued commitment to the safety and dignity of Syrian refugees. They can also support the immense burden being borne by host countries in the region, by maintaining current levels of funding and intensifying efforts that put the safety and dignity of Syrians first. Europeans can strengthen this effort by adopting a longer-term approach to Syrian refugee support in countries in the region under the triple nexus framework. This should involve closer cooperation with local communities – with both Syrian refugees and host countries – to better understand their needs. It could also involve helping host countries explore pathways beyond refugee returns, such as resettlement to other countries in the Middle East. Ultimately, Europeans cannot create a sustainable approach through merely reiterating that returns are premature; they will also need to focus on durable solutions.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.