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Turkey: one year before the elections, the fate of Syrian refugees is already at the heart of the campaign

On the occasion of World Refugee Day on June 20, France 24 examines the case of Syrians who have found refuge in Turkey, where their number exceeds 3,760,000. Despite a welcome deemed inclusive and favorable by the UNHCR, they don’t really seem to be welcome in the country anymore. Sometimes instrumentalized by the power, their fate is at the heart of political debates and concerns of Turkish society.

Eleven years after the start of the conflict in Syria, neighboring Turkey is still today the country which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, ahead of Lebanon and Jordan, according to the latest annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published on June 16, ahead of World Refugee Day.

But, in official speeches as in Turkish society, it seems that they are no longer really in the odor of sanctity in the country.

While there were 200,000 in March 2013, there are today, according to the latest figures provided by the Turkish migration services, more than 3,760,000 Syrian nationals present in Turkey. Even if this figure only counts those who are registered, it already represents more than half of the 6.8 million Syrian refugees hosted in 129 countries and registered with UNHCR.

Distribution of Syrian refugees in Turkey. © Graphic studio France Media World

After having sought to mediate at the start of the conflict in Syria, in March 2011, Ankara quickly turned its back on the regime in Damascus, its former ally, and opened wide the doors of the country to Syrians fleeing the horrors of war.

Described as “brothers” by a Recep Tayyip Erdogan dreaming of himself as the leader of Sunni Islam and castigating Westerners for not welcoming more refugees, they were initially welcomed with open arms in several regions of the country.

An “inclusive and favorable” policy

On the spot, the Syrian refugees, of whom only 1.5% live in camps, are considered as “guests” by the Turkish authorities. They benefit from a status of “temporary protection” which guarantees them free access to the various social services (health, education).

Since 2016, a new regulation gives them the right to work, but only 200,000 permits have been issued by the authorities for Syrian refugees while nearly a million of them work in the informal sector, according to the UNHCR.

“Turkey’s policy in favor of Syrian refugees for 11 years has so far been inclusive and favorable given the large number of refugees hosted by this country,” Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR representative in Turkey, told France 24. Significant efforts are being made within the framework of temporary protection, to guarantee them access to education at different ages and excellent free medical coverage, to the point that it has given rise to criticism from some of the Turks who believe that Syrians are spoiled when they compare their situation to theirs in the current economic context.”

The presence of Syrian refugees has become a sensitive topic and source of debate in a country hit by a severe economic crisis and rampant inflation, and which did not expect the refugees to stay for so long.

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan played the card of Sunni solidarity and humanitarian benevolence with the Syrian refugees from the outset, calling them ‘guests’ and giving them the welcome he wanted – presenting himself as a role model in the material – better than that offered by other countries in the region, underlines David Rigoulet-Roze, specialist in the Middle East, associate researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Research (Iris) and editor-in-chief of the journal Orients Strategiques. The Turkish president even went, at the beginning of July 2016, in a proactive impulse of which he is customary and at the height of the tensions with Damascus, to the point of expressing the idea of ​​naturalizing a certain number of them.

But over the years of war, he found himself having to manage a massive influx of refugees on his territory, recalls David Rigoulet-Roze. “An influx and a presence that have ended up increasingly irritating Turkish public opinion, which increasingly perceives them as a burden, from a demographic but also an economic point of view.”

Anti-refugee and anti-Syrian sentiment

In a poll published in April by the daily Hürriyet, “hate” came first, cited by 21% of respondents when asked about their feelings about Syrian refugees. A “hate” in particular inspired by economic considerations, since 29% of them accused them of being responsible for the drop in their wages and the reduction of their job prospects.

Charges that worry the UNHCR. “Turkish society is crossed by all kinds of negative debates which can contribute to developing an anti-refugee and anti-Syrian feeling which they are confronted with in certain regions or certain districts, in particular of Istanbul”, deplores Philippe Leclerc.

The latter evokes an increasingly complicated and tense situation due to the approach of the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for next June.

“There are a number of political parties that put at the center of the electoral campaign, with of course the economic situation, the question of the presence of a large number of refugees and foreigners in the country, adds- There is also, on social networks, a hardening of the comments, sometimes emanating from very followed Turkish political and media personalities, targeting the refugees and their alleged privileged situation.

“It is a phenomenon which is developing more and more and which worries us, because this type of statement, the objectivity of which can be disputed, such as for example that ‘the Syrians would steal the work of the Turks’, unfortunately finds and resonates very widely within Turkish society and has repercussions on the daily lives of refugees, specifies Philippe Leclerc.This trend has repercussions, in turn, on Syrian refugees since the government often has a much firmer attitude towards -visit strangers.”

The anti-Syrian political speeches of the opposition, in particular the Republican People’s Party (CHP), or the Victory Party (Zafer Partisi), which constantly demand the forcible return of refugees to Syria and accuse Recep Tayyip Erdogan of laxity, contribute to fueling the resentment of part of the Turkish population.

In early May, the CHP assured that if it came to power in the next elections, all Syrians would have to leave Turkey “within two years”.

It is not uncommon for this growing hostility to result in outbursts and violence in the streets. Last August, around 100 Turks attacked Syrian-owned homes and shops in eastern Ankara, after the death of a Turkish teenagerstabbed in a fight between members of the two communities in a city park.

“A backlash” for Erdogan

“The refugee issue has somehow turned into a domestic political problem to the detriment of the Turkish president, since even his electoral base is dissatisfied with the management of this file, continues David Rigoulet-Roze. bodes well for Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the run-up to the June 2023 presidential election, which promises to be much less favorable to the Turkish head of state than previous elections. And he knows it full well.

A survey published in August 2021 by the Turkish institute MetroPoll indicated that nearly 82% of respondents believed that “asylum seekers should return to their country”. Even more boring for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this figure climbs to almost 85% among voters who voted for his partythe AKP, in the last legislative elections of 2018.

“The Turkish President is in some way suffering a backlash, he who has always exploited the question of refugees according to the circumstances and his personal political interests, as when he had practiced without qualms a form of migratory blackmail with the European Union, which he had threatened to drown under a flood of refugees”, explains David Rigoulet-Roze.

In 2016, Recep Tayyip Erdogan obtained six billion euros from the European Union to prevent migrants from arriving at his doors.

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan is aware that the reception of Syrians is much less buoyant in terms of popularity – to put it mildly -, develops David Rigoulet-Roze. This is why there is no longer any question of naturalizing them as in 2016 , but on the contrary to try to send around a million of them back to the other side of the Turkish-Syrian border first.”

At the beginning of May, Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he was preparing “the return of a million” Syrians to their homes, on a voluntary basis. He wants to continue financing, with the support of international aid, housing and infrastructure in northwestern Syria, which is beyond the control of Damascus and where Ankara is deploying its troops with pro-Turkish militias.

“The Turkish president has also been threatening for a few weeks to carry out a new offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, which would be the fourth in six years, with always the idea of ​​seeking to relocate some of these refugees – without necessarily asking them for their opinion – on the other side of the border, deciphers David Rigoulet-Roze. And this, in order to satisfy his public opinion at little cost by relieving Turkey demographically, while ‘Arabizing’, by a cynical calculation, this largely Kurdish region, which would amount to weakening the last Kurdish strongholds still escaping its border glacis.

Refugees who see their future in Turkey

It is still necessary to ask the refugees what they think of a possible return to Syria, to regions from which they are not necessarily native, whereas according to the Turkish Ministry of the Interior, around 500,000 Syrians have returned to the “safe zones” created by Ankara since 2016.

“What reassures us at the UNHCR is that the Turkish president has declared on several occasions that under his authority, no Syrian refugee will be sent back against their will to Syria, recalls Philippe Leclerc. There is a very clear position of his share on this point, which is not very popular and which provokes a lot of criticism, even if we also hear him say in speeches, in response to criticism from the opposition, that he wants to create conditions conducive to the return of a million refugees, including in areas where Turkey is engaged.”

On May 9, denouncing the speeches of his opponents demanding the return of Syrians to their country, Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to reassure the refugees about his intentions. “Obviously they can return to their homeland if they wish, but we will never expel them from our lands,” he told a gathering of entrepreneurs in Istanbul.

“Our doors are open to them, we will continue to welcome them to our homes. We will not throw them into the arms of the assassins”, he also launched, implicitly targeting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“In general, it is the refugees who know best whether they can return home safely or not, says Philippe Leclerc. The security, political, economic and social situation in Syria is clearly not conducive to a return to conditions of safety, dignity and sustainability, so it is not a country where UNHCR can promote the voluntary return of refugees, and this is increasingly the view of Syrians living in Turkey. “

According to him, studies and polls conducted on a regular basis show that the number of Syrians who say they consider returning, even in the distant future, is decreasing.

“And this, in particular in Turkey where more than 75% of those questioned think they will never return to their country, concludes Philippe Leclerc. The conditions of integration, even if it is a word that is not employed in Turkey, are proven, and many families believe, after eleven years of presence, that their future is in Turkey.”

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