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Turkey’s refugee record: From warm welcome to grave concern

The warm welcome of the Syrian refugee flow in Turkey has turned into a grave concern. (AFP/File)
The warm welcome of the Syrian refugee flow in Turkey has turned into a grave concern. (AFP/File)
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23 Apr 2022 11:04:13 GMT9
Sinem Cengiz
23 Apr 2022 11:04:13 GMT9

Turkey’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis in the past decade has been laudable on ethical and humanitarian grounds, but it has also posed disquieting challenges in the realms of economics, politics and security, and social and foreign policy. As the country has accepted more refugees than it can treat and hosted them for longer than it can afford, the warm welcome of the refugee flow has turned into a grave concern.

Recent statements by Turkish officials, whether from the ruling party or opposition parties, indicate that Turkey is likely to make some adjustments to its refugee policy due to domestic, regional and international factors. The issue has both domestic and international dimensions, which are intertwined.

On the domestic front, there is increasing anti-refugee sentiment and public discontent with the rising number of refugees. The issue is one of the toughest challenges for the government before elections next year. It is also a strong card for opposition parties to use in pressuring the government. However, when they criticize government policy they end up spreading xenophobic remarks, which play an influential role in public stance toward refugees. Turkey is in the middle of an economic crisis with rising inflation and unemployment, and opposition parties blame refugees for many of the country’s social and economic troubles.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that the government was making efforts for the dignified return of Syrians to their homeland. “No matter how alone we have been left, we are making our best efforts for the voluntary and dignified return of our Syrian sisters and brothers to their homeland,” he said. Erdogan’s election ally, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli, said Syrians who went home for the Eid Al-Fitr holiday had no need to return to Turkey. Unusually, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Syrian refugees would not be allowed to visit Syria for Eid, a practice that has often been criticized by the public and political parties. Their argument is that if Syria is safe to visit, then it is safe to remain. On the other hand, civil society organizations point out that these visits strengthen Syrian refugees’ bonds with their home country, and may even help their process of eventual return.

The Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey started with the Syrian war but it is unlikely to vanish even if the war ends

Sinem Cengiz

Domestically, Turkey’s refugee issue is multilayered, including cheap labor and citizenship. Polls show that Turkish people reject granting citizenship for ideological and nationalistic reasons. The main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu asked the government last week: “Why are you granting citizenship recklessly, what are you preparing for? Do you conduct a security investigation while granting citizenship?”

Journalist Murat Yetkin said there were two main concerns underlying these questions. The first is that terrorists who hide their identities among Syrian refugees can enter Turkey and settle. The second is the claim that the ruling party will gain a vote advantage in 2023 by turning immigrants into voters. Amid these questions, Soylu said 19,336 Syrian refugees had been deported for security reasons since 2016, andÇavuşoğlu said 21,000 migrants had been deported in the first three months of this year.

The refugee issue also has an international dimension. Turkey’s 2016 refugee deal with the EU, the Ukrainian war, and regional countries’ reconciliation efforts with the Syrian regime all play a role in shaping Turkey’s refugee policy. The fighting in Ukraine has already triggered a new wave of refugees. Bringing Syria back to the Arab fold may push countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, three neighbors that host the largest number of refugees, to engage in efforts to repatriate refugees.

The Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey started with the Syrian war but it is unlikely to vanish even if the war ends. Although Turkish people believe Syrian refugees will eventually return to their home country, it looks unlikely for now. As the issue becomes more politicized every day, their integration into Turkey or repatriation to Syria both become harder.

  • Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz
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