Fear among Syrian refugees over Turkey ‘voluntary return’ plan

Erdogan said he will not expel Syrian refugees but government plan to repatriate one million has raised concerns.

Taksim Square with the Taksim Mosque
Taksim Mosque, which was inaugurated by President Erdogan in 2021, in Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul, Turkey – Syrians living in Turkey have expressed fear and concern about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal to repatriate about one million of them to the northern region of Idlib, as the Turkish government continues to insist that it will carry out a military operation in northern Syria.

In May, Erdogan announced that the government was working to return Syrian refugees to the areas under Turkish security control in northern Syria. The plan includes building 250,000 housing units and equipping them with infrastructure that will extend between the cities of Azaz, Jarablus and al-Bab, all the way to Tal Abyad and Ain Issa.

“We support the ongoing migration strategy with projects to encourage voluntary returns,” Erdogan said at the time.

“Not only have we opened our doors to enable the oppressed to save their lives and dignity, but we also make every effort so that they can return to their homes,” he added.

However, many Syrians are wary of returning to their country, saying that the northern region is still a heavily militarised war zone and that they would be uprooting the lives they had built for themselves in Turkey during Syria’s 11-year bloody war.

“We all would love to return to our country and build it up again,” Mohammed Hawasli, a sales manager of a mobile phone company living in Istanbul told Al Jazeera. “But we left for a reason, because Syria is at war with itself and we wanted to live in dignity.”

The 32-year-old, who is from Damascus, arrived to Istanbul in 2012 and in the space of a decade, established a successful business that brings in hundreds of millions of liras in profits to the leading Turkish telecommunications company, Turk Telekom. He also got married and has two young children, who are enrolled in Turkish schools and barely speak a word of Arabic.

According to Turkey’s interior ministry, there are 3,762,000 Syrians who were granted temporary protection living in Turkey. A fraction of that figure – some 200,950 – have obtained Turkish citizenship.

A large number of Syrians in Turkey, Hawasli said, have been in the country for at least 10 years and have rebuilt their lives by finishing their education, setting up businesses and starting families.

“How can we restart our lives after we came a long way to establish ourselves again?” he asked. “How can we go back to a territory that is supposedly safe but in reality, is controlled by several armed factions belonging to different ideologies and rife with guns?”

Not all Syrians living in Turkey agree.

Bashar Tikrar, a 27-year-old shopkeeper from Tal Rifaat, said that he cannot wait to return to his hometown.

“Syria is the only place I see myself settling in,” he told Al Jazeera. “Who else will rebuild the country, if not its countrymen?”

Tikrar left Tal Rifaat in February 2016, just two days before the United States-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took over, and said that about 40 percent of the buildings were destroyed in the attacks.

“The area will be a safe zone again, under the auspices of the Turkish military and the Syrian National Army,” he said. “My family own land and houses there, and the PKK had no right to take our land.”

Turkey has said that Tal Rifaat will be one of the goals of its planned military operation, which aims to root out the SDF.

The group is largely made up of the YPG, which Turkey says is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK – both are designated “terrorist” groups in Turkey.

The PKK has fought a war against the Turkish state since the 1980s.

Syrian restaurants in the Fatih neighbourhood of Istanbul
A Syrian restaurant in the Fatih district of Istanbul, which has a high percentage of the Syrian population. The Turkish opposition had launched a campaign of incitement against the Arabic signage, saying restaurant and shop signs should only be written in the Turkish language [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

Fears of forced repatriation

The details of the possible repatriation are still uncertain.

It is not yet known how Syrians will be repatriated to their country, or who will go.

Erdogan has described the project as a “voluntary return” but many Syrians still fear that a scenario may arise where refugees are forced to go back.

Ghazwan Qoronfol, the president of the Syrian Lawyers’ Collective in Istanbul, warned that if the repatriations were not voluntary, but instead forced, then they would be “a violation of the temporary protection that determines the legal status of the Syrians in Turkey,” and the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Turkey is a signatory.

During the past year, racist attacks and campaigns against Syrians and other immigrants by Turkish opposition parties – with an eye on the upcoming presidential election – have increased, compounded by the economic turmoil of the Turkish lira and the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Erdogan has promised he will “not expel” Syrian refugees, but the rhetoric of the opposition, and general uncertainty over how any repatriation would work, has also contributed to the panic and fear felt by many Syrians living in Turkey.

The Turkish-controlled region in Syria also does not automatically guarantee safety and security, the lawyer said, pointing out that northern Syria remains a heavily militarised area that is targeted by the al-Assad regime, Iran, and Russia, in addition to clashes that break out between the armed groups living there.

“Re-naturalisation or forced displacement to a region where many Syrians are not from will only make their lives even more difficult,” Qoronfol said.

The intersection of Yusuf Pasha metro station in the Fatih district of Istanbul
The intersection of Yusuf Pasha metro station in the Fatih district of Istanbul [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

Additional reporting by Linah Alsaafin in Doha, Qatar.

Source: Al Jazeera