Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this week that institutional surveys have shown that more than one million Syrian refugees wish to return voluntarily to their country.
This portends security arrangements that pave the way for the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Syrians before Turkey witnesses presidential and parliamentary elections during summer next year.
The Turkish president is trying to satisfy his potential voters who oppose the presence of Syrian refugees on Turkish soil, by talking about the "voluntary return" of more than a million Syrians who were forced by the war to seek refuge in Turkey in the past years.
Thus, he is trying to prevent the parties opposing him from using the refugees’ issue in the coming vote if he manages to deport large numbers of them before holding the elections.
Erdogan also said earlier this week that his country is going to construct 200,000 housing units in 13 areas on Syrian territories with funding from international relief organizations. On the other side, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stressed the importance of confronting the establishment of these housing units and warned of a demographic change that could lead to a civil war, especially since three of the cities in which the Turkish president intends to establish these housing units have a Kurdish majority.
Turkish assistant professor Ali Zafer Sağıroğlu, director of the Migration Policy Center at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University confirmed that the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party is facing pressure over the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey, especially with the establishment of new political parties that oppose the presence of refugees in the country.
Sağıroğlu described the task of the Turkish president, who plans to return more than a million Syrian refugees to their country, as "difficult."
Here is the full interview that Majalla conducted by phone with the Turkish academic residing in Ankara.
Q: Can the Turkish president return a million Syrian refugees to their country before the elections scheduled for next year?
A: Earlier various opposition parties refused the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Moreover, the tension in Turkey’s politics has recently risen as a new anti-immigrant party emerged. That triggers out a louder discussion about the refugees, mainly Syrians. Also, other parties in the opposition moved to raise their voice against the Syrians and other refugees, such as the Afghans and Pakistanis as well. This makes a quite pressure on the ruling party. The recent discussion is about whether Erdogan can send Syrians to Syria. It is not easy, but might be possible given some domestic changes in Syria.
Q: How can Erdogan encourage refugees to return to their country?
A. Everybody is wondering how they will manage to send them back to Syria. But nobody knows exactly how they will do it. And there is no clear plan about the situation yet. Maybe they will encourage people by giving them some houses, some properties there.
As far as we know, the construction of these houses or settlements in northern Syria is provided by the civil society, not by the government directly. These NGOs are also gathering some support from different actors to construct the houses.
And today Erdogan announces that they intend to construct 100,000 houses in northern Syria. Clearly, it is not so much a burden on the Turkish economy as it seems now. It seems that this would be handled through the NGOs.
Q: What is the Turkish president's goal in returning refugees to Syria?
A: In fact, there was discussion about the Syrians, but it didn't rise in that level until this year. There’s a new party that is pressing on the government about the perspectives of the Syrians in the future in Turkey.
So, is the goal of Erdogan to alleviate the pressure, particularly that it comes amid the pandemic, the inflation and the bad economic indicators. In addition, people are quite angry and frustrated about the economic difficulties.
Q: What were the outcomes of the government meeting chaired by Erdogan regarding the return of refugees?
A: There was a government meeting in Turkey, that was going to prepare a roadmap on how they will manage to return one million Syrian refugees to Syria. But there is not much detail about it. However, the Turkish President’s statement was important, as he said that we will never hand them over to the murderers and we will not get rid of them. It means that we will provide the conditions in which the Syrians can go back voluntarily to a safe region, in the northern part of Syria in which the Turkish army provides security.
Although opposition parties always say that they will talk with the Assad regime to send back people to Syria, Erdogan is the only figure in Turkish politics who would never say that they will send back the people to the regime area.
Q: With the return of these refugees, what is the fate of the Ankara agreement with the European Union on Syrians?
A: We are talking about nearly 4 million refugees. If Erdogan managed to send back 1 million, that means that about 3 million will continue to stay in Turkey. It is not a small number. Thus, the EU has to think more about supporting the coming Turkish government whether it is led by Erdogan or other parties. Actually, the rising tensions in Turkey make these refugees change their minds and move to Europe. And the European Union cannot be sure that in the near future another similar flow like that of 2015 or 2016 will not happen.
Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist who focuses on Syrian and Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of Syndicat National des Journalistes (National Syndicate of Journalists [SNJ]). He tweets at @JiwanSoz1