Syrian Refugees in Turkey Face an Uncertain Future

In the early hours of July 1, 2022, Turkish sources reported on a story of undocumented immigrants fleeing the Osmaniye Refugee Camp in southern Turkey. That same day, this author shared on Twitter disturbing videos showing Turkish mobs expressing their anger to gendarmerie officers, going on the hunt for undocumented refugees, and attacking them as they captured them. The swift reaction from a high-level politician who is a member of Turkey’s opposition Democrat Party can help shed light on the current political atmosphere in the country leading up to the 2023 general and presidential elections. “These are not ‘Turkish thugs,’” tweeted the party’s head of immigration and social policies, “These people are the locals living near the camp worried sick about their families’ safety when last night hundreds of young Afghani [sic], Pakistani, and Syrian men broke the wire gates and escaped the camp…get it straight!” When reminded that there was no use of the word “thugs,” the party head attempted to further justify vigilante violence as self-defense, writing, “I would really be interested in seeing your own personal reaction if around 60 young foreign men flee a camp directly next to your house!” The next day, the governor of the Osmaniye Province declared that the total number of escaped refugees was 35, all of whom had been captured and returned to the camp.

This episode was not the first of its kind, and is not likely to be the last. Last month, for example, unrest in the Marash Refugee Camp was suppressed by the police. And in recent years, violence against Syrian refugees has skyrocketed. Hostile confrontations have exhibited a mixture of frenzy, exaggeration, fear, and agitation. Making the problem worse, Turkish politicians have chosen to increase agitation among the Turkish population and play on the anxieties of the masses. With the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections fast approaching, it is reasonable to expect the issue of refugees to become further politicized.

With the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections fast approaching, it is reasonable to expect the issue of refugees to become further politicized.

Turkey’s political battle over refugees is now shaping the government’s agenda. Blaming refugees for the country’s dire economic conditions, the Turkish opposition is targeting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s handling of the issue. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s government is moving away from its traditional position with a nationalist tone. In fact, blaming refugees could even serve Erdoğan in the elections by both covering up the root causes of Turkey’s current financial crisis and providing support for the government’s plans to conduct military operations in northern Syria, which it depicts as a path to send refugees back to their homeland.

On the other hand, ultranationalist far-right parties may use their recent rise in popularity to shape the government’s approach to the refugee issue. But the very existence of an increasingly powerful far-right could make Erdoğan’s nationalist position appear more moderate, thus enabling another election victory for the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the face of mass violence or a possible pogrom against the refugees, AKP could be perceived as an anchor of stability. This has been the case before, most memorably when AKP lost its majority in parliament in the June 2015 elections, but regained its seats in the subsequent November 2015 elections thanks to public fears resulting from the deadliest terror attacks in Turkish history. With both sides milking the refugee issue for all its worth, and with significant obstacles to Syrians’ integration into Turkish society, the future for refugees in Turkey looks increasingly bleak.

Erdoğan Gets Ready for Elections

For Erdoğan, the 2023 elections are extremely important, especially given that public polls indicate a sharp decline in his approval rating. Ankara recently announced new restrictions that aim to quell public criticism regarding the government’s refugee policies. With its new “dilution plan,” the Turkish government is strictly enforcing residence permit quotas that block refugees from moving to neighborhoods where immigrants make up more than 25 percent of the total population, effectively closing off 1,169 city neighborhoods to immigrants and refugees. Ankara has additional bad news for newly-arrived immigrants from Syria, as they will no longer be automatically guaranteed protected status. Instead, they will initially be placed in refugee camps, where they will then go through a process to determine if they truly need protection. Moreover, Turkey has stopped issuing tourist visas to Syrians, banning them from visiting their families during the recent Eid holiday.

The very existence of an increasingly powerful far-right could make Erdoğan’s nationalist position appear more moderate, thus enabling another election victory for the president’s Justice and Development Party.

The Turkish government is also undertaking massive housing construction projects in 13 northern Syrian localities that are under Turkey’s military control, including Jarablus, Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ayn, and al-Bab. The first stage of construction, which is able to accommodate 64,000 people, has already been completed. According to the Turkish plan, a total of 240,000 new briquette houses are going to be built, and are meant to support Erdoğan’s goal of encouraging one million refugees to return to Syria on a voluntary basis. This comes on top of a separate construction project that last year built 50,000 briquette houses in Syria’s Idlib Province.

The relocation of Syrian refugees is, in fact, already underway. The Turkish government has stated that about 500,000 refugees have voluntarily returned to their homeland in the past few years. But these numbers are hotly contested. Some refugee advocates claim that the real figure is closer to 80,000, and that most have not returned of their own free will. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 800 Syrians are returning to their country each week, with a recorded total of 130,000 returnees.

In an attempt to galvanize Turkish nationalist support before the elections, Erdoğan is depicting his proposed military operation in northern Syria as necessary to allow Syrian refugees to return to their country. Turkey’s escalation of tensions with Greece is also related to refugee politics. Greek authorities accuse Ankara of systematically enabling sudden surges in refugee flows—around 1,000 migrants a day in recent weeks. This has been part of Ankara’s playbook since it signed a March 2016 agreement with the European Union, and it scarcely misses an opportunity to exert pressure on European countries by selectively controlling the flows of migrants across its borders. Turkey has thus assumed the role of a security officer at the gates of Europe, and expects to reap the benefits of its position. Although previous Turkish incursions into Syria resulted in weapons sanctions against Turkey, there is not likely to be a major reaction to its operations in the near future. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Erdoğan’s government sees an opportunity to increase tensions with the West, which has long been a typical AKP campaign tactic to build up domestic support.

Voluntary Return or Forced Deportation?

Turkey’s large-scale construction of homes for refugees in northern Syria poses difficult questions about the future of Turkish-occupied territories. Unless security guarantees can be made and long-term direct government services provided, Syrian refugees will not be likely to risk their lives and return to Syria. Erdoğan’s government demonstrates a strong will to show the world that Turkey’s occupation of Syrian territory is a permanent one, a fact that is reflected in the government’s investments in these territories. From providing postal services to building educational facilities, Turkey’s footprint in Syrian towns is quickly solidifying.

Despite the Turkish government’s investments, however, the hope that it will find one million Syrians willing to voluntarily move to northern Syria may not be realistic. Public opinion polls suggest that the majority of refugees would prefer to stay in Turkey. The refugees report that they do not see a future in Syria and that they fear retribution from the Assad regime if the Turkish military were to withdraw from the area. But at the same time, harsh rhetoric from Turkish opposition parties is causing refugees to worry about a potential shift in Turkish state policies. Although rising xenophobia and intolerable racism may convince some Syrian refugees to return home, shifting conditions will likely raise fears among most Syrian refugees of forced deportations and the prospect of negotiations between Ankara and Damascus.

The most vocal proponent of forced deportations is Ümit Özdağ, the leader of Turkey’s far-right Victory Party, which was founded in August 2021. Despite the marginality of Özdağ’s new party, he has managed to make substantial moves in anti-refugee activism. For example, he commissioned a dystopian short film, The Silent Occupation, which has been viewed by millions. The film depicts Istanbul in the year 2043, a city where Arab domination is visible across all aspects of life, from elected officials to everyday street life. In the crime-ridden city, Arabic is the official language, Arabs dominate the real estate industry, and Turkish citizens are reduced to working menial jobs due to Arabs’ nepotistic practices. The film ends with a famous dictum from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey: “The strength you need is already imbedded in your noble blood!”—a phrase that is meant to evoke Turkish racial supremacy.

Despite the Turkish government’s investments, however, the hope that it will find one million Syrians willing to voluntarily move to northern Syria may not be realistic.

This kind of rhetoric is certainly troubling, but given that Özdağ is a fringe voice, all eyes are on Erdoğan’s foremost challengers, who have begun to roll out election promises regarding Syrian and Afghan refugees. For example, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has repeatedly vowed to repatriate refugees in an organized effort that he says would be completed within two years. Another politician who is rising in opinion polls, Meral Akşener, announced that her first action should she be elected president would be repairing relations with Damascus and sending four million refugees back to Syria. If Erdoğan loses the election, Kılıçdaroğlu and Akşener are expected to form a coalition government, an alliance that will almost certainly alter Turkey’s strategy in Syria.

While Akşener has been clear about her plans for refugees, Kılıçdaroğlu has been more equivocal about his plans, recently claiming that his repatriation strategy will not be driven by racist impulses, but is rather a long-term coordinated effort that will please Syrians. He also spoke about one of the most controversial issues in the Turkish public sphere: claims that refugees are having too many babies and relying on the government’s welfare benefits. Aiming to look kind and considerate, Kılıçdaroğlu described the 700,000 Syrians born in Turkey as “a richness” for Syria, and a group that will build a better future for Syria. He believes that his plans will be supported by European Union funds. But receiving monetary support from the EU for refugees has been complicated at best. Most European countries are critical of the Turkish government’s plans to expand northern Syrian territories into “safe zones” for refugees. And unlike Erdoğan’s government, Turkey’s main opposition is instead interested in finding a way out of the issue altogether by working directly with Damascus, which would require a Turkish withdrawal from Syria.

For most Syrian refugees, a Turkish-Syrian agreement is an absolute nightmare, at least as long as the Assad regime remains in power. Even putting aside moral and ethical standpoints, the outcome would be unacceptable for European politicians, as it would require mass deportations of Syrians from Turkey, restarting the crisis at the gates of Europe by triggering yet another major wave of migration. Interviews with Syrian refugees clearly indicate that many intend to head to Europe due to challenges they face in Turkey. If additional western support does come, it is likely to be a deal similar to the 2016 agreement: millions of dollars will flow to Ankara in exchange for Turkey’s assistance in managing EU border security.

An Uncertain Future Places Syrian Refugees in Limbo

Almost 200,000 Syrians have now received Turkish citizenship, making it impossible to imagine a future for Turkey that does not include the Syrian community. But Syrians in Turkey still face substantial difficulties. According to Turkish Ministry of Education statistics, about 400,000 Syrian children—roughly 40 percent of all school-age Syrian children—are not receiving an education in Turkey. One reason for this is language; children who do not know Turkish struggle with social adaptation and face discrimination, which makes them avoid school. And given that most Syrian parents are also struggling to integrate into Turkish society, educational prospects for Syrian children are not promising.

Whatever the outcome of Turkey’s upcoming elections, an uncertain future awaits Syrian refugees, who have adapted to a sort of life in limbo. Given Turkey’s assimilationist policies and culture, the long-term trajectory for refugees may be similar to that of refugees in other countries. The children of Syrian refugees, who may possess better language skills than their parents, and who may benefit from a good education will likely be part of a multigenerational process of integration. However, the ghettoization of certain neighborhoods, dynamics of social exclusion, and Turkish nationalist politicians will do nothing to help this process. Unfortunately, an embrace of pluralism in Turkey is still a distant dream.