Turkey has taken in about 5.5 million refugees, many of them Syrians. Ahead of the May 14 parliamentary and presidential elections, almost all parties say they would send Syrians back if elected.
A few men stood in front of a blue-framed door in the Bagcilar district of Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul, earlier this month. One of them, tall and very agitated, shouted out a question.
“Can I go to Syria and kill someone there?” he demanded. “No.”
The man was angry because his brother, a textile worker, was shot dead by a Syrian in a clash between two groups.
The presidential candidate of the right-wing nationalist Ata Alliance, Sinan Ogan, visited the family.
“I promise you we will send the Syrians back as soon as possible. We won’t allow another Turk to be murdered by a Syrian,” he said.
Ogan is one of four candidates running in the May 14 presidential elections. The 55-year-old politician started out in the Ulkucu, or Gray Wolves, movement. He was kicked out of the ultra-nationalist MHP party after an intra-party power struggle. Just weeks ahead of the vote, his approval ratings are between 1.3% and 2.5%, according to surveys.
Ogan and the Ata Alliance are not the only ones stirring up anti-refugee feelings. With the exception of the pro-Kurdish Green-Left Alliance, all other alliances have pledged to immediately send almost 4 million Syrians back to neighboring Syria if they win the election.
Kilicdaroglu would negotiate return with Syrian president
Another politician banking on anti-refugee sentiment is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the CHP opposition party and presidential candidate for the largest opposition alliance. Years ago, Kilicdaroglu sensed Turkish people’s resentment and made refugee policy one of his priorities. Should he win the vote, he says he will negotiate with the Syrian regime concerning the return of refugees.
His alliance included the issue in its election program along with a pledge to review the refugee pact with the European Union and conclude a separate repatriation agreement with third countries.
The alliance also wants to monitor porous border crossings with new technologies and drones and build walls to prevent uncontrolled migration if necessary. Visa facilitation with various states would also be discussed.
Until a year ago, the ruling AKP party protected Syrians, viewing them above all as cheap labor indispensable to the Turkish economy. However, as Turkish society’s acceptance of Syrians dwindles in view of the economic crisis, inflation and poverty, the AKP has changed its tune.
“With the realization that the Syrians wouldn’t return home after a few years, the mood changed,” said Murat Erdogan, a migration researcher at Turkey’s Ankara University.
The opposition parties were the first to pick up on the growing discontent in the population, he said, and the AKP party followed suit after scoring points among voters with the refugee issue. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he would prepare for the voluntary and safe return of Syrians and that his party would continue to fight illegal migration.
“The AKP has recently been bragging about high deportation figures,” the migration researcher said.
Most Turks favor Syrians’ return
Over the past five years, Murat Erdogan has conducted the Syrians Barometer survey, which examines the lives of Turks and Syrians and takes a close look at their coexistence in Turkey.
Every year, the survey asks people how important the refugee issue is for Turkish society. In past years, the issue has always been rated as significant, landing among the top three or four topics.
“In the latest study, it reached second place, right after the economic crisis,” the researcher told DW.
The survey also tried to establish whether the refugee policies of the various parties impact how voters cast their ballot. “Up to 60% percent of the participants answered ‘yes’,” Murat Erdogan said, adding that the Syrian refugee issue offers the parties plenty of room to make their mark, in particular if the race is close.
Demand not realistic
The return of Syrians is highly unrealistic, however, said Murat Erdogan. Turkey is currently home to more than 3.5 million Syrians who have temporary protection, 100,000 with a valid residence permit and some 200,000-300,000 who are naturalized citizens — all in all that makes almost 4 million.
On top of this, about 400,000 irregular refugees mainly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Africa as well as 1 million refugees awaiting deportation live in Turkey, according to Erdogan.
That brings the number of refugees in Turkey to a total of 5.5 million. “No other country in the world has taken in as many refugees as Turkey,” he said.
Many Syrians have been in the country for more than 10 years, the children go to school and the adults have jobs, even if they are mostly employed illegally.
“Sending them back over the next few years, as the parties claim, is impossible,” said the migration researcher. He adds that almost 900,000 children were born in Turkey — Syria is not their home.
Victims of violence
Runaway inflation, high unemployment and poverty are making life difficult in Turkey. President Erdogan’s low interest rates policy has plunged the economy into a deep crisis. Purchasing power is dwindling fast, and poverty has reached the middle of society.
The right-wing populist and nationalist parties in particular are seizing the opportunity. They are exploiting the tense situation for their own purposes, spreading xenophobia and stirring fears of foreign infiltration. “Turkey has been assimilated by young foreign men,” they warn.
What started out as criticism turned to violence. In August 2021, a mob vandalized Syrian stores in Ankara because the owners allegedly did not pay taxes and were living off state aid. In mid-January 2022, a masked group stabbed Nail Alnaif, a 19-year-old Syrian, in his Istanbul apartment. In June 2022, Turkish security forces shot 35 refugees in the town of Osmaniye for allegedly trying to flee the refugee shelter. In the wake of the earthquakes in February, many refugees were blamed for allegedly looting and stealing.