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Syrian opposition wary of Erdogan’s plan to return 1 million refugees

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that his country is preparing to return 1 million Syrian refugees to the northern Syria areas controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition, but he fell short of announcing the mechanism by which such numbers would return.
Internally displaced Syrians arriving with their belongings in a convoy of trucks, at a new housing complex.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced May 3 a plan by his government that would allow the “voluntary return” of 1 million Syrian refugees from Turkey to northern Syria.

Erdogan’s statements came in a video speech he made during an event attended by Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu in the town of Sarmada in Idlib’s northwestern province of Syria to hand over housing units built by the Turkish government and Turkish relief organizations to the displaced.

The Turkish president said in his speech, “About 500,000 Syrians have returned to the safe areas that Turkey has provided since launching its operations in Syria in 2016.”

“We are preparing for a new project that will allow the voluntary return of 1 million of our Syrian brothers whom we host in our country,” he added.

He explained that with the support of civil society institutions both in Turkey and around the world, the project will cover 13 areas in northern Syria, such as Azaz, Jarablus, al-Bab and Tell Abyad, and will provide “all the necessary needs for a decent living, such as schools, hospitals and homes for our Syrian brothers.”

“We support migrants staying behind the border through voluntary return projects that include building safe houses,” the Turkish president added.

He continued, “We do not deal with the geographical areas that we have set foot in based on their natural resources, as we only proceed based on the needs of the oppressed and the victims. We do not look at anyone’s skin, hair, eye color, belief or language, and we believe in God’s will given all the assistance we have provided to the oppressed. Today, we are one of the most aid-giving countries in the world.”

In this context, the Turkish Sabah website revealed the stages of the project announced by Erdogan.

In a report published May 5, the website said that the project aims to establish residential compounds in the areas of Azaz, Jarablus and al-Bab in the northern and northeastern countrysides of Aleppo, which are under the control of the Free Syria Army (FSA), Turkey’s ally, as well as in the areas of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain in the countryside of Hasakah and Raqqa, which are also under the control of the FSA.

The paper said that the return project consists of eight phases, phase one of which will witness the voluntary return from major Turkish states that are crowded with Syrians, such as Istanbul, Ankara, Konya, Adana and Gaziantep. The second phase will witness the voluntary return to areas that guarantee military, political and security stability for refugees in northern Syria, with the cooperation of 13 Syrian local councils and the involvement of the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD). 

In the third stage, the AFAD is to coordinate with 12 civil society organizations such as IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation and the Turkish Red Crescent, and establish new spaces to build homes, public facilities and infrastructure. 

The project will also include the establishment of commercial areas such as small industrial areas, shops and markets, and it will provide new job opportunities in order to ensure the sustainability of daily life in those areas. It will mainly consist of building schools, hospitals and mosques as part of the fourth and fifth stages. 

The project will provide in the sixth stage vocational courses to teach crafts. It will also organize professional workshops and provide small loans to enable Syrian refugees returning to their country to work. 

Educational programs will be an important part of the project’s phases, which will also witness the activation of rehabilitation and psychological support programs as part of stage seven. 

In the eighth stage, requests for support will be submitted by local or international funding bodies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Turkish government has yet to confirm the Sabah report.

A leader in the Syrian opposition told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Turkey informed the Syrian opposition of this project, but it has yet to provide us with more details. We fear that this plan might be ill-considered and lead to counterproductive results in the northern Syria areas that are overcrowded after huge numbers of displaced people flocked from all regions of Syria. The question that arises in this context is what would happen if Turkey brought in a million refugees? This will definitely exacerbate the problem, as it may lead to Turkey’s withdrawal from the Syrian file. It could also lead it to be less enthusiastic as far as changing the Syrian regime is concerned.”

Mohammed al-Sukari, a Syrian researcher who has Turkish citizenship and resides in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “It is clear that there is a Turkish tendency to have many Syrians return to the areas under the control of the Syrian opposition, at least as part of political propaganda before the Turkish public that has grown resentful of the presence of the Syrian opposition.”

“This is the result of weak refugee policies in Turkey since the beginning of the refugee crisis erupted, as Turkey was unable to provide a sustainable environment for refugees away from the state of political polarization. The Turkish opposition has been turning the Turks against refugees for years, and it seems that things have spun out of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ability to confront this propaganda against the Syrians,” he went on to say.

Sukari added, “Therefore, Turkey believes that having groups of Syrians return to Syria in order to contain the anger of the Turkish street will aim to mitigate voter losses, especially in the upcoming 2023 elections, and may help defuse popular tension. The Turkish government will seek to have refugees return to separate areas in northern Syria, all the while implementing projects that would serve as ‘primitive’ housing units, targeting different segments of Syrians in Turkey. These could include, for instance, people whose temporary protection ID card (known as Kimlik) have been suspended, refugees who do not have work permits or even violators residing in separate Turkish states.”

He stressed that this return cannot be described as voluntary but rather as forced for many reasons, the most important of which is the instability and continuous bombing in northern Syria to which Turkey is seeking to have refugees return, and Turkey is aware that even its soldiers are being targeted in those areas it describes as safe. Differently put, the term “safe and voluntary return” is far from being accurate unless a comprehensive political solution is reached in Syria, he added.

Sukari concluded by saying that the restrictions on the Syrian refugees in Turkey will increase to unprecedented heights in the lead-up to the elections scheduled for next year.