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Turkey completes more than 62,000 homes in Idlib, but will refugees return home?

Syrian refugees fear that the Turkish government will go ahead with its plan to deport them to northwest Syria.
An aerial view shows Syrian children playing in a portable swimming pool set up by volunteers, at a camp for the displaced in the rebel-held town of Kafr Yahmul in the northern countryside of Idlib, Syria, Aug. 10, 2022.

Turkey has recently completed the building of more than 60,000 houses in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, as part of a Turkish plan to encourage Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to their home country.

On Aug. 6, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced in a tweet the completion of the construction of 62,145 briquette houses in Idlib, for what he described as the safe, voluntary and dignified return of Syrians.

He continued that the number of newly built housing units in Idlib is expected to reach 100,603 by the end of the year, expressing hope to reach the target number with the support of nongovernmental organizations and the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), upon the instructions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Soylu also shared a video recording on his Twitter account, showing screenshots of houses being built in the Kamouna camp for the displaced near the city of Sarmada in the northern countryside of Idlib.

During a ceremony to hand over housing units built in coordination with AFAD to the displaced in Idlib May 3, which was attended by Soylu, Erdogan spoke about the Turkish government’s plan to ensure the smooth and voluntary return of 1 million Syrian refugees to their country.

He stressed that the Turkish government, in cooperation with Turkish and international civil society organizations, was seeking to establish a full-fledged housing and service project in northern Syria.

On June 18, Soylu visited the city of Tal Abyad in the northern countryside of Raqqa, during which he inspected another project to build housing units in the area.

In a statement to reporters, he said that his country “is in the process of implementing projects to build residential communities in 13 areas, including about 240,000 homes, in Jarablus, al-Bab, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, in addition to shopping centers, social and health facilities, as well as schools.”

He noted, “The area of ​​land allocated to the project in Tal Abyad is 1,200 dunams [296 acres]. According to the plan, during the first phase, 10,000 housing units will be built to accommodate about 64,000 people. The houses will be 60, 80 and 100 square meters [645, 861 and 1,076 square feet]. These projects will be implemented by Turkey with external funding and contributions from civil organizations with the support from Muslims and international aid."

For months, ambiguity has surrounded the fate of Syrian refugees in Turkey, amid the political uncertainty of the ruling Justice and Development Party, which increased the refugees’ fears and concerns amid rising hate speech and racism against them in Turkey.

On May 9, Erdogan said during an event held in Istanbul, “[Turkey] wants to return the refugees to their country, but Turkey will keep its door open for the oppressed.” 

Shortly after Erdogan’s remarks, the Turkish government took a new stand on Syrian refugees, which raised concerns among Syrians living in Turkey.

Muhammad Alaa al-Saeed, a Syrian refugee residing in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor, “We constantly fear being deported to Syria. The increasing Turkish statements against refugees are alarming. Many of us don’t have papers and therefore we cannot legally stay.”

He said, “But I can't go back to northwest Syria. It is unsafe there with rampant unemployment and extremely bad living conditions."

Saeed added, “I have been here for seven years, during which I have never committed any offense. But this means nothing [for Turks], just because I am Syrian. I know many Syrians who were immediately deported just for filing a complaint against a Turkish person. We are being insulted by Turks, but we can’t do anything about it, or they will send us back.”

Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman and founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor that Syrians are not voluntarily going back to their country, but it is rather the result of restrictive measures prompting the refugees to return, or following a legal encroachment that is usually punishable by a fine or prison.

He raised concerns about an independent nongovernmental body selecting the 1 million people who would be sent back to Syria, while the Turkish government deports them.

“This threatens the lives of a large number of Syrian civilians who will be send back because this area in Syria is still not safe and not ready to receive this large number of people,” Abdul Ghany added.

As soon as there was talk about the return of refugees, prices on the real estate market in the Syrian opposition-held areas in northwest Syria began to rise, with more people looking to buy a house, and the number of housing development projects increased in the area.

Mustafa al-Raj, a real estate investor, told Al-Monitor, “Previously the property market in northern Syria was stagnant amid the difficult economic conditions. But with the talk of the refugees' return, demands for property increased by 25% and housing projects by 20% in the areas designated in the Turkish plan.”

He explained that many Syrians now want to buy a house because they fear they will no longer be able to afford a property in the city centers once the repatriation project is implemented.

“Also, many families prefer to live in the cities instead of remote areas. Should the Syrian refugees actually start to return, there will be a big boom in the property market in northern Syria,” Raj said.

Yassin al-Harh, a Syrian refugee who lives in the Turkish province of Gaziantep, told Al-Monitor, “I contacted my relatives who live in Europe, asking them for money to help me buy a house in northern Syria, so that I would have a place to live — without having to go to my hometown, Maarat al-Numan, in the countryside of Idlib, which is under the Syrian regime control — and will not end up in a camp or remote area in the event we were deported to Syria.”

He noted, “But I am not sure I’ll be able to afford a housing unit in al-Bab city in Aleppo countryside, with prices ranging between $7,500 and $10,000 per house. I don’t even have half this amount."

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