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Half a million Syrians return from Turkey, but were they forced?

Some 560,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey have returned to their country as part of deportation projects, many fleeing the harassment they were facing in the country.
Incoming Syrian refugees who were suddenly deported from Turkey await to register with officials.

The issue of hosting Syrian refugees has become a hot topic in Turkey about six months before the presidential elections and at a time when Turkey is grappling with a severe economic crisis.

Opposition parties pledged for ensuring the return of millions of Syrians.

The future of Syrian refugees thus seems to be reliant on two plans. The first, announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May, is mainly a project allowing “the voluntary return of 1 million Syrian refugees to their country.” 

Speaking in a video message at the opening of briquette houses for Syrians living in Idlib in northern Syria, Erdogan said the plan will be “very comprehensive” and implemented in 13 districts along Syria’s northern border.

The second plan — revealed by opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People's Party — consists of four stages, which Kilicdaroglu detailed during his meeting with Syrians Nov. 17 in the border province of Kilis. The implementation process will take place in the span of two years if they come to power, Kilicdaroglu said.

In an October report, Human Rights Watch said that Turkey arrested and deported hundreds of Syrian refugees this year, mainly men and boys who were arbitrarily detained and forced to return to northern Syria.

Hours after the publication of the report, the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management said in a statement that “HRW’s allegations are baseless” and that “Turkey deals with refugees in line with international law and national legislation, and in this context, foreigners are only transferred to their country of origin or a safe third country.”

A Syrian student at Hasan Kalyoncu University in the Turkish city of Gaziantep who was forcibly deported to northwestern Syria recently told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “My mother was arrested and detained by the immigration department because they did not find me in my house when they came searching for me.”

“I then headed to the Directorate of Justice [in Gaziantep] to see whether there was a judicial ruling issued against me or if there was a charge against me, and the answer was that there was no problem,” he said. “Then I went to the immigration department [in Gaziantep], where I was arrested and my mother was released. I was then deported to Syria without any charges being brought against me, and I could not return [to Turkey].”

“I lost my university and my future there,” he said.

Another Syrian refugee currently staying in the Turkish city of Gaziantep told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I was beaten by police officers in one of their stations in order to pressure me into signing a request for voluntary return to Syria after I was stopped at a checkpoint in the city (Gaziantep).”

“I was threatened several times inside the police station that I would be tortured if I did not sign, and that I would be deported anyway even if I did not sign, but I refused,” the Syrian refugee said. “I stayed there for hours, and then I requested a call to inform my family of my whereabouts, and I asked them to send a lawyer immediately.”

“The lawyer was able to get me out of there hours after my detention, but this does not mean my rights were not violated inside the police precinct,” he said.

On July 15, 2016, after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Ankara took major measures in northern Syria to ensure border security, carrying out several military operations — Euphrates ShieldOlive Branch and Peace Spring — against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The military operations have secured large areas for Syrian refugees to return and live away from the war zones, with an estimated area of 11,304 square kilometers.

About 560,000 Syrians of the estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey have returned to their country since 2016, according to Erdogan. Meanwhile, the Turkish Ministry of Defense continues to coordinate with relevant institutions and organizations in order to ensure normal life in the Syrian areas that have become safe.

With the support of the international community, Turkey hopes to continue financing housing and infrastructure projects in northwestern Syria, the last area controlled by the Syrian opposition factions and where Ankara deploys its forces.

Abdullah Suleymanoglu, a researcher on Turkish affairs, attributed the return of large numbers of Syrian refugees in Turkey to their country to the military operations carried out by Turkey in previous years.

He told Al-Monitor, “In the event of a new military operation in the areas of Tal Rifaat and nearby villages or Manbij, many Syrians will return there as well, whether from northwestern Syria or from Turkey as well.”

Hassan al-Nifi, a Syrian journalist and political analyst, told Al-Monitor, “The aim of the Turkish operations in northern Syria was not only to secure the border areas but also to ensure the return of part of the Syrian refugees to their areas."

“The number of returnees has doubled after the escalation of hate speech against them [in Turkey], the deportation projects and the harassment they have been facing,” Nifi said.

“It is not possible to implement all the [return] projects announced by the Turkish government. Some statements are part of the ruling party’s electioneering, nothing more,” he added.

Wael Olwan, a researcher at the Istanbul-based Jusoor Center for Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Most of those who want to return from Turkey are from the areas that the opposition factions seized after the battles with the SDF. Those [Syrians] prefer investing their money in their areas inside Syria rather than living as refugees in Turkey.”

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees who have gradually fled from Syria since the outbreak of the war in 2012. 

According to the Turkish Refugees Association, Turkey has so far received 3,762,686 Syrian refugees.

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