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60,000 Syrians have left Turkey, Turkish defense chief says

Syrian refugees in Turkey remain a central theme ahead of the country's critical May 14 elections. 
An aerial picture shows Syrian refugees living in Turkey waiting to take a bus through the northern Bab al-Hawa border crossing, on February 17, 2023, as they return to Syria in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake. - Turkey this week allowed Syrians under its protection who hold ID cards from one of the quake-hit provinces to leave for between three and six months, a rule change designed to reunite families on both sides of the border hit by the February 6 disaster, which has killed more than 41,000 people

ANKARA — The number of Syrians leaving Turkey after the devastating recent earthquakes has reached 60,000, Turkish defense chief Hulusi Akar said Monday. 

On Feb. 6, two earthquakes and their aftershocks killed more than 50,000, including nearly 6,500 Syrians in Turkey. The disaster affected the country’s southern provinces which were home to a large Syrian refugee population.

Speaking in Hatay, one of the hardest-hit Turkish provinces, Akar said those Syrians left the country voluntarily. 

“We know that some 60,000 Syrian siblings of ours have returned to Syria voluntarily, safely, legally and in a dignified manner.”

It is not yet known how many of them have left Turkey permanently. Following the quakes, which also hit northern Syria and led to colossal destruction in both countries, Turkish authorities granted a special permit for Syrians residing in Turkey to visit their homeland for up to six months.

The United Nations' refugee agency warned last month that the Syrians who left Turkey on temporary permits must retain the right to return. In exclusive comments to Al-Monitor, UNHCR Turkey spokesperson Selin Unal stressed that many Syrians might travel to their home country to check on family and to attend burials and funerals. Civic groups put Syria’s death toll from the quakes at around 7,000. 

With only seven weeks to go before Turkey’s fateful presidential and parliamentary elections, several polls show Syrian refugees remain among the top concerns for the majority of the country's some 65 million-strong electorate. According to official figures, Turkey is home to some 4.5 million Syrian refugees. 

The earthquakes have fanned flames of anti-refugee sentiment in the country and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government’s open-door policy since the beginning of the Syrian civil war is facing fresh criticism. 

The government aims to facilitate the return of Syrians residing in Turkey through Russia-brokered high-level talks between Ankara and Damascus after more than a decade of hostilities. Yet, the talks appear to have hit a snag as a planned meeting between the Syrian, Turkish, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers in Moscow for March 16 was postponed at the last minute. Damascus has been pressing for a concrete commitment from Ankara on the withdrawal of Turkish military presence in northern Syria. 

Looking to capitalize on the mounting pressure over the refugees, the country’s leading six-party opposition bloc, which includes the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and nationalist Good or Iyi Party, repeatedly pledged to send Syrians home. 

Speaking in the border town of Reyhanli earlier this month, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is also the joint candidate of the six-party bloc in the presidential elections, vowed to send Syrians back to their country in two years. 

“The border you see behind me is the Syrian border. We will send our Syrian siblings back to their homeland within two years at the latest, but without casting a stain of racism on our noble nation. I want everyone to know that. We will send back our Syrian siblings," he said.


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