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Turkey Elections: Runoff becomes tug of war over Syrian refugees

As Turkey heads for its presidential runoff, the opposition and the government are in a race to send Syrians and other refugees back home in an effort to woo nationalist voters.
Syrian refugees living in the earthquake-affected areas of southeastern Turkey cross the Turkey-Syria border at the Cilvegozu border crossing, Turkey, February 19, 2023. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country's south-east in the early hours of February 6, followed by another 7.5-magnitude tremor just after midday. The quakes caused widespread destruction in southern Turkey and northern Syria, leaving behind more than 46,000 dead. (Photo by Konstantinos Tsakalidis / SOOC / SOOC via AFP) (Photo by KONS

IZMIR, Turkey — With a mere 96 hours to Sunday’s crucial runoff that will determine whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will remain at Turkey’s helm for a third decade, the opposition and government have placed Turkey’s 4 million Syrian refugees in a political tug of war. 

“We will never, ever make Turkey a warehouse of refugees,” opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu said Tuesday in Hatay, the earthquake-hit province at Turkey’s Syrian border. According to the Interior Ministry's figures, Syrians under temporary protection comprise about a fifth of the local population. 

“The grievances about refugees we hear in Hatay are similar to those we hear in 81 provinces,” Kilicdaroglu said, standing against a backdrop reading, “Make up your mind before refugees take over the country.”

“Those in power say that they will not send refugees back home. The upcoming elections are essential on this question. We have a plan: We will send the refugees back to their country within two years at most,” said Kilicdaroglu, who received about 5% less votes than incumbent Erdogan in the first round of presidential voting on May 14. 

Kilicdaroglu’s words mark a slight turn from last week’s impassioned speech in which he pledged to send back refugees as soon as he took office. “We will make peace with Syria. Our Syrian brothers and sisters can come to Turkey on the weekends … but we want them to live in peace in their own country,” he said. 

Politicians, the press and laymen all refer to the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others from Asia and Africa in Turkey as refugees. However, they lack legal refugee status because Turkey set a geographic limitation on its ratification of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, saying that only those fleeing due to "events occurring in Europe” can have refugee status in the country. So when Kilicdaroglu referred to “10 million refugees” last week, he lumped a lot of different groups together: asylum-seekers such as Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrians under international protection as well as illegal migrants. Though Turkey hosts the largest community of displaced people in the world, many experts say that the number is between 6 and 7 million, including 4 million Syrians, half a million of which were sent back last year. Most experts say that the 10 million put forward by Kilicdaroglu and the 13 million claimed by far-right politician Umit Ozdag are exaggerated figures. 

Ozdag, the leader of the far-right Victory Party, maintained earlier Tuesday that he was negotiating a protocol with Kilicdaroglu to send refugees back home “by force if necessary” within “one year,” but it is yet to be finalized. “[Kilicdaroglu and Ozdag] would probably agree on a protocol and then share it with the other party leaders in the alliance,” said Meral Aksener, who heads the right-wing Good Party, Tuesday afternoon. An announcement on the agreement, expected today, was postponed to tomorrow. 

Ozdag, the architect of the defunct ATA Alliance, has been inching toward the opposition while the alliance's presidential candidate Sinan Ogan, who garnered 2.8 million votes in the first round, announced his support for frontrunner Erdogan on Monday.

Though they support different sides, Ozdag and Ogan both boast that they have put the refugee issue at the heart of the political debate and managed to extract from both candidates a road map to send them back home.

“Both Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan have doubled down on the refugees in Turkey after the first round of the vote mainly because the Syrians under temporary protection has always been an easy scapegoat,” said Omar Kadkoy, an immigration policy analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. 

“As Kilicdaroglu toughened his discourse on illegal migration to garner the nationalist and ultranationalist vote, President Erdogan also picked up the signs on how the migration issue may be used to rally votes, and now he is also talking of a road map, too,” Kadkoy told Al-Monitor, referring to the president’s remarks in a televised interview on Sunday.

"A road map for the return of refugees will be planned soon. We’ll analyze how soon we can assure their safe return,” Erdogan said in an interview with TRT Haber. The president added that Turkey had already repatriated 450,000 Syrians and planned to return another one million. 

Erdogan’s words were echoed by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who said he was taking up the question of refugees with his Syrian, Iranian and Russian counterparts, including at a May 10 meeting right before the elections. “But it is not realistic that they would all leave,” he said, referring to their role in the labor market, particularly in agriculture. Though Cavusoglu did not mention them, many Syrian children who were born in Turkey and learned Turkish would also stay, as would many naturalized families. 

Cavusoglu said that many Afghans, whose influx to Turkey had stirred a crisis last year, have been repatriated. On Monday, the pro-government Demiroren news agency Turkey’s Migration Authority released images of 137 Afghan refugees from Istanbul and Kocaeli being put on planes back to Afghanistan. The agency reported that more than 12,000 Afgan refugees had been sent back in 2023. 

But the opposition members worry that those who stay in Turkey far outnumber those sent back home. “There is a huge human trafficking industry in Turkey that has grown in the last 12 years,” Ilay Aksoy, the deputy chair of the Democrat Party, which is part of Kilicdaroglu’s Nation Alliance, told Al-Monitor. “Turkey hosts illegal migrants from 112 countries. The government’s failure to protect this country’s borders has created an identity issue and a security problem. Faced with the large Syrian influx in 2011, the government handed out temporary IDs to the Syrians … without knowing who they were. Last year, we had illegal Afghan migrants. Now we have Sudanese after the coup there.” 

But worse, maintains Aksoy, the AKP government changed citizenship laws to grant easier citizenship to Syrians and several other nationals. “It is tough to know the exact numbers on naturalization because the whole process is very nontransparent,” Aksoy told Al-Monitor, saying that if they came to power, they’d assess each recent case, categorize them and see whether they had been in accordance with laws. “People who speak no Turkish, had no idea about Turkey, now have a say over our future through their votes,” she said. 

Kadkoy maintains that the number of Syrians who got citizenship is often exaggerated, putting the number of naturalized Syrian voters around 150,000 at most. According to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, only 230,998 Syrians under temporary protection received Turkish citizenship, and those of voting age are 130,914. 

Do they vote for Erdogan? “Well, it is the devil they know,” Kadkoy said. “If the New Turks of Syrian origin have family members in Turkey who haven’t been naturalized yet, they think Erdogan would be more likely to let them stay.” 

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