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Turkey kicks off Syria housing project for refugee returns

Anti-refugee sentiments have been running high in Turkey, with both presidential candidates vowing to boost returns
— Al Ghandura (Syria) (AFP)

Turkey has launched the construction of nearly a quarter million housing units to resettle refugees in rebel-held northern Syria, Turkish media said, as repatriation efforts loom large in Turkey's presidential runoff.

An AFP correspondent on Wednesday saw builders working and heavy machinery being used at the side on the outskirts of the town of Al-Ghandura, in the Jarabulus area near the Turkish border.

"Syrian refugees living in Turkey will settle in the houses... as part of a dignified, voluntary safe return," Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Wednesday at the launch of the project, according to private Turkish news agency IHA.

He said that "240,000 houses will be built" in the region, expressing hope that the project would be completed in three years, IHA added.

Since Syria's war broke out in 2011, neighbouring Turkey has taken in more than three million people who fled the fighting.

Syrians attend the inauguration of the Turkish-funded housing complex in the rebel-held north

Most have "temporary protection" status, leaving them vulnerable to a forced return.

Anti-refugee sentiments have been running high in Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hardened his once-accepting stance towards people displaced by war as he fights for re-election in a presidential runoff this weekend.

Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has pledged to send "all the refugees home" if he wins.

The construction site Soylu visited was formerly an air strip.

On a billboard, "Project for safe, voluntary and honourable returns" was written in Arabic and Turkish, while the names of organisations including Turkey's relief agency AFAD and the Qatar Fund for Development featured on the sign.

"Qatari emir (Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad) Al-Thani and our President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have taken a big step toward addressing one of the world's most important issues," Soylu said, according to the IHA report.

Erdogan supported early rebel efforts to topple Assad, and Ankara maintains a military presence in northern stretches of the war-torn country that angers Damascus.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu promised 'a dignified, voluntary safe return' of Syrian refugees

Since 2016, Turkey has carried out successive ground operations to expel Kurdish forces from border areas of northern Syria.

Its troops and their Syrian proxies hold swathes of the border, and Erdogan has long sought to establish a "safe zone" 30 kilometres (20 miles) deep the whole length of the frontier.

"To date, there have been 554,000 voluntary returns," Soylu said. "There is a serious demand for a voluntary and dignified return to this safe area."

Earlier this month, Erdogan pledged to build some 200,000 homes in 13 locations in Syria, aiming to resettle some one million refugees, local media reported.

In November, Soylu paid a visit to open 600 basic homes in Syria's rebel-held Idlib region, saying 75,000 houses had been constructed in the previous two years.