As key votes loom, Turkish parties vow to send migrants home
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Life in Turkey is tough for Nidal Jumaa, a Syrian from Aleppo. He works part-time in a furniture workshop, collecting plastic and cardboard from garbage cans to sell for recycling, but can barely afford the rent for his run-down house in a low-income neighborhood of Ankara.
Despite the hardship, the 31-year-old would rather stay in Turkey than return to Syria, where he no longer has a home or job. Above all, he worries that his two-year-old son Hikmat, who needs regular medical attention after two surgeries, might not be able to get the treatment he needs at home.
“Where would we go in Syria? Everywhere is destroyed because of the war,” said Jumaa. “We can’t go back. Hikmat is ill. He can’t even walk.”
Syrians fleeing the civil war – now in its 12th year – were once welcomed to Turkey with compassion, making the country home to the world’s largest refugee community. But as their numbers grew — and as the country began to grapple with a struggling economy, including skyrocketing food and housing prices — calls for their return grew, too. A lack of housing and emergency shelters after a devastating earthquake in February reignited calls for the return of at least 3.7 million Syrians.
The repatriation of Syrians and other migrants has become a top issue in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections, when the country will decide whether to give incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a new government mandate or bring an opposition candidate to power.
All three presidential hopefuls running against Erdogan have promised to send back refugees. Erdogan himself did not mention the issue of migration during the election campaign. However, in the face of a spate of anti-refugee backlash, his government has been exploring ways to relocate Syrians to their homes.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the joint candidate of an alliance of opposition parties that also includes nationalists, wants to voluntarily repatriate Syrians within two years. If elected, he would seek European Union funds to build houses, schools, hospitals and other facilities in Syria and encourage Turkish entrepreneurs to open factories and businesses to create jobs.
Kilicdaroglu has also said he will renegotiate a 2016 migration deal between Turkey and the European Union, under which the EU offered the country billions of euros in return for Ankara’s cooperation in stemming the flow of refugees to European countries.
“How long will we have to bear this heavy burden?” Kilicdaroglu said in an address to ambassadors of European nations last month. “We want peace in Syria. We want our Syrian brothers and sisters who have fled to our country to live in peace in their own country.”
Sinan Ogan, a candidate backed by an anti-migrant party, says his government would consider turning Syrians back “by force if necessary”.
Faced with mounting public pressure, Erdogan’s government, which has long defended its open-door policy towards refugees, began building thousands of brick houses in Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria to encourage voluntary returns. His government is also seeking reconciliation with Syrian President Bashir Assad to ensure the safe return of the refugees.
However, the Syrian government has made normalization of relations conditional on Turkey withdrawing its troops from areas under its control after a series of military incursions and Ankara curtailing support for opposition groups.
“Realistically, implementing the promises (of repatriation) is much more difficult than restoring the (Turkish) economy,” said Omar Kadkoy, an expert on migration at the Ankara-based think tank TEPAV. “At the end of the day, if the opposition comes to power or if the government stays in power, I don’t really see how they could bring back 3.5 million Syrians in two years.”
Kadkoy continued: “Assad is so maximalist with his demands for Turkey to take back millions of people. I don’t think Turkey is ready to meet his demands.”
Around 60,000 Syrians crossed the border into northern Syria after the quake, after Turkey relaxed regulations allowing them to return to Syria and stay there for a maximum of six months. The move allowed the refugees to check on families or homes in the earthquake-hit areas of northern Syria. It was not immediately known how many returned to Turkey or plan to do so.
Kadkoy says high inflation and a cost of living crisis have made life difficult for Syrians in Turkey.
“But compared to that… having no place to stay, no functioning democracy… where you could be bombed and shelled at any moment,[Syrians]prefer the poor conditions here in Turkey to nothingness in Syria,” he said.
In Ankara’s impoverished Ismetpasa neighborhood, plastic sheeting partially covers the roof to keep the rain off the house where Jumaa, his wife Jawahir and their four children live. The family has no furniture and they sleep on mats thrown around a coal stove.
Jawahir Jumaa says her home in Syria was destroyed in airstrikes. The few relatives who remain there live in tents that are flooded during the winter months.
“The living conditions (here) are better than in Syria,” she said.
Hikmat, her youngest son, had a cyst and tumor removed from his head and back. “You cannot treat him in Syria. They don’t know how,” Jawahir added.
When asked about the anti-migrant sentiment and the demand for the repatriation of Syrians, Nidal Jumaa was fatalistic.
“There is nothing we can do because now we live on. We are under the mercy of God,” he replied.
The neighborhood is near an area where riots broke out two years ago after a Turkish teenager was stabbed to death in a fight with a group of young Syrians. Hundreds of people took to the streets with anti-immigrant slogans, vandalized Syrian-run businesses and threw stones at the homes of refugees.
Hassan Hassan, a neighbor, says he is not concerned about the violence that has erupted or calls to leave Syria.
“I’m not afraid, we’ve suffered too many terrible things, what could be worse than what we’ve (already) experienced?” he asked.
Suzan Fraser, The Associated Press