GAZIANTEP, Turkey – For most of the Muslim world, Ramadan is a month of fasting, prayer and piety. For Syrian refugees in Turkey, it is one of the few opportunities they have left to visit their home country without fear of being unable to return to the place where they have found sanctuary.
That’s because, since 2015, Turkey has progressively put an end to its open door policy that allowed Syrians to come and go as they wished: Now, except during the last days of Ramadan, refugees who spend a few days back home are not allowed to return.
“We wait for the holiday with great excitement throughout the year,” says Mohammed Noor, a Syrian refugee who spent many years in this Turkish border city before moving to Germany in March.
“People yearn for a visit back home all year round. But at the same time, they want to make sure they preserve their livelihoods in Turkey,” he says.
The revised border policy reflects a broader harshening of attitudes in Turkey toward Syrian refugees, which is also playing an important role in the political campaign ahead of elections in the country on June 24.
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“The vibe has changed: authorities now want as many Syrians as possible to return for good,” Noor says.
Turkey has made impressive efforts to alleviate the suffering for millions of Syrians who have left their homes since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. The country has let in nearly 3.6 million Syrians, built refugee camps that are internationally recognized as being the best in the world (though they only host some 220,000 refugees) and the Turkish government has worked hard to integrate the refugees into local society.
The government’s actions were not just out of goodwill but necessity. In the war’s early years, the porous 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with Syria meant Ankara could do little to stop the flow of refugees even if it wanted to. But in early 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a deal with the European Union to receive 6 billion euros ($7.1 billion) in financial support, in exchange for Turkey tightening its borders and keeping refugees in the country.
Today, though, the chances of Syrians migrating to Turkey look bleak, with the proportion of displaced persons in the war-torn country nearing 70 percent (12.3 million people, according to UN data). Turkey has built a 781-kilometer-long wall sealing off most of the border, and even family reunification cases are routinely denied entry. In the first months of 2018, more than 85,000 refugees were apprehended by Turkish forces and returned to Syria as they tried to cross the border, according to data from Turkish authorities. Some 400,000 were caught last year.
With the conflict showing no signs of abating, public opinion is growing increasingly intolerant of the Syrian refugees who have found themselves in Turkey.
At the end of January, a report by the International Crisis Group – an NGO that conducts research on violent conflicts – warned of “rising host community hostility toward the newcomers” and a “threefold increase in intercommunal violence.” It added that “many think Syrians receive preferential access to public services and assistance.”
Racism against Syrians is on the rise, according to the Hrant Dink Foundation, which has a unit dedicated to monitoring hate speech in the Turkish media. “Our monitoring work showed that since the beginning of 2014, Syrian refugees have been increasingly targeted in Turkey. And in 2017, Syrians were the second most targeted group by hate speech in print media [after Jews],” says the Armenian foundation’s project coordinator, Gamze Tosun. “Also, we know from our research that during elections, the nationalist discourse targeting and discriminating [against] certain groups increases, and these are reproduced and legitimized by media in Turkey,” Tosun adds.
After Erdogan’s surprise decision to call a snap election (ahead of the scheduled date of November 2019), some Syrians in Gaziantep fear politicians may use anti-Syrian rhetoric to win votes.
Catching up over a glass of chai in a local shisha café popular with Syrian youngsters are Youssouf, Firaz and Mohammed. (They asked that their surnames not be published to protect their safety.) All three are concerned that the opposition will exploit the Syrian question in an effort to gain votes at Erdogan’s expense. Syrian refugees are overwhelmingly supportive of Erdogan, and his conservative, Sunni, Justice and Development Party (AKP) is their natural political home. Some even see the Turkish president as their savior.
The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), “is already producing anti-Syrian propaganda on social media, saying that we have sent rents skyrocketing, that we steal jobs and are a security threat,” says Firaz, an engineer who hails from Aleppo (like most Syrians in Gaziantep).
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, quoted in the country’s largest newspaper, Hurriyet, said there are “some places, like hospitals in Turkey, where Turks are treated as second-class citizens because priority is given to Syrian refugees.” He added that “a Syrian is able to open a shop and be treated as a first-class citizen, but our citizens open a shop and pay taxes.”
“Everyone is realizing that we are here to stay,” says Youssouf, 29, also from Aleppo. “When I first came to Turkey a few years ago, I didn’t take Turkish classes. But now I’m studying really hard,” he adds.
In a bid to defuse social tensions, the government is also pushing Syrian children to study in Turkish rather than Arabic. Many Syrian children who grew up in Turkey know of their hometowns only from the nostalgic stories they hear from their parents and grandparents. Youssouf, who is old enough to remember, has pictures of the hospital where he used to work as a nurse. It is mostly destroyed, and his onetime office is now covered in bloodstains. “If politicians misuse the Syrian rhetoric, there will be fights on the street in Turkey,” he warns.
Hostility crossing party lines
Research financed by the German Marshall Fund and carried out by researchers at Istanbul Bilgi University suggests the risk of incitement against Syrians during the upcoming campaign is a real possibility. The report, titled “Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey” and published in February, shows that voters of parties across the spectrum have overwhelmingly negative views on Syrian refugees. All party divides disappear when supporters are asked about whether Syrians should return to their own country, the report concludes.
According to a poll reported by Reuters, Erdogan’s party and its allies are tipped to win 54 percent of the votes in the parliamentary election, defeating the opposition in the first round. Other polls are less favorable, but still see Erdogan at an advantage against the coalition of opposition parties.
Erdogan and his party are aware of voters’ concerns and have themselves recently called for the return of Syrian refugees to Syria. With the negative attitude toward Syrian refugees becoming a rare consensus point among Turks – and with people increasingly seeing the issue as a personal problem rather than a social catastrophe – for once public opinion has affected government rhetoric, rather than the other way around.
“We want our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their land, to their homes. We are not in the position to hide 3.5 million here forever,” Hurriyet quoted Erdogan as saying in February. His wife, Emine Erdogan, said the same month that Turkey hopes that at least 500,000 refugees will return to the northwestern Syrian district of Afrin following the Turkish military’s anti-Kurdish operation earlier this year. Many officials have made similar remarks in recent months.
According to the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, some 150,000 Syrians have returned home from Turkey in the last 18 months. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is busy interviewing returnees to make sure they go back voluntarily, as forcing them to leave violates international law.
Crucially, data seen by Haaretz shows that, in the first half of 2018, the number of people saying they returned because of “living conditions” in Turkey has doubled compared to the last period of 2017 – though the majority still quote family reunification as the main reason for going back to Syria.
Gaziantep Province is one of the areas in Turkey most affected by the influx of Syrian refugees, with over 500,000 Syrians having settled in the city of Gaziantep alone – almost as many as in the entire metropolis of Istanbul.
The head of the municipality’s health and social services office, Abdullah Aksoy, says he hopes 80 percent of Syrian refugees will return home in the long-term.
“After Operation Euphrates Shield, which liberated large swaths of Northern Syria from the Islamic State, Turkey took it upon itself to guarantee security and spearhead reconstruction in the liberated areas, enabling 70, 000 to return to Jarabulus,” he says.
As far as the elections go, Aksoy fears the main opposition parties may turn the Syrians into a political football, “as they have previously done in local and regional elections.”
Indeed, the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has long claimed that Erdogan wants to settle Syrian refugees in southeastern Turkey to upset the demographic balance in areas where Kurds are the majority. Erdogan announced last July he would grant Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees. And while this policy remains ad hoc, targeting individual Syrians, rumors in Gaziantep suggest an increasing number are getting it.
Building camps in Syria
The head of the German Marshall Fund in Turkey, Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, strikes a more optimistic note. He says that while Turkish voters are mostly hostile to Syrians, “they do not consider the migrants as a high priority ahead of the elections.
“I only fear Syrians could be turned into scapegoats if the economic downturn worsens and the people associate that with the migrants,” he tells Haaretz. He sees the calls for “return” as “mere rhetoric to rally support for the military operations in Syria,” while “the government is not able to promote repatriations actively – though in the future it could give incentives to send people back to areas in Syria controlled by Turkey.”
Nevertheless, UN and NGO workers in Ankara and across Turkey say they are concerned by reports that the authorities are increasingly deporting Syrians back to their homeland illegally. In the bordertown of Kilis, where the number of Syrians has long since overtaken the number of Turkish citizens, three Syrians were caught walking the street by police without residency permits on them. According to a UN employee in Ankara, who asked not to be named, “The police didn’t even give the father of the woman and her two kids the time to come from home to the police station with the documents: they just kicked them out to Syria – which of course is illegal under international law, since it is a war zone.”
A number of Syrians have also been deported to Sudan – a country that until recently did not require visas, says Yakzan Shishakly from the Maram Foundation for Relief and Development, which helps Syrian refugees.
“The problem is that even the people deported ‘back home’ by Turkey do not end up where they came from, but only to the areas under Turkish control. It’s a crime,” says Rami Jarrah, a prominent Syrian political activist who grew up in the United Kingdom.
“The Turks are already building refugee camps in Afrin,” says another UN employee in Gaziantep, who also asked not to be named. “It is obvious they aim to remove parts of the Syrian population from Turkey and resettle them there.” He believes that “the military operations in Syria were partly intended to do this and to resettle formerly Kurdish areas in Syria.
“The honeymoon between Syrians and Turks is over,” he concludes.