Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week announced a dramatic expansion of his country’s plan to entice refugees from the Syrian civil war to return to their homelands by building homes for them in Syria near the Turkish border.
Speaking via video link at the inauguration of new cinderblock houses in northern Syria for returning refugees who were living in Turkey, Erdogan said that in addition to the tens of thousands already built, Turkey would build enough new buildings to house 1 million more. refugees.
But it is not certain that many Syrians will accept this offer.
The program, he said, was an extension of Turkey’s initial reception of millions of Syrians fleeing the war. Turkey hosts by far more Syrian refugees than any other country.
“We didn’t just open our doors to save the lives and honor of the oppressed,” Erdogan said. “But we have done and are doing everything we can to get them back home.”
Erdogan’s announcement on Tuesday came amid a severe economic crisis that has hit the wallets of many Turks and fueled widespread anger at the large number of displaced people from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere now living in Turkey.
As anger grew, Turkish social media lit up with furious posts about foreigners waving their flags in Turkish cities, having fun while Turks struggle to make ends meet and changing the cultural fabric of Turkish communities. .
“At the beginning, refugees from Syria were seen as temporary, as guests, and Turkish citizens were in solidarity,” said Murat Erdogan – unrelated to the president -, a member of the Center for Applied Studies on Turkey of the German Institute for International Studies. and security studies, and director of a migration research center at Ankara University. “But I can say that Turkish citizens do not want to share their future with Syrians. They are very clearly embarrassed and really want them to leave.
In recent years, calls to send Syrian refugees home have multiplied and been echoed by leaders from a growing part of the political spectrum.
Since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, more than 5.7 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad, according to the United Nations, and around 3.7 million have ended up in Turkey, whose long border with Syria for many years was easy to cross.
Turkey’s economy was strong when the fighting was at its height, the government in Ankara was sensitive to the plight of refugees, and the European Union gave Turkey billions of dollars to help shelter migrants, in return that President Erdogan has stemmed their influx into the bloc.
But as the war stalled and Turkey’s economy slumped, the government tightened its southern border and launched a policy to encourage Syrians to return home.
Turkey’s own interventions in the war have made it the de facto supervisor of a long swath of territory inside Syria and along the Turkish border, and in recent years Erdogan’s government has encouraged construction projects aimed at providing housing for Syrian refugees in their own country. .
Erdogan’s announcement on Tuesday provided an update on those efforts and expanded their reach. More than 57,000 of the 77,000 planned homes in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province have been completed and are now home to 50,000 families, he said.
In the future, this number will increase to 100,000 houses, and a new project will be launched, he said, to build enough houses for a million more Syrian refugees to move to other parts of the country. northern Syria where Turkey dominates.
In addition to houses, the project will provide schools, hospitals and “all the needs of daily life and self-sufficient economic infrastructure, from agriculture to industry”, Erdogan said.
It is not known how many refugees have returned to Syria. Turkey says 500,000 have returned since 2016. A spokesperson for the UN refugee agency said it had recorded around 130,000 voluntary returns during the same period, but all returns n had not been recorded.
Fighting in Syria has ceased since 2019, but the total number of Syrian refugees abroad has not changed much, according to UN figures.
While large parts of Syria remain beyond President Bashar Assad’s control, he has effectively brushed aside all threats to his rule and started to restore diplomatic relations with some of his Arab neighbors.
But years of violence and heavy sanctions against Assad’s government have destroyed the economy, leaving few refugees at home. Many fear arrest by Assad’s security services or simply lack the money to rebuild their lives inside the country, refugee experts say.
“Finding 1 million Syrians to return voluntarily does not seem very realistic at all,” said Murat Erdogan, the refugee expert. “They don’t see a future in Syria, the war there has become chronic, they don’t trust Assad, Turkey is a better place, they settled here.”
Political opponents of the Turkish president have blasted his new plan as not strong enough.
“Erdogan, drop these stories. Fugitives are still pouring in from the border,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, wrote on Twitter. “We’ve had enough of your lies.”
Over time, the growing anger of the Turks towards the refugees could increase the pressure on them to leave.
On Tuesday, a nine-minute video was posted on YouTube titled ‘The Silent Occupation’ which depicts a dystopian future where Istanbul is run down and plagued by crime, Turks are driven from their neighborhoods by Arab real estate agents and a Turkish surgeon. works as a janitor in a hospital where the Turkish language is prohibited.
An actor playing the role of a news anchor explains that the changes began with the war in Syria and uncontrolled immigration.
The video was commissioned by Umit Ozdag, a far-right MP known for his strident anti-refugee rhetoric.
As of Wednesday night, the video had been viewed more than 2.6 million times.