According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 3,535,898 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey as of December 31, 2022. While they have integrated relatively well, there is now “refugee fatigue” in the country. Most political parties—in the governing coalition and opposition alike—want to send refugees back to Syria, where there is no internationally-approved agreement toward ending the civil war. Nor has there been normalization between Syria and Turkey. This represents a toxic political cocktail for the refugees.
Turkey’s policy in favor of Syrian refugees has won international praise since 2015, but is now undergoing a sudden reversal. This is due to the country’s economic crisis, the upcoming elections, and the convoluted Russian-Turkish relationship.
After attempting for ten years to trigger regime change in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently moderated his tone with the Syrian president, stating “there is no eternal resentment in politics,” and even hinting at a meeting with Bashar al-Assad. The latter responded with utmost prudence, recalling Syria’s request that Turkey withdraw its troops from the four Syrian regions in which they are operating. There are real reasons behind the change in Turkey’s approach.
Despite a generally successful integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey, with massive help from the European Union—€9.5 billion committed since 2016 ($10.2 billion at today’s rate)—the refugees have become a liability for those in power. They are typically accused by the population of “stealing jobs from Turks,” especially in large urban centers. In addition, politicians from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) tend to blame their disastrous performance in the 2019 municipal elections on refugees.
Second, parties opposing the ruling coalition between AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party have been vocal about renewing ties with Assad and sending back refugees. The largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has even made a campaign promise to send back “our Syrian brothers with drums and trumpets within two years.” Whereas Erdoğan wowed in spring 2022 not to send the refugees back, he has now aligned with the opposition’s popular stance.
Third, only weeks ago, Russia prevented Turkey from undertaking a fifth military operation in northeastern Syria, while simultaneously compelling Ankara to participate in a meeting in Moscow between Syrian and Turkish defense and intelligence chiefs, hosted by their Russian counterparts. A forthcoming meeting between the foreign ministers of the three countries may even result in some interim progress. But in these meetings each participant will follow different priorities. For Ankara, the objective is to obtain security guarantees from Damascus and Moscow while implementing a return policy for refugees. Assad’s declared goals are to obtain the complete withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria and not give Erdoğan an electoral boost. As for Moscow, it seeks to reaffirm its continued leadership in Syria and its capacity to influence Turkey in a decisive manner.
These complex domestic and external dynamics are influenced by the electoral necessities of Turkey’s leadership, and by the current international context. However, the international community should instead focus on the humanitarian side of the issue and worry about the fate of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. These Syrians may well become victims of a political negotiation between three autocracies, each of which is entangled in dire situations at home and abroad.
The risks incurred by Syrian refugees returning to Syria are multiple when compared to the modicum of legal and social protection they are currently enjoying in Turkey.
First comes the issue of “voluntary” versus “forced” return. In a recent study, Human Rights Watch documented abuses by the Turkish authorities involving the way in which return documents were signed by Syrian would-be returnees. This occurred despite Turkey being “a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, and inhuman and degrading treatment,” as well as being bound by the principle of “non-refoulement.”
There is also uncertainty about the way the Syrian authorities will treat refugees once they return with regard to a series of rights. These include obtaining identity documents and securing voting rights, immunity from prosecution, and basic services and humanitarian assistance, as well as accessing the labor market.
A third question is whether returnees will be able to regain assets that they left behind in Syria, such as houses, land, or businesses, which may have been destroyed, damaged, confiscated, or taken over. Beyond documenting property rights, a massive task will involve rehabilitating buildings. UN Habitat has assessed that 300,000 dwellings have been destroyed or severely damaged, and up to 1 million moderately damaged. A subsidiary issue is the impossibility of using European Union financial support for Turkey to prepare for an eventual refugee return—covering new housing and social infrastructure, for example, as well as cash payments—due to the absence of a legal framework for the Turkish presence there.
Currently, the only existing international mechanism involves the cross-border humanitarian assistance provided by Turkey to displaced persons inside Syria. Setting up an effective legal framework for potential returnees will prove to be a daunting task in both Turkey, the country of origin, and Syria, the destination country. Despite the political motivation in Turkey to expedite returns, the need for a proper procedure is crucial to guarantee the voluntary nature of each returnee’s decision and properly register his or her statement of ownership of property. In Syria, an orderly process allowing returnees to retrieve their assets and obtain guarantees about their rights must be set up. Ethnic engineering, for example replacing Syrian Kurds in northern Syria by others ethnicities, must be avoided. In addition, the entire process must be internationally supervised. Complicating matters is that there is no genuine political process in Syria to end the civil war.
Such tasks are immensely complex and can only be impartially organized through the competent UN agencies, starting with the UNHCR. A disorderly and hasty return of refugees would mean that political contingencies in Ankara, Damascus, and Moscow would prevail over basic human dignity requirements and international law. That is why the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations must act now.