U.N. considering Erdogan’s glossy plan to resettle 1 million Syrian refugees

A detailed confidential plan Turkey has presented to the United Nations for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in north Syria has heightened concerns over forced involuntary returns and demographic engineering, Foreign Policy said on Wednesday. 

A six-page document Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shared with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at a Nov. 1 meeting in Istanbul details the largest public construction projects on foreign-occupied land in modern history, which will require more than $26 billion in foreign funding to resettle a million of the 3.7 million Syrians living in Turkey. 

The document resembles a real estate prospectus for a large residential development project, promising new residents access to schools, hospitals, mosques, and sporting arenas, with some getting an acre of agricultural land, Foreign Policy said.

Erdoğan planned to establish a 32 km deep safe zone along a 444 km stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border before launching a military offensive in October against Kurdish militia controlling the region. Turkey seized an area between northeastern Syrian towns of Ras al Ayn and Tel Abyad during its nine-day offensive, which ended after Ankara made separate deals with the United States and Russia. 

During his meeting with Erdoğan, Guterres highlighted the importance of “the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of refugees,” a U.N. spokesman told Foreign Policy. Guterres told Erdoğan that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees would establish a task force to study the proposal, prompting criticism from humanitarian advocates who said the plan should have been rejected outright.

Istanbul’s governor said on Wednesday that some 371,000 Syrians have returned to their homeland, more than 50,000 of them from Turkey’s largest city, as a result of the three military operations Turkey has launched since 2016. 

In late November, hundreds of citizens crossed from Turkey into north Syrian border towns, Foreign Policy reported. While Turkey says these were returning to the areas they abandoned during the war, according to locals they were originally from elsewhere and the majority are likely the families of Syrian rebels fighting alongside Turkish military and accused of war crimes, Foreign Policy said. 

The U.N. Security Council is also debating Turkey’s request to open a new humanitarian crossing point from Turkey through the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, in addition to the four existing U.N.-approved crossing points used to deliver humanitarian aid, Foreign Policy said.  

Two diplomats told Foreign Policy that the U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, recommended Turkey seek the U.N. involvement in supplying humanitarian aid through Tel Abyad. Meanwhile, Russia, which wants to shut down existing border crossings, is objecting to the Turkish proposal and has proposed a competing plan, Foreign Policy said.

“Experts on the region have expressed some concern that a new international crossing route through Tel Abyad could lend greater legitimacy to Turkey’s occupation of Syrian territory and potentially help provide financial and political support for its programs,” Foreign Policy said.