Erdoğan looking to repatriate as many Syrians as possible amid waning support - analysis

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is looking to repatriate as many refugees as possible back to Syria as part of an effort to curb his eroding public support, wrote analysts Soner Çağaptay and Deniz Yüksel in an article they penned for the Washington Institute.

Turkish authorities have rounded up and deported hundreds of Syrians in recent weeks as part of a crackdown on illegal migrants in the country. Other measures include an Aug. 20 deadline by the Istanbul governor’s office for Syrians registered in other provinces to return there or face forced relocation. Nearly 559,000 Syrians live in Istanbul, one-sixth of almost 3.6 million Syrians living in Turkey.

 The Istanbul governor’s decision coincides with increasing public resentment toward these Syrians, who are recognised not as refugees but given “ temporary protection status,” the article said. 

A July survey by Turkish polling company PIAR revealed that Syrians are ranked as the country’s second most important problem, following its ailing economy. Another poll this year revealed that 68 percent of Turks are discontent with the Syrian presence, compared to 58 percent in 2016.

"Dissatisfaction with the decision to welcome Syrian refugees since 2011 is a rare exception to that rule, garnering majority criticism across party lines,’’ Çağaptay and Yüksel wrote, pointing to the fact that refugees from the neighbouring war-torn country have led to Turkey’s significant demographic shift since its “population exchange” with Greece in the 1920s. 

Despite the fact that Syrians are provided with public services like healthcare and education, their temporary status does not allow them to work legally in Turkey, the article said, leading to many of the 2.1 million working-age refugees working informally, usually for scant pay far below Turkey’s minimum wage. 

Meanwhile, sharp increases in consumer prices dramatically increased the cost of living for the average Turkish citizens, who are also battling inflation that hit a record 25 percent last year.

"For at least some citizens whose earnings have been hit hard, the meager 120 lira ($20) per month in aid given to registered Syrian families looks increasingly like unfair treatment, especially for those who wrongly believe that this and other EU-financed programs are funded by Turkish taxpayers,’’ Çağaptay and Yüksel wrote. 

Some Turks are also blaming the country’s social troubles on Syrians.

The group is accused establishing ghettos in some neighbourhoods of Istanbul and a proclivity to crime, claims that are given credence by Turkish opinion leaders.

The article pointed to a Twitter post by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) lawmaker Sinan Oğan who in July said that Syrian and Afghan refugees rape women and boys, and that “chopping heads” is a part of Syrian culture.

However, official statistics indicate otherwise. Syrians were involved in only 853 of 32,553 criminal incidents in Istanbul last year, which equals 153 incidents per 100,000 Syrians. This figure is significantly less than the 210 incidents that occurred per 100,000 Turks, the analysts said.

The Turkish government, in responding to public sentiment on the group, has already transferred hundreds of thousands of refugees to Turkish-controlled enclaves in northwest Syria. 

The Turkish president is even willing to strike a bargain with the Syrian regime to allow refugees to return to their homes, the article said.

Ankara will, at the very least, demand that Turkey retain control over its enclaves in north Syria in order to facilitate the return of more refugees, it concluded.

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