Safe-zone deal in hand, Turkey may begin mass repatriation of Syrian refugees

Already sky-high deportation fears among Syrian refugees in Turkey are likely to surge in the coming days if observers’ interpretations of the U.S.-Turkey agreement on a Syria safe zone are correct. 

Tensions between Syrian refugees and their Turkish host communities began to peak with an incident in Istanbul in late June, when locals attacked Syrians and smashed Syrian-run businesses in response to a false rumour that a Syrian refugee had assaulted a local girl. 

Ekrem İmamoğlu, the city’s new mayor, appeared to side with the aggressors in his comments days later, helping spur the Istanbul governor’s office to set an Aug. 20 deadline for Syrian refugees to return to the Turkish province in which they registered on arrival or face forcible return to those places. 

“The announcement has sent a chilling message to Syrians,” CNN reported on Wednesday. 

Stepped-up enforcement has led to the arrest of about 12,000 people and fear has spread through refugee communities in Istanbul as activists have reported as many as 6,000 deportations. Turkish officials deny the deportations. 

On Wednesday, İmamoğlu reaffirmed his commitment to create a refugee desk to better deal with the crisis. Yet that may no longer be necessary. 

Also on Wednesday, the United States and Turkey agreed to establish a joint operations centre to coordinate the creation of a safe zone across the border in Syria. 

Turkey has long sought to clear the area of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the backbone of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), by negotiating a peaceful transition, or by forcing the group out. 

According to a joint U.S.-Turkey statement, both sides agreed to rapidly implement measures to address Turkey’s security concerns. Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist group due to its ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting inside Turkey for more than three-decades.

The statement also said the safe zone would serve as a peace corridor to enable the safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland. 

“It seems U.S. accepted TR's proposal for transferring Syrian refuges (mostly Sunni Arabs) to the NE of Syria so as to seal border to YPG elements,” Turkish defence expert Metin Gurcan tweeted about the safe zone deal. “In coming days, we might see transfer of thousands of refuges from Turkey to NE of Syria under U.S. & TR control.”

Indeed, if Turkey’s main security concern is the YPG, and the United States and Turkey agreed to swiftly address that concern, it would seem likely that they may soon begin working together to send refugees back to Syria to force the YPG out of the border area. 

Ankara could in the coming weeks oversee a mass forced repatriation, under U.S. observation, meant to alter the demographics of a swathe of Syria, repopulating Kurdish majority cities and towns with Sunni Arabs more favourably disposed toward Turkey. 

The majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey surely dream of returning home one day. But one wonders how many dream of returning to a country still wracked by violence and being placed in a safe zone monitored by Turkish soldiers, where many will likely live in camps and be unable to work and lead normal lives.

However troubling, it would be a policy that would satisfy the majority of Turkish citizens. Poll after poll has shown growing resentment with the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey as anti-Syrian hashtags have proliferated on Twitter, perhaps unsurprising considering the country’s troubled economy. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, long a champion of Turkey’s refugees, said last month that government spending on Syrian refugees was approaching $40 billion. “Turks are struggling with the soaring cost of living and high unemployment, and Syrians have become an easy scapegoat for their economic woes,” CNN said. 

The safe zone would provide Syrian refugees in Turkey an area within Syria free of government control, said the New York Times. “Erdoğan is under growing pressure at home, amid an economic downturn and the rise of opposition political parties, to show that some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey will start to return home,” the Times reported on Wednesday. 

As many as 900,000 Syrians live in Istanbul, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Most have permits that allow them to stay, but now those permits may not even save them from deportation. 

Thousands of Syrian refugees in the city had already been staying indoors to avoid police, altering their movements and their commutes. A 26-year-old Syrian architect in Istanbul told Public Radio International that he had stopped taking public transport to his job, instead walking 90 minutes via safer backstreets. Then his boss told him to stop coming in to work. 

Still, he said he is afraid every time he leaves his apartment. “Even this morning, when I went to get some bread,” he told PRI. “It’s terrifying. It’s always in your mind.” 

Mouath Youssef, an information technology worker and Syrian activist, said he had received hundreds of calls from terrified refugees, thinking about relocating, looking for healthcare and wondering if they would be able to stay and make a living.  

“Every day, I receive more than 100 stories,” he told PRI. “I’m trying to contact the Turkish government and to find a solution.”

The Turkish government appears to have a solution in mind, but it is one that is unlikely to ease the fears of Syrian refugees.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.