Turkey steps up efforts to send Syrian refugees home
ESENYURT - Sitting on the floor of a squalid apartment in the Istanbul suburb of Esenyurt, 28-year-old Ahmed counted the days. Ahmed, who fled Damascus in 2013, joined a growing group of Syrian refugees who were accepting an offer by the Turkish government to return to their war-torn country.
Ahmed said he hoped to return to Damascus, where his mother lives. “I can’t wait,” he said. “I haven’t seen my mother for five-and-a-half years.”
A local official said paper work to clear the way for the 1,200km bus trip to the border could be finalised within days.
Authorities in Esenyurt, a working-class district on the western fringes of Istanbul with a population of 850,000 Turks and at least 100,000 Syrian refugees, have organised 15 bus convoys to Syria since March. Officials said they plan to have bused 6,000 Syrians to Turkey-occupied parts of Syria by the end of the year, with another 30,000 to follow in 2019.
The initiative is a response to calls by Turks for Syrians to go home because of a worsening economic situation that is sharpening competition between Turks and 3.5 million refugees from the southern neighbour in job and housing markets. In some cities, schools and hospitals struggle to cope with the extra demand.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, under attack by opposition parties accusing him of turning Turkey into a “soup kitchen” for Syrians, promised voters that the Syrians would leave.
Earlier this year, a poll said 86.2% of Turkish voters asked said they wanted the Syrians to go home. With local elections in Turkey scheduled for March, politicians are keen to demonstrate to voters that they are working to decrease the number of Syrians in their area.
The government in Ankara said about 260,000 Syrians have returned to the northern Syrian town of Jarabulus, where Turkish troops took control following a cross-border intervention in 2016. Other Syrians are going to the Afrin region, occupied by the Turkish Army last spring. Bus convoys from Esenyurt were organised in coordination with Turkish military and civilian authorities in northern Syria.
Officials in Esenyurt insisted the repatriation was strictly voluntary. Esenyurt Mayor Ali Murat Alatepe, a member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said it was difficult to convince the passengers on the first bus in March to make the trip but, since then, demand among Syrians was rising because the other Syrians had settled successfully.
“Not a single returnee has had as much as a nosebleed there,” Alatepe said as one of the convoys left on the 16-hour journey to the Syrian border earlier this month.
A local administration official said Syrians from other parts of Istanbul were asking for seats on one of the Esenyurt buses. Turkish voters appreciated the effort, the official added, saying. “We have had fewer complaints about the Syrians since the convoys started.”
Ahmed, a father of one with another child on the way, said he wanted to go home because he could not make ends meet as a home appliance repairman in Turkey. “We have had days when we had no food for our baby and had to use plastic bags as diapers,” he said. He decided to go to Damascus with his wife and his 2-year-old son after friends in Syria told him it was safe to return.
“I miss my country. I miss my mother’s cooking,” he said, adding his plan was to open his own business. The bus from Esenyurt was to take him and his family to Afrin, where they would have to make their own way to Damascus.
Ahmed, whose last name is being withheld to protect his identity, said he fled to Turkey in 2013 because he feared he would be forced into active army duty after completing his military service in the Syrian Army. In October, the Syrian government issued an amnesty for deserters and for men who avoided conscription.
Asked if they felt safe given the announcements from Damascus, Ahmed’s wife, Hana, said she did not trust the government. Ahmed sounded unsure. “I am thinking more about the welfare of my wife and children,” he said.
The Esenyurt returnee project is the only one of its kind in Istanbul but some border regions run similar programmes. In Kilis, a provincial capital on the border with Syria north-east of Afrin, officials told the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency in September that about 80,000 Syrians there had been repatriated under a “voluntary return programme.” In Hatay, a Turkish border province to the west of Afrin, an average of 150 Syrians were applying for the return journey every day, Anadolu reported.
But Murat Erdogan, a migration expert at the Turkish-German University in Istanbul, said his research suggested that most refugees were likely to stay in Turkey. In a recent poll among Syrians in Sanliurfa, a city close to the Syrian border, refugees were asked if they would be willing to return to a Turkish-secured “safe zone” in Syria and “80% said no,” Erdogan said.
A report by an advisory body to the Turkish president’s office that was leaked to an opposition newspaper painted a similar picture.
Turkey, a country of 80 million people, will have a Syrian minority of up to 5 million within ten years, the report predicted, the Cumhuriyet daily stated. Almost half of the Syrians in Turkey are younger than 18 years old and unlikely to return to their country, the report said. Approximately 280,000 Syrian children have been born in Turkey since 2011.