As highly charged political debate in Türkiye intensifies ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next year, the situation for refugees and asylum seekers in the country is becoming increasingly precarious.
Hundreds of Syrian refugees – including many with protected status – were coerced into signing ‘voluntary’ return papers and deported to northern Syria between February and August this year, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Returning refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they risk having their rights violated or face threats to their lives is against international law.
Türkiye was once lauded for the welcome it extended to people fleeing Syria’s civil war. It hosts the largest population of refugees and asylum seekers in the world, including around 3.7 million Syrians and several hundred thousand documented and undocumented Afghans.
It also serves as a major transit country for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants attempting to reach the European Union, sharing a border with Iran and Syria as well as two EU member states – Greece and Bulgaria. The EU has sent billions of euros in funding to Türkiye for humanitarian support for refugees, and to bolster efforts to control migration.
But Türkiye frequently uses migration to put political pressure on Greece and the EU, and attitudes towards refugees and asylum inside the country have soured in recent years. With campaigning for June 2023 elections already in full swing, parties across the political spectrum are scapegoating refugees and asylum seekers for Türkiye’s significant economic challenges and promising to remove them from the country.
The heated political rhetoric has contributed to rising tensions and hostilities, and there has been an uptick in hate crimes and violence directed towards refugees and asylum seekers – resulting in several deaths.
“We are scared. Nowadays, [Syrians] always stay in their houses and never go out. We just go to work and come back,” Sarie, a young Syrian man who came to Türkiye from northwest Syria in 2019 – and who asked for his family name to be withheld to protect his identity – told The New Humanitarian. “We feel the police are always behind us, and that they will deport us if they catch us.”
“We are all really worried about what’s going to happen to us after the next elections,” added Feradun, a 23-year-old Afghan who assisted NATO forces before fleeing to Türkiye after the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.
With refugees and asylum seekers in Türkiye bracing for turbulent times ahead, here’s a look at some key questions:
What are Turkish politicians saying?
In recent months, the governing AKP party of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the country’s main opposition parties have all promised to kick Syrian refugees out of Türkiye if they win the upcoming elections. Because of their comparatively smaller number, Afghans have factored less into the campaign rhetoric.
Erdogan has doubled down on a commitment made earlier this year to facilitate the ‘voluntary’ return of one million refugees to northern Syria. He also touts the claim that more than 500,000 Syrians have already been returned to the region since 2016 – although the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, puts that number at about 120,000.
Human rights groups say conditions in northwest Syria – one of the few areas of the country still controlled by opposition groups – aren’t safe for refugees to return to and, despite what the Turkish government claims, they’ve found that most people who’ve gone back didn’t do so voluntarily. Forcibly returning people to northwest Syria violates international law, according to rights groups.
Meanwhile, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its ultranationalist ally the IYI Party, or Good Party, have taken an even tougher stance. The former has promised to return all 3.7 million Syrians living in Türkiye within two years by inking a deal with Damascus. (Turkey currently does not have diplomatic relations with Syria). The latter has compared Syrians to “garbage” and promised to move them to “concentration camps” before expelling them within three years.
The most venomous rhetoric, however, is coming from Ümit Özdağ, the leader of Türkiye’s far-right Victory Party, which was founded in August 2021. While Özdağ remains on the fringe of Turkish politics, his anti-migration rhetoric is shaping mainstream opinions, according to Kemal Kirişci, an expert on migration in Türkiye and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute think tank in Washington DC.
Last May, Özdağ commissioned a dystopian film about a Syrian political party that wins the 2043 elections in Türkiye and then changes the national language to Arabic. The producer of the film, Hande Karacasu, has nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter and is part of an online army of trolls that disseminates harmful and false rhetoric about refugees.
“Özdağ has very important figures and personalities associated with his party,” said Kirişci. “He has made refugees the only issue for his party and that has helped him eat into the opposition’s performance in the polls. At the same time, it has diverted attention away from problems that the governing political parties have been unable to solve.”
Will Turkish political parties follow through on their threats?
Non-European refugees and asylum seekers in Türkiye have precarious legal status, leaving their safety and stability in the country at the mercy of shifting political currents, according to the analysts The New Humanitarian spoke to.
Türkiye retains a geographic limitation to the 1951 UN refugee convention, which means that only refugees from Europe are entitled to full refugee protection. Non-Europeans who meet the refugee definition in the UN convention are entitled to other forms of protection – temporary protection for Syrians and international protection for other nationalities, such as Afghans.
Both these statuses afford fewer rights than refugee protection and are easier to take away. Also, Turkish authorities have been blocking many new arrivals from applying for temporary and international protection in recent years, leaving them undocumented, with limited access to services, and vulnerable to deportation.
“It is far from clear how the government will return so many refugees without risking a violation of international law.”
“There is a huge gap between what’s written in [Turkish asylum law] and what takes place in practice,” Bill Frelick, director of HRW’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Division, told The New Humanitarian. Speaking specifically about Afghan asylum seekers, he added: “If you are a single Afghan man trying to lodge an asylum claim, then God help you”.
When it comes to Syrians, Türkiye has potentially deported thousands of people back to northern Syria in recent years – particularly those who haven’t been able to register for protection. But analysts that The New Humanitarian spoke to were sceptical about how feasible mass returns would be.
“It is far from clear how the government will return so many refugees without risking a violation of international law,” Sinem Adar, an expert at the Centre for Applied Turkish Studies at the Berlin-based Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told The New Humanitarian.
“Let’s be honest: you cannot send one million Syrians to… northern Syria. Those locations are already saturated with people, and there is no infrastructure to host one million more people,” said Omar Kadkoy, an expert on migration at the Economic Policy Research Foundation (TEPAV), a think tank based in Türkiye.
“The government and opposition are just resorting to populism in order to win voters in the next election,” Kadkoy added.
What impact is the campaign rhetoric having?
Even if mass returns are infeasible, the xenophobic rhetoric and anti-refugee environment has created a pervasive sense of fear and uncertainty for people seeking protection in Türkiye, according to refugees and experts. It has also led to violence.
In January of this year, a 19-year-old Syrian was stabbed to death by a group of Turkish men while he was sleeping in his apartment in Istanbul. In June, two more Syrians were murdered in separate incidences in the city. And last month, a 17-year-old Syrian boy was killed by a group of men after having a disagreement with a colleague in the southern Turkish province of Hatay.
Such attacks have become commonplace, according to experts, prompting many Syrians to stop speaking Arabic in public as a safety precaution.
Meanwhile, the government has barred new asylum seekers from settling in 16 provinces and pledged to relocate Syrians and other refugees from neighbourhoods where they collectively make up more than 20% of the population.
Türkiye has also tightened security along its border with Iran since the Taliban returned to power in Kabul last year to prevent Afghans from entering. Those who attempt to cross are often pushed back, with Turkish security forces routinely opening fire on people, according to a recent Amnesty International report. In July, a four-year-old boy was killed when security forces fired on a vehicle carrying Afghans near the border with Iran.
Meanwhile, Afghans who make it inside Turkey are frequently deported: Türkiye’s interior ministry says it deported around 43,000 people to Afghanistan between January and the end of August this year.
The mounting hostility has some refugees and asylum seekers thinking about where they can go next. But migration routes to the EU are dangerous, with Greece systematically pushing asylum seekers and migrants back from its land and sea borders, according to rights groups and journalists.
At the same time, returning home is not an option: Afghanistan is in the midst of overlapping humanitarian and economic crises, and many who escaped the Taliban fear persecution should they return; And, according to a survey taken by UNHCR in 2020, about 78% of Syrians in Türkiye said they would not voluntarily return under any circumstances.
“I would never return to northern Syria because it’s not stable. It’s not stable militarily, politically, or economically. It will never be stable,” said Sarie. “For Syrians, there is no other place where we can live except for Türkiye. If we can't stay here, the only other place we can try to go to is Europe.”
Edited by Eric Reidy.