Istanbul, Türkiye – As the Turks prepare to go to the polls in a presidential runoff, millions of Syrian refugees in the country watch anxiously, unsure how the outcome could shape their future.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu will face each other in the second round of voting on Sunday after neither obtained a majority in the first on May 14. Erdogan got 49.5 percent and Kilicdaroglu 44.9 percent.
Immigration has been a central issue in elections. The campaign has seen several opposition politicians pledging to expel refugees and migrants, while the government has highlighted plans to go ahead with what it calls “voluntary” repatriations of Syrians.
According to the United Nations, Turkey has hosted 3.7 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. In the year before the election, pressure on refugees and migrants, particularly Syrians, increased during an economic crisis with runaway inflation, a plummeting lira and a deepening cost-of-living crisis.
The situation has left many Syrians in Turkey deeply concerned about their future in the country.
“I don’t know what will happen after the elections,” said Habib, 23, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
“They [politicians] they say they want to send all Syrians back. We all suffer from anxiety in this period,” said the man who was displaced eight years ago by the Syrian war and currently resides in Istanbul.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, the vast majority of refugees in Turkey (3.6 million) are Syrians living under “temporary protected status.” Some 200,000 Syrians have received Turkish citizenship since the Syrian war broke out in 2011, according to government figures.
While Turkey initially welcomed refugees, provided shelter and access to education with billions of euros in funding from the European Union, anti-refugee sentiment has grown in recent years, with refugees becoming scapegoats for Turkey’s economic woes, which have occasionally led to violence.
Muhammad Siddik Yasar, who heads the Tarlabaşı Solidarity Association, a refugee solidarity group in Istanbul, said anti-refugee sentiment had sharpened in the run-up to the election.
“Being a refugee means you are here today, but you have no guarantee for tomorrow,” he told Al Jazeera.
“People ask us what to do. They fear that racism will increase after the elections. I have been working with refugees for many years and have never seen anything like this year,” she said.
Rising anti-refugee sentiment manifested itself at the polls in the first round of the election when the nationalists performed strongly, particularly far-right nationalist presidential candidate Sinan Ogan, who won an unexpected 5.2 percent of the vote.
Ogan ran as a candidate for the ATA (Ancestral) Alliance, led by the ultranationalist and anti-immigrant Victory Party. Since then he has backed Erdogan.
“Ogan is an interesting and important phenomenon in Turkish politics,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Research Program at the Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.
“He joined a single issue, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant platform. With no access to the media, no rallies and basically no money, he got 5 percent,” Cagaptay said.
Since the first round, Kilicdaroglu, who is backed by a broad coalition of opposition parties, has doubled down on his position on deportations.
“Erdogan, you did not protect the borders and the honor of our country,” he said last week. “As soon as I come to power, I will send all the refugees home.”
Faced with opposition attacks on immigration, the government has gone ahead with talks with Damascus in what appears to indicate a rapprochement.
This month, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria and Iran met in Moscow as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to broker a rapprochement between the Turkish and Syrian governments after years of antagonism over the war in Syria and multiple Turkish military operations. in northern Syria.
For his part, al-Assad has demanded that Turkey withdraw from territories under his control in northwestern Syria.
The talks came as various regional leaders moved to normalize ties with al-Assad. In mid-May, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League after its membership had been suspended for more than a decade.
Kilicdaroglu has said he intends to restore ties with al-Assad, while Erdogan has previously said he may meet al-Assad for talks.
In addition to moves towards possible rapprochement, the Erdogan government has gone ahead with its plan for refugees to “voluntarily resettle” in areas of Syria under Turkish security control.
“We have built more than 100,000 houses for [refugees] in northern Syria,” Erdogan said this month at a gathering of youth in his Justice and Development Party (AK Party). “Little by little, Syrian refugees began to settle in these residences.”
“There is no time limit on this issue,” Erdogan added. “We do our best to support and help them in this regard.”
According to the Turkish Interior Ministry, almost 58,000 Syrians returned to their country of origin from November 2021 to October last year.
In a 2022 report, Human Rights Watch documented hundreds of deportations between February and July of last year, which the government said were voluntary departures.
Many Syrians are wary of the prospect of returning to their home country as the war continues there. Habib said that he fears being drafted into the army if he returns to Syria.
“If they transfer me to Bashar [al-Assad]I would be in a very critical condition and my family would have no one to support them,” he said.
Salim Cevik, a researcher at the Center for Applied Turkish Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said “there was no quick and easy solution to Turkey’s migration problem.”
“There is no possible repatriation policy in the short term,” he said. “The most realistic policy would probably find ways to integrate them into Turkish society. But this is something that no politician can say in public.”
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