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Turkey: 370,000 Syrian refugees volunteered to return to Syria

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay in Cernobbia, Italy on 6 September 2019 [Muhammet Fatih Oğraş/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay in Cernobbia, Italy on 6 September 2019 [Muhammet Fatih Oğraş/Anadolu Agency]

Turkey's Vice President has today announced that around 370,000 Syrian refugees have been returned to Syria from Turkey, adding that they made the move voluntarily.

Fuat Oktay made the announcement at the International Forum on Local Solutions to Migration and Displacement in the Turkish province of Gaziantep.

However, reports that the refugees returned "voluntarily" to their war-torn country have previously been disputed by Amnesty International which, in a report last month, said, "Turkish authorities have taken handcuffed refugees in buses back to Syria."

It reported that refugees were "beaten" into signing "voluntary return" documents, while others were told that they were signing to receive blankets from detention centres.

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Oktay's statement contradicts such moves, though. "We are putting forward all services, especially in areas of security, health, education and shelter, roads, water and electricity, for the use of the Syrians without any discrimination."

He reiterated that Turkey is determined to complete the process of forming the "peace corridor", or safe zone, in north-east Syria, which is planned to hold at least 2 million refugees, regardless of foreign support or the lack of it.

The vie president made reference to the Turkish military incursions within northern Syria over the past few years, particularly the recent Operation Peace Spring which was conducted for the purpose of creating the safe zone.

He also highlighted Turkey's claim that they resulted in the normalisation of life in those area freed from the control of Kurdish militias such as the People's Protection Units (YPG).

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Operation Peace Spring was halted after a deal was struck in October between Turkey and Russia, with agreement on the fate of the zone and the methods with which it would be established.

Its terms, which some have called a success for Turkey while others see them as insufficient, enabled Russian military police and Syrian regime border guards to enter parts of the planned safe zone to "facilitate the removal of YPG elements and weapons to the depth of 30 km" into Syria.

Following that process, joint Turkish-Russian patrols were to be conducted – the eleventh was completed yesterday – in the east and west of the safe zone up to a depth of 10 km, excluding the city of Qamishli, while elements of the YPG were to be removed from the strategic towns of Manbij and Tal Rifat.

The remaining terms were largely vague and consisted of general statements such as a "joint monitoring and verification mechanism" being established to oversee and implement the deal while working together to find a long-lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict.

Oktay's announcement comes after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed the return of 365,000 refugees earlier this month, signalling progress in the planned safe zone project.

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