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Is Turkiye democratic enough not to apply forced repatriation and politicising refugees?

May 23, 2023 at 2:51 pm

Syrians return to their homes in Syria from Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay, Turkey on July 11, 2021 [Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency]

Syrian refugees in Turkiye have emerged as a political flashpoint in the country’s ongoing election journey, with leading opposition candidates competing to offer the most aggressive proposal to deport the refugees to Syria. Although the plans vary in substance, they share a disregard for international law – and Turkiye’s existing refugee agreements with the European Union – that threatens to further strain Ankara’s relationships with both Brussels and Washington.

At the time of the signing of the Convention in 1951, Turkiye declared that it accepted the refugee definition to mean the first option, but forcible repatriation of refugees to countries where they have a credible fear of harm is a violation of Turkiye’s obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Relatedly, in March 2016, the EU-Turkiye Refugee Deal was signed. Turkiye and the EU decided that Turkiye receives 6 billion Euros ($6.6 billion) to improve the humanitarian situation faced by refugees and stop refugees from travelling onward to the EU, while Turkish nationals are granted visa-free travel to Europe.

READ: Erdogan condemns opposition’s ‘inhuman, un-Islamic’ aim to forcefully expel Syrian refugees

Polling by UNHCR in 2021, 82 per cent of Turks want Syrians to be deported, up from 49 per cent in 2017, and Syrian refugees in the country now report widespread and intensifying discrimination.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric and reflexes show similarities everywhere. We see and hear generalising, exclusionary, condescending and discriminatory approaches such as ‘They are taking our jobs’, ‘They are attacking our girls’ and ‘It is not possible for them to integrate anyway’.

As sociological facts, that is, the justifications for anti-immigrants rhetoric appear, as always, to emphasise the differences – to be different and to humiliate, despise and belittle them by saying that the differences stem from the immigrants. This approach forms the basis of racism and xenophobia. While racism in Europe is mostly cultural racism, we can define the structure in Turkiye as economic racism; in other words, welfare racism. We see that the economic situation of Turkish citizens is getting worse in the shrinking job market. This can lead to harsher reactions against immigrants.

To criticise the government policies is legitimate as the immigrants who come to Turkiye mostly work illegally and have a great impact on the domestic labour market by working very cheaply. This increases competition. Another issue is that the income distribution and economic situation in Turkiye is much worse compared to Germany, so the reaction of the people is much more intense. People express that they have concluded that the support given to immigrants lately is not given to them, Turkiye’s own citizens. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration has forcibly deported hundreds of Syrian refugees since late 2022, while his primary challenger, Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, has vowed to send all Syrian refugees back to their country of origin in under two years, regardless of circumstances in Syria. Despite the temptation to use Syrians as a scapegoat for economic hardships and politicising Syrian refugee issue in Turkiye’s election, the government would be better served to continue its commitment to the protection of Syrian refugees and develop a broader strategy for integration.

READ: Cavusoglu reveals roadmap for return of Syrian refugees

Moving forward, it is crucial for Turkish interests that whoever comes away from these elections victorious ceases such divisive behaviour and, instead, sets about developing and implementing a comprehensive strategy for Syrian refugee integration because they now have Turkish passports. Otherwise, like happened in the UK’s Windrush generation, if this problem is not sorted, Turkiye will still want to send them back 60 years from now. Refugee policies in Turkiye can do so and still address Turkish public grievances, by signposting how integration will help society as a whole, in the long run, and seeking greater burden-sharing from international partners to serve both Syrian refugees and their host communities.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.