Turkey needs creative solutions for Syrian refugees – ex-foreign minister

Turkey needs to find creative solutions to the Syrian refugee issue, said Yaşar Yakış, a former foreign minister of Turkey.

The issue of refugees has been further politicised prior to elections scheduled to be held by June 2023, Yakış said in a column for the Arab News on Sunday.

There are right-wing parties that want Syrians sent home, but until last month the government was strongly opposing this idea, Yakış said. “It has now modified its narrative,” he said.

The government “who did not inform its people about what it was doing with Syrians or for Syrians, has lost credibility in the eyes of the public,” Yakış said. “It may take time to regain it.”

A full reproduction of the article follows below:

Syrian refugees have been a major issue in Turkey since the outbreak of their home country’s civil war. Tens of thousands of Syrians sought asylum in Turkey when, in 2011, the Assad regime used disproportionate military force to repress demonstrating civilians. As the number of asylum seekers rose, the Turkish authorities said that, if their number approached 100,000, the country would have to revise its open-door policy. The number of Syrian asylum seekers has now gone far beyond 100,000. Their number is today estimated to be more than 4 million, about 3.5 million of whom are registered as “under temporary protection.”

As time went by, many segments of Turkish society started to feel uneasy about the increasing number of Syrians. The crime rate among Syrians is not higher than that of Turkish citizens, but when a crime is committed by a foreigner it becomes more visible.

On the other hand, Turkey’s industrial sector was happy with the Syrians because they volunteered to work for more modest salaries. A former minister of local administration has said that Turkish industry would have collapsed if the Syrians had not been employed on low wages. Furthermore, among the Syrian asylum seekers there were highly qualified professionals who found jobs as engineers, medical doctors or prominent artists.

The arrival of several million Syrians caused major demographic changes in many cities. In certain cities close to the border, Syrians now constitute the majority. For instance, in the border town of Reyhanlı, the population is made up of 98,000 Turks and 129,000 Syrians. In Kilis, Syrians make up 74 percent of the population.

The mayor of Antakya has said that his successor may be a Syrian. This is a particularly important remark because Damascus considers the international status of Antakya to be a contentious issue. It does not recognise Antakya’s joining of Turkey in 1939. On maps printed in Syria, Antakya is still shown as a Syrian province.

The birth rate among the Syrian community is four times higher than in Turkish families. This may further upset the demographic balance in favour of the Syrian population in the provinces close to the border.

Another potential risk is the existence of fighters who previously fought alongside Jabhat Al-Nusra or Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham. The Turkish authorities arrest such terrorists from time to time, but their integration into Turkish society will be a gigantic task because many of them did nothing in their life but kill people.

We may also presume that the Assad regime must have introduced to Turkey many members of the Mukhabarat, the Syrian military intelligence service. They may still be undercover in Turkey.

The question of the Syrian refugees is being further politicised as the national elections of June 2023 are drawing closer. All political parties have policies on this issue that contradict each other. There are right-wing parties, for example, which insistently declare that the Syrians have to be sent back home at once.

Turkey’s Syria policy has always been opaque. For years, the government did not inform the public about what it was doing with Syrians or for Syrians. So, it lost credibility in the eyes of the public. It may take time to regain it.

The government announced in 2019 that it had spent $40 billion on Syrians, but the details of these expenses have never been made public. Feeding more than 4 million foreigners must have cost the country a lot of money, but on the other hand many Syrians have also contributed to the labour market. The government has lately mentioned these sums less frequently. The exact cost of the Syrian asylum seekers to Turkey is not easy to calculate because millions of them have now become part of the country’s economic scene.

Until last month, the Turkish government was strongly opposed to the idea of sending Syrians back to their country. It has now modified its narrative. The first statement came, as usual, from the unofficial coalition partner of the ruling (Justice and Development Party) AKP — the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Its president, Devlet Bahceli, pointed out that, as Syrians visit their country for Eid Al-Fitr, this means there is no security risk there. Therefore, if they go to Syria for Eid, they should not be allowed to return to Turkey after the holiday. It seems that the government is now warming to this idea.

However, this is more easily said than done, because many Syrians have established businesses in Turkey or have purchased real estate. Banning them from returning to Turkey may cause several problems. Restricting the movement of people should not be considered as an option. I hope that political parties will find creative ways to overcome this problem.

(The original version of the article can be found here.)

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