Arab officials talk peace prospects at New York MENA Forum

ANKARA: Against a backdrop of increasing anti-migrant sentiment in Turkiye, the Ministry of Interior has instructed unregistered Syrian residents of Istanbul that, unless they leave the city by Sunday Sept. 24, they will face “severe sanctions.” Syrians who had previously registered in other Turkish provinces are required to return to their original places of registration.

In recent months, Turkish authorities have intensified their efforts to crack down on illegal migrants in Istanbul, which currently hosts more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, the most of any city in Turkiye. Many of the refugees were registered in locations outside of Istanbul, but came to the city in search of employment.

Syrians who fled the provinces in which they were registered after the devastating earthquake in February and were subsequently granted travel permits to Istanbul are exempt from the ministry’s orders.

Sinem Adar, an associate at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, noted that similar restrictive measures have been imposed in the past.

“In 2019, the Ministry of Interior told Syrian refugees who were not registered in Istanbul to return to the districts where they were initially registered,” she told Arab News. “The fact that a similar measure is now being implemented — four years later — is a sign that the earlier efforts were not successful.”

As of Sept. 14, Turkiye is home to approximately 3.2 million Syrians with temporary protection permits, down 19,100 from the previous month’s figures.

According to Adar, public pressure and its own policies mean Turkiye’s ruling government is keen to repatriate at least some of the Syrian refugees as soon as possible.

“Ankara has been trying to create a safe zone in Northern Syria,” Adar says, “while also attempting to foster a reconciliation with Bashar Assad.”

Turkish President Recep Erdogan promised ahead of elections back in May that he would repatriate a million Syrian refugees. He has also unveiled plans for the development of new residential, agricultural and industrial projects — financed by Qatar — in northwest Syria, where Turkish troops are stationed, to accommodate the resettlement of Syrian refugees from Turkiye over the next three years.

This initiative — dubbed “The Aleppo Model” — will also encourage businesses in Turkish provinces bordering Syria to engage in commercial activities within Syrian safe zones, thereby generating employment opportunities for local residents. However, progress remains sluggish due to the protracted reconciliation process between Ankara and Damascus.

“Unfortunately, a Syrian’s fate relies on procedural arbitrariness,” Omar Kadkoy, a migration policy analyst at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, told Arab News. “The mere fact that a documented Syrian is present in a province other than that (in which they were initially registered) does not constitute sufficient grounds for deportation (in either) domestic or international law. The authorities, however, could arbitrarily link one’s presence outside the province of registration to other activities, like being a threat to the public, for which deportation could qualify as a legal procedure. So, an apprehended Syrian relies on luck instead of rule of law to appeal the decision.”

Official statistics show that around 554,000 Syrian refugees have returned to their homeland voluntarily, but Adar said it is difficult to discern whether they all truly chose to return, as there have been allegations of refugees being pressured to sign up for “voluntary” return, as well as reports of increased deportations. “Forced return cannot be excluded,” she said.

As many in Turkiye grow increasingly resentful of the large number of refugees in the country amid its ongoing economic crisis, Syrian refugees are once again being made scapegoats by nationalist campaigns ahead of local elections in March 2024. “Gitmeliler” (They Should Go) has been trending on social media site X.

According to analyst Kadkoy, this is a recurring theme. Similar events occurred before the local elections in 2019, he noted.

“The public are living through the effects of unorthodox monetary policy, the pandemic and the recent earthquake on the economy, and blame Syrians for the economic woes,” he said.

The government, in response, “tightens measures against Syrians as a quick relief. This is insufficient and unsustainable,” he continued.

“The local elections are six months away. We are likely to see similar measures in other provinces as well. These measures are short-term fixes.”

He said the government “must seriously discuss and work on a new strategy because the current harmonization plan is not paying off.”

The analyst added: “This is particularly important since the prospects of large-scale voluntary repatriation are rather low without political transition in Syria.”

Adar underscored the delicate balancing act the ruling Justice and Development Party faces as it attempts to address societal discontent by returning some refugees to Syria while maintaining harmonious relations with Turkiye’s Arab population.

Several Turkish journalists and a number of other citizens have been detained recently for their anti-refugee social media posts, accused of inciting hatred and hate speech. Three journalists were arrested on Saturday morning.

“Ramping up measures against Syrian refugees while simultaneously punishing anti-refugee views is a strategy aimed at appealing to various interests,” Adar said.

The recent serious assault of Kuwaiti tourist Mohammed Al-Ajmi in the northeastern city of Trabzon, which left him comatose with four broken teeth, was a reminder of rising anti-Arab sentiment in the country, stoked by the influx of Syrian refugees.

 

 

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