A safe haven in northern Syria?

Turkey's plan to 'resettle' Syrian refugees

Turkey is seeking to create a "safe zone" for refugees in Syria, to which they should only return "voluntarily". But how realistic is the project and to what extent can Turkey's intentions be trusted? By Seda Serdar

As a joint Turkish-Russian military patrol begins on Friday, security in northern Syria remains fragile, despite the Sochi Agreement reached by the two countries. Nevertheless, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send Syrian refugees back. Turkey currently hosts around 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Erdogan plans to send at least 1 million of these refugees, if not more, to the so-called safe zone – the area over which Turkey gained control through its Peace Spring military operation. However, Turkish authorities insist resettlement will only be voluntary.

Turkey is already being criticised for forcing Syrian refugees to leave, according to a recent Amnesty International report. The Turkish government strongly rejects this.

Andreas Nick, a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lawmaker who also sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, said that offering a perspective for people who originate from that region to return to their homelands "would be a feasible scenario, but we will not be supportive of any forced resettlement of refugees."

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Syrian refugees forced to leave Turkey and return to their home country cross the border (photo: Imago/Zuma)
Appearances can be deceptive: contrary to the Turkish authorities’ claims that they are not deporting anyone to Syria, Amnesty International reports that it is likely that in mid-2019 hundreds of Syrian refugees across Turkey were swept up, detained and transported against their will to one of the world’s most dangerous countries – violating the international legal principle of non-refoulement, as it puts them at risk of serious human rights violations

"No European support for forced resettlement"

He underlined that any resettlement would have to take place according to international law and that "there will be no economic support from Europe or Germany for any forced resettlement measures."

At 120 kilometres long and 32 kilometres deep, the zone now controlled by the Turkish military is much smaller than Erdogan's original plan that would have stretched 444 kilometres. So the numbers of people returning is also expected to be lower.

According to the Turkish Interior Ministry, nearly 330,000 Syrian refugees have returned to Afrin, following Operation Euphrates Shield last year. However, Syria expert Oytun Orhan of the Ankara-based Middle East Research Centre (ORSAM) says there is "high probability that many of these people have returned to Turkey via illegal migration since they couldn't find what they hoped for and are now living as unregistered refugees in Turkey."

Orhan also argues that if returns are to be voluntary "the numbers won't be millions." He points out that "of the 3.6 million Syrians, only 10% to 15% come from east of the Euphrates. So if we expect people to return to their local homes, a maximum of 400,000 to 500,000 could be expected to go back."

Turkish opposition politician Umit Ozdag of the nationalist Iyi Party states otherwise, saying that "there is confusion about voluntary returns." He argues that the Temporary Protection Regulation adopted in 2014 is clear on the issue of such repatriations: "When the war ends, the Syrians will have to return to their homes. The idea that this is voluntary is not correct."

Erdogan's domestic agenda

Turkey started accepting Syrian refugees into the country in 2012, as the civil war kicked off. But in recent years, due to the economic problems Turkey is facing, negative sentiment towards Syrian refugees has increased.

President Erdogan wants to win back voters by finding a solution to the refugee problem. To this end he is increasingly threatening the European Union with respect to the refugee resettlement deal Ankara signed with the bloc in 2016.

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