For Nidal Jumaa, a Syrian from Aleppo, life in Türkiye is tough. He works part-time at a furniture workshop and collects plastics and cardboard from trash cans that he sells for recycling, but can hardly afford the rent for his run-down house in a low-income neighborhood of Ankara.
Despite the hardship, the 31-year-old would prefer to remain in Türkiye than return to Syria where he no longer has a house or a job. Most of all, he worries that his 2-year-old son, Hikmat, who requires regular medical supervision following two surgeries, wouldn't be able to receive the treatment he needs back home.
“Where would we go in Syria? Everywhere is destroyed because of the war,” Jumaa said. “We can’t go back. Hikmat is sick. He can’t even walk.”
Syrians fleeing the civil war — now into its 12th year — were once welcomed in Türkiye out of compassion, making the country home to the world’s largest refugee community. But as their numbers grew — and as the country began to grapple with a battered economy, including skyrocketing food and housing prices — so did calls for their return.
A shortage of housing and shelters following a devastating earthquake in February revived calls for the return of Syrians, who number at least 3.7 million.
The repatriation of Syrians and other migrants has become a top theme in Sunday's presidential and parliamentary elections when the country will decide whether to give incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a new mandate to rule or bring an opposition candidate to power.
All three presidential hopefuls running against Erdogan have promised to send refugees back. Erdogan himself has not mentioned the migration issue on the campaign trail. However, faced with a wave of backlash against refugees, his government has been seeking ways to resettle Syrians back home.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the joint candidate of an alliance of opposition parties that includes nationalists, says he plans to repatriate Syrians on a voluntary basis within two years. If elected, he would seek European Union funds to build homes, schools, hospitals and other amenities in Syria and encourage Turkish entrepreneurs to open factories and businesses to create employment.
Kilicdaroglu has also said that he would renegotiate a 2016 migration deal between Türkiye and the European Union, under which the EU offered the country billions of euros in return for Ankara's cooperation in stemming the flow of refugees into European countries.
“How long must we carry this heavy load?” Kilicdaroglu said in an address to ambassadors from European nations last month. “We want peace in Syria. We want our Syrian brothers and sisters who took refuge in our country to live in peace in their own country.”
Sinan Ogan, a candidate backed by an anti-migrant party, says his government would consider sending Syrians back “by force if necessary.”
Faced with mounting public pressure, Erdogan’s government, who long defended its open-door policy toward refugees, began constructing thousands brick homes in Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria to encourage voluntary returns. His government is also seeking reconciliation with Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to ensure the refugees’ safe return.
The Syrian government, however, has made normalization of ties conditional on Türkiye withdrawing its troops from areas under its control following a series of military incursions, and on Ankara cutting support to opposition groups.
“Realistically speaking, implementing the promises (of repatriation) is much harder than restoring the (Turkish) economy,” said Omar Kadkoy, an expert on migration at the Ankara-based TEPAV think tank. “At the end of the day, if the opposition comes to power or if the government stays in power, I don’t really see how they could repatriate 3.5 million Syrians in two years.”
Kadkoy continued: “Assad is so maximalist with his demands from Türkiye to accept millions of people back. I don’t think Türkiye is ready to meet his demands.”
Around 60,000 Syrians crossed the border into northern Syria following the earthquake, after Türkiye relaxed regulations allowing them to return to Syria and remain there for a maximum of six months. The move allowed refugees to check on family or homes in quake-hit areas of northern Syria. It was not immediately known how many have crossed back into Türkiye, or plan to do so.
Kadkoy says high inflation and a cost of living crisis have made life for Syrians in Türkiye difficult.
“But when compared to ... having no place to stay, no functioning democracy ... where you might be subjected to bombing and shelling at any given moment, (Syrians) prefer the bad conditions here in Türkiye over having nothing in Syria,” he said.
In Ankara’s impoverished Ismetpasa neighborhood, plastic sheets partially cover the roof to keep the rain out of the house where Jumaa, his wife Jawahir and their four children live. The family has no furniture and they sleep on mats they throw around a coal heater.
Jawahir Jumaa says their home in Syria was destroyed in air raids. The few relatives that have remained there live in tents that are flooded in winter months.
“The living conditions (here) are better than in Syria,” she said.
Hikmat, her youngest son, had a cyst and a tumor removed from his head and back. “They can’t treat him in Syria. They don’t know how,” Jawahir added.
Asked about the anti-migrant sentiment and calls for the repatriation of Syrians, Nidal Jumaa was fatalistic.
“There is nothing we can do, for now we are carrying on living. We are under the mercy of God,” he responded.
The neighborhood is close to an area where riots broke out two years ago after a Turkish teenager was stabbed to death in a fight with a group of young Syrians. Hundreds of people chanting anti-immigrant slogans took to the streets, vandalized Syrian-run shops and hurled rocks at refugees’ homes.
Hassan Hassan, a neighbor, says he isn’t concerned about the violence that erupted or about the calls for Syrians to leave.
“I’m not afraid, we suffered too many terrible things, what could happen that is worse than what we (have already) lived through?” he asked.