As Key Votes Loom, Turkish Parties Vow to Send Migrants Home 

People walk under the election banner of Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Türkiye, 08 May 2023. (EPA)
People walk under the election banner of Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Türkiye, 08 May 2023. (EPA)
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As Key Votes Loom, Turkish Parties Vow to Send Migrants Home 

People walk under the election banner of Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Türkiye, 08 May 2023. (EPA)
People walk under the election banner of Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Türkiye, 08 May 2023. (EPA)

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.



Egypt... An ‘Alternative Sudan’ for those Fleeing War

A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Egypt... An ‘Alternative Sudan’ for those Fleeing War

A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)
A café in Giza popular with displaced Sudanese (Asharq Al-Awsat)

With the influx of hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese into Egypt over the past months due to the ongoing war in their country, Egypt has turned into an “alternative Sudan” that embraces more than 5.5 million regular and irregular refugees.

“We live in an integrated Sudanese society in Egypt,” Musaab Hamdan, 33, told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Hamdan, a cleaning worker at a private company in the Mohandiseen neighborhood, said that the country was a haven for thousands of displaced people fleeing the war.

The Egyptian government estimates the number of Sudanese at about 5 million out of 9 million refugees on its territory, while President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi describes them as “guests of Egypt.”

The large inflow of Sudanese since the outbreak of the war in their country in 2023 has put pressure on the International Commission for Refugees in Cairo and Alexandria, where about 3,000 refugee applications are received daily. This has increased the number of Sudanese registered with the Commission to 300,000 persons, which represents 52 percent of the total number of refugees registered in Egypt with UNHCR until April.

The Sudanese features and traditional attire are distinctive on the streets of Cairo and Giza, where Sudanese vendors and citizens are now seen practicing business activities that were limited to Egyptians for decades, including driving taxis and small buses in popular neighborhoods. Hamdan said that this reflects the rapid integration of newcomers into everyday life in Egypt.

Mohamed Abdel Majeed, a taxi driver in Giza, speaks the Egyptian dialect so fluently that many locals do not realize he is from Sudan.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he has adapted to driving on Cairo’s streets and now knows the names and locations of stations by heart.

Alternative haven

Social networking sites are monitoring this heavy Sudanese presence in Egypt, as some videos have focused on the idea of an “alternative Sudan in the country.”

Among them was a comment made by a Sudanese influencer who joked about the heavy presence of his countrymen in the Faisal neighborhood in Giza, saying: “If you are Sudanese living abroad and want to see your family and your country. All you have to do is go to Giza, Egypt.”

Tens of thousands of Sudanese fleeing the war in Sudan consider Egypt the “best haven.” Fatima Hassan feared that her daughters would be “raped by armed militias in Sudan,” and decided to enter Egypt irregularly, she told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Extreme heat and thirst exhausted Fatima and her three daughters during a long trip, before she succeeded in reaching Giza to join her sister who had preceded her there several months ago.

Last month, the authorities announced that they have prevented the illegal entry of buses carrying displaced Sudanese. However, Abdullah Qouni - who has lived in the Maadi neighborhood in Cairo for 15 years and helps many newly displaced to find housing or a job opportunity - told Asharq Al-Awsat that around 11 buses from Aswan enter Egypt daily. He added that each irregular migrant pays about $500 to smugglers in exchange for the trip.

Education

One of the most important features of “Alternative Sudan” is the sight of dark-skinned students on their way to dedicated schools. Their number has increased steadily in recent months, forcing the Egyptian authorities to close some of them in order to “legalize the situation.”

Sami Al-Baqir, spokesman for the Sudanese Teachers Syndicate, estimates the number of Sudanese schools in Egypt at about 300 basic and intermediate schools.

The Sudanese embassy in Cairo, which moved its headquarters years ago from Garden City to the Dokki neighborhood, thanked the Egyptian government for its cooperation in making the Sudanese primary certificate exams a success in June, through six educational centers affiliated with the embassy. ​​

On the academic level, Ayman Ashour, the Egyptian Minister of Higher Education, estimated the number of Sudanese students who enrolled in Egyptian universities last year at more than 10,000.

Egyptian sensitivities

With the Sudanese “jilbab” dominating Egyptian streets and neighborhoods, and videos of large Sudanese gatherings in Cairo being circulated on social media, in addition to reports about the expulsion of Egyptian tenants to house displaced Sudanese, concerns have mounted over their presence in the country.

Moreover, news have emerged about some Sudanese families performing circumcision on their daughters in Egypt, prompting activists to call on Egyptian authorities to enforce the law that criminalizes female circumcision.

Egyptian media professionals joined in criticizing the Sudanese presence. Qaswa Al-Khalali expressed “concern” about the presence of refugee clusters in popular areas, considering this matter “extremely dangerous.” Meanwhile, journalist Azza Mostafa warned of “some refugees taking control of entire areas in Cairo,” pointing to bad consequences on Egypt.

Egyptian parliamentarians responded to calls to legalize the status of refugees, including Siham Mostafa, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the House of Representatives. In television statements, she said: “Egypt hosts millions of foreigners and provides them with services at the same prices provided to citizens without any increase, despite the current economic crisis.”

Reducing burdens

Due to the economic crisis, Egypt has called on the international community to support it in “bearing the burdens of refugees.”

Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, after his meeting with the Director-General of the International Organization for Migration, Amy Pope, that the support Egypt receives from the international community was not commensurate with the burdens it bears, especially as the Egyptian economy suffers from the consequences of global crises.

The Egyptian government recently launched a process to count the numbers of refugees residing on its territory, with the aim of calculating the cost of hosting them and determining the financial burdens.

In a statement issued in April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Egypt requested $175.1 million to meet the most urgent needs of Sudanese refugees who have fled to Egypt since mid-April 2023.