Sending Refugees Back to Syria: A Sharp Message to Erdogan’s Opponents
Turkey, which for eight years has welcomed millions of Syrian refugees, has reversed course, forcing thousands to leave its major cities in recent weeks and ferrying many of them to its border with Syria in white buses and police vans.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pushing a radical solution — resettling refugees in a swath of Syrian territory controlled by the United States and its Kurdish allies. If that does not happen, he is threatening to send a flood of Syrian migrants to Europe.
Erdogan has long demanded a buffer zone along Turkey’s border with Syria to keep out Kurdish forces, whom he considers a security threat.
But he has repackaged the idea for the zone as a refuge for Syrians fleeing the war — pushing it as resentment against Syrians in Turkey has increased, and a Syrian and Russian offensive in Syria has sent hundreds of thousands more refugees fleeing toward the Turkish border.
The European Union has given Turkey about $6.7 billion since 2015 to help control the flow of migrants. But Turkey, which has given sanctuary to 3.6 million Syrians, says the migrant problem is growing exponentially.
Turkish and international refugee officials have reported an increase in migrants and refugees trying to cross by boat into Europe from Turkey, many of them Syrians leaving Istanbul since the police crackdown. Over 500 refugees arrived by boat in the Greek island of Lesbos a week ago.
Turkish officials are cracking down on Syrians working illegally or without residence papers, fining employers and forcing factories and workshops to close. Pro-government media have grown more critical of Syrians, landlords are raising their rents, and social media is bursting with anti-Syrian comments.
For Syrians living in Turkey, the shift in policy and attitude is a painful shock.
“It’s a disaster for Syrian people,” said Mohanned Ghabash, an activist who works for a nongovernmental organization in the southern town of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border.
Syrian workers were being told to acquire work permits and pay social security, he said, but many say they cannot afford the extra costs, and even if they can, they fear more rules will be enforced, including one that demands five Turkish citizens have to be employed for every Syrian in a company.
Police officers in Gaziantep visited a street of Syrian grocery and pastry shops and told store owners to remove the Arabic lettering from their shop signs or face a fine, enforcing a local law that had been ignored for eight years. The Syrians complied, painting out the Arabic and hanging Turkish flags in solidarity, but some said they were angry since it would cost them business.
Syrians, who now make up 20 percent of the population in Gaziantep, have transformed the city, investing capital, and bringing business skills and cheap labor.
Most of them come from Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and formerly a sophisticated cultural trading center. They have built a neighborhood of textile factories in Gaziantep, where Turkish and Syrian companies share buildings and workers. Hundreds of cafes, restaurants and pastry shops there cater to Syrians.
In the old city, Syrian stone masons have restored some of the crumbling monuments and skilled Syrian coppersmiths from Aleppo have found a place alongside Turkish craftsmen, beating intricate designs into copper jugs and platters in tiny workshops.
Nour Mousilly, a textile manufacturer who lost a $12 million factory in Aleppo in the war, brought trained workers with him as well as a customer base in the Middle East when he started anew in Gaziantep, making men’s underwear.
“We already had our international partners so you could throw us anywhere and we can work,” he said, making his business a net benefit to Turkey’s economy.
Syrian big business owners said if you followed the rules you could still work in Turkey even if the profit margins were down. But smaller businesses and laborers expressed concern at the changing atmosphere and crippling fines that have already forced factory closings.
Mayor Fatma Sahin, a senior official in Erdogan’s party, has been a strong supporter of Syrian refugees for the economic boost they have brought the city but says they have to obey Turkey’s laws.
“What we say to the Syrians is there are rules to live here, so you have to obey those rules,” she said.
But Syrians see the new policies are aimed at making them leave. “They need to make us think it is better to go back to the safe zone,” said Abdulkarim Alrahmon, who runs a branch of a well-known Syrian perfumery in Gaziantep.
The vans and buses of Syrian refugees arrive almost hourly at the border crossing near the town of Kilis, adjoining a Turkish-controlled area of northwestern Syria. Syrians living nearby said the police were depositing unregistered refugees directly across the border.
The Syrians being deported represent only a fraction of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. But the deportations send a sharp message to Erdogan’s political opponents that he is taking action to reduce the number of refugees, and signal to Europe and the United States that he needs a new solution.
“Present conditions are not conducive to organized returns and repatriation of Syrian refugees in safety and dignity,” Lanna Walsh, spokeswoman for the International Organization of Migration, said.
The New York Times