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Syria war: Security fears prevent refugees in Turkey from returning home

With anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise in Turkey, Syrian refugees are forced to choose between living in a conflict zone or in a country that doesn't welcome them
Syrian refugee Ahmed Moaz plays with his children during a visit home during the Eid holiday (MEE/Bilal al-Hammoud)
Syrian refugee Ahmed Moaz plays with his children during a visit to his home in northwest Syria during the Eid holiday (MEE/Bilal al-Hammoud)
By Harun al-Aswad in Istanbul, Turkey

Ahmed Moaz and his family last saw their relatives in Syria nearly two years ago. He had now returned home during the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan, as granted by the Turkish government to Syrian refugees who fled a brutal civil war that began in 2011.

Last week, as soon as he arrived in northwest Syria, Moaz was shocked by the deplorable security situation on the ground.

'It is not possible to settle in Syria, the security situation is deteriorating'

- Ahmed Moaz, Syrian refugee living in Turkey

There were air attacks launched by Russia in support of the Syrian government on the Turkish-backed rebel enclave. A Turkish soldier was killed by artillery fire.

"It is not possible to settle in Syria, the security situation is deteriorating," Moaz told Middle East Eye.

He only had a few days to check on his elderly parent before having to leave the country.

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"Unlike European countries, Turkey's asylum law does not allow for reunification procedures, so many refugees risk seeing their families," he added via WhatsApp.

For several years, Turkey allowed refugees who registered online to return to Syria and celebrate Eid, and the end of a month of fasting, with their families. About 40,000 Syrians had benefited from the scheme.

This year, however, after 4,000 more refugees entered the country, Turkey decided to close its borders.

On 22 April, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced that Turkey, which hosts about four million Syrians, would suspend the Eid scheme.

With the rise of anti-refugee sentiment there, Moaz now doubts if he and his family will be able to return to Turkey after all.

'You're not welcome here'

Soylu's announcement to end the Eid scheme came on the heels of harsh criticism from the Turkish opposition, which claimed that refugees were draining the country's resources and promised to make changes if it wins in next year's elections.

"We will send all Syrians home," is a slogan that Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, repeats at every occasion.

"This problem will be resolved within two years... We're not a racist nation... We will resolve this issue in a quiet way," he said again on Twitter last week.

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Another opposition leader, Umit Ozdag of the Nasr Party, suggested that, to tackle the crisis, he would send a delegation to meet with the Syrian government to discuss the return of refugees.

With no mention of the security situation in Syria, Ozdag also delivers the same message in every speech: "Refugees, your period of hospitality in our country is over, go back to your country."

The opposition parties' attitude towards refugees resonates widely on the Turkish street. On Friday, residents of Istanbul's al-Fatih district woke up to racist drawings that included Nazi swastikas, as well as writings calling for the expulsion of Syrians.

The birth rate among Syrian refugees has also become a cause of contention. Just last month, the mayor of Hatay province warned that most of the province's newborns were Syrians, adding that, if no measures were taken, Syrians would rule the province within 12 years.

Meanwhile, the Turkish judiciary has begun deportation proceedings against a Syrian who had been attacked in front of his shop, an incident that sparked nationwide debate.

Turkish media initially claimed that the Syrian refugee had incited racism, but later CCTV security footage showed that he might have been the target of an attack with a machete.

So far, the Turkish authorities and the parties loyal to them have refrained from reacting to the incident.

On the other hand, the left-wing nationalist Vatan Partisi (Patriotic Party) pledged its support for refugees and vowed to silence racist voices, claiming there was a western campaign run by Ozdag against refugees that incited violence in society.

Faced with a hostile environment, many Syrian refugees have already begun voluntary return procedures for fear of racist attacks, especially after administrative complications in updating their residence papers.

Border insecurity

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said that Ankara has launched a project with four countries to return Syrians home, and assured the public that the country's demographics would not change.

"The presence of Syrians in some Turkish states is heavy, but the country's demographics have not changed. We're talking about 85 million people [Turkey's population]," he said in an interview last week.

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The aim was to return 1.5 million Syrian refugees to areas in northern Syria where Turkish forces are present, after building housing units for them, local media reported.

The Turkish army is deployed in opposition-controlled northern Syria to ensure border security from threats from the northern Aleppo province, as well as to oversee a ceasefire in Idlib province.

Some four million Syrians, half of them displaced people living in tents, currently live in this region and could seek to take refuge in Turkey at any moment if the ceasefire collapses.

In addition to repeated ceasefire violations, northern Syria faces a long-running security crisis involving assassinations, robberies, hijackings and deadly internal fighting between rebels.

On 24 April, a civilian with five children was killed by random bullets during clashes between Turkish-backed rebels north of Aleppo. And on 22 April, a civilian was killed when an explosive device detonated in the city of Al-Bab, and a heavy bombardment wounded other civilians.

In mid-April, a militant killed two civilians in Idlib before losing his life in clashes with the local public security forces.

According to the UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), about 1,300 civilians were killed in Syria during the past year alone.

The SNHR said in its annual report that about 2,300 people, including children, were arrested last year, and about 104 people were killed due to torture.

The 138-page report also tracked migration numbers based on security and economic conditions in Syria, especially in areas under government control.

There's no place like home

"Syria remains one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time," United Nations envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen said on Tuesday.

Calling Syria "a hot conflict, not a frozen one," Pedersen listed some of the threats resulting from the war, including an uptick in air strikes, intensified clashes in the northeast, "regular incidents between or involving international actors," as well as "terrorism".

'There is nothing more beautiful than home. Trust me, all the refugees across the world will return when the security situation improves in Syria'

- Ahmed Moaz, Syrian refugee living in Turkey

According to the UN, Syria is the largest displacement crisis in the world and the destruction caused by the Syrian war is unprecedented in contemporary history.

The Syrian war has displaced more than half of the population inside and outside the country, destroying about a third of the country.

"I wish the security and economic situation was better to go back and settle in Syria. The country is completely destroyed," Moaz told MEE.

"Our problem is not economic, but security. You cannot build factories or workshops because they will be the target of attacks, and their owners will be kidnapped for ransom or assassination."

He did not have high hopes for Turkey's promise to build housing for Syrians returning home, because "these building will be the target of attacks".

"There is nothing more beautiful than home. Trust me, all the refugees across the world will return when the security situation improves in Syria," Moaz said.

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