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Turkey: Erdogan vows not to deport Syrian refugees

Statement came amid pledges by an opposition leader to send Syrians back to their home country if his party comes to power
A woman waves a pre-Baath Syrian flag, now used by the Syrian opposition, during a rally against the imprisonment of women and children in Syria, in Istanbul on 8 March 2019 (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Istanbul

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared on Wednesday that his government would not return Syrian refugees back to the regime-controlled areas as long as he is in power, amid anger on social media over the arrival of Afghan refugees from the eastern border.

“As long as we are in power, we wouldn’t throw any of God's subjects to the laps of the murderers,” he told a group of journalists who accompanied him on a visit to Northern Cyprus. “I’m very clear. They have taken refuge with us. They beg for safety. We cannot tell them to go back to where they were.”

Erdogan’s remarks were an explicit response to the leader of Turkey’s opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the chairman of the Republican People’s Party, known as CHP.

'I’m very clear. They have taken refuge with us. They beg for safety. We cannot tell them to go back to where they were'

- Turkey's President Erdogan

Kilicdaroglu last weekend said in a viral video message that his government would send Syrian refugees back to their home country in two years.

“We will repair our relations with the Syrian government and send an ambassador to Damascus,” Kilicdaroglu said. “I will get funding from the EU countries to build schools and businesses for Syrians.”

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Kilicdaroglu vehemently denied that his plan to send nearly 3.7 million refugees who fled the civil war since 2011 back to Syria was racist. Yet he repeated the line that Turkish workers were unhappy because Syrians were crowding them out.

“Syrians are our relatives. However, I believe they will be much happier if they live in the land they were born,” he said.

In response to these comments, Erdogan also said that what Kilicdaroglu proposed would be a violation of international law because it would be forced deportation.

However, his government in the past has also been accused of forced deportations of Syrians, especially after the local elections in 2019.

Growing anti-refugees trend

Anti-Syrian sentiments in Turkey have been historically high in recent years, but a Kadir Has University poll conducted in April and May among 1,000 participants in 26 provinces indicated that the trend somewhat eased compared to last year.

Roughly 46 percent of the poll's respondents said they were not happy with the presence of Syrian refugees, a 10 percent drop from last year. However, 66 percent said they did not believe Syrians would ever go back to their home country.

Apart from the Syrian refugees, Turkey is also home to many irregular migrants from Central Asia and Africa. Last Friday, social media footage that showed dozens of Afghans freely running into Turkish territories from the Iran border triggered a public backlash.

The arrival of Afghans in Turkey has significantly increased since the Biden administration's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. 

Translation: The Afghan refugees who are entering our country through every part of Van.

The interior minister first rejected the authenticity of the footage, but then a local governor’s office announced that it had detained nearly 1,500 Afghans who were in the city of Van.

“Syrians weren’t enough and now the Afghans?” Lutfu Turkkan, an MP from the nationalist opposition party IYI asked on Twitter. “Is [Turkey] a roadside motel?”

Turkkan alleged that there were members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda among the Afghan migrants.

Translation: I prepared a frame against the unarmed and silent invasion of our country. Let's show our reaction in this way.

A public campaign by Turkish nationalist social media users ensued. Many accounts placed an oval mark on their profile picture with Turkish flags, that reads: “I don’t want refugees in my country. Stop the silent invasion.”

Translation: Twitter for the last three days. "I'm not a racist but" and the hatred towards Syrians.

Many social media users denied that their campaign was racist, since asking for better border protection and the return of migrants were logical demands. 

Kemal Can, a columnist for the independent news platform Gazete Duvar, said that some of the anti-refugee Turkish citizens were feeling that they were being unjustly declared as racists.

“One person who denies being a racist asks, ‘wouldn’t you use pesticide when insects infest your house?',” Can wrote in an article. “Doesn’t even feel any problem describing people as insects that need to be exterminated.”

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