Turkey elections: Politicians vow to send Syrians back - but to where?
Ismael is the owner of a small shop in Idlib's Mashad Ruhin camp where 40,000 people try to survive in Turkish-built briquette houses.
As Turkey goes to the polls this weekend, both the government and opposition are promising to send back millions of Syrian refugees living in the country. But Syrians in Idlib question how this would be done, given the dire conditions in the country after 12 years of war.
"Who would want to come back here? No infrastructure, no education, no jobs," Ismael told Middle East Eye.
Another young man in his 20s cuts in: "We live in extreme poverty. This place is not fit for humans. Even not for animals!
"The murderer still lives in his palace, and all the world powers are eager to talk to him. Shame!" another man shouted, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Middle East Eye visited the Ruhin camp under the strict surveillance of Turkish officials. They said Idlib, once a stronghold of the Syrian opposition and now largely controlled by the militant group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and its surroundings have been facing an increasing number of kidnappings, robbery and terror activities, exacerbated by extreme poverty and economic crises in both Syria and Turkey.
The city is divided between Turkish security forces, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, and HTS, with security checkpoints and armed young men affiliated with HTS everywhere.
'We live in extreme poverty. This place is not fit for humans. Even not for animals!'
- Syrian in Idlib
In addition to economic difficulties and insecurity, diseases such as cholera have been ruining lives with insufficient medical facilities for the constantly increasing population due to internal migration.
A Turkish official said there was a love-hate relationship with Turkey as crowds would at times chant anti-Turkey slogans.
Turkey has increased security measures to stop illegal border crossings from Syria. In March, the killing of a Syrian by Turkish security forces sparked outrage in Idlib. But camp residents refused to talk about such incidents.
Douha and Zayya both lost their husbands during the war and have four and six children, respectively.
"How is life here? Don't you see? There is nothing good here but unhappiness, despair, diseases," Zayya said.
"Nowhere can be worse to live," Douha added.
"How will they send more people here?" Zayya asked.
Plans for return
Turkey started building briquette houses in 2020 in different parts of Idlib with the aim of re-locating some of the almost four million refugees in the country.
However, Idlib province has already more than doubled its population since the beginning of the 2011 civil war in Syria and is now estimated to have a population of more than three million people.
'The Damascus regime wants to keep the refugee crisis alive in order to exchange it for the lifting of sanctions'
- Samir Seifan, analyst
Both Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition National Alliance have promised to begin sending Syrian refugees back to their homeland.
The National Alliance has, in particular, made repatriation a pillar of its programme, vowing to send Syrian refugees back to their country within two years of a victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections.
The opposition has not revealed any detailed roadmap. However, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the joint presidential candidate of the National Alliance, in a video announced that his government would solve the "refugee problem" in a way that would avoid racist scapegoating.
Kilicdaroglu said Turkey does not have sufficient natural and economic resources to continue accommodating millions of refugees.
"We will send Syrians back to their homeland within two years by holding talks with the European Union, Mediterranean countries as well as the Syrian government," he said.
He also made a call to the EU, saying that the refugee problem must be solved jointly.
"Otherwise," he added, "we will be annihilated altogether," referring to climate and environmental problems.
Many experts believe that the "return" promise is not realistic or compatible with the facts on the ground.
Omer Behram Ozdemir, a researcher at Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, told MEE that neither the opposition nor the current government could easily send Syrians back for three reasons.
"First, we are talking about more than three million people, who came from different parts of Syria within a six-year-long period," he said.
"Second, the Syrian regime, which bases its existence on strict security surveillance, would never want to welcome millions of people over whom it has no intelligence for years.
'Instead of dealing with that butcher [Assad], they are trying to ruin the lives of innocent refugees. We like Turkey, but its recent treatment is awful'
- Abdelsalam, Idlib resident
"Third, the regime has confiscated abandoned lands and houses through making legal regulations."
Samir Seifan, director of research group Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies, underlined the absence of security in the country.
He said the refugee crisis was being used as a bargaining tool for the government with the international community.
"The Damascus regime wants to keep the refugee crisis alive in order to exchange it for the lifting of sanctions," he said.
Kilicdaroglu claimed in his video that the security, infrastructure and reconstruction of Syria would be provided with the participation of Turkish companies through cooperation between the Assad government, Turkey and other international actors.
Seifan thinks that this is not possible either.
"Reconstruction is not currently up for discussion, as Syria is still divided into four areas of control, sanctions are still in place, and there is no reconstruction before the implementation of a political solution in accordance with UN resolutions, and this is still far away," he said.
The current Turkish government has also taken steps to make a plan for a "safe return" of Syrians, including Russia-brokered talks aimed at restoring relations with the Syrian government.
In a meeting in late April in Moscow, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency, Hakan Fidan, held talks with their Syrian and Iranian counterparts.
Turkey-Syria normalisation and the efforts to repatriate Syrians were among the topics discussed, according to an official Turkish statement.
Also, Turkish, Russian, Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers held a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday.
The statements from each side focused on the existence of an "opportunity" to take a step towards repairing ties.
Ozdemir said the process was less "normalisation" than just "making contact with each other".
"Such talks would not yield a full restoration of relations but could help decrease the exchange of fire between Turkey-backed and regime forces, and the increase of trade between opposition- and regime-held areas."
Seifan was not optimistic either.
"I think that the Turkish elections were behind this formal rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, in order to win votes, because the humanitarian issue of Syrian refugees has unfortunately become a political issue in Turkey. I believe that its momentum will weaken after the Turkish elections," he said.
Turkey's government announced that, as of late 2022, 526,932 Syrians had returned to their country.
One of them was Ahmad, who used to live in Turkey's Antalya.
"I came back to Idlib, to this camp, so that I could be together with my family. But the conditions are insufficient to maintain a life like a human," he said.
"Normalisation" and the promises to send Syrians back were among the most hotly debated topics in the camp.
Abdelsalam, a man in his 60s, said: "Instead of dealing with that butcher [Assad], they are trying to ruin the lives of innocent refugees.
"We like Turkey, but its recent treatment is awful."