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Turkey: Syrians’ converging point of illusion and elusion?

Syrians, who have over the years fled for their dear life to neighboring, supposedly promising, inviting and safe Turkey, in their millions, are reported to be going back home. On the face value, this sounds positive. It is the best development one would wish to happen to a refugee. Going back home. Even much better, they are doing so in the framework of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s declared “voluntary return programme”.

In Erdogan’s own words, refugees who want to go home fill out a voluntary return form at the Directorate General of Migration Management in one of the border cities. They are interviewed to establish the voluntary component of the exercise, setting the returning process into motion.  According to government figures, approximately 3.7 Syrian refugees out of a total of 5.5 million foreigners are living in Turkey. 

But alas! Syrian refugees going back home under the tag of Turkey’s “voluntary return programme” are reported as saying their return is far from voluntary. Instead, they say, it is the result of increasing across-the-board anti-migrant sentiment in society.  In the worst scenario, they say their return is motivated by increasing hate crimes against migrants and, for that matter, being fueled by politicians. 

What has gone wrong? Why has the Syrians’ vision of a safe destination dream country of Turkey turned into an illusion? What has made Turkey leaders elude the Syrian refugee community? What is the root of this elusion?  Don’t take me for someone suffering from malapropism. I am not among those who, after being offended, would fight tooth and nail for ‘condensation’ when all that they are supposed to be doing is demanding ‘compensation’. Why has Turkey turned into a converging point of illusion and elusion for the Syrian refugees? That is the question.

Works of the mid-19th century, British (and Scottish) physician, Dr. David Livingstone, come to light. ‘Quadrupling’ as a missionary, explorer, abolitionist of the contemporary   notorious  and shameful slave trade, a hero worth the Westminster Abbey burial, when writing about the Clove Island of Zanzibar, he said: “This is the finest place I have known in all of Africa to rest before starting my last journey. An illusive  place where nothing is as it seems. I am mesmerized.”

How has Turkey grown into “an illusive place where nothing is as it seems” for the Syrian refugees and observers to be “mesmerized”? In the refugees’ own words, their dream destination had become very difficult to survive financially. Why? Because “there was much discrimination in the job market. Moreover, they no longer felt safe since political leaders targeted migrants on a near daily basis.”

Media reports hint on Syrians being refused work permits, being forced to take irregular jobs for which they are paid a minimum wage which is not enough for rent or basic necessities. They are being compelled to return to Syria.  “People do not know what will happen once they’re back… Will they be the victim of a bomb attack? Where will their children go to school?”

They are compelled to leave because they see no future in Turkey or because they were arbitrarily deported by authorities. Syrians are detained for minor offenses and forced to sign voluntary return forms. They are consequently sent back against their will. A Syrian association platform says thousands of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have been illegally deported to the Idlib province. This has been done on flimsy reasons like being involved in a traffic accident, failing to update an address or telephone line, forgetting an ID at home or even arguing with neighbors. Migrants are even blamed for all sorts of social and economic ills.  What could they have to do with the fall of the lira against the dollar?

A survey conducted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed 78% of Syrian migrants saying under no circumstance did they want to return to their country because Syria was not a safe country and they had been living in Turkey for a long time. So could this situation be a product of inadequate government policies say addressing questions like provision of language education to migrants or job opportunities or homes?  

It is normal for all people in the world to have a certain level of anti-migrant sentiments. This is why in every language one will find a word for a migrant and that word is not usually very friendly.  In some Tanzanian tribal languages, names for migrants border on referring to them persons from the bush, desert, the likes of the Torah’s gentiles.  My enquiries revealed that the word for a migrant is “Yabanci” – meaning “not from us”. Originally, this did not have overtones of discrimination. But today in this set fall the Kurds, Alevites. Greeks, Christian minorities such as Assyrians. And indeed, why not the Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugee community members.

As far as Turkey is concerned, migration experts have said 85% of the country is against migrants which could quickly escalate into hate crimes. Migrants have already been the target of which are a result of increasing anti-refugee discourse in the country.  In the worst scenario, they warn, this could even lead to pogrom, which has already happened.

In December, 2021 a Syrian young man died in the southern city of Gaziantep after he was shot in the chest by a person said to be Turkish. The victim was said to have been trying to break up a quarrel between a roommate and an armed Turkish youth who stormed in their house. Three days earlier, three Syrian youths were reported to have been burnt in the city of Izmir. Early this month, September 4, 2022, a Syrian refugee coming out of a stadium, was stabbed to death by Turkish young men in Antakya, south of Turkey.

There is no doubt that Erdogan had all along pursued an open-door policy towards refugees. The numbers say it. Why the change now? Where is his talk about the “dignified return of Syrians to their homeland?” Could he also be thinking along his coalition Nationalist Movement Party’s policy lines of equating what it calls “uncontrolled migration to occupation which should be stopped?”

Could this also be partly entrenched by the coalition losing popularity, which is critical at this point in time when the country is heading towards parliamentary and presidential polls in June, 2023? Could Erdogan be pressed so hard by the conditions pertaining at home that he wouldn’t mind ditching the human interests of the Syrian refugees? After all, Turkey is not bound by the refugee convention when it comes to non-European refugees.?

Where is Erdogan’s voluntary return programme? Erdogan had time to talk of Turkey working in coordination with local parliaments in 13 Syrian regions and that construction of various infrastructure facilities was to be part of the project, towards which 12 Turkish NGOs were building homes in Syria.  What has happened to his “we will be making efforts for their voluntary return” words. Or were these simply ‘political promissory notes’ which don’t have to be honored in the event of risking poll results? Turkey has indeed turned out to be the meeting point of illusion and elusion for the Syrian refugees.

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Felix Kaiza is a Tanzanian journalist with more than 50 years of experience currently working as an independent media consultant. Learned in agriculture, journalism, political science and international relations, his main fields of consultancy, besides the media, are good governance, nature conservation, tourism and investment. He was the first Tanzanian Chief Sub-Editor of an English daily newspaper in 1970, he has been behind the establishment and growth of the national independent media since the early 1990s. He is UNFAO Fellow Journalist since 1975 and has wide experience on regional integration. He worked on the Information Directorate of the original East African Community on whose ashes survive the current one. His ambition is to brand Tanzania in the inbound market with made-in-Tanzania brands, including information, almost all of which is currently foreign brewed.

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