For years, most Turks courteously accepted the Syrians fleeing to their country. But attitudes towards refugees appear to be hardening, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has hinted the solution could lie in Afrin, the Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria his troops have just occupied.
There is talk of infrastructure being rebuilt in Afrin, of voluntary returns, of perhaps 350,000 to 500,000 Syrians being encouraged to go back. But few refugees in Turkey are from Afrin, and it’s unlikely many would want to return to an active war zone, especially if they’re not Kurdish or from that region. Surveys indicate that even if the fighting ends, half of the estimated 3.8 million Syrians (3.4 million registered and up to 400,000 unregistered) in Turkey intend to stay.
They may not all have that choice.
After seven years of advocating (if not always acting on) an open-door approach for Syrians escaping the war, senior Turkish officials are increasingly speaking of returns. Elections loom in 2019, the economy is in trouble, and communal tensions are growing, especially in working-class areas where Syrian refugees and poor Turks vie for scant affordable housing and jobs.
[Map of Syrian refugee and displacement numbers by country]
That appears to be why Turkey’s military incursion into Afrin, initially touted as an anti-terror mission, is receiving some new spin. In a February speech, Erdoğan, who not long ago was suggesting citizenship for all Syrian refugees, said Turkey couldn’t go on hosting them forever.
“We’ll solve the Afrin incident, we’ll solve [Syrian rebel-held] Idlib, and we would like our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their own country,” he said.
It’s a U-turn that matches Turkey’s changing public opinion.
A recent study released by Istanbul’s Bilgi University found that 86.2 percent of respondents said Syrians should be returned after the war is over. This compares with a 2014 poll that showed only 38.9 percent of Turks agreeing with the statement: "Refugees are not a concern of Turkey and they should be sent back to their country”.
“This is a 180-degree change in perspective,” Serkan Demirtas, the Ankara bureau chief of Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper, told IRIN. “The government has realised that the stay of Syrians in Turkey will have a political and social cost, and that’s why they changed their rhetoric.”
When Adem Kiraz chats to customers in his Istanbul barbershop, the presence of Syrians in his neighbourhood is a frequent subject of conversation.
The city’s central Aksaray neighbourhood, where Kiraz, 42, has been cutting hair and trimming beards for 20 years, is home to many Syrian refugees. A plethora of shops and restaurants with signs in Arabic have opened there, earning the neighbourhood the nickname “Little Syria”.
“I don’t want Syrians to be permanent here,” said Kiraz, adding that his customers and neighbours felt the same way. “The government didn’t do well. Too many came. And yes, it will have an impact on my next vote.”
In Aksaray, Turkish citizens had few kind things to say about Syrian refugees who had settled in their neighbourhood. Even Kiraz, who employs a Syrian in his barbershop, thought it best if all the refugees left once the war ended.
“Both good and bad people came, but the bad people are in the majority,” he said. “They don’t work. They just wander around. They could join the [rebel] Free Syrian Army and fight for their country.”
The arrival of Syrians, he added, had lowered salaries and made life more expensive for Turkish citizens – a concern echoed by many tradesmen in the area.
“They created financial problems for us,” said Mesüt, 24, a tobacco vendor who declined to give his surname. “After they came, the rents went up. They work for low salaries, so they don’t have problems finding work, unlike [Turkish] people here.”