Istanbul, Türkiye – As Turks prepare to head to the polls in the presidential runoff, the country’s millions of Syrian refugees are watching anxiously, uncertain how the outcome will affect their future.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu will face off in the second round of voting on Sunday after both sides Did not secure a majority in the first round of voting on May 14. Erdogan won 49.5 percent and Kilidaroglu 44.9 percent.
Immigration has been at the heart of the election. Amid the campaign, several opposition politicians have pledged to deport refugees and migrants, while the government has highlighted its plans to press ahead with what it calls “voluntary” repatriations of Syrians.
According to the United Nations, Turkey hosts 3.7 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. Refugees and migrants, especially Syrians, were under increasing pressure amid an economic crisis of soaring inflation, plunging lira and tightening living costs a year before the poll.
The situation has left many Syrians in Turkey deeply concerned about their future in the country.
“I don’t know what will happen after the election,” said Habib, 23, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
“them [politicians] Said they wanted to send all the Syrians back. We are all anxious during this period,” said the man who was displaced by the war in Syria eight years ago and now lives in Istanbul.
rise of nationalism
According to the UN refugee agency, the vast majority of refugees in Turkey – 3.6 million – are Syrians living under “temporary protection status”. Some 200,000 Syrians have been granted Turkish citizenship since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, government figures show.
While Turkey initially welcomed refugees, using billions of euros in EU funding to provide housing and education opportunities, anti-refugee sentiment has grown in recent years and refugees have been scapegoated for Turkey’s economic woes, which has occasionally led to violence.
Muhammad Siddik Yasar, head of the Istanbul refugee solidarity group Tarlabaşı Solidarity Association, said anti-refugee sentiment had intensified in the run-up to the election.
“Being a refugee means you are here today, but you cannot guarantee tomorrow,” he told Al Jazeera.
“People are asking what we should do. They’re worried that racism will increase after the election. I’ve been working with refugees for years, but I’ve never seen anything like this year,” he said.
Anti-refugee sentiment was on the rise at the ballot box in the first round of elections, with nationalists showing strong performances, especially far-right nationalist presidential candidate Sinan Ogan, who won a surprise 5.2% of the vote.
Organ is running as a candidate for the ATA (Ancestors) coalition, led by the anti-immigration, ultra-nationalist Victory party. He has since backed Erdogan.
“Ogun is an interesting and important phenomenon in Turkish politics,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“He only rallied on one issue, which was an anti-refugee, anti-immigrant platform. No media access, no rallies, basically no money, and he got 5 percent,” Cagaptay said.
Kilicdaroglu, backed by a broad opposition coalition, has doubled down on deportations since the first round.
“Erdogan, you failed to protect our country’s borders and honor,” he said last week. “As soon as I come to power, I will send all the refugees home.”
In an apparent sign of warming relations between the two countries, the government has pushed ahead with talks with Damascus in the face of opposition attacks on migrants.
The foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria and Iran met in Moscow this month as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to broker a reconciliation between Turkey and the Syrian government after years of confrontation over the Syrian war and numerous Turkish military operations in northern Syria.
For his part, Assad has demanded that Turkey withdraw from the territory it controls in northwestern Syria.
The talks came as several regional leaders moved to normalize relations with Assad. In mid-May, Syria was re-admitted to the Arab League after its membership was suspended for more than a decade.
Kilicdaroglu has said he intends to restore relations with Assad, while Erdogan has previously said he may meet with Assad for talks.
In addition to moving toward a potential reconciliation, Erdogan’s government has pushed ahead with plans for “voluntary settlement” of refugees in areas of Syria under Turkish security control.
“We have built more than 100,000 homes [refugees] In northern Syria,” Erdogan told a youth conference of his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) this month. “Gradually, Syrian refugees began to settle in these settlements. “
“There is no time limit on this issue,” Erdogan added. “We do our best to support and help them in this regard.”
According to the Turkish Interior Ministry, nearly 58,000 Syrians returned to their home country from November 2021 to October last year.
In a 2022 report, Human Rights Watch documented the deportations of hundreds of people between February and July last year in what the government said were voluntary departures.
As the war continues, many Syrians are wary of the prospect of returning to their homeland. Habib said he feared being drafted into the army if he were to return to Syria.
“If I was transferred to Bashar [al-Assad]I would be in a very critical condition and my family would have no one to support them,” he said.
“There is no quick and easy solution to Turkey’s immigration problem,” said Salim Chevik, a research fellow at the Center for Applied Turkish Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“It is impossible to introduce a repatriation policy in the short term,” he said. “A more realistic policy might find a way to integrate them into Turkish society. But that’s something no politician can say in public.”