Millions of Syrians have fled their country since the crisis began in 2011. Individual reasons for leaving vary, though ultimately many feared for their safety in a country where their lives are endangered, whether by their opposition to the Assad regime, the takeover of their homes and communities by armed groups such as Daesh or the SDG/YPG, or the dire economic circumstances and difficult living conditions that have resulted from over a decade of conflict.
According to official UNHCR figures as of 31 December 2022, 6.6 million Syrians have left Syria since 2011. Of these, 5.5 million are found in neighboring countries: 3,535,898 in Türkiye, 814,715 in Lebanon, 660,892 in Jordan, and 258,541 in Iraq. These numbers, however, cover only those who have been registered — the true number is likely to be far higher. In addition to those who fled the country, 6.7 million have been internally displaced according to UNHCR.
In 2015-2016 tens of thousands of Syrians (and other nationalities) pushed their way into Europe, to an unprepared and overwhelmed European Union. We witnessed a human tragedy, as many people, including babies and children, perished in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, as people of all ages tried to make their way to the West.
The Turkey-EU agreement of 18 March 2015 eased the tension, decreasing the number of Syrians and others trying to make their way into Europe. The EU managed to externalize the problem to a large extent and smuggling was reduced. Nevertheless, the impact of the migration wave in many ways changed the domestic political landscape in many EU countries, shifting politics to the right and allowing xenophobic, racist approaches to gain ground.
In Türkiye, the issue of Syrians has now become connected to domestic politics. According to the UNHCR, Türkiye hosts the largest number of displaced Syrians in the world, under “temporary protection”. While Syrians were settled at first in camps, over time, as their numbers increased, they settled in cities and towns all over the country.
The “Syrian Barometer” in Türkiye provides a detailed survey of the opinions of Syrians and their sentiments toward staying and returning. According to its reports, the number of Syrians who thought that there is a future in Türkiye declined from 62% in 2020 to 31.2% in 2021. Syrians are increasingly worried about their future in Türkiye and are increasingly looking to move to a third country. The number of Syrians who said that they do not plan to return to Syria under any circumstances has remained the same, but with the caveat that some said “I would return if the war in Syria ends and if an administration we want is formed.” However, returns to the “safe zones” appeared to be extremely unpopular. Security concerns in Syria are at the forefront of the reasons why Syrians do not want to return.
Turkish politics was largely unaffected by this issue until the municipal elections in 2019, after which it has become one of the top election issues. While there are many reasons for this, I believe the main reasons are as follows:
Zafer Partisi (Victory Party) is very new on the Turkish political stage, and its political campaign has been based on sending Syrians and other communities (such as Afghans) “back to their homelands”. The positive response that Zafer Partisi has found among the Turkish public has pushed the ruling party and its supporters (AKP and MHP), as well as opposition parties (such as the CHP and İYİ Parti) to take clearer positions on the issue of foreign communities in Türkiye.
Turkish opposition parties generally oppose the government’s policies on Syria, believing that Türkiye’s interference in Syria has been a major mistake and that the war is over and Syrians in Türkiye can return to their country. To do so, they believe that Türkiye needs to start a dialogue with the Assad regime, pursuing reconciliation and cooperation to ensure the safe return of Syrians, based on burden and responsibility sharing in cooperation with the United Nations and members of the international community.
The Erdoğan government began its policy toward Syrians with the slogans of an “open door policy” and “ensar culture”. But in time, the government took a new approach of creating safe zones within Syria and building houses to encourage returns, as well as coming up with new rules and regulations with strict implementation within Türkiye. The Turkish government is now trying to show to the Turkish population, and its electorate, that it is taking the issue very seriously and working on trying concrete steps, highlighting its creation of so-called “safe zones” in northern Syria as well as projects to build houses and necessary infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals.
Furthermore, the Turkish government has initiated a process of political engagement with the Assad regime, with the encouragement, guidance, and cooperation of Russia. This is a significant shift in the Turkish government’s Syria policy. Why has this change come to this point? The upcoming election is surely a major cause. The government’s Syria policies are criticized even by many of its supporters. What should happen with the Syrians in Türkiye, as well as security issues, are at the forefront of political debate. The government felt the need to counter this situation, as its previous policies did not bring about the desired results.
No one can say for sure how the process between Türkiye and the Assad regime will end. There are many issues to be addressed and many difficulties to be overcome. Here, I limit my thoughts and comments to the issue of returns. The solution to the problem is basically at its source: that is, the political situation in Syria, and whether Syrians regard Syria as a safe place to which they can return. Returnees must be sure that they will not be detained, arrested, tortured, or killed when they are back in their country. Reports indicate that present-day Syria is not at that point. While Assad has called on Syrians to come back and has declared several amnesties, these steps have not had the desired effect because a vast majority of Syrians abroad do not believe in Assad’s sincerity. Asad’s presence is by itself a major deterrent for the return of many. Furthermore, the economic and social conditions in Syria, in particular in regime areas, are terrible, discouraging returns. Food, electricity, fuel, and other basic commodities are scarce, and people are barely surviving.
The Lebanese experience gives us an idea of the shortcomings, concerns, and what needs to be done when it comes to returns. Lebanon has been under enormous domestic political and economic strain for the last few years. Its government came up with a “repatriation plan” for its 1.5 million Syrians. The plan was supposed to address the problem with a voluntary, safe, and secure return mechanism whereby Syrians who wish to go back would register with Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security, following which their names would be sent to Syrian security authorities for security clearance. Those who receive clearance would be able to return to Syria and continue their lives.
However, the process has largely not been a success. Few have sought to return to the country, and a number of returnees who were cleared were detained on their arrival in Syria, with their current whereabouts unknown. There is no mechanism to monitor what happens to people once they are inside Syria, and some have since returned to Lebanon after experiencing difficult living conditions there. Furthermore, no international organization is part of this scheme.
The issue of return is a very serious challenge for everyone, and it includes humanitarian, security, economic, and social dimensions. The return of Syrians will be more feasible if they feel Syria is a safe place to return to. A political solution with the involvement of the United Nations and the international community as guarantors and economic and humanitarian support programs are needed to make Syria a livable place.