Turkey's President Erdogan clarifies controversial Syrian refugee plan after criticism

Turkey has hosted one of the largest refugee populations in the world since the Syrian civil war began in 2011

The Boynuyogun refugee camp in Hatay, Turkey, on September 16, 2019, which houses around 8,500 refugees from northern Syria. Getty
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been forced to clarify a plan to repatriate one million Syrian refugees who have sought refuge in the country, following the decade-long civil war that displaced around 12 million Syrians.

Mr Erdogan reiterated at a meeting with the Turkish business community on Monday that Syrians in Turkey would not be forced to return to their home country and would be “protected until the end” if they wished to remain.

Turkey hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world, with around four million Syrian refugees taking refuge in the country.

Parts of northern and central Syria still see sporadic violence between the regime of Bashar Al Assad and militant Syrian rebel groups. Many refugees say they do not want to return, fearing security forces could detain them for suspected sympathy for rebels.

But since 2016, Turkish forces have occupied parts of Syria after staging a number of military operations to counter Syrian-Kurdish militia forces, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and the terror group ISIS.

Those areas, dubbed “safe zones” by Turkey, are a mixture of Kurdish majority areas occupied by Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebel groups, who are funded and trained by Ankara, as well as Arab majority areas around the governorate of Idlib and parts of Aleppo.

“We will protect these brothers who have fled war to the end,” Mr Erdogan said on Monday in Istanbul. “They may go if they wish, but we will never chase them away. We won’t throw them onto the laps of murderers.”

Ankara has since spent about $100 billion on housing, medical care and schooling for Syrians over more than a decade, as it opposed the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

But support for that policy has fallen as a surging cost-of-living crisis engulfs ordinary Turks, and the debate is set to intensify ahead of elections next year.

Mr Erdogan said last week the government wanted to enable the voluntary return of one million Syrians to areas secured by Turkish and allied forces in northern Syria.

That kicked off criticism by opponents including the main opposition Republican People’s Party, which said the president was making a U-turn on his refugee policy to appease voters.

On Monday, Erdogan urged his business audience to contribute to building homes for migrants that wished to go back.

Updated: May 10, 2022, 7:54 AM