Some Syrian refugees say they would rather remain in Turkey

About 350,000 Syrians have opted to return home since 2016, according to Turkish officials

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Some of the refugees who are being sent back to Syria from Turkey say they are going because it has become impossible for them to remain in the country, contradicting official claims that they are leaving “at their own request”.

In the Istanbul district of Esenyurt last week, a group of 143 Syrians were loading their belongings on to five buses before being taken back to their country.

Among them was Ali, a 20-year-old from Damascus who said his residence permit expired five months ago and the government did not renew it.

He said he had spent four years in Turkey during which his father died of natural causes in Syria. He will be leaving behind his mother and two sisters, as well as other relatives.

“I had a job here. I was working in construction. Yes, I was underpaid, but I could take care of my family,” said Ali, who asked that his real name not be used.

“My employer would like to keep me working for him but he would get fined as I don’t have a permit anymore. Tell me what I could I do? I have to leave. What other option do I have? I would get into trouble if I stayed," he said.

“My biggest fear is that once I arrive in Syria they will take me into the army.”

About 3.6 million Syrians are estimated to have fled across the border to Turkey since civil war broke out in their country in 2011. The size of the Syrian refugee population has caused some friction in Turkish communities.

Turkey says about 350,000 Syrians have returned home since 2016, after it launched the first of three military incursions into Syria to clear border areas of ISIS militants and a Kurdish militia. The authorities insist that the returns are voluntary, and that those going home are doing so by choice. However, rights groups say many were coerced to leave and to sign documents saying that they were doing so voluntarily, charges the government denies.

Esenyurt, which has a population of more than half a million people, is home to about 60,000 registered Syrian refugees and it is thought there is an equal number who are are unregistered.

Kemal Deniz Bozkurt, the newly elected mayor of Esenyurt from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said the municipality hosts nearly 200,000 refugees in total, with Afghans and other nationalities adding to the new Syrian population.

“There are many Syrian nationals and other immigrants and from time to time their existence has a negative effect on the lives of our local citizens. There are limits to being a guest. When these limits have passed people start to complain. By doing this [sending Syrians home] we are eliminating disturbances among our local population,” Mr Bozkut said.

Almost 7,000 Syrians have been sent back from Esenyurt alone since the repatriations began in March 2017 with a group of 35 people. The numbers began rising after the military operation to drive Kurdish forces out of the Syrian city of Afrin a year later.

“This service will continue and requests from Syrian refugees to leave will be fulfilled,” said Mr Bozkurt, noting that the cost of the repatriations was being covered by the municipality and that financial support has been provided to those who could not support themselves.

“Our Syrian citizens want to return to their motherland. We help them," he said.

Families say they are given amounts ranging from 200 Turkish lira (Dh127) to 250 lira.

Jamal, in his early 30s, who was boarding one of the buses in Esenyurt with his family, said they did not want to leave but were left with no choice after his permit was not renewed.

“This is my daughter, she is one year old. She was born here – why do we have to leave?” he said.

"We are 50 per cent Turkish now."