Blog post by Hafssa Fakher Elabiari, an independent researcher and consultant *

Unwelcome, Syrian refugees are facing increasing pressure to return home. The term ‘home’ conveys warmth and peace, but for Syrians, all the good memories linked to home have been erased by trauma, loss, and fear. The world is witnessing the emergence of an anti-Syrian narrative that translates into pressuring Syrian refugees to return to Syria and deporting some of them. In Denmark, for example, prolonging a residence permit has become a hurdle for many Syrian refugees due to the revocation of many applications. In fact, the Danish immigration service claims that the provinces of Damascus, Latakia, and Tartous are safe enough for the return of refugees. In Lebanon, the authorities have been leading a crackdown on Syrian refugees, deporting 600 since the beginning of 2023, and reinforcing the refugee-hostile climate that has long existed in Lebanon. In Türkiye, rising xenophobia, stigmatization and hatred towards Syrians have pushed some to ‘voluntarily’ return to Syria where starting a new life feels like a gambling game, except that in Syria, there are no chances of winning; there is either precarity, detention, torture, death, or all of these together.

The latest presidential elections have been associated with a normalization of hate speech towards refugees and foreigners. Indeed, the campaign of Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi’s Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu very much revolved around cards that appeal to a large part of the Turkish constituency: yabancılar (foreigners), mülteciler (refugees), and Suriyeliler (Syrians). In Istanbul, Türkiye’s most populated city, billboards displaying the infamous “Suriyeliler Gidecek” (Syrians will go) slogan flooded every corner. Similarly, right-wing Zafer Partisi, which vowed its support for Kılıçdaroğlu’s ‘promise’ to send refugees back home, presents Syrians as a security threat and claims that the presence of Syrian refugees inhibits the development of Türkiye. With this tense rhetoric that securitizes the ‘other’, misinformation has become tolerated, if not music to the ears of some. While it is true that the government has dissociated itself from the ‘anti-Syrianists’, it has not taken action to combat rampant hate speech. While the proliferation of xenophobia is detrimental to any society, it is of grave concern in Turkish society, where political and religious divisions have long existed.

Syria is a safe country

With 3.6 million Syrian refugees under Temporary Protection and more than 360,000 refugees and asylum seekers from various nationalities, Türkiye is the world’s largest refugee-hosting country. In close cooperation with the United Nations and the European Union (EU), Türkiye adopted an open-door policy (Açık Kapı Politikası) which, in accordance with the Refugee Convention, consists in accepting the entry of Syrians fleeing violence and persecution without entry requirements. Since Türkiye shares a border with the EU, the latter was interested in curbing the flow of migrants. So, it signed an agreement to financially support ‘buffer Türkiye’ in exchange for better border management and humanitarian assistance to refugees.

However, since 2018, Türkiye has been experiencing a serious economic crisis, caused by a mix of external and internal forces, and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the February 2023 earthquake. Notably, inflation and housing prices have been galloping such that the average Turkish citizen can now only afford basic necessities. Rent prices in Istanbul, Türkiye’s largest city, have recorded a 145.6 percent increase in 2022, making it difficult for many Turks to find housing that matches their demands and budget. In 2022 the parliament set a 25% increase limit for residential rent, but prices continue to rise drastically, mainly due to the continuous fall of the value of the Lira.

The deterioration of economic indicators fueled public discontent towards Erdoğan and his government, and nationalist print media capitalized on that to construct a narrative blaming Syrian refugees for the crisis. The most prominent case is Sözcü, a nationalist secularist daily newspaper with a large readership that has extensively published news on Syrians, ranging from neutral to negative. Examples of news articles include: “10 Syrians leave 6 Turkish citizens unemployed!” and “Syrian students will be hosted in a 5-star hotel for 5 days!”. While it is true that Temporary Protection does not grant refugees carte blanche to commit crimes in the host country with impunity, focusing disproportionately on incidents involving Syrians creates the illusion that they pose a particular threat to the safety of Turks and deplete resources without bringing anything to the table. Furthermore, right-wing politician Ümit Özdağ, leader of Zafer Partisi, has taken the anti-Syrian campaign to another level by positing that every problem Turks encounter is because Syrians ‘flooded’ the country. In several tweets, he promises that his party would end occupation and invasion (by Syrians) if it wins the upcoming 2024 local elections. With this, he posits himself as the savior of Turks from Syrian invaders.

Front page of Sözcü (July 10, 2023). The headline is a statement of CHP Hatay Mayor Lütfü Savaş: “The Syrian population in Hatay exceeds the Turks; we are losing our city.”

Picture accompanying a tweet by Ümit Özdağ. The writing says “demographic occupation”

Consequently, it is no surprise that this manipulation of information helped pave the road for anti-Syrian sentiment which quickly escalated into hatred, particularly among secular Turks. This escalation was manifest in protests against Syrians, attacks, some of which have been deadly, and allegations of torture by guards on the Turkish-Syrian border. Along with this, the misconception that war in Syria is over and that it is therefore time for refugees to leave has gained prominence due to widespread misinformation on the conflict and Syria’s admission into the Arab League. This misconception is particularly dangerous, and debunking the myth of Syria being safe is important.

Over the past five years, the Syrian regime has been attempting to sugarcoat its reputation by conducting a campaign portraying Syria as a safe country. Part of this campaign relied on the work of travel content creators, the majority of whom are from Europe and North America. Since 2019, an increasing number of content creators have been vlogging in Syria, showcasing a Syria that is safe only for foreigners and a tiny part of the population: hammams, savory food, hookah, and Syrian traditional clothing. To enter Syria, those vloggers usually obtain authorization and rely on the services of a local travel agency headquartered in Damascus, which include the services of a local guide and translator. While it is true that the intentions of those travel content creators are not always political in essence, the results are works erroneously showing a Syria that has recovered from a decade of conflict and foreign interference and started a chapter of peace; a Syria that was ravaged by war, true, but that war was orchestrated by foreign actors, not the Assad regime. Here, the regime is capitalizing on those narratives to blur the lines of accountability and dissociate itself from the ‘pariah regime’ label to enter the club of ‘normal regimes.’

Additionally, Assad sought normalization by Arab states, and he succeeded, at least in theory. In May 2023, the Arab League readmitted Syria to membership after an 11-year absence, despite the lack of key signs of goodwill such as the release of political detainees or transparency on the number and fate of disappeared people. Subsequently, Assad was among the attendees of the Arab League Summit held in Saudi Arabia. Readmission is creating a difficult time for Syrian refugees in Türkiye because it grants Assad legitimacy and signals that Arab states have no interest in bringing Assad to justice.

Debunking the myth of Syria’s safeness

Since 2019, armed clashes have decreased in Syria, but three realities continue to exist which make the country unsafe for the return of Syrian refugees. The first is that kidnappings, arbitrary detention, torture, and extra-judicial killings remain common practices. While the exact numbers are unknown due to the opacity of detention facilities, it is believed that thousands of people are still in the hands of the regime or armed groups. According to the International Commission on Missing Persons, more than 130,000 persons are currently either detained or forcibly disappeared. Families of missing persons are still seeking justice for their loved ones. One prominent example is the case of journalist and activist Wafa Ali Mustafa, whose father has been in the hands of the Assad regime since 2013. According to the Syrian Network on Human Rights (SNHR), the regime’s security forces continue their policy of arbitrary arrests and detentions against citizens who have particular political opinions. Note that the kidnappings and the subsequent torture (and probably killings) involve action from many government bodies such as military hospitals and the interior ministry. Similarly, armed groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham are also detaining civilians for their public opinion and taking them to unknown places. In April 2023, for example, the SNHR documents that more than 158 arrests and/ or detentions took place, including of children and women.

Second, the humanitarian situation is appalling, with nearly 70% of the population (15 million) in need of humanitarian assistance. The situation has worsened with the earthquake and the government’s obstruction of the free passage of humanitarian assistance to the earthquake-hit areas. Health conditions are also not promising. The cholera outbreak in 2022 shed light on a myriad of structural problems: lack of access to safe water and food, destroyed health infrastructure, and lack of medical services. These factors mean that climate shocks have a far greater impact in Syria in comparison with a stable country. In the context of protracted armed conflict, climate change tends to be a risk multiplier in the sense that it deepens the humanitarian needs of fragile communities.

Third, Syria is still a battlefield of competition among internal and external actors. Türkiye continues to attack The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State across the Syrian border. Additionally, Russia and Israel continue striking civilian infrastructure such as medical facilities and schools, with the former targeting so-called Iranian proxies. Iran, in turn, has maintained a strong military presence, and its influence has grown unchecked. The US also conducts regular attacks both on Al Qaeda and Iran-aligned groups and to protect its personnel in Syria. While the intervening actors have distinct interests, they are linked by the fact that, oftentimes, their strikes target civilians and infrastructure, either on purpose or as collateral damage. Finally, various pro-regime and anti-regime armed groups engage in regular clashes.

So, is Syria safe for the return of Syrian refugees? The short answer is no, and Syrians who have managed to build a life outside Syria are well aware of this fact. The majority have had a loved one arrested, detained, tortured, and/or killed. As such, their concerns about their safety and fear of persecution are well-founded. In this situation, the Refugee Convention has a lot to say, especially amid the growing pressures on Syrian refugees.

Non-Refoulement, Voluntary Return: what do we misunderstand?

According to Article 33 of the Refugee Convention, refugee-hosting countries do not have the right to expel or deport refugees when the same conditions that had initially caused the flight continue to exist. The principle of non-refoulement, inherent to the Convention, prohibits states from expelling refugees where their human rights would be violated, and maintains that “no reservations or derogations may be made to it,” except when a refugee presents a risk for the security of the hosting country. Also, the principle of non-refoulement prohibits states from taking measures that put pressure on refugees to leave the country. In Türkiye, the presidential campaign of Kılıçdaroğlu has very much revolved around returning Syrians back to Syria and removing naturalization through investment. The slogan “Suriyeliler Gidecek,” placed on billboards, has become a nightmare for Syrian refugees, particularly those living in precarity. This, coupled with increasing racism and pressure, has pushed many Syrians to go back to Syria or seek refuge in a different country.

Picture taken by the author in Avcılar, Istanbul, on May 23rd, 2023

Picture taken by the author in Büyükçekmece, Istanbul, on May 24th, 2023

The Refugee Convention reserves the right for refugees to voluntarily return to their home countries. Voluntary return is when a refugee takes the decision to leave the host country to return to the country of origin, transit, or third country. We speak of voluntary return if the refugee does not undergo any kind of pressure (e.g., physical, psychological) to apply for voluntary return, and makes an informed decision based on accurate and unbiased information. So, the bottom line is that not all Syrian refugees who ‘voluntarily’ left Türkiye, Jordan, or Lebanon did so voluntarily. Many applied due to the increasingly tight and unwelcoming environment in their host countries. Another aspect is that voluntary return should satisfy the conditions of safety and dignity, and that is the primary responsibility of countries of origin. Here, return is part of a complex process that should be followed by reintegration, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. This is valid for any refugee, notably Syrians, many of whom left years ago after which Syria underwent drastic transformations.

In Türkiye, officials like former İnterior minister Süleyman Soylu and former foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu mentioned that Türkiye would not deport Syrian refugees, but would instead guarantee voluntary return. Accordingly, Ankara, in collaboration with civil society organizations and the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), has been engaged in a multiphase project to build houses and essential infrastructure in various Syrian regions, including those controlled by Assad, to encourage Syrians to voluntarily go back home. In 2022, it completed more than 60,000 houses in the province of Idlib, and is committed to building more in Idlib and also in other provinces. But is this enough to ensure a voluntary return that meets the standards of safety and dignity?

The short answer is that Türkiye’s housing project is one factor for safe return among many others, and certainly not the first one. The primary concern is security, which is not limited to the decrease or even cessation of bombing but is instead a process that is contingent on three conditions. First, violence and the threat of violence should end throughout the country, but this is difficult to achieve because many internal and external actors control parts of Syria, and each has its own agenda and power. Russia, for example, abuses its position as a permanent member at the UN Security Council and vetoes UN attempts to bring Assad to justice. Second, an independent judiciary is essential for the return of refugees. However, the security services continue to interfere in the judiciary by intimidating prosecutors and lawyers and denying fair trials. Third, substantial progress needs to be achieved at the level of the International Court of Justice, and countries that exercise universal jurisdiction have a critical role to play. France and Germany have already been leading a series of trials against high level Assad regime agents for committing crimes against humanity. The Netherlands should follow suit, especially because it has been reported that dozens of Syrian agents, allegedly involved in torture, are present on Dutch soil and thus eligible for prosecution.

So, the bottom line is that simply returning to the country of origin is the very first step of a long process that requires, in the first stance, the responsibility of the country of origin, followed by efforts by the international community. That being said, infrastructure without security does not provide much value for Syrian refugees in Türkiye or elsewhere.

Concluding Remarks: Recommendations for the Turkish government

The recent presidential elections showed that xenophobia is widespread in Turkish society, and that hate speech is fueling the political and religious divisions that have polarized Turks since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Indeed, Kılıçdaroğlu portrayed the elections as an opportunity for the secularist CHP to save the Turkish nation from religious Erdoğan whose open-door policy flooded Türkiye with refugees and foreigners. This reality is wobbling the unity of Turkish society from within, with history providing ample evidence of the short path from xenophobia to violence.

Therefore, not only because of its Convention obligations towards refugees, but because of this grave threat to Turkish society, the government should take action to combat hate speech against refugees and foreigners. First, the government should capitalize on the fact that it controls major television channels like TRT to launch sensitization campaigns. Topics should include the reasons why refugees flee their countries, the risks that Syrian refugees face if they return home, and the dangers of xenophobic discourse. Second, the Ministry of Education should offer training and workshops to school staff to promote respect and cohesion among students, regardless of their identity. This is critical because many Syrian children are subject to peer-bullying at school by some of their Turkish peers. This will help counter any misconceptions and stigma taught to children either on the street or at home. Third, the government should adopt laws that criminalize hate speech in public spaces and social media. Fourth, it should work in collaboration with non-governmental organizations that are committed to human rights and the protection of refugees. Finally, the Turkish government should call on Arab countries that dispose of political stability and economic strength to deploy greater efforts for responsibility-sharing. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, have tremendous capabilities to ease the burden on Türkiye, but they are not signatories of the Refugee Convention, and that allows them to turn a blind eye on the massive flows of refugees in the Middle East. Specifically, a person fleeing war and persecution can enter the Saudi Arabia or the UAE under the so-called Kafala system, but they would be considered migrants rather than refugees which exposes them to a wide array of vulnerabilities.

Nonetheless, Syria is not safe, and forcing Syrians to leave under the banner of voluntary return is a violation of the Refugee Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Being a refugee has never been a choice, and for some Syrian refugees, crossing the deadly Mediterranean is more appealing than returning back home. It is true that the chances of reaching European shores safely are low, but that does not deter them because, in Syria, it is all dark. There is nothing but trauma, loss, fear, and Assad.

* Hafssa Fakher Elabiaris research focuses on vulnerable persons and civilian behavior during armed conflict. She holds a BA in International Studies from Al Akhawayn University and an MSc in Political Science from Leiden University. She tweets @hafssafakher.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.