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Migrant Lives

How An Erdogan-Assad Truce Could Trigger A New Migrant Crisis At Europe's Border

In Turkey, resentment against Syrian refugees is growing. And President Erdogan – once their patron – is now busy seeking good relations with the man the Syrians fled, the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

How An Erdogan-Assad Truce Could Trigger A New Migrant Crisis At Europe's Border

A Syrian refugee working as a trash collector in Gaziantep, Turkey

Carolina Drüten

ISTANBUL — At some point, they'd simply had enough. Enough of the hostilities, the insecurity, the attacks. In a group on the messenger service Telegram, Syrians living in Turkey called for a caravan – a march to the Turkish-Greek border, and then crossing into the European Union.

Tens of thousands of users are now following updates from the group, in which the organizers are asking Syrian refugees in Arabic to equip themselves with sleeping bags, tents, life jackets, drinking water, canned food and first aid kits. The AFP news agency spoke to an organizer who wants to remain anonymous because of possible reprisals. "We will let you know when it's time to leave," said the 46-year-old Syrian engineer.

Refugees in Turkey feel increasingly unwelcome. The mood in the country is at times openly hostile. Less than a year before Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, many politicians are escalating their rhetoric. Time and again, they turn into attacks.

And President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who long acted as the patron saint of refugees, is seeking rapprochement with the man from whom Syrians once fled: Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. As a result, more and more people now want to make their way to the EU.

Physical attacks on the rise

When the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, many Turks welcomed their fleeing neighbors with open arms. Turkey has taken in the most refugees in the world, with almost four million people with protection status registered in the country. An enormous achievement. But while a welcoming culture prevailed in the beginning, most Turks would now prefer to get rid of their supposed guests.

A 2021 survey by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) found that 48% of respondents thought Syrians "should definitely be sent back." Another third thought Syrian refugees should be placed in so-called safe zones in Syria. President Erdogan is also a proponent of such zones.

According to a poll conducted this year by the Metropoll Institute, nearly 82% of Turks want Syrians to return home, while two-thirds feel they are a burden. Meanwhile, attacks are becoming more frequent, some of them fatal.

In early September, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee was stabbed to death by a group of locals in Hatay, a province in southern Turkey. In June, two young Syrians were reportedly killed in two separate incidents in Istanbul.

And last summer, an angry mob attacked Syrian-run stores in the capital, Ankara. "Such physical attacks are on the rise," says Metin Corabatir, president of the Research Center for Asylum and Migration in Turkey (IGAM). "This creates great fear among refugees. And there is a tendency to leave Turkey for the West."

Syrian refugees in a camp outside of the city of Azaz on Syria's northern border with Turkey

Samir Abed/APA Images/ZUMA

Money from Brussels for refugee deal

The election campaign is adding fuel to the fire. Turks will elect a new parliament and president no later than June next year. The opposition, in particular, is riling up the Syrians.

Meral Aksener, leader of the nationalist IYI party, recently said Turkey has become a "migrant camp" and "almost a dumping ground for Europeans." She is alluding to the refugee agreement between Turkey and the EU, based on which Ankara prevents people from traveling further and provides for them in its own country. In return, they receive money from Brussels.

Should her party come to power as part of the opposition alliance, she would send the Syrians back within three years, Aksener said – preferably as part of an agreement with Syrian President Assad. Otherwise, the people would have to stay in camps near the border. Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Kemalist CHP, who could run as the opposition's joint candidate against Erdogan, also repeatedly promises to send back the refugees.

Erdogan feels compelled to act.

President Erdogan usually strikes more moderate tones. For a long time, he presented himself as the patron saint of the refugees, appealing to the solidarity of the Turkish population with the "Syrian brother people." But politically he is coming under increasing pressure. According to polls, the gap between his AKP and the opposition is closing.

In addition, his country is suffering from a currency crisis, and inflation of over 80% is causing problems for many Turks. Add to that public displeasure with the Syrians, and Erdogan feels compelled to act.

For a long time, he has been promoting a so-called protection zone in northern Syria, south of the Turkish border. That would solve two of his problems at once: pushing back Kurdish groups and creating a space in which Syrians from Turkey could be settled. This is already happening in part, but not yet on a large scale.

At the same time, he draws closer to his former nemesis: the Syrian dictator Assad. Erdogan once called him a "terrorist" with whom there could never be peace in Syria. But last month he suddenly spoke of political dialogue and diplomacy – a strategic U-turn. According to media reports, there have already been several meetings between the Turkish and Syrian secret services in recent weeks.

Erdogan and Assad, all smiles back in the day 

photo of erdogan and Assad shaking hands and smiling

Erdogan and Assad in Damascus, Syria in 2010

Xinhua via ZUMA

A Turkish tragedy that also concerns Europe

This development contributes to the feeling of insecurity among Syrians, says migration expert Corabatir. However, he sees major obstacles to possible cooperation between the Syrian and Turkish governments.That's because Damascus is demanding that Turkish military forces leave Syrian soil and also stop supporting parts of the Syrian opposition – demands that are unacceptable to Erdogan.

Despite the hardship felt by many refugees in Turkey, "calling for a march, a convoy or a caravan is obviously not a solution," Corabatir said. Hundreds of people have reportedly already made their way to the Turkish border in Syria, with Europe as their destination, but have been stopped by militias.

The UNHCR has warned against joining the caravan. It called on people not to risk their lives and those of their families and children. It is still unclear so far whether a larger group will actually start moving or not.

A few days ago, a message from the organizers spread, according to which they were waiting for permission from the Turkish authorities. "Since the convoy will start moving from Turkish territory, it is imperative that we comply with Turkish law," it said.

Corabatir, meanwhile, worries about scenes similar to those in early 2020, when Erdogan unilaterally declared the border with Greece open and thousands of refugees set off. Greek border guards repelled the people with sometimes brutal means.

Corabatir remembers some refugees who dared to make the journey at that time. "They sold their second- and third-hand refrigerators to cover their expenses for the journey to the Greek border," he says. "What little property they had, they lost. Trying again would also end in such a tragedy." A tragedy that, in the end, also concerns Europe.

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Photo of people on a passenger ferry on the Bosphorus, with Istanbul in the background

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