Why is Turkey Pushing Refugees to Return to Syria?

Erdogan’s controversial proposal responds to shifting public opinion and his desire for a buffer zone on his southern border, says Fletcher School professor

For nearly eight years, Turkey has welcomed refugees from neighboring Syria, hosting some four to five million—the largest number of refugees in a single country in the world—and footing most of the bill. But Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is now advancing a controversial proposal to send refugees back to Syria, arguing that up to three million of them could be resettled in an expanded safe zone in the northern part of that country.

Such repatriation, if forced, would be both “illegal and impractical,” according to Karen Jacobsen, the Henry J. Leir Professor of Global Migration at The Fletcher School at Tufts. But the plan reflects growing discontent among Turkey’s citizens, she said—and perhaps a long-term plan by the country’s president to use the refugees as pawns in negotiations for other political goals.

Erdogan wants to create a safe zone as much as twenty miles deep along Turkey’s southern border “as a buffer between Syrian President Assad’s regime and Turkey and also as a buffer against the Kurds,” Jacobsen said. Since the late 1970s, Kurdish insurgent groups have fought Turkish forces, pushing for an independent, autonomous state in the region and for greater rights for Kurds within Turkey. In northern Syria, Kurds have conceded to a limited zone patrolled by U.S. and Turkish ground and aerial forces, but fear that an expansion of the zone could displace them. Erdogan has pressed the United States to clear the area of Kurdish fighters so that Syrians can be repatriated there, and has also threatened to “open the gates” for refugees to enter Europe if he does not receive either additional European financial support for hosting Syrians in Turkey or international backing for his resettlement plan.

Watch as Karen Jacobsen explains why Turkey is seeking to push out Syrian refugees. Video: 5 to 9 Media LLC

After an October 6 phone call between Erdogan and President Trump, the U.S. announced it would withdraw its forces from northern Syria, effectively abandoning the Kurds and clearing the way for an expected Turkish incursion. The Kurds, who have fought alongside U.S. forces to defeat ISIS, called the abrupt change in U.S. policy a betrayal. Facing sharp bipartisan criticism, Trump backpedaled, but didn’t detail how the policy would change.    

How the withdrawal of U.S. troops might affect Syrian refugees is unclear. Turkey has granted temporary safe haven to millions of Syrians fleeing the war in their country, calling them guests rather than refugees. But many Turks see this hospitality as having stretched Turkey beyond its means, while richer nations have not done their share.

Tufts Now spoke with Jacobsen to understand Erdogan’s change in policy toward Syrians.

Tufts Now: Why is Turkey’s leader pushing to repatriate Syrians?

Karen Jacobsen: Many think that Erdogan will not send refugees back. It’s difficult, impossible to send four million back and he wouldn’t even try that.

What he really wants is this enclave in northern Syria. He says he wants that enclave to be turned into a place where refugees can return to, but in fact, what he wants is to have this enclave as a buffer between Syrian President Assad’s regime and Turkey, and also as a buffer against the Kurds, who are presently in this enclave area, allied with the U.S. forces there.

So, one perspective on this is that Erdogan is using refugees as leverage to push the international community to set up this enclave, which was originally suggested by President Trump back in April. Erdogan is threatening Europe with releasing refugees, with no longer preventing them from going to Europe, and he’s threatening to send refugees back to Syria, as leverage to get his ultimate goal.

Could he force Syrians to return to their country?

We hope that he does not send back refugees, because it would be a violation of international law, but also very unlikely that it would be successful. It’s both illegal and impractical.

Watch as Karen Jacobsen explains about countries’ obligations to refugees. Video: 5 to 9 Media LLC

Are host countries, or potential host countries, allowed to reject refugees or send them home?

Countries are not allowed to reject refugees at the border if they make a request to be admitted on the basis of fear of persecution, and countries are also not allowed to force refugees, once they are inside the country, back across the border. That is called non-refoulement. Most countries, even if they’ve not signed onto refugee conventions, abide by this norm of non-refoulement, and do not force back people across the border. In cases where that has happened, there’s been widespread condemnation. Openly at least, most countries only force people back under unusual circumstances. Of course, what happens outside the media spotlight is another story.

What’s motivating Erdogan to act now?

Turkey claims to have spent 40 billion euros on refugees in the last seven years, and many in Turkey have become tired of hosting so many refugees and believe they should start going back. It’s likely that Erdogan lost the election in Istanbul in June this year because people were opposed to what they see as his pro-refugee policy. Erdogan may now be adjusting to this political shift in Turkey and threatening to send refugees back.

Is this backlash against refugees to be expected in countries like Turkey that are bearing the brunt of hosting those displaced by the war in Syria?

History shows a well-established pattern: as the number of refugees and the length of time they remain in a host country grows, the citizens of that country become less willing to provide for them. Turkey, Lebanon—which hosts one and a half million refugees—and Jordan, with 700,000, have hosted Syrian refugees since 2012, with the number growing each year. If history is our guide, there will be a backlash, and in Turkey I think we are seeing it.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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