Amid increasing public discontent with the rising number of refugees in Turkey, Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his election ally Devlet Bahçeli have signaled a change of stance on the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland.
According to UNHCR Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide, currently home to some 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees along with close to 320,000 persons of concern from other nationalities.
Erdoğan, who long pursued an open-door policy toward refugees, said at a meeting with ambassadors at AKP headquarters in Ankara on Monday evening that his government is making efforts for the dignified return of Syrians to their homeland.
He said Turkey is temporarily hosting 5 million displaced people, 3.5 million of whom are Syrians, adding, “No matter how alone we have been left [to handle refugees], we are making our best efforts for the voluntary and dignified return of our Syrian sisters and brothers to their homeland.”
Following Erdoğan, his election ally, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Bahçeli, who spoke at his party’s weekly parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, said uncontrolled migration is like an occupation and should be prevented.
Bahçeli said as soon as the harsh conditions that led to the displacement of the Syrian people from their land are eliminated, having them return to their homeland voluntarily and safely should be Turkey’s main goal.
The MHP leader also talked about widespread criticism of Syrians in Turkey regarding their short trips to Syria to see their relatives on religious holidays, saying there’s no need for those who go to Syria for the upcoming Eid al-Fitr holiday to come back to Turkey.
“As long as the fire in Syria is extinguished, they should be reunited with their [families] under Turkey’s assurances,” he added.
Erdoğan and Bahçeli’s remarks about the return of Syrian refugees to Syria come at a time when public surveys show their parties losing significant support amid a financial crisis in the country.
Turkey is currently in the middle of an economic crisis as consumer prices accelerated to an annual rate of 61.14 percent, up from 54.4 percent in February. The refugees are blamed for many of Turkey’s social and economic troubles.
Unlike Erdoğan and Bahçeli, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, however, has long been promising to send Syrian refugees back to their homes in Syria if his party comes to power.
“We will send our Syrian brothers and sisters to their country with [fanfare] in two years at the latest. We want them to go to home willingly,” Kılıçdaroğlu said in January, adding that his future government would prepare the groundwork for the departure of the Syrians.
Turkish media including pro-government and opposition outlets as well as politicians like Kılıçdaroğlu are accused of fueling and exploiting the flames of hatred against people who fled their countries and sought refuge in Turkey.
In recent months refugees in Turkey have been the target of hate crimes, which, many say, are the result of the increasing anti-refugee discourse in the country.