Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said his government is working on a new project to ensure the “voluntary” return home of 1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey amid increasing public discontent in the country with the rising number of refugees, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.
Turkey hosts nearly 4 million Syrians — the largest number in any one country of Syrians displaced during the 11-year-old civil war. Tensions between Turks and Syrians flare up on occasion in the host country.
“We are making preparations for a new project that will enable 1 million Syrian sisters and brothers who we host in our country to return to their homeland,” Erdoğan said in a video message he sent on Tuesday for the inauguration of houses built in Syria’s Idlib province by 12 Turkish NGOs.
The Turkish president said the new project would be realized with the support of local and international civil society organizations, adding that 500,000 Syrians have already returned to safe areas in Syria.
According to Erdoğan, Turkey will work in coordination with local parliaments in Syria in 13 regions such as Azez, Jarabulus and Tell Abyad and that construction of various infrastructure facilities will be part of the project.
“We will be making efforts to lay the appropriate groundwork for the return [of the Syrians],” said Erdoğan.
Erdoğan, who long pursued an open-door policy toward refugees, signalled a change in his stance last month, saying 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’s comments, his election ally, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli said uncontrolled migration is like an occupation and should be prevented.
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.
Meanwhile, Turkey has recently prohibited Syrian refugees from visiting family in northern Syria for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, celebrated between May 2 and May 4. Many were claiming that if Syrians can go to Syria to celebrate Eid, it means their country is safe and they don’t have to return to 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.