Istanbul, Türkiye – As Turks prepare to head to the polls for a presidential run-off, the country’s millions of Syrian refugees watch anxiously, unsure how the outcome will shape their future.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu will face off Sunday in the second round of voting after either of them won a majority in the first round on May 14.

Immigration was a central issue in the election. The campaign has seen several opposition politicians vow to expel refugees and migrants while the government highlights its plans to move forward with what it calls the “voluntary” repatriation of Syrians.

According to the United Nations, Turkey has taken in 3.7 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. In the year leading up to the elections, pressure increased on refugees and migrants, particularly Syrians, during an economic crisis with rising inflation rates, the collapse of the lira, and an exacerbation of the cost of living crisis.

This situation has left many Syrians in Turkey deeply concerned about their future in the country.

“I don’t know what will happen after the election,” said Habib, 23, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

“they [politicians] They say they want to return all Syrians. “We all suffer from anxiety during this period,” said the man who was displaced eight years ago by the Syrian war and now resides in Istanbul.


rising nationalism

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the vast majority of refugees in Turkey – 3.6 million – are Syrians living under “temporary protection status”. About 200,000 Syrians have acquired Turkish citizenship since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, according to government figures.

While Turkey initially welcomed the refugees, providing them with shelter and access to education with billions of euros in EU funding, anti-refugee sentiment has grown in recent years, and refugees have been made scapegoats for Turkey’s economic woes, which at times have led to violence.

Mehmet Sedik Yasar, who runs Tarlabaşı Solidarity, a refugee solidarity group in Istanbul, said anti-refugee sentiment had intensified in the run-up to the elections.

“Being a refugee means you are here today, but you don’t have any guarantees for tomorrow,” he told Al Jazeera.

“People are asking us what to do. They fear that racism will increase after the election. I have been working with refugees for many years, and I have not seen anything like this year.”

Growing anti-refugee sentiment was evident at the polls in the first round of elections as nationalists put in a strong showing, particularly far-right nationalist presidential candidate Sinan Ogan, who won an unexpected 5.2 percent of the vote.

Ogan ran as the candidate of the Ancestral Alliance led by the anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist Victory Party. Since then he has supported Erdogan.

“Ogan is an interesting and important phenomenon in Turkish politics,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He rallied around just one issue, an anti-refugee and anti-immigrant platform. “With no media access, no rallies and basically no money, he got 5 percent,” Cagaptay said.

Since the first round, Kilicdaroglu, backed by a broad coalition of opposition parties, has doubled down on deportations.

He said last week: “Erdogan, you did not protect our country’s borders and honor.” “As soon as I take power, I will send all the refugees home.”

“voluntary repatriation”

In the face of opposition attacks on immigration, the government has pushed ahead with talks with Damascus in what appears to indicate a warming of relations.

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria and Iran met in Moscow this month as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to broker a rapprochement between the Turkish and Syrian governments after years of hostility over the Syrian war and Turkey’s multiple military operations in northern Syria.

For his part, Assad demanded that Turkey withdraw from the lands under its control in northwestern Syria.

The talks took place at a time when several regional leaders were moving to normalize relations with Assad. In mid-May, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League after it had been suspended for more than a decade.

Kilicdaroglu had said that he intended to restore relations with Assad, while Erdogan had previously said He can meet Assad for talks.

Along with moves toward potential rapprochement, Erdogan’s government has pressed ahead with its plan for refugees to “voluntarily resettle” to areas in Syria under Turkish security control.

We have built more than 100,000 homes [refugees] In northern Syria, Erdogan said this month at a meeting of youth in the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gradually, Syrian refugees began to settle in these dwellings.

“There is no time limit for this issue,” Erdogan added. “We are doing our best to support and assist them in this regard.”

According to the Turkish Ministry of Interior, nearly 58,000 Syrians returned home from November 2021 to October last year.

In a 2022 report, Human Rights Watch Documented Hundreds of deportations from February to July last year, which the government He said It was a voluntary departure.

Many Syrians are worried about the prospect of returning to their homeland as the war continues there. Habib said he feared being drafted into the army if he returned to Syria.

If I was transferred to Bashar [al-Assad]I would be in a very critical condition, and my family would have no one to support.”

“There is no easy and quick solution to the migration issue in Turkey,” said Salem Cevik, a researcher at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“There is no possible reinstatement policy any time soon,” he said. Perhaps a more realistic policy would find ways to integrate them into Turkish society. But this is something no politician can say publicly.”

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