“Voluntary Return” from Turkey terrifies Syrians as conditions still unclear

Press conference of the Chairman of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) announcing a new system according to which he expelled blocs from the Coalition - 8 April 2022 (Enab Baladi/Abdulmoeen Homs)

Press conference of the Chairman of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) announcing a new system according to which he expelled blocs from the Coalition - 8 April 2022 (Enab Baladi/Abdulmoeen Homs)

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Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad

Since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his government’s endeavors to prepare a project to ensure the “voluntary return” of one million Syrian refugees or more to their country, thousands of Syrian refugees found themselves in a state of concern and anticipation, pending further Turkish government statements detailing Erdogan’s statement.

The Syrians’ appeals, and the attempt to convey their voice and fears to the international community and the Turkish government, were accompanied by the escalation of accusations against the Syrian opposition for having been informed of the project in advance but remained silent. The Syrian moves were limited to demands by some Syrian organizations in Turkey to prevent any movement that would harm the lives of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Syrian opposition “claps or grieves”

Member of the Board of Directors of the Civil Society Organizations Forum in Istanbul, Basel Hilam, in an interview with Enab Baladi, said that “the Syrian opposition either applauds or grieves,” describing this as its inability to change any of the decisions issued against the Syrians.

“We do not want to accuse the opposition, and what is rumored about its prior knowledge of the project does not mean that it is able to influence the decision,” Hilam continued.

The opposition’s ability to influence is limited to its demands for the unification of the army and police in the north of Syria, the stability of the courts, and the accountability of perpetrators of violations, along with engaging in a dialogue with the Turkish government on the reconstruction of areas of northern Syria to secure many of the basic needs required by Syrian daily life, Hilam said.

He pointed out that what he expects from the opposition are dialogue and demands, which does not necessarily mean achieving tangible results.

“A dignified return”

For his part, the Chairman of the Syrian opposition’s National Coalition, Salem al-Meslet, speaking to Enab Baladi, said that talk of “voluntary return” is not new, which has been up for years among countries of asylum.

When asked about the conditions for “voluntary return,” he added that there were still discussions with the “brothers” in Turkey, but there was no clear step towards this project to date.

Al-Meslet confirmed that the file has not yet been put on any dialogue table with the Turks, adding that the Coalition is awaiting what will happen about the “rumors” regarding the return.

The Civil Society Organizations Forum in Istanbul is an independent, civil, non-governmental, non-profit entity formed by the Federation of Syrian Organizations and Associations in Turkey.

On the lack of clarity about the meaning of “voluntary return” and its target group, al-Meslet stated in his speech that the Coalition is keen to ensure that the return will be “dignified,” and when asked about the meaning and conditions of this “dignified” return, he stressed that this point is not yet clarified by the Turkish government.

Al-Meslet considered that if there is a return of Syrians to the “liberated” areas, it will be conditional on providing infrastructure and a safe environment, projects, and real job opportunities for Syrians.

Member of the Board of Directors of the Civil Society Organizations Forum, Basel Hilam, stated that the term “voluntary return” has become a source of real concern for Syrians, “What does voluntary return mean and who is the target?”

He referred to the Syrians’ fears that their asylum would turn into displacement in the “liberated” areas in a still unsafe environment.

Hilam ruled out that the return would be “voluntary” because the reason that forced Syrians to leave their country has not gone away, considering that the basic condition for the voluntary return of Syrians is linked to a political change that reassures them.

“Improving Reputation”

The Civil Society Organizations Forum in Turkey is working to “improve the reputation” of the Syrians in order to maintain a popular incubator, according to Hilam, explaining that communicating with influential parties and people in Turkey to convey a good image of the Syrians can limit the “damage.”

Hilam added that the return of the Syrians would negatively affect Turkey, and it is important for this notion to reach the Turkish public and Turkish officials.

The Forum is working to ensure that 22 conditions are secured within the UN charters, most notably food and economic and societal security, in the event the Syrians were forced to return, according to Hilam, stressing that security cannot be secured with just “two walls and a roof.”

It is only a “voluntary return” if it is based on a decision out of personal conviction without pressure and restriction by the Turkish government.

Member of the Board of Directors of the Civil Society Organizations Forum 

“Voluntary” to liberated areas, “forced” to regime areas

The movement on the refugee file is not limited to Turkey. For years, many countries have talked about returning refugees to regime-controlled areas, while Turkey announced its intention to return refugees to “liberated” areas, which it describes as “safe.”

The head of the Syrian National Coalition, Salem al-Meslet, stressed during his speech that the Coalition clearly differentiates between the return to the regime’s areas and that to the “liberated” areas, pointing to the possibility that the first is definitely “forced” while the second could be “voluntary.” 

It is worth mentioning that while the Coalition has launched numerous statements denouncing the repatriation of Syrian refugees to areas of the regime, it remained silent about returning them to the “liberated” areas.

On the other hand, Basel Hilam spoke about the possible outcomes of returning a million refugees to northern Syria, including fragmentation and demographic change, which poses a real danger to Syria and the Syrians, noting that returning to any area in Syria, regardless of the parties controlling it, is still “terrifying” for Syrian refugees.

On 3 May, President Erdogan announced his government’s efforts to prepare a project that includes equipping economic infrastructure facilities, such as hospitals, industry and agricultural projects, as well as homes and schools, to ensure the “voluntary” return of one million Syrian refugees to their country.

Erdogan pointed out that his government’s areas of control are safe, noting his government’s move to prepare the right environment for return when other parts of Syria become safe areas.

This comes at a time when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) areas of influence have been experiencing a military escalation since the beginning of this year, often resulting in infrastructure damage and the death of civilian victims.

The region is also experiencing a deterioration in food security and the living and economic situation, in view of the lack of employment opportunities, as reflected in relief organizations’ periodic reports.

 

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