Since 2011, the intense pressure and conflict-filled actions initiated by the Assad regime against opposition forces in Syria have triggered the most significant humanitarian movement in recent years, with millions of Syrians crossing national borders. While this substantial wave of human displacement has emerged as a prominent mass migration event in recent times, throughout human history, migration has been an inherent social mobility phenomenon rooted in causes such as conflict, violence, environmental factors, famine, ethnic and religious conflicts, and human rights violations.
This mass migration movement found a response in neighboring countries like Türkiye and Lebanon through their humanitarian efforts to provide aid and protection, embrace an open-door policy for refugees, and offer shelter, sustenance, healthcare, and educational facilities. However, the protracted war and the large influx of refugees have visibly impacted the economic and social systems of neighboring nations, giving rise to novel challenges. Indeed, these challenges have also affected Türkiye. According to official data, as of February 2022, approximately 3,745,000 Syrians resided in Türkiye under temporary protection status.
Facing the humanitarian crisis in Syria, countries like Türkiye, striving to find solutions within their own political and societal frameworks while upholding human rights and legal tolerance, have sought substantial support from the international community due to financial constraints, as expressed by Jeff Crisp. Türkiye, unable to find adequate responses to their appeals, has subsequently begun encouraging the voluntary return of Syrian refugees to safe zones as a means to address socioeconomic challenges. Since 2014, both material and psychological support have been provided to refugees, alongside various incentive policies and projects. Beginning in 2019, the policy of return gained momentum, aiming to facilitate a secure return by constructing dwellings in safe zones. Nevertheless, due to factors such as the turmoil in Syria, concerns for personal safety, the regime’s compulsory military service practices, difficulties in accessing essential resources, challenges faced by women, and psychological traumas, the voluntary return – one of the three durable solutions advocated by the UNHCR – has not been realized to the desired extent.
The (compulsory) return of Syrian refugees truly constitutes a crucial aspect, and understanding the perspectives of both refugees and host communities is essential to address this issue.
During the pilot study of the academic research, conducted with observations and interviews in Yalova and Istanbul, I observed varying attitudes among different segments. For instance, politicians who either support or exert pressure on Syrian refugees influence this phenomenon, leading to the exclusion of refugees from the community. These politicians perceive Syrians as a burden in the country, blaming them for rising rental prices and economic difficulties in the job market. As Bauman wrote in his book “Strangers at Our Door,” mainstream media tends to propagate biases that nourish these accusatory claims. The realities of children drowning in boats in the Mediterranean and Aegean, as well as the tragedies in overcrowded and miserable camping areas, are obscured from view, creating a concealed narrative in television news, newspaper headlines, certain political speeches, and social media posts that generate public concern and fear.
While some advocate for Syrians to leave the country, on the other hand, employers who view Syrians as a source of cheap labor and present this as a reward and landlords who charge high rents for barely habitable spaces also wish for them to stay. In interviews, refugees disclosed that they work in various sectors and industries such as call centers, sales and marketing, waitressing, and HVAC tech, generally enduring lower wages and longer working hours, feeling that their labor holds little to no monetary or even moral value. They emphasized that the challenging living conditions, along with factors like education level and job experience, force them to accept these conditions, stating that they have no other option.
Participants expressed their opinions on voluntary return, indicating that some family members (often elderly members) continue to live in Syria, unable to sustain their livelihoods, spending their days relying on humanitarian aid, and lacking the means to fulfill basic humanitarian needs. For voluntary return to be a viable option, it should be accompanied by optimal safe living conditions, education, and employment opportunities. Given that an immediate return is not currently feasible, it is crucial to avoid media and political discourses that fuel prejudice and hostility towards refugees, instead promoting messages that enhance social solidarity and tolerance, aiming to improve the well-being of both refugees and the host community.
Expecting Syrians to return to Syria as a solution or expecting their reintegration to occur by excluding them from society or exploiting them disregards societal realities. Instead of belittling them and choosing division, it is essential to opt for unity, reminding them of their moral responsibilities and ensuring their integration by fulfilling the necessary conditions for social harmony, just as many other nationalities have been integrated into this society before, in accordance with human rights, legality, and our historical context. Choosing the most humane path whenever possible will align with human rights, legality, and our historical context. This is because opting for the ideal solution of return doesn’t negate the fact that humane “living” conditions in Syria have yet to be established and may remain unattainable for an extended period.
For those who have experienced forced displacement, voluntary return is one of the permanent solutions alongside local integration and resettlement, aiming to secure the fundamental right to a safe, voluntary, and sustainable life. The successful implementation of voluntary return requires collaborative efforts from multiple stakeholders and the establishment of cooperation mechanisms, taking comprehensive measures throughout the process. Otherwise, forced returns will continue to cause a humanitarian crisis, and we will be turning a blind eye to the disaster unfolding before our eyes as a society. We should remember that the target audience of anti-refugee discourse and actions should focus on those who are causing and benefiting from the war, rather than innocent people affected by it.
Bauman, Zygmunt. (2018). Kapımızdaki Yabancılar, (Çev. Emre Barca), İstanbul: Ayrıntı Yayınları
Mencutek Sahin, Zeynep(2019) “Encouraging Syrian return: Turkey’s fragmented approach” https://www.fmreview.org/return/sahinmencutek
Cohen, R. ve Van Hear, N. (2020). Refugia: Radical Solutions to Mass Displacement. Routledge.