Reclining in a leather chair framed by shelves of colourful shampoo bottles, washing powder and jars of deep golden honey, Rakkan Talib surveys the small business he has made his own. The 26-year-old supervises a procession of giggling schoolchildren arriving to buy bread, as they eye the packets of bubblegum on the counter next to his stack of leather-bound ledgers.
Talib arrived in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep in 2014 after fleeing Islamic State’s advance on his home town of Deir ez-Zor, determined to transform his fortunes after abandoning his dream of becoming a doctor. He succeeded, working his way up until he bought his corner shop outright two years ago.
“I lost my education, and my future. I lost everything to come here and live in safety and dignity. Now they’re talking about restoring relations with Bashar al-Assad and deporting us to Syria,” he said, flicking a cigarette with one hand and letting onyx prayer beads slide between his fingers with the other. “These election results will be fateful for me, and for all Syrians in Turkey.”
An estimated 4 million Syrians live in Turkey and their relationship to their adopted home deepened over the past decade despite an increasingly hostile climate. When polled, at least 80% of Turks say they want Syrians to return. This sentiment has found an increasing home across the political spectrum in Turkey, amid a rise in openly anti-immigrant xenophobic parties and where a broad coalition trying to unseat the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has attacked him from the right on immigration.
The result has been a tug-of-war between Erdoğan’s governing coalition and the nominally social democratic opposition Republican People’s party (CHP) over the fate of Turkey’s Syrian community. Both parties are openly competing to see who can promise to crack down harder on immigration and swiftly restore relations with Assad. When Turkey heads to the polls on Sunday the Syrian community is poised to endure loss no matter who wins.
Despite promising to usher in a new era of justice and democracy, the opposition’s presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has been particularly vocal about his desire to deport Syrian refugees, spelling out his plans at every rally. “We will send all Syrians back to their country within two years at the latest,” he said.
Anti-refugee sentiment runs high within the CHP despite the party touting its social democratic credentials, and one local branch invited the media to watch as Syrians from their district boarded buses bound for Turkey’s southern border. Kılıçdaroğlu’s deputy, Onursal Adıgüzel, said: “From our point of view, we are not saying in a racist way that we’re going to send people back. With the right policy and with healthy communication with Syria, we want to reconstruct the region again and send Syrians back step by step.”
Erdoğan has responded to the CHP’s electioneering by pressing to swiftly restore relations with Damascus. Turkey’s defence minister and intelligence chief have repeatedly met their Syrian counterparts, the highest-level meetings in more than a decade. The Syrian foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told reporters Ankara would have to pull back its troops from northern Syria for a full rapprochement between the two leaders to be possible.
Still the possibility of a full reconciliation with the Syrian leadership has been enough for Erdoğan to claim that Syrians based in Turkey are safe to return. Twin earthquakes in February that killed almost 60,000 across southern Turkey and northern Syria and destroyed homes and infrastructure in a strip of land under Turkish control have done little to dissuade Erdoğan, who has boasted of Turkish-built tower blocks in Idlib being ready for returnees.
The bleak towers were visible on an Idlib hillside but are reportedly largely empty or populated with Syrians who never left for Turkey, according to local people.
In the year before the election, the Turkish government stepped up what it calls a programme of “voluntary returns” to Syria, although Syrians and rights groups both denied that most returnees participated by choice. Human Rights Watch reported that returnees were often arrested, forced to sign deportation forms, assaulted and in some cases forced to cross the border back into Syria at gunpoint.
Syrians who have been part of Turkey’s “voluntary return” programme spoke of cruel treatment, despite some who opted to leave after the earthquake. Returnees risk detention, torture, enforced disappearance and poverty, while others in the Syrian community in Gaziantep described how their friends who returned had disappeared on arrival.
“At first I was pressured to accept deportation after I’d resisted numerous times, knowing full well it meant leaving my family behind in Turkey,” said Khaled al-Homsi, a journalist who was arrested at a checkpoint in Turkey earlier this year, forced to sign deportation papers and later deported to Tal Abyad in northern Syria.
“I lived in Turkey for almost seven years, and after I lost everything in Syria the first time, now I see myself losing everything I built in Turkey over the past few years, and having to start from scratch again.”
He added: “The election means absolutely nothing to me and I don’t care who wins. We all know that refugees are a political football that the current government uses to placate the opposition, or the opposition is using to satisfy the wider Turkish public.”
Talib laughed at the idea that it was safe for him and his family to return to Syria, and no one among the Syrian community in Gaziantep said they would leave Turkey willingly.
“Going back to live under Assad is impossible. Voluntary return will only be possible once Assad is gone,” he said. “If they deport me to Aleppo, what do I do there, exactly? My home is Deir ez-Zor. But if they deport me to Aleppo, I will start again, from the bottom.”
Source : The Guardian