Amid rampant inflation and an economic crisis in Turkey, and with an election scheduled in 2023, political rhetoric is turning against Syrian refugees in the country. Many are considering returning to their homeland, which is still ravaged by civil war.
Turkey is hosting around 3.6 million Syrian refugees, by far the largest number of any country.
Among them is 38-year-old Muhammed Sheikh, who fled the city of Aleppo with his wife and two children in 2016. They settled in Istanbul and have since had two more children. The inflation crisis means life is getting tougher. He says his monthly wage of 12,000 Turkish lira, around $645, barely covers the bills.
“Our landlord treats us well but in January he will raise the rent to 9,000 Turkish Liras (US$490) and it will be very difficult for us,” Sheikh told VOA. “I will go to Syria if I have to go, but there is no work there and the living conditions are very difficult there. I will try to go to another country if I can.”
Inflation in Turkey hit 85% in October. Sheikh says the economic crisis has also turned some Turkish people against the refugees.
“My Turkish colleagues at work say, ‘Why did you come here? Because of you, rents went up, food prices went up, and making a living became difficult.’ Many Syrians are facing such things here,” Sheikh said.
The United Nations says more than 153,000 refugees returned to Syria from Turkey between January and October 31 of this year. The Turkish government claims the number is closer to half a million.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a tough re-election in June next year, amid Turkey’s economic crisis. Last May, Erdogan pledged to send back one million refugees and create “buffer zones” in northern Syria where they could be returned safely.
Osman Atalay of the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish non-governmental organization, says the political rhetoric against refugees is escalating.
“In the last year especially, the political parties began to criticize Syrian refugees very severely and said that if they form a government, they will send Syrians back,” Atalay told VOA. “The big majority of Syrians are working, even with a little salary, they are working to stay here and to make a living. But there are some Syrians who are returning to Syria because of the pressure and physical and verbal attacks on them.”
He questioned the government’s pledge to send back one million refugees. “If there is no security and peace in Syria, how can people go? How can Syrians return?” Atalay said.
Fifty-year-old Husein Kablawi came to Istanbul from Syria in 2019 with his wife and five children. He found a temporary job installing wooden floors. When the job was complete, the manager refused to pay him and told the police that Kablawi was an unregistered refugee. He was forced to move to the central city of Konya.
“Living in Konya was very difficult, there was discrimination against us,” Kablawi said. “The neighborhood I lived in was not safe for me and my children and there was no work there. We had two very bad experiences, and no one helped us. We had to escape and left everything there. We just had the clothes we were wearing — and left for Istanbul.”
Earlier this year the Turkish government suspended refugee registrations in 16 provinces, including Istanbul.
“Because we are not registered, we cannot rent an apartment, and I cannot find a proper job,” Kablawi said. “Because I am not registered here, my documents are not accepted — they are only accepted in Konya. So, my children cannot go to school, and we are facing lots of problems.”
Kablawi and his family live in a one-bedroom, unheated apartment. The five children fear going out on the street. If the police find out they are not registered, they worry they could be sent back to Syria.
Like millions of Syrians, they face tough choices: to stay in Turkey where life is getting tougher and society increasingly hostile; to return home to a country still ravaged by war; or to try to reach Europe, a journey with multiple dangers and a future unknown.
Memet Aksakal contributed to this report from Istanbul.