By SERKAN DEMİRTAŞ
“Operation Olive Branch” in Syria’s Afrin district has revealed yet another major change in Turkey’s long-standing refugee policy towards the 3.5 million Syrians who have taken shelter on Turkish soil since our southern neighbor collapsed.
A high-level security summit, convened in the Turkish capital on Jan. 23, came to an important conclusion: “Our operations will continue until the separatist terror organization is fully cleared from the region and around 3.5 million Syrians who are now sheltered in Turkey are able to safely return to their homeland.”
This line was later repeated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who vowed to create the necessary humanitarian conditions, complete with infrastructure and superstructure facilities, in “areas cleared of terrorists,” so that all Syrians could return to their homes.
The fact that around 100,000 Syrians have been able to return to Jarablus from Turkey as a result of Operation Euphrates Shield is highlighted by the Turkish government as an important precedent to this end.
This change on Syrian refugees marks an important U-turn for the Turkish government.
Turkey has long been providing the best conditions for the millions of displaced Syrians with a generosity to the tune of $30 billion, as repeatedly stressed by the government. Around 300,000 Syrians are sheltered in camps while the rest are staying in cities and surviving thanks to monthly allowances.
Many government agencies have already begun comprehensive work to integrate Syrian refugees into the Turkish state, on the grounds that many of them will choose to stay in Turkey or wait to be resettled in a third country.
Thus Turkey has become the country that hosts the most refugees in the world and has gained an important reputation for hospitality.
A recent study showed that 52 percent of Syrian refugees want to stay in Turkey, with 74 percent seeking Turkish citizenship so they can start formally working and building a life here. According to a recent parliamentary panel study, only 60,000 Syrians have been granted citizenship in the last six years.
In early 2015, the government announced efforts to ease the criteria for Syrians to gain Turkish citizenship. The move sparked tense in-house discussions at political, social and economic levels at the time.
The government defended the move by arguing that young Syrians contribute to the labor force and therefore to the Turkish economy.
The opposition highlighted the difficulties of socially integrating more than 3 million new citizens into the Republic of Turkey.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said the government should work on positively contributing to a political solution to the Syrian turmoil in order to facilitate the return of Syrians to their homelands. He was subject to fierce criticism at the time, as he recently recalled in his parliamentary speech on Jan. 30.
Having recalled the historical perspective of this major change, one should also question the reasons behind Erdoğan’s claims for Afrin. One likely reason is that public discomfort in Turkey vis-a-vis the Syrians is on the rise.
According to the parliamentary panel’s finding, Istanbul ranks first in the list of cities