Syrian refugees under pressure as neighbours’ goodwill runs out

By Laura Pitel in Ankara, and Asser Khattab and Erika Solomon in Beirut

At Turkey’s last election, Sakip Uyar gave his vote to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But now he is angry with the president.

The stonemason, who works in a rundown part of Ankara’s Altindag district, is fed up with the area’s large number of Syrian refugees. “It’s like Aleppo over there,” he says, gesturing beyond a set of traffic lights. “They are taking jobs and pushing up rents . . . If they don’t send them back I won’t vote for [Erdogan] again.”

Mr Uyar is not alone. Hostility towards the millions of Syrians who have fled the seven-year civil war has been growing across Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the countries hosting the largest number of refugees.

Aid groups warn that despite continued bloodshed in Syria, there is growing political pressure in host countries for them to return home. “There’s an anti-refugee backlash that has been steadily growing,” says Daniel Gorevan of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “There has been an increase in discussion about the return of refugees that doesn’t match what is happening on the ground in Syria.”

Turkey won international praise for opening its doors to 3.5m Syrians fleeing the war. But social tensions are rising.

A recent study by Istanbul’s Bilgi University found that 75 per cent of Turkish citizens believed Turkish and Syrian communities could not live in peace. Close to two-thirds of respondents — including 45 per cent of Erdogan voters — said the government’s policies towards Syrians were wrong.

Public unhappiness has shaped the political rhetoric. Less than two years ago, Mr Erdogan was publicly promising Turkish citizenship for refugees. Now he says that one of the primary aims of the Turkish military operation in the Syrian enclave of Afrin is to enable them to return home, even though most of the country’s refugees hail from elsewhere in Syria.

“We want our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their own land, their own homes,” he said last month. “We cannot keep 3.5m people here for ever.”

Although refugees bring economic benefits by spending money, starting businesses and providing cheap labour, host governments have spent billions supporting them. In Lebanon, where one in four people is Syrian, officials say the refugee crisis has cost the country more than $20bn. Jordanian authorities put the price tag at $10bn. Ankara says it has spent $30bn.

Despite the public shift in tone, Turkish officials continue to work behind the scenes on improving refugees’ access to education and health services. But in Lebanon, Syrians say, the authorities are making it ever more difficult for them to stay.

Hasan, who works as a concierge in Beirut, tried to renew his residency permit in October. “The official threw my application on the floor and told me that my sponsorship does not work any more,” he says. He was told that Isis had left his town and it was “time to go back home”. He now lives and works in the city illegally.

Harassment aimed at intimidating refugees has been on the rise across the country. In one incident, Syrian refugees in Beirut told the Financial Times that their apartments had been stormed by security forces who searched their homes and computers and shouted at them. One said security officers rounded up young Syrian men and humiliated them by forcing them to sing and “act like chickens”. When the refugees complained, soldiers shouted at them to return to Syria because it was safe.

Jordan’s government, meanwhile, has left up to 50,000 refugees trapped at a makeshift camp near Syria’s southern border, citing security concerns as the reason for their refusal to let them enter. Turkey’s border has also been closed since 2015 to the majority of Syrians. In both countries, human rights groups warn of growing forced deportations.

With Bashar al-Assad, Syria‘s president, gaining the upper hand in the war and the recapturing of territory from the jihadi group Isis, there has been a perception that the conflict is winding down. But Syria’s vastly complicated war is far from over, with some areas witnessing their bloodiest days yet.

Experts say that the pressure for the premature return of refugees has been exacerbated by the failure of other nations to step up. The 28 EU member states host about 1m Syrians between them — with two-thirds of them in Germany and Sweden — compared with 5.2m across Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The number being resettled in countries outside the region has plunged, driven by a western backlash and President Donald Trump’s decision to slash the US quota.

“The support to refugees in the region has not been sufficient to help host governments,” says Saskia Baas, head of the Durable Solutions Platform, a research initiative on the long-term future of Syrian refugees.

“You can’t expect countries to take care of so many people for such a long time when their own populations are themselves in need.”

In Turkey, tensions are highest in working-class areas, where Syrians compete with local people for affordable housing and low-paid jobs. “We are poorer than they are,” says an Altindag housewife. A supporter of the ruling party, she says the Syrian issue was its single biggest mis-step during 15 years in power.

“The government made a mistake bringing all these people here,” she says. “They should go back.”