It’s been well over a decade since millions of Syrians flooded into Turkey en masse, seeking refuge from the civil war at home. But today, there are increasing signs the refugees may have worn out their welcome.

This month, anti-Syrian riots took place in several cities across the country. In the capital Ankara, opposition parties are calling for mass deportations, and the government is calling on the Syrian regime it once sought to topple to help resolve the problem.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now publicly seeking a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, the man he once labeled a terrorist, to reset relations. Before the Syrian civil war, the two leaders vacationed together, but years later, after the Syrian regime brutally crushed a public revolt, Erdogan sought to oust him from office and backed local forces fighting against him.

“We believe that it is beneficial to open clenched fists,” Erdogan said this month. “We want disputes to be resolved through mutual dialogue at the negotiation table.”

Turkey is hosting an estimated 3.1 million Syrian refugees – more than any other country. Unofficial estimates are much higher, given that undocumented refugees aren’t counted.

But overcoming a bitter, years-long personal feud and extremely complex relations between Ankara and Damascus will be no small feat. Turkish troops remain in control of a swath of Syrian territory along the Turkish border where Syrian opposition groups are sheltering.

A political matter for Erdogan

For Erdogan, “immigration and refugees are the main concern,” said Bilal Bagis, an analyst at the government-leaning SETA think tank in Ankara. “It’s becoming a political argument against the incumbent government in Turkey… and it definitely has turned into something that needs to be resolved.”

Assad has long made clear that there will only be a meeting when Turkey withdraws troops from Syria, although he indicated this week that he would meet if the topic was at least on the agenda.

“If the meeting leads to results, or if there’s a hug, a scolding, or even cheek-kissing that serves the country’s interest, I will do it,” Assad said. “The problem is not in the meeting itself but in the content of the meeting.”

While there are no signs that Turkey would withdraw from Syria or drop its support for the Syrian opposition, the olive branch from Ankara indicates the pressure Erdogan is under to deal with the discontent at home.

This month, reports of a Syrian man sexually abusing his seven-year-old Syrian cousin sparked riots and violence in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, with Turks targeting Syrian-owned businesses and cars.

The government blamed social media for fueling the unrest, which quickly spread to other cities. In Antalya, a teenager was killed and in Istanbul, an Arab man was threatened with a knife at a restaurant in an upscale part of the city. Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said hundreds of people were arrested in the aftermath.

The riots exposed long-simmering tensions between Syrians and Turks that have been made worse by the economic pressures brought by Turkey’s sky-high inflation.

Unlike European nations, where Syrian refugees are being permanently resettled, most Syrians in Turkey are treated as “guests” with temporary protection and are subject to a number of restrictions.

Most Syrians cannot travel freely within the country. Fewer than 10% of Syrian adults have work permits, with the rest being limited to informal, under-the-table jobs. Untold numbers of Syrian children are not in school, either because they work or face difficulty enrolling due to rules requiring them to attend schools in the areas where they were initially registered. Only a small proportion of Syrians have been granted citizenship in the country of 85 million.

‘No acceptance of Syrians’ in Turkish society

Many Turks complain that Syrians have failed to integrate, but Syrians argue their host country hasn’t made it easy.

“Integration depends on two things: effort on the part of migrants, and for citizens of the country to accept them as part of society… but right now there is no acceptance of Syrians in Turkey,” said Ebubekir Hussamoglu, a Syrian who arrived in the country just before war broke out at home, forcing him to stay. He’s now a legal consultant and a Turkish citizen. His biography bears little resemblance to the average Syrian in Turkey, who is often at the low end of the economic and social ladder.

“These people have been working in Turkey for about ten years and are receiving lower wages and they are not getting their social rights, social security. This doesn’t make them feel secure here in the long run,” he said.

Recent deportee Mohammad Shbeeb says his existence in Turkey was anything but secure. He first arrived at the border in 2018, and says he was promptly detained and sent back. He says he was threatened with indefinite detention if he didn’t sign a document agreeing to voluntarily return. Many other Syrians have similar stories.

Abdullah Resul Demir, president of International Refugee Rights Association, a volunteer-led NGO helping Syrians navigate the legalities of immigration, says some people have had to leave their families behind in Turkey when they’re deported. “We have faced many examples like that,” he said.

The Turkish interior ministry said such claims are unfounded and unacceptable.

For Shbeeb, two weeks after being returned, he smuggled himself back into Turkey, but was never able to get papers to officially stay. Earlier this month, he said he was picked up by immigration authorities on his way home from work in the city of Gaziantep, and promptly deported once again. All of his belongings are still in his Turkish apartment. He is now staying with a friend in Azaz, northwestern Syria. Ankara says the city is in a safe zone controlled by Turkish troops. But Shbeeb says it’s far from safe.

“There is bombing, sometimes from (US-backed Syrian opposition forces) or from even the (Assad) regime…. so no, it’s not a safe area at all,” he said.

Shbeeb says it wasn’t easy to integrate in Turkey, but he tried anyway. He had a well-paying job in Gaziantep (he now works remotely for the same company), he learned Turkish and made Turkish friends.

“Turkish people didn’t accept the integration of Syrians in their society. I think they suffer from fear of others – Arabs, Europeans, anyone who is not a Turk,” he said. “In six years, I didn’t feel like this society could accept me.”

Living in ‘ghettos’

Integration of Syrians has been a failure, according to Cenk Ozatici, deputy chairman of the secular, nationalist opposition Iyi (Good) Party. The party advocated the creation of conditions inside Syria that are safe enough to send back all Syrian asylum-seekers. Ozatici says the government never really planned for Syrians to stay long term, and the sheer volume of people meant integration was always impossible.

“It’s impossible because of cultural differences and historical issues. It’s even impossible sometimes, because of the difference in the interpretation of Islam. I know that many Western powers sometimes just think ‘you are Muslim, they are Muslim, so what’s the problem?’, but it’s not like that,” he said.

Ozatici believes that because many Syrians end up living in what he describes as “ghettos,” and because Turkish birth rates are so low, and asylum-seeker birth rates so high, “the demographic structure and identity of Turkish society is under threat.”

He is critical of a 2016 deal Turkey signed with the European Union that saw Ankara agree to take back migrants who crossed into Europe. He’s not alone. To varying degrees, most mainstream political parties in Turkey believe the solution lies in returning asylum-seekers to Syria.

“The solution should be found in Syria, by negotiating with the regime in Syria,” he said. “I care about Syrian women and children here, because ultimately they are humans. But I also care about my country and my city.”

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