Strong signs that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is willing to begin reconciliation talks with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad are making Syrian refugees in Turkey nervous that they could be sent back to their home country.

There are officially about 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey, and Erdoğan recently said he wants the refugees to begin their return to Syria. 

“As the security environment in northern Syria improves, the return of Syrians to their homes is accelerating,” Erdoğan said at the International Ombudsman Conference, held in Ankara last week. 

Turkey has already sent more than 500,000 Syrian refugees back, and Erdoğan noted that “these numbers will increase as the diplomatic contacts we, as Türkiye, Russia and Syria, have been carrying out for a while bear fruit.” 

“We will continue to fulfill our duty of brotherhood, neighborliness and humanity,” he said.

Many Syrian refugees in Turkey fear that a return to Syria could mean imprisonment, torture and death.

“This worries all Syrian refugees in Turkey, especially those opposed to the Syrian regime and those wanted by the security forces,” Orwa Khalifa, a Syrian opposition journalist in Turkey, told Al-Monitor. “The fear of handing them over to the Syrian regime is increasing day by day.” 

The journalist also fears forced deportations of Syrian refugees. 

“If I am deported to Syria, regardless of the area, whether it is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra or the factions affiliated with Turkey or the Syrian regime, I will be killed,” he said.

Many Syrian refugees have spent years – sometimes more than a decade – building new lives in Turkey and do not want to return to a place that they struggled to leave behind. 

“It took us a long time to get over our past lives and our memories in Syria, to be able to move on and continue our new life,” said Foziya Al Darid, a student and mother of two, who is planning to begin her Ph.D. next year.

The possible repatriation of the Syrian refugees is high on the political agenda in Turkey, which is struggling with economic difficulties. Inflation rates peaked at 85.5% in October, the highest the country has seen in 24 years. 

Opinion polls show that a majority of Turks – more than 60% – want the Syrian refugees to leave Turkey. A similar percentage is also in favor of Turkish reconciliation with Syria’s Assad regime. 

Erdoğan’s political opposition declared that if they win Turkey’s June 2023 general elections, they will expel all Syrian refugees by 2025. 

“There is an expectation in Turkey and within the Turkish public that refugees will return once there is normalization of relations with the Assad regime. However, in reality, we know that the situation is quite the opposite,” said Omer Ozkizilcik, an Ankara-based foreign policy and security analyst, to Al-Monitor. 

The analyst made a reference to Jordan, which normalized relations with Turkey, but saw most Syrian refugees that had fled there remain. 

Ghazwan Koronful, the director of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association in the Turkish city of Mersin, told Al-Monitor that irrespective of who wins the June elections, Ankara will no longer accept Syrian refugees. 

He believes that the policy change will cause a new wave of Syrian migration to Europe and to other Middle Eastern countries. 

“There will be a new wave of immigration by sea to Europe in spite of all the hardships and risks of death that will face them,” Koronful said.

There are those, albeit very few, who view a potential reconciliation between Turkey and Syria as a possibly good development.

“Maybe it will be a positive thing,” said Syrian novelist Ismael Abdallah, who has lived in Turkey since 2014. “The Turkish government will be able to pressure the Syrian regime to accept our return and guarantee that we will not be harmed.”

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