What Do Turkish Elections Mean For Syrian Refugees? – Analysis
By Joe Dyke and Noah Blaser
While the European Union celebrated Turkey’s election results on Sunday as a victory for democracy, the nearly two million Syrian refugees living in the country may not have been greeting it with such good cheer.
In a shock result, the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, lost its parliamentary majority but remains the largest party and will now seek to form a coalition.
Whatever government emerges in the wake of the elections, it will face increased pressure to tighten restrictions on Syrians, analysts told IRIN.
In the past two years, Syria’s neighbours Jordan and Lebanon have gradually closed their borders to those fleeing war, while the Iraqi border has been seized by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
The AKP has pursued an active policy on Syria, including controversially supporting armed groups inside the country.
But it has also largely maintained an open border for those fleeing war and has invested around six billion dollars in caring for refugees in “five-star camps” and allowing them to work freely.
For Syrians, it has become their only sanctuary – a total of 1.7 million are currently living in Turkey and this number is tipped to rise to 2.5 million by the end of the year.
While the Syrian refugee influx did not take centre stage in the national election, with the economy and the perceived overstretching of Erdogan’s powers the most pressing issues, opposition parties made larger-than-average gains in provinces most impacted by refugees.
The four parties represented in parliament after the election have hugely differing opinions on the refugee influx and the border issue. Of these, the AKP appears to be the most positive towards the refugees.
There are three realistic ways in which a government could be formed.
The first, and most likely, would be a coalition between the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The MHP saw unprecedented gains in Turkey’s refugee-saturated south, partly on the back of its stance on refugees. In the province of Gaziantep, the party increased its vote from 9.5 in 2011 to 18 percent, while in neighbouring Kilis province its vote jumped from 21 to 35.6 percent.
“The 500,000 Syrians will go, and 500,000 tourists will come to Gaziantep,” the province’s newly-elected MHP representative Umit Ozdag tweeted in May.
“The Syrians steal our work and push our rents into the sky,” the parliamentarian told BBC Turkish in an interview last week. “We did a study that shows voters consider Syrians to be the biggest problem in their city. Eighty-four percent of people who responded to the poll said the biggest problem is the Syrians.”
“A combination of AKP and MHP would be less responsive to the idea of keeping Turkey’s borders open,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Yet, Metin Çorabatir – president of the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration – said that while the MHP was broadly hostile to the government’s Syria policy, it would be unlikely to put closing borders as a top priority in coalition negotiations.
He stressed that outside southern Turkey the policy was not a key issue for the party. “[The national leadership] has never really spoken negatively or positively [on the open door immigration policies].”
If the AKP and the MHP are unable to form a coalition, two scenarios come into play that could potentially be even worse for Syrian refugees.
If a coalition government collapses or fails to take shape at all, President Erodgan is certain to call for early elections. Conscious of the votes lost to anti-refugee rhetoric in June, the ruling party might embrace growing calls from voters to restrict the flow of refugees in Turkey’s southern provinces.
Earlier this year, it introduced travel restrictions on refugees despite criticisms from rights groups and aid workers.
The other option is an opposition coalition, an eventuality that would hold great uncertainty for Syrian refugees.
On Monday, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu proposed a three-way coalition between his party and Turkey’s other two main opposition parties.
That could theoretically empower the CHP, which has maintained good relations with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and is deeply hostile to the refugee influx.
Addressing voters in the southern city of Mersin, Kilicdaroglu declared in April that his party would seek to repatriate all Syrians. “We are going to send back our Syrian brothers. I’m sorry,” he said to roaring applause. “Every person [in the] country in which he is born.”
His party is yet to translate that pledge into specific policy proposals, but as the refugee crisis grows, with little prospect of relief in sight, Çorabatir warned of the risks if it came to power.
“Twice on television and in newspaper adverts, Kiliçdaroglu has accused the government of plotting against the Syrian regime and never accepted that the Syrians in Turkey are refugees. [He argues] they were invited by Turkey just to destabilise Syria.”
Ege Seckin, Turkey analyst at the IHS think-tank, agreed that Mr Kiliçdaroglu posed a major threat to the refugees but said he hoped his inclinations would be tempered.
The fourth party, the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, which is more favourable to the refugees’ plight, could act as a brake on the CHP’s radical policies, Seckin added.
All three analysts agreed that whatever the make-up of the new government, it will face, as Cook put it, “significant internal pressure about the Syrian refugees, who at this point don’t look like they are going home in the near future or ever.”
Seckin said it was likely that government expenditure on Syrian refugees would be placed under more scrutiny, with issues such as their ability to work coming under serious challenge.
Lebanon has banned Syrian refugees from working without a sponsor and Seckin said tighter working restrictions were possible.
“I think it is unlikely that we will see a full closure of the border… but we are likely to see increased scrutiny of funding of camps and provisions, as well as discussion of the rights incoming refugees have.”
If Islamists inside Syria continue to advance on the port city of Latakia – home to Assad’s minority Alawite sect but also hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Sunni Muslims – it could set off another round of displacement, Seckin warned.
“Even in the Alawite heartlands there are a lot of Sunni displaced who would do anything to not be ruled by radical Islamists. They will rush towards [Turkey in] the north, while the Alawites may move towards Lebanon.”
A fresh influx, he said, could again force the issue to the top of Turkey’s political agenda and lead to more hostility against the refugee population.