Turkish officials have recently increased talk of “voluntary” repatriation for more than one million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey to Syrian soil. The project would include the establishment of new residential areas in northern Syria to accommodate returnees.
Turkey has already carried out three military operations in northern Syria in cooperation with Syrian opposition factions: Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 against Islamic State forces in rural eastern Aleppo governorate; Operation Olive Branch in early 2018 against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in rural western Aleppo; and Operation Peace Spring in October 2019 against the SDF in rural Hassakeh and Raqqa governorates. Following each of these three operations, Turkey established local governing bodies, security and judicial structures, and armed contingents. The voluntary returns project would include the establishment of new residential settlements in those areas.
Also, the voluntary returns project could also include repatriating refugees in areas currently controlled by the SDF, the armed wing of the majority-Kurdish Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES). Such areas are especially likely to include Tal Rifaat and Manbij in the rural part of Aleppo governorate. The project has spurred increased media attention not only about possible returns, but also about a potential Turkish military operation targeting SDF-controlled areas.
In May, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that his government was working to build 200-250,000 units in 13 different residential complexes of Syria with funding from international organisations in order to repatriate more than one million Syrian refugees. The Turkish Interior Minister said in February 2022, that about 3.7 million Syrians live in Turkey under international protection.
Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) was the first to announce the voluntary returns project in mid-March 2022. The organisation asked NGOs that specialise in building residential projects for displaced persons to present studies for potential projects with the aim of repatriating one and a half million Syrians from Turkey.
Among the most notable areas where the residential projects may be built are Jarablus, Al-Bab, Afrin, Idlib, Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn, with dwellings ranging from 40 to 80 square metres.
According to statements and leaks to the media, the general outline for Turkey’s repatriation plan includes several stages: securing international funding, constructing the residential projects (including schools and hospitals), and providing infrastructure. The plan also includes establishment of industrial and commercial zones with the aim of creating jobs for returnees.
The repatriation project is still in its initial brainstorming stage and may take years to actually implement. Even so, precise details have made their way to the media, such as one provision that refugees who return to Syria will receive a ready-made, furnished home with right of usufruct for a period of five to 10 years. Such details may simply be meant to promote or encourage returns. Indeed, it is difficult at this stage to separate the facts on the ground from political exploitation of the Syrian refugee issue in Turkey, especially as the 2023 Turkish general elections approach.
There is also a great deal of confusion in the media about the difference between the proposed voluntary return project and an already existing project to build alternative residential units and distribute them to residents of northern Syria displacement camps. The former is related only to Syrian refugees in Turkey and is merely in the initial stages, while the latter, which has already begun implementation, targets displaced people living in camps in Syria along the Turkish border.
It is not yet clear where the residential areas for the new project will be built, who currently owns that land and how those owners will be compensated. The land for previously constructed displacement camps and residential projects in northwestern Syria varied between endowment ownership, public ownership, and private ownership.