Turkey plans return of a million Syrians as refugee critics grow

Syrians fleeing the war next door make up the biggest share of Turkey's refugee population. PHOTO: REUTERS

ANKARA (BLOOMBERG) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to return a million Syrian refugees to their country, as the political and economic cost of hosting the world's largest refugee population threatens his popularity before elections.

"We are now preparing a new project that will enable the voluntary return of 1 million Syrian brothers and sisters" to areas secured by Turkish and allied forces in northern Syria, Erdogan said in a video message to mark the delivery of homes built by Turkey's disaster management authority in northeastern Syria.

The promise to return almost a quarter of Turkey's roughly 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees comes as opposition parties attack the government's immigration policy ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in June next year.

It's unclear how the government will persuade Syrians to volunteer to return to the areas, which include Azaz, Jarablus, Al-Bab, Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn. Still, the plan is likely to win support among voters who increasingly grumble about overcrowded classrooms and longer waits at hospitals, where refugees receive free medical treatment.

Syrians fleeing the war next door make up the biggest share of Turkey's refugee population of around six million people, alongside others from Iraq and Afghanistan. Ankara has spent about US$100 billion (S$138 billion) on housing, medical care and schooling for Syrians who began arriving weeks after the war began in 2011.

Erdogan had largely avoided blow-back over hosting them because his intensely loyal base, largely rural and conservative, agrees that the country has a moral and religious duty to take in those fleeing war.

But that welcome is wearing thin as high inflation erodes living standards, giving right-wing politicians an opening.

Umit Ozdag, the nationalist leader of the Zafer Party, who has vowed to send millions of refugees home, dismissed the government's plans during a recent interview as "a tactic to contain the anti-immigration sentiment in the run-up to elections".

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