By launching a series of cross-border operations in Syria in the last three years, Turkey has made it possible for Syrian refugees to return homes by liberating the northern parts of the country from terrorist elements.
Proving to be even more fruitful as the time passes, the operations showed that Ankara, unable to find any support from the Western world, is capable of lightening the refugee burden on its shoulders by itself as more refugees return each day.
The latest came from the mayor of the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa, an area with the highest number of refugees, who announced that 30,000 Syrians returned to Ras al-Ayn province in Syria since the launch of the latest offensive, Operation Peace Spring, in October.
During his visit to Ras al-Ayn, Abdullah Erin said that approximately 30,000 Syrians have been resettled in the province, which was almost empty when the operation was first launched. Underlining that life is returning to normal in the northern Syrian province, Erin expressed that thanks to Turkey's efforts. People are living in their new homes while occupying jobs in health, education and governance as the real owners of the province, he said and underlined that the immediate needs of the locals are also being provided by Turkey.
The town of Ras al-Ayn, located across the border from Ceyplanpınar district, in the southeastern Turkish province of Şanlıurfa, was cleared of terrorists on Oct.12.
Previously, it was announced that during the first 10 days of the operation, 94,000 Syrian refugees returned to liberated areas. Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Jens Learke, spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian operation, said that at first 200,000 people were displaced from the region and now, thanks to Turkey's offensive, almost 100,000 of them have been able to return to their homes.
"The number of returning civilians quickly increases. If this flow continues many people will return to their homes in the upcoming days," Learke predicted.
The return of the refugees carries importance for Turkey as the country already is over its capacity in terms of refugee numbers.
The conflict in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than 5 million people to flee, while more than 7 million are internally displaced.
Since 2011 – the year the war broke out – Turkey has received a constant flow of displaced Syrians fleeing the conflict, with the numbers of refugees expanding from mere thousands to millions. As of Oct. 31, there were 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey, the biggest share of refugees among host countries. Refugees from Syria now account for about 4.29% of the total population. Women and children make up the majority of the refugees.
Stating that the plans and projects for the return of Syrian refugees are prepared, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday that "We will hold an international donors meeting or will take the steps for model projects."
Speaking in Ankara, the president added that 8,100 square kilometers of area in Syria have been secured so far with the three military operations, "where the threat of terrorism to Turkey was intense."
"We have created the basis for the return of Syrians in our country with the areas we have secured. So far, 365,000 Syrians have returned," Erdoğan stressed. He also indicated that the terrorists were attacking with harassment fire and killing Turkish citizens and soldiers.
"We are doing whatever is necessary. They tried to isolate Turkey with plots prepared abroad and even tried to intervene," Erdoğan said.
According to Turkey's safe zone plan, 140 villages and 10 district centers will be established within a 30-40 kilometer deep safe zone in northern Syria, housing 5,000 and 30,000 inhabitants each, respectively. The settlements will be provided with various facilities so that the people living there will be able to have a normal life with every necessity met. Each village within the area will have 1,000 houses, and each district will have 6,000 new homes built, making 200,000 new residences in total. The construction is expected to cost about $26.6 billion.
A common stance seems to be reached in Turkish politics toward Syrian refugees and their return as opposition parties share the ideas of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which Erdoğan is the head of.
Yesterday, Nihat Yeşil, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Ankara deputy and a member of Parliament's domestic affairs commission, said that the refugees must return to their hometowns as soon as possible.
Speaking with the representatives of the immigration authority, Yeşil questioned what would happen in the provinces such as Gaziantep and Hatay if there was an overwhelming number of Syrians in the next 20 years in terms of demographics. "We, as a state, need to take measures against possible problems that may occur in the future," he underlined.
This burden of refugees is especially being felt in the regions where the number of Syrian refugees is the highest, like in Şanlıurfa. Lütfü Savaş, the mayor of southeastern Hatay province, called recent efforts to establish a safe zone in Syria a move that was long overdue, slamming international actors for not taking timely action as the border province tries to deal with overstretched resources to accommodate the needs of its growing population.
Speaking to reporters in an interview on Thursday, Savaş said that such a zone by the border should have been established right from the start for the sake of both Turkey and Syrians.
Hatay has for many years been grappling with the social and economic problems stemming from the sudden increase in population. There are currently 440,920 Syrians living in Hatay, which account for 27% of the total population.
Saying it was difficult both for Syrians and the local host community, Savaş said they wanted peace for the sake of their guests' safety and future. He said this could be made possible only if international actors work closely to solve it.
"This is not a problem that can be solved by locals only," he asserted.
Ankara has many times criticized the international community for not funneling sufficient humanitarian aid for refugees in Turkey and not taking in more refugees.
"Our people never leered at Syrians, they always sympathized with them. However, it's a fact that what we all want is for there to be peace in Syria as soon as possible, and for our brothers living away from their homelands to return safely."
Savaş said when the number of guests surpasses a certain number, that's when things start to get complicated. He said almost 500,000 Syrians were living in Hatay, constituting about a third of the population.
He also drew attention to the economic hardships of trying to accommodate such a significant number of guests. The per capita income has fallen to below $6,000 from the pre-Syrian war level of $8,000, he said.
When it comes to the return of Syrians the mayor said that those who have managed to integrate into Turkish society, of course, don't want to go back but those who have suffered understandably do. "They want to go back to their homes, to the lands they know where people speak their language."
Savaş said this differed from person to person and region to region, but in the end it was also a matter of opportunity and means. "Those that are better off want to go to the U.S. or Canada, while those with lesser means strive for Europe or Turkey."