Reconstruction of Cities for Voluntary Returns: Movements of Türkiye in Syria

By Oğuzhan Açıkgöz, Law Student at Koc Law School, Koç University, Istanbul

Ensuring the safe and sustainable reintegration of returnees in their home areas is crucial; otherwise, they might face the risk of becoming internally displaced or refugees once again. The obstacles to achieving successful returns are incredibly challenging. Firstly, refugees often go back to countries or regions where peace remains fragile, even if it has been achieved to some extent. Secondly, the reconstruction of devastated home regions or countries is a major requirement for viable returns. Many returnees find themselves in areas plagued by land mines and destroyed infrastructure, necessitating urgent rebuilding efforts. Thirdly, for refugees returning to rural regions, the availability of land is a critical issue. Resolving matters related to land reform, settling old claims, or allocating available lands to returnees becomes essential to enable them to start anew. Fourthly, there are various concerns regarding human resources and needs. Refugees returning to agricultural work may have been unable to use their skills for prolonged periods, and their children might have grown up in refugee camps, unfamiliar with any other lifestyle. Access to adequate medical care is crucial, and not all returnees will be self-sufficient. Lastly, the repatriation process has revealed organizational challenges that demand attention. A gap exists between humanitarian efforts for refugees and the necessary development work. Additionally, it is now widely recognized that the efforts to assist returning refugees in reintegrating successfully must extend to benefit all returning populations, including refugees, externally displaced individuals, internally displaced persons, as well as the local populations who have never experienced displacement. (Rogers, 1992)

This blog post aims to provide a broad perspective on the Turkish government’s policies in the context of safe cities in Syria and their impact on voluntary returns. There is no doubt, the sustainable and voluntary repatriation of migrants to their home countries is a crucial element of comprehensive migration management. It is widely acknowledged as the preferred form of return, and the level of its acceptance is a significant concern in return management. This approach aims to uphold the rights and dignity of the involved migrants. Both the countries of origin and destination collaborate on implementing various policies and programs to facilitate a sustainable and voluntary return process (Kosar and Kuschminder, 2015).

Milestones of Turkish Government’s Reconstruction Policies in Syria

With the announcement on January 2021, the Directorate of Migration Management of Türkiye declared that most of the construction of the briquette houses, which were started at 124 different points in the countryside of Idlib, has been completed so that families who have lost their homes due to the civil war in Syria can live in a safe zone (Göç İdaresi, 2021). According to this news, the construction of 27 thousand 665 of the 52 thousand 772 briquette houses planned to be built has been completed. More than 80 thousand people have already been placed in these houses, primarily widows, orphans and disabled people. The majority of the residences are located in the areas between Sarmada and Barişa village, which is the first large settlement on the road leading to the Cilvegözü Border Gate opening to Türkiye from Idlib and where many traders operate; It was built in Atme, Killi, Meshed Ruhin, Deyr Hassan, Tel Kerema, Sheikh Bahr, Babiska and Bab al-Hawa districts. In line with the request of the Syrians, 1 ton water tanks were placed on the roofs of the houses, which were designed as 2 rooms, kitchen, bathroom, toilet and courtyard on 39 square meters (ibid)

In a press statement dated May 2022, President of the Republic of Türkiye Erdogan said, “After the internal turmoil in Syria, approximately 4 million people came to our country. Now we are building boulder houses in the north of Syria. We will try to do as much as possible. We make every effort. So far, 500 thousand of the Syrians who came to our country have returned to the regions we have secured in the regions adjacent to our borders. With the support of international aid organizations, we ensure that 4 million people stay in their places, especially in Idlib. Despite this, the tension and insecure environment in Idlib has become a reality. We made a proposal to the leaders who participated in the G20 summit in Antalya to build cities that will provide the resettlement of 1 million people on the territory of this country for the Syrian refugees in 2015. Unfortunately, especially western countries have tried to keep the refugees away from their borders. They did not give the necessary support to this project, which could be realized with very little of the expenditure they made. Türkiye had to undertake a large part of this burden both within its own borders and on Syrian territory. Last year, with the support of non-governmental organizations, we started the project to build 100 thousand briquettes for people living in very difficult conditions on Syrian territory. Within the scope of the project, we have completed 57 thousand briquette houses, and work on 20 thousand continues. We will do the remaining 23 thousand as soon as possible. We may be able to increase this number. With the financing of international aid organizations, we ensure the construction of 200 thousand houses with all the necessary infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, industry, agriculture, in 13 different places in Syria. Our aim is to ensure the return of 1 million Syrians still living in our country to these cities with all humanitarian conditions. Our research shows that far more than 1 million people have volunteered for this comeback.”(Evrensel, 2022).

Just two months ago, in June 2023, President Erdoğan, in his balcony speech after his re-election, said, “We have cooperated with Qatar. With the new resettlement project, we will ensure the return of 1 million people in a few years.” Erdogan said this in the broadcast he attended a few days before the election victory, and stated that permanent buildings will be built, not like the briquette houses built in Afrin and Idlib before. On May 24, four days before the second round of the presidential election, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in Jarablus, in northern Syria, with the participation of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu. Former Minister Soylu said, “For this important step, all of which were undertaken by the Qatar State Development Fund, a protocol was signed between AFAD Presidency (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency) and the Qatar State Development Fund in April 2023.” (BBC, 2023). On the Qatar Development Fund website and in the news in the Qatari media about the project; It is stated that within the scope of the project, which will be built with the infrastructure of 5 thousand apartments and public institutions, including a mosque, shopping center, three schools and health centers, 50 thousand people will be provided with living space (ibid).

Interpretation of Turkish Policies

The developing Turkish repatriation system draws on methods and discussions resembling those utilized by European nations. This is a result of their strong collaboration, which includes significant financial and technical assistance from the EU, leading to educational experiences taking place at the national, local, and global scales (Mencutek, 2022) (see the author’s discussion about voluntary returns in Türkiye:  The Institutionalization of “Voluntary” Returns in Turkey)

According to Aslan (2019), if the environment of conflict is considered to be based on conflict and hostility, the general dynamics that can affect post-conflict reconstruction as a rule manifest negatively. Therefore, reconstruction efforts should be reinforced through confidence-building measures and efforts to maintain reconciliation.  In Syria, the involvement of numerous actors in proxy wars has resulted in a deadlock concerning ethical and humanitarian solutions, particularly when it comes to safeguarding civilians from the consequences of the conflicts, and reconciliation seems far from reach. The parties engaged in the conflict have shown no inclination towards reconstruction efforts, as their primary focus remains on achieving victory rather than addressing the needs of the affected population (ibid). Aslan (2019) claims that, hence other than the humanitarian aids and reconstruction activities initiated by Türkiye, it would be naively optimistic to talk about a reconciliation that will lead to an environment favorable to the reconstruction in Syria. (ibid).

Türkiye’s actions in Syria have significantly enhanced the country’s reputation and international standing. Through these operations, Türkiye has successfully gained a place at the negotiation table alongside major powers like Russia and the United States. By employing effective strategies and learning valuable lessons from its engagements, Ankara has been able to strengthen its foreign policy approach, adopting a more assertive and revisionist stance in its international relations. Contrary to this, there is very limited academic research about how Türkiye’s policy is efficient or not in the context of reconstruction of cities nexus voluntary return tendencies.