Facing public pressure, Turkish political parties outline their refugee policies

Gonca Tokyol
June 21, 2022

"This is our refugee life," Samed told me, flinging his arms open, half in desperation and half in presentation of the scene around us as hundreds of people waited along the Evros river separating Turkey and Greece on a February morning.

His clothes were wet and his breath was visible as we spoke. He was holding a small rubber boat he had just brought back from the Greek side of the river and was standing in the cold water.

"There is no chance of living a decent life in Turkey for me and my family," said Samed, a former NATO subcontractor from Kabul, before leaving the coast. "Turkish people don't want us here and are not going to let us have decent lives. So, we're trying to live our lives elsewhere."

It was late Feb. 2020, the day after Turkish Pres. Erdoğan announced Turkey would open its western borders and allow refugees and migrants to pass freely to Greece. Nearly two and a half years later, resentment towards refugees, as expressed by Samed, has become more visible and more common in Turkey.

According to a UNHCR report published in March, the number of Turkish citizens who think Syrians should definitely be sent back has quadrupled in three years, reaching 48 percent. Yet during the same period, the rate of Syrians who don’t want to return rose from 16 to 77 percent.

Still, about 800 refugees are returning to Syria from Turkey on a weekly basis, a UNHCR official said today, noting conditions remain unstable there. Meanwhile, 67 percent of respondents in an August 2021 Metropoll survey said Turkish borders should be closed to all people seeking refuge as concerns over illegal crossings continue to grow in the country.

The worsening economic picture in Turkey is the main driver of such tensions, with many Turkish citizens increasingly perceiving the presence of over 4 million refugees within their borders as competition for employment opportunities, government aid and resources in general.

The other main driver is the fast-approaching election cycle. As political parties position themselves ahead of the vote, the Turkish mediasphere has seen a coinciding rise in dehumanizing news coverage and social media campaigns as more citizens and special interest groups expect tougher – or at least straightforward – refugee policies.

But do Turkish political parties have such policies? To find out, Turkey recap sent a brief questionnaire to 14 political parties taking part in the 2023 elections.

Not all were keen to provide answers. The ruling People's Alliance, or the AKP and MHP, kindly denied our requests. The HDP and the Workers' Party of Turkey (TİP) refused to answer our questions, criticizing them as “unsuitable” for describing their policies. Ümit Özdağ's Victory Party, the most openly anti-refugee party, was not interested. And İYİ Party stated it was working on a soon-to-be-announced policy and declined to answer our questions.

All other parties gave detailed answers, including the CHP, DEVA, Felicity Party, Future Party, EMEP, Homeland Party, Patriotic Party and Left Party. Below, you’ll find the key takeaways and summaries of their responses. For the full Q&A’s, visit our updated website, where we’ll be publishing many Recap reports to come.

Republican People's Party – CHP
Responses by Ünal Çeviköz, CHP group spox at GNAT Committee on Foreign Affairs

‘Sending refugees back’ was one of the most applauded vows made by CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu during his Maltepe rally last month. Yet, according to his top advisor, İstanbul lawmaker Ünal Çeviköz, the process would be conducted purely on a voluntary basis.

As a former diplomat, Çeviköz told Turkey recap his party's plan for Syrian refugees was to provide sustainable living conditions in their homeland. This is good in theory, but how? "Infrastructure investments will be made, and we will create education, health and job opportunities,” Çeviköz said. “There will be incentives for Turkish businesspeople to make investments that will create jobs in Syria.”

CHP believes that coordinating and cooperating with the international community, setting new frameworks in agreements with the EU and opening a dialogue channel with the Syrian government can create a period of voluntary returns for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The main opposition party would aim to complete this process two years after they come to power, but Çeviköz noted it wouldn’t be an easy task with current data on refugees. For him, the first step should be to obtain basic statistical information, such as the number of Syrians, their citizenship/protection status, where they live and whether they established a business, or have a job.

"Along with the government change, steps to ensure Syrian refugees' planned, organized and honorable returns will be carefully taken,” Çeviköz said. “But there is a need for institutionalization to do that, and it is our priority."

Democracy and Progress Party – DEVA
Responses by Abdurrahman Bilgiç, deputy chairman of Foreign and Security Affairs

Former AKP pioneer Ali Babacan's newly-founded DEVA party was among the few to give a direct answer to Turkey recap's question: "Should refugees in Turkey be sent back?"

"Yes," Abdurrahman Bilgiç told us. "We will ensure that the burden will be shared by all parties. Our main goal is to make Syria a safe country, eliminate the necessity of temporary protection and ensure that Syrians go back to their country."

DEVA was also the only party that mentioned sending refugees to a third country. According to Bilgiç, Turkey must renew the agreements with the EU through negotiations, and European countries have to increase their refugee quotas.

While answering the question of whether providing aid to refugees should be continued, Bilgiç said: "If we share the responsibility and burden until refugees go to third countries or return to their own countries, aid can continue. But a system in which these people live only on aid is unacceptable."

Bilgiç said Turkey must prevent human trafficking and smuggling as well as illegal border crossings. Conditions that created Syrians' temporary protection status should be eliminated, and refugees under this status should return to their homeland. Instead, a legal application process for eligible Syrians should be accelerated, and refugees should be sent to third countries or deported if their applications are rejected, according to Bilgiç.

Felicity Party – Saadet Partisi
Responses by Fatih Aydın, deputy chairman

The Felicity Party might have the most hospitable refugee policies in the Turkish opposition bloc. According to Islamic Relief, an international aid agency, "In the Quran, refugees are not passive, powerless, de-politicized figures. They are instead individuals who have taken an active choice to preserve their life, relocating their families and often overcoming severe obstacles to do so."

When it comes to the refugee issue, the Felicity Party takes an approach that encompasses this Islamic point of view, similar to the AKP. But the party also believes dialogue with the Syrian administration is essential to establish safe returns.

"Refugees are here for a reason and these people are primarily concerned about their safety," Aydın told Turkey recap. "In the Syrian issue, steps need to be taken to establish peace and our approach will promote refugees' return. Our aim is to maximize the return of refugees and initiate an integration process for those who will stay."

For most political parties, integration was not an issue since they believed they would send back all Syrians, but the Felicity Party recognized and accepted their existence in the country. "There are people who were born and raised in our country in the past 12 years. We have a significant number of citizens who have married Syrians," Aydın said. “No one can force them to go anywhere else!”

Future Party – Gelecek Partisi
Responses by Abdullah Başçı, deputy chairman

“At first, it was an Ansar-Muhajareen relationship, but the situation went beyond its limits and became a matter of survival,” said Abdullah Başçı, deputy chairman of the Future Party, when describing the situation of refugees in Turkey. For former PM Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Future Party, both Syrians and the other refugees should be sent back.

The party relies on the framework of the Readmission Agreement signed by Davutoğlu in 2016 and the use of safe zones in Syria to host refugees. According to Başçı, the Future Party would ensure border security and arrange voluntary deportations if it came to power.

“We have huge numbers of refugees in Turkey, and in some provinces, there are more refugees than locals,” Başçı told us. This is the primary reason the Future Party prefers refugees to live in camps rather than cities. The second is uncontrolled border crossings. ”Those people shouldn’t be mingling in city life without supervision,” Başçı said. “Problems occur daily in İstanbul’s Esenyurt district and other places. To prevent such incidents, refugees should be located in designated living areas.”

Homeland Party – Memleket Partisi
Responses by Gaye Usluer, former general vice-chairman

Homeland Party’s former General Vice-Chairman Gaye Usluer (who was a party member until she resigned this week) was another politician with a direct answer regarding refugees' future. “Yes,” she answered, when asked whether refugees should be sent back. ​​”The fact that Turkey is a side in the Syrian war impedes the formation of a dialogue between the two countries. Our priority is having an embassy in Damascus and discussing the ‘refugee issue’ between the two countries.”

For the Homeland Party, leaving EU agreements would be an option if a common international policy cannot be established. “Aid must be sustained within the framework of international norms and agreements,” Usluer told us. “However, the case of informal, uncontrolled and cheap labor should be resolved quickly. A country with a 13 percent unemployment rate shouldn’t be exposing its citizens to unfair competition.”

Even though the Homeland Party believes it’s necessary to send Syrians back and close up borders, they oppose forcible returns. “It is impossible to fulfill the concept of ‘forced deportation,’ especially for those who have been living in Turkey for more than 10 years,” Usluer said. “What is more dangerous is that this issue becomes a card in domestic politics or election material.”

When asked about the first step the Homeland Party would take regarding the refugee issue if it came to power, Usluer gave a similar answer to the CHP (where the party’s Chairman Muharrem İnce had a long run in politics). The Homeland Party would conduct a comprehensive study of refugee distribution in the country and a transparent analysis of the current problems.

Labor Party – EMEP
Responses by Aysel Ebru Ökten, migration and refugees office

For the Labor Party, it is unacceptable to send people back to Syria, where war conditions prevail, or to Afghanistan, where the Taliban holds power. There is one exception for deportations: If the person committed a serious crime. “Besides that, refugees can’t be sent back until the humanitarian situation improves,” Aysel Ebru Ökten told us.

According to the leftist party, the “EU made Turkey a refugee depot by making refugees bargaining subjects, and therefore, the Readmission Agreement should be canceled immediately.’ Ökten said in their view, to end migration and ensure safe return conditions, imperialists must withdraw from the region, war must end and Turkey must turn its face to peace and follow a peaceful foreign policy.

“Syrians' temporary status, which has been in place for 11 years, should come to an end. Temporary protection status should be abolished, and the citizenship process should be started with those who want it,” said Ökten. EMEP is one of the few political parties that advocates for Turkey not to close its borders. However, they believe there should be a control mechanism for border crossings under international surveillance.

Patriotic Party – Vatan Partisi
Responses by Özgür Bursalı, secretary-general

For Doğu Perinçek's Patriotic Party, there is only one culprit to blame for the current situation: US imperialism. "Turkey should start cooperating with Syria immediately. The PKK/YPG and other US-led terrorist organizations should not have space in northern Syria," Bursalı told Turkey recap. According to their calculations, conditions would be sufficient within three months for Syrians to return if the party took power and started a dialogue with the Syrian regime.

"Our leader Doğu Perinçek met with Bashar al-Assad in 2015. We still have very close relations with the Syrian state," Bursalı said, adding Perinçek discussed Turkey-Syria cooperation and deep-rooted solutions with Syria's Foreign Minister recently. "The Minister said that there are no preconditions for meeting with Turkey. The Syrian administration trusts the Patriotic Party most among others in the country."

The Patriotic Party does not believe in sending refugees back to safe zones or camps in Syria under the control of the Turkish army. In their view, Turkey and Syria should have a clear border understanding as two separate sovereign countries. Returns should be promoted by eliminating security problems in northern Syria and comprehensive amnesties from the Damascus government, and nations should continue to support each other in fighting international or regional threats, referring to the US and Israel.

Left Party – Sol Parti
Responses by Önder İşleyen, member of the board of presidents

The Left Party was another party that criticized our questionnaire style in addition to HDP and TİP, but they opted to answer, unlike the others. When asked whether refugees in Turkey should be sent back or not, the first thing Önder İşleyen told Turkey recap was: "This question covers the source of the problem and its solution.”

According to the Left Party, the focus should be on ending destruction in Syria rather than making the future of refugees a bargaining tool in foreign and domestic policy.

"Refugees are not responsible for the economic crisis we are experiencing today, nor for the high cost and poverty that is the result of it," İşleyen said. “Returns can only take place when peace and humanitarian conditions are established under the auspices of international institutions.”

But he also pointed out that Turkey hosts a significant number of war criminals, adding: "We need a classification for everyone's status. War criminals, ISIS, Nusra remnants and jihadist gangs should be identified and deported."

A peaceful dialogue with Syria is essential for the Left Party, like almost every other political party. İşleyen believes the possibility of voluntary returns can only come from such a dialogue and the reconstruction of a democratic Syria. EU agreements are also a no-go for the party and they see the cancellation of the Readmission Agreement as one of the solutions to the situation.