With or without Erdoğan, we need to talk about refugees again

09 May 2023 - 13:00
Bron: Syrian refugees walking on Turkey-Syria border in Suruc district on 18 February 2015 / Shutterstock

The countdown has begun. On the 14th of May there will be presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey. Polls show a tight race between the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the leader of the biggest opposition bloc, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. After years of tensions in EU-Turkey relations, a victory by the latter would promise to many a first step towards normalisation. Not only has Kılıçdaroğlu announced a number of changes long called for by the EU – for example, the transition to a parliamentary system, or the implementation of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights – but his overall tone is perceived in EU capitals as more conciliatory and cooperative.

However, this does not apply to the topic of migration and the reception of Syrian refugees in Turkey. In 2016, Turkey and the EU committed themselves to the so-called EU-Turkey Statement with the purpose of ending irregular migration from Turkey to the EU. This statement is still in force, but that could well change should the opposition win the elections, as societal antipathy towards refugees has increased sharply over the years. Kılıçdaroğlu recently said: ‘We have to give back our streets and neighbourhoods to their owners.’ Furthermore, Erdoğan, too, has taken a tougher stance on the refugee issue, slowly but surely adapting a discourse that would see refugees return to Syria. According to Turkish diplomats, the current government wants neither more money nor moral appeals from the EU, but a joint mission in northern Syria to facilitate this. That means that despite different rhetorical styles, in essence, both share the same aim: fewer Syrians in Turkey.

In this Clingendael Alert, we discuss the characteristics of this societal aversion towards refugees and how it has found its way into the political discourse. On this basis, we argue that renegotiating the EU-Turkey Statement is in the EU’s own interest to prevent both any refugee deportation back to Syria and a new refugee crisis at its own borders. 

Download the Clingendael Alert.