ANTAKYA, Turkey — It was the Syrians who were responsible for the earthquakes. That’s what a Turkish man said to Seyfeddin Selim, a refugee from Homs, Syria, who used to sell food in Antakya, the capital of Hatay province in southern Turkey. When the earthquakes hit in February, Mr. Selim’s shop was cleared by robbers before he could get there.
The blame that followed added insult to injury, but it was nothing new. Mr. Selim said nothing to the man in his defense, he told me, because he was worried that an argument might get him deported. But when I spoke to him months later, the encounter still made him burn inside. He had no money to replace the stock, so now he tries to make money any way he can – mobile phone screen repairs and informal money transfers, known as hawala, from the counter of his shop. Now homeless, he sometimes sleeps in the shop, sometimes in a friend’s tent.
Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees of any country in the world – and currently around 3.6 million Syrian refugees. During the first years after the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Turkey’s open-door policy was a source of national pride, and Turkey was praised for his emergency care.
Twelve years, a collapsing currency and runaway inflation have changed the mood. Hate crimes got up. Reports and rumors accuse Syrians of being responsible for myriad, sometimes conflicting problems in the country: They receive salaries from the Turkish government. without working and they are behind the increase in the number of beggars. They undercut the wages of the working class but raise taxi prices. They are the reason Turks have to wait longer for public services. They commit electoral fraud. Their very presence invites natural disasters.
Hatay is the southernmost province of Turkey, sticking out into Syria like a thumb. Syrians began crossing into Hatay in the early days of the rebellion. When the earthquakes hit in late winter this year, more than 400,000 Syrian refugees lived in the province, making up about a quarter of the total population.
Many, including Mr. Selim, would like to make their way to Europe, but the money – nearly $9,000, Mr. Selim said – that smugglers want for the trip across the sea is prohibitive. Instead they were stuck in a kind of extended limbo, unwanted by the country they were in, unable to move on and unwilling to go back.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, meanwhile, made a remarkable return from his long isolation. In May, he attended an Arab League summit, in Saudi Arabia, for the first time in more than a decade. In June there was a meeting of officials from Turkey, Syria, Russia and Iran in Kazakhstan the declared goal of normalization of Syrian-Turkish relations.
Returning refugees to Syria is a big part of the motivation for this normalization process. Syrians may not be ready to go back, but neighboring countries are ready to move on.
In 2011, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey welcomed Syrian refugees as “brothers”, and for a time, they seemed to fit his vision of Turkey – according to the governmentaround 200,000 Syrians became Turkish citizens.
But times have changed. Mr. Erdogan announced a plan not long before the presidential elections in May to repatriate a million Syrian “brothers” to northern Syria.
Mr Erdogan said his government had already facilitated the voluntary return of almost 600,000 Syrians. In 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish officials forced hundreds of Syrians to sign ‘voluntary return’ forms and then forced them across the border”by force of arms.” (Being able to claim that refugees willingly return to conflict is important because Turkey is bound by the principle of non-refoulement under the 1951 Refugee Convention.) Syrians in Antakya told me that these returns were continuing and that they had friends go back across the border and disappear.
Even so, when Mr. Erdogan won the second round, many Syrians were relieved. In Antakya, some still see him as an ally who welcomed them into the country. Khaled Amr, from Aleppo, sitting in a blue tent in view of his collapsed apartment building, told me that his “only happy memory this year is that Erdogan won.”
Others said the one million would surely include many in Hatay because of its proximity to the border and anxiously handled their applications for Turkish citizenship, paying bribes to obtain the necessary documents or enroll in university. Anything not to be sent back.
On a recent Sunday, Om Luay, a 65-year-old widow, sat on a bench at Hama Social Club on the northern outskirts of Antakya, where a group of Syrians sat playing cards and drinking with a friend. In 2015 she applied for resettlement to Germany, where two of her daughters live. In February, another daughter and her family died in the earthquakes. In May, she finally received a call from Germany telling her to expect an interview soon.
Ms. Luay waited six days in the cold to identify her family’s bodies in February, she said. Waiting for something else was easy.
If she succeeds, she will be one of the lucky ones. For Syrians in exile there have always been few good options, and the list is getting shorter.
One evening in Antakya I walked by a cluster of tents where some Syrians borrowed the glow of a well-lit, post-earthquake camp for Turks on the other side of a fence. No one I spoke to could want to return to a country still ruled by Mr. Assad. I wondered if anyone was listening.