It was June 2011, and Barzan Ramo scrambled inside from the balcony. The 22-year-old college student was studying for his final exams in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria when rebel groups and regime forces backing President Bashar al-Assad clashed beneath him.
To escape, Barzan and a few other students pleaded with a minibus driver to brave the rubble-strewn streets and sniper fire before government troops surrounded the city. It took Barzan several days of furtive travel to reach his hometown, outside Qamishli, in Syria’s northeast corner. But even there, the war was waiting. Assad’s army wanted Barzan’s closest younger brother, Rezan, who had just completed his mandatory military service, to return to fight against the burgeoning revolution. The family had come to rely on the brothers; their father, Jamal, suffered from heart problems, and their mother, Hifa, leaned on Barzan in particular as a third parent, to help with their four younger siblings.
But with her eldest two sons in danger, “I told them to go,” says Hifa, “to have a safe life.”
So Barzan and Rezan crossed the border to Turkey, which boasted an “open door” policy for Syrians. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would welcome refugees as “guests” and granted them temporary protection, a legal status that afforded them the right to stay in Turkey and access to some public services. Many Syrians saw a path to better opportunity and security beyond Turkish borders, in Europe. Among them were eventually Barzan’s mother, two sisters and two other brothers, smuggled later in shifts to Istanbul, as the situation in Syria worsened.
Turkey, however, was utterly unprepared for a few thousand Syrian refugees at the conflict’s outset to balloon to millions. Rents rose, work dried up, and refugees scrambled to survive. Today, as the war in Syria enters its eighth year, more than 3.5 million Syrians are living in Turkey, the largest refugee population in the world, according to the United Nations. Year after year, cultural and linguistic differences, and inequalities in education and employment—and lately a lingering economic crisis—have turned a spirit of brotherhood into one of hostility. More than 80 percent of Turkish respondents who support Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said in 2017 that Syrians should be returned after the war, but roughly half of Syrians in a different survey last year said they want to stay.
That growing tension pervades Turkey, from Istanbul, where refugees number nearly 550,000, to the southeast, where they represent roughly 30 percent of the population. Now, instead of an “open door,” Turkish soldiers patrolling the roughly 475-mile wall on the border with Syria shoot on sight. The government is dismantling refugee camps and shutting down nongovernmental aid organizations and medical clinics. “We aim to make all Syrian lands safe,” Erdogan said as he campaigned for re-election in June, “and to facilitate the return home of all our guests.”
With the international community largely ceding victory to Assad and his allies, neighboring nations that have borne the brunt of Syrian displacement, as well as European Union members buffeted by resurgent nativism, are echoing that call. Under President Donald Trump, U.S. policy too has shifted from “Assad must go” to “Syrians should go home.”
The refugees face a no-win situation: If they return to Assad’s Syria, they risk conscription, disappearance and sectarian retribution, as well as an utter lack of basic services and opportunity. If they stay in Turkey, they face chronic uncertainty and destitution, as domestic and international politics turn against them.
In 2014, Barzan set out for Germany to finish his education and find a better job to support his family, and Rezan followed later. Yet even German authorities have rejected Barzan’s asylum requests, dashing not just his hopes but those of his mother and siblings, who have now been stuck for five years in Istanbul.
Now adults, three of his siblings work 12-hour days together in a basement sewing factory, crammed in with 100 other Syrians and Turks. (Their Turkish boss, they say, pays Syrians less, a common complaint.) Even the youngest sibling, 12-year-old Mohamad, who napped throughout an October visit, goes to class in the morning but runs errands at the factory in the afternoon. Three times, the family has paid a smuggler to help them reach central Europe, but authorities turned them back. Now, much of their earnings go to Syria, to help Jamal, whose health has deteriorated.
“Our situation,” Hifa tells me, “is getting worse by the day.”
Amid the world’s last major refugee crisis, following World War II, Turkey signed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, which defined the term refugee and countries’ obligations to protect displaced people. But Turkey, straddling Europe and Asia, maintained a geographical limitation, granting refugee status only to Europeans. Sixty years later, when war broke out in Syria, Turkey was not obligated to give Syrians refugee status—hence, the “guest” policy—though it is barred from returning them to danger.
This year alone, some 1 million have been displaced in Syria, according to the U.N. The World Bank estimates that roughly a third of all houses, and half of schools and hospitals, are destroyed or damaged. Men between 18 and 50 years old risk conscription into Syria’s hollowed-out military, and some rebel groups that agreed to lay down their arms in reconciliation deals with the government instead have been enlisted to fight for Assad. Damascus has also said it will seize displaced Syrians’ properties for “redevelopment.”
At first, Erdogan drew political capital from welcoming Syrian refugees as guests, framing himself as a regional and religious leader helping millions of Muslims while the more powerful developed countries did nothing, according to Hande Paker, a professor at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul.
But by the end of 2015, as Turkey hosted millions of Syrians and more than 1 million refugees fled to Europe, the mass migration bloomed into a political crisis. Nativist parties from Italy to Sweden amassed more power and dogged EU centrists such as outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who advocated for accepting more refugees. Erdogan struck a deal with the EU: Refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey would be sent back, but for each one returned, one refugee already in Turkey would be resettled in the bloc. Under the agreement, the EU would take 72,000 maximum.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Migration to Europe has fallen, but more than two years after the agreement, only 16,975 Syrian refugees have been resettled from Turkey, according to the U.N. The Trump administration admitted just 62 Syrians total into the United States in fiscal 2018. “The Turkish government can claim it is holding back the refugees for Europe,” says Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey. “We’re not holding up our end.”
Now, as Turkish public opinion has shifted, Erdogan has hardened his stance on refugees. Turkey has closed its border, effectively ending Syrian family reunification in Turkey, as well as registration for new arrivals. Notably, for Syrians intercepted by the Turkish coast guard, the government is no longer releasing them in Turkey; instead, it is either moving them to the remaining camps in the southeast or returning them to Syria. This past summer, Turkish officials encouraged registered Syrians to return home for Muslim holidays, in part to reassess their homeland.
In all, Erdogan touts that half a million Syrians in Turkey have opted to go back to Syria, though observers question the claim. On November 1, the Turkish defense minister said 260,000 Syrians have returned to Turkish-held territory in their country’s north. “This should be voluntary,” Erdogan said at a summit on Syria in October, where Russia, Germany and France agreed that refugee return was the ultimate goal, coordinated by the U.N. But the sheer numbers being cited by Turkish authorities, as well as reports that they’re carrying out coerced repatriations and deportations, are raising concerns among human rights advocates and officials. Selin Unal of the U.N. refugee agency says the U.N. is not promoting or organizing return journeys yet “because the situation in Syria is not fully safe.”
Mehmet Gulluoglu, the director of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, denies charges of forcible returns. “None of them is pushed or handed back,” he tells Newsweek.
Either way, over several days in October at Bab al-Hawa, the closest international crossing to Idlib, Syria’s last remaining rebel stronghold, I see no sign of mass returns. A bus of registered refugees returning from holiday pilgrimage in Syria rumbles to a stop. Taxi drivers abandon their game of dice and sprint to unload the luggage.
Jamal Baraa says he and his family are returning to Turkey from Aleppo. The holiday trip home “was very difficult,” he says. “Under threat of bombing, we could be attacked at any time.” Asked about claims from Moscow and Damascus that refugees can move back to regime areas, he says, “It’s all lies.” As we speak, his daughter sits on a rock, holding her sleeping brother. The family has lived in Reyhanli for the past five years—and returning to Syria permanently, he says, is still too dangerous. But it is still their hope.
“If things get better,” he says, “I’ll go back.”
Cotton lines the highway that runs from the ancient Turkish city of Antakya through Reyhanli, skirting the long gray wall marking the Syrian border. During the day, Turkish men and women bend over the white fluffs. At dusk, a refugee named Ali Jaja shows me his harvest, balled up behind his tent at the roadside. Syrians, he explains, get only the leftovers.
Turkish law traps Syrians as perpetual “guests,” virtually unable to access paths to legal work, homeownership, citizenship or even resettlement, because they aren’t technically refugees.