Anti-refugee hostility is growing in Turkey and Lebanon, the two countries with the highest number of Syrian refugees, as many are forced back to their homes despite intense conflict and the threat of imprisonment.
In recent weeks, Turkish and Lebanese authorities have raided the homes and workplaces of Syrian refugees, demolished camps, and deported those arrested back to Syria. It has represented some of the most severe crackdowns on Syrian refugees in both countries since the conflict began in 2011.
Over the course of the eight-year war, over six million people fled Syria and a further six million people have been displaced internally within the country. Approximately 3.6 million are registered in Turkey, the largest recipient of Syrian refugees. Roughly 1.5 million are living in Lebanon, representing approximately 25% of the population.
At the beginning of the conflict, neighbouring countries acted as safe refuge for those fleeing the growing violence and bombardment of their towns and cities. This was perceived as a sense of duty towards their brothers and sisters in Syria, many of whom being recipient of other refugee communities themselves in the past. Other Syrians went to Jordan, Egypt prior to 2013, Iraq, and later as far afield as Germany and Sweden during the summer of 2015.
But the ongoing conflict coupled with growing anti-refugee rhetoric over perceived social, economic and security risks, have made life more difficult for Syrians. In Lebanon, many refugees have experienced poor living conditions, political scapegoating for Lebanon’s economic challenges, and difficulties obtaining work.
In Turkish cities, tensions have also been steadily rising between Turks and their Syrian refugee neighbours, leading to protests and occasional violent clashes, most notably in the Küçükçekmece district of Istanbul at the end of June earlier this year. Political leaders have also scapegoated refugees, with xenophobic hashtags against Syrians circulating on Twitter after the recent Istanbul municipal elections. The recent crackdown on refugees who were deported to Idlib are now living in an area where intense fighting and airstrikes are a daily occurrence, and extremist groups such as Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) operate freely.
Anti-refugee attitudes are by no means unique to the countries closest to those fleeing warzones. Anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments are also on the rise in Europe, where the rise of Alternative for Germany (AfD) into parliament and tropes such as “remigration” pushed by far-right groups are entering into mainstream discourse. The AfD has also been keen to adopt the rhetoric of the Syrian Regime, putting up posters about the war “being over” and Syria “being safe”. Such claims fail to recognise the perpetual threat of arrest, imprisonment and forced conscription of those returning to Regime-held areas.
But for those in Turkey and Lebanon, there continues to be great uncertainty about their future, especially in countries that many had made their temporary homes. “My house in Syria has been completely destroyed,” said one man living in Turkey. “It is impossible to return under these conditions”.