At the introductory meeting for the Expo 2021 Hatay conference in Ankara on Jan. 17, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said that under an opposition-led government Syrian people living in Turkey would be sent “back to their country with drums and trumpets within two years the latest.”
Kılıçdaroğlu’s comments come as the issue of refugees and immigrants to Turkey has become a lynchpin of the planned 2023 elections. Turkey - officially - houses over 3.6 million Syrian refugees, the lion’s share of its 4 million person refugee population. Many refugees, Syrian and otherwise, living in the country work in informal sectors for wages far below minimum wage, which many blame for wage depreciation in Turkey.
In recent months, there has been a spate of violent attacks by Turks against Syrians, including in Istanbul and in Ankara.
The meeting where Kılıçdaroğlu spoke is meant to kick off the promotion event for the city of Hatay, a long-contested border city with Syria. The city is nestled along the Syrian border, close to the Syrian city of Lattakia. Expo 2021 Hatay will last from the beginning of April until the end of October 2022, and hopes to promote the culture, gastronomy, and history of the ancient region.
The meeting was attended by several members of the opposition Nation Alliance, including Kılıçdaroğlu, Good (İYİ) Party Chair Meral Akşener, Democrat Party Chair Gültekin Uysal, and Ankara Metropolitan Municipality Mayor Mansur Yavaş.
Kılıçdaroğlu said, quoting Hatay mayor Lütfü Savaş, that the city alone houses 900,000 Syrian refugees.
“The mayor has our word that we will send our Syrian brothers to their countries…within two years at most. Of course, they will want to go in order to ensure the safety of their lives and property. We will create the infrastructure for this,” he said.
The CHP leader also indicated the importance of Hatay in the Turkish national memory. During the “Independence War,” as it is called in Turkey, in the early 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk insisted on keeping the city within Turkish borders. This war is a critical touchstone in Turkish National memory.
Kılıçdaroğlu indicated that the maintenance of the city as Turkish would be just as critical to him and the Nation Alliance as it was to the founder of the republic.
“We all make this promise together, in fact, we will bless our republic with democracy in the Second Century of the Republic. And those who will bring democracy are the leaders of the Nation Alliance. Together, we will grow and cultivate peace, peace, brotherhood, respect for beliefs, cultures, and identities in this country,” he said.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s comments come as the war continues to rage across the Syrian border. The city of Idlib, less than 90 km from Hatay, is under Russian blockade, is running out of food and water supplies, and suffers daily bombings. In Northern Syria, Turkish forces are engaged in combat with both state and Kurdish forces.