Peace needed for return of Syrians: Mayor
Hazal Özcan - HATAY
This file photo shows Syrians leaving Turkey at Cilvegözü border gate with Syria.
The locals of southern Hatay province have always been hospitable towards Syrian refugees and asylum seekers yet still want Syria to accomplish peace so that the “guests” can safely return to their homeland, Hatay’s Mayor Lütfü Savaş has said.
“We learn about our religion, sect or ethnic identity either in holidays or in bitter days, like funerals. Members of three religions and six sects have lived and continue to live in Hatay. On Syrians, there has been many quarrels in [Turkey] but not in [Hatay], because our tolerance and sympathy level is higher,” Lütfü Savaş told Hürriyet Daily News.
“But the truth is we all want peace to be established in Syria as soon as possible so that our brothers and sisters living away from their homes can safely and securely return to their country,” Savaş said.
Hatay, located on the Syrian border, is one of the cities in Turkey that hosts the greatest number of refugees, ranking behind only Istanbul and Şanlıurfa. About 26.85 percent of its 1.6 million population is refugees.
According to data from the directorate, over 430,000 Syrian refugees have migrated to Hatay between the start of the civil war and the end of 2018.
The high number of refugees - currently over a quarter of Hatay’s population - causes economic and social consequences, the mayor said.
“Firstly, our living standards are not equal. Secondly, our sociocultural life is not equal. Our customs and traditions are very different. Thus, sociological disharmony emerges,” he said.
Savaş added that due to financial difficulties, the expense of caring for the refugees creates a burden on the border province and its people.
“You are taking care of 2.1 million people with the money [collected] from 1.6 million people. Hence, you have … more expenses. This may go on for one or two days of two weeks. But the fact that it has been going on for eight years has been tough on the people,” he added. “For this, we anticipate peace to rule Syria as soon as possible and expect countries that should provide the peace to make their contributions.”
In the meantime, Savaş said, the municipality takes care of Syrian refugees just as it takes care of its citizens.
“Yet, we believe that it will be hard for our guests to stay here for life, both for us and for themselves. We want peace to be established so that our guests who will return will have security,” he said. Savaş added that the road to peace can happen with the assistance of international actors. “This is not something that will be solved by [Hatay] locals,” he said.
The mayor underlined that the Syrians who are truly suffering are not those battling but those who fled the war.
“They have been deterritorialized. Three or four families are in a condition that force them to stay in one home. They are forced to make ends meet,” he said.
Hatay is a relatively smaller province, and job opportunities are, consequently, fewer, according to Savaş.
“There is a certain work capacity. If you fill those, others will go hungry. Our children are left unemployed as well. As such, sociological problems emerge,” he said.
Syrians living in Turkey and Turkish citizens do not have the same financial conditions, Savaş said.
“[Syrians] work for much less in jobs or they found businesses without paying any taxes. These potentialize the financial difficulties [in Hatay], because there is unfair competition,” he said.
Hatay has been experiencing these problems for eight years, the mayor underlined.
Per capita income of a Hatay resident was nearly $8,000; however, it has declined to under $6,000, he conveyed.
“The fact that our people have tolerance does not mean that we approve this. This is not right,” he said.
According to Savaş, Turkey’s planned safe zone in northern Syria is an accurate step paving the way for the safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees.
“The people that have been having problems since they came [to Turkey] want to return. As a result, if there is peace [in Syria], they will live in their own lands, talking the same language with other people,” he said.
“From the start, I have been saying that a safe zone should be established,” he said. Savaş added that such a safe zone will be more economic for Syrian asylum seekers than living in Turkey.
“Because they are guests. Think about it like this, every day you have a guest in your home. It is also hard for the household,” he said.
The safe zone should have been actualized earlier, according to Savaş. “It would have been very effective,” he said.
“If actions and words go parallel with each other, the safe zone will succeed,” he added.
Solving the problem, however, will come from dialogue between Ankara and Damascus, he said. “The real solution will be found when Turkey and Syria act together around the same table,” he added.