by Burak Akinci
ANKARA, June 3 (Xinhua) -- Less than a month from Turkey's general elections, Syrian refugees who have found sanctuary in the country are being caught in the heat of the campaign with increasing public wariness of their presence amid the nation's economic troubles.
In April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced snap presidential and legislative elections on June 24, brought forward from late 2019, in a move expected to consolidate his powers by shifting the country's parliamentary system to a presidential one.
The campaign is heating up, so is the discussion around the faith of some 3.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey because of the seven-year civil war in their own country.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled Turkey for nearly 16 years, have won the hearts of displaced Syrians, who are now seeing him as the leader of their second home.
Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world, but the country is apparently creaking under the strain.
"Erdogan is the one who saved us. My family and I would have been long dead if we didn't have the chance of coming to Turkey to pursue our lives here," Ashraf, a 34-year-old Syrian of Turkoman minority, told Xinhua.
As he can speak Turkish because of his origin, Ashraf has been employed as a waiter in downtown Ankara since he came here four years ago.
He is dreading the possibility of leaving Turkey back to Syria where the war is still raging.
"The mood, even that of people who are supporting the AKP, has changed. I think economic reasons have a lot to do with it. Most of the people want Syrians to return and they seem less tolerant, especially in neighborhoods where they live," Ashraf pointed out.
In January, the International Crisis Group, an nongovernmental organization that surveys violence and conflicts, published a report warning of communal hostilities toward Syrians in Turkey.
Turkey has earned international recognition for its assistance to refugees, spending 30 billion U.S. dollars from taxpayers on their welfare, according to official figures.
But with the elections coming, the Syrian rhetoric used by political campaigners could be a cause of concern given the high stakes at the polls.
Aware of the political and media pressure over Syrian refugees and the risk of social disruption they present amid a faltering economy, especially from the working class, the grassroots supporters of AKP, Erdogan has opted for a tougher stance on Syrians entering Turkey since 2016 by erecting a wall at the border, after advocating an open-door policy for refugees for seven years.
In February, the Turkish strongman even expressed the hope for Syrian refugees to return to their homeland.
Turkey "is not in the position to preserve 3.5 million here forever. We want our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their land," Erdogan said.
At least 150,000 Syrians have indeed returned since 2018, a trend that had started before Turkey's military campaign against a Kurdish militia in northern Syria, according to the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey.
Erdogan's main rivals, the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Good Party (IYI), have both addressed the Syrian refugee issues in their campaign, promising to have the refugees return to their country once the war is over.
Metin Corabatir, a Turkish veteran expert on refugee issues and president of the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration, believes most of the refugees will eventually return if the war ends in Syria.
However, "the time has not arrived yet because there is no peace on the ground," he said.
"The Turkish government lacks an integrated approach to Syrian refugees, as it considers them merely 'guests' instead of refugees to avoid granting them legal status," Corabatir explained.
According to a study released this year by Istanbul's Bilgi University, 86 percent of respondents said Syrians should return after the war is over, showing hardening attitudes toward the refugees.
Erdogan regularly orders surveys on the health of his administration, so it's impossible for him to turn a deaf ear to the refugee issue, according to observers.
But as a country abiding by international rules and principles, Turkey "cannot force the displaced Syrians to return or send them there in small batches," said Corabatir, insisting that the best formula for Turkey is to focus on an integration policy.