Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered to use Syrian oil reserves, which are mostly under the control of the United States (US) and its ally Kurdish People’s Democratic Units (YPG) to fund construction projects in a planned “safe zone” in Syria.
Speaking at the Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva on Tuesday, Erdogan also accused the US of acting more quickly to guard Syria’s oil fields than its children.
The Turkish president was referring to the US to move to protect the fields after the retreat of the Islamic State (ISIS).
In October, US President Donald Trump changed his previous decision on full withdrawal from Syria, ordering instead to guard the oil-rich region against ISIS attacks. The stated US aim is to allow the Syrian Kurds to extract oil and monetize it.
“Unfortunately, the efforts that were spared to protect the oil fields were not mobilized for the safety and security of the children in Syria,” Erdogan said.
The Turkish president also criticized the European Union (EU) for failing to deliver only around half of 6 billion euros ($6.61 billion), which it had previously promised, while his country had spent more than $40 billion to host the refugees in Turkey.
“Nobody seems inclined to help us. When we have not received the support, we needed from the international community. We had to take care of ourselves,” Erdogan argued, referring to Turkey’s incursion into Syria in October.
Ankara launched an offensive against the Kurds in northeastern Syria, aiming to clear the YPG militia of the border region and set up the “safe zone” to resettle Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
Turkey hosts an estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world.
Erdogan called for the resettlement of one million Syrian refugees in the zone on a voluntary basis but in “a very short period.”
“We need to find a formula to allow refugees who traveled to Turkey to be resettled in their motherland. I think the resettlement can easily reach 1 million in a very short period,” Erdogan vowed.
According to Erdogan, housing and schools could be set up in the region where some 371,000 Syrian refugees have already returned voluntarily, and more than 600,000 should do the same.
Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said on Tuesday that resettling Arab refugees in a region where the Kurds were previously living was wrong.
According to a recent NRC survey, the majority of Syrian refugees who fled Turkey’s military offensive were not thinking of a return to their country.
The survey said; instead, the refugees were planning on settling in Iraq due to ongoing fighting and uncertainty in the region.
During Erdogan’s speech, a group of Kurds demonstrated outside the UN European headquarters.
Ankara has previously said it was expecting 300,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees to be the first to return to the area between Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad, the Syrian border towns.
Both sides, Ankara and the YPG accuse each other of changing regional demographics. Ankara sees the YPG as terror organization due to its alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which waged an insurgency against the Turkish state in the early 1980s.
BBC Turkish published a news report on the same day, denying Erdogan’s “voluntarily return” remarks, citing Amnesty International.
Tarik Beyhan from the London-based international rights organization told BBC that they verified 20 cases in which Turkey had illegally forced around 1 000 Syrian refugees to return to an area of the war-torn country near the Turkish border.
According to the NGO, Syrian refugees were sent back to Syria, with many receiving threats of violence or being tricked into signing “voluntary return” agreements.
Beyhan said they have records proving that Turkish authorities made some refugees sign voluntary return documents during their detention in the Immigration Removal Centers.
He said the documents read: ‘We are providing you with blankets. Sign this paper to declare that you have received them.’
BBC Turkish interviewed an unnamed Syrian refugee who was allegedly deported to Syria just before Turkey’s latest operation in October and later fled Syria again through illegal ways.
Confirming Amnesty’s findings, the Syrian provided details on his deportation.
“They [the Turkish officials] said we must sign a document. When we asked what the documents were for, they said they were documents related to their detentions. Those rejected signing the documents were beaten [by police]. Then we realized that they would take us to Syria,” claimed the refugee.
He added that they were maltreated during the 22-hour long bus journey to Syria. Meanwhile, they were given water and bread only once. Those who tried to speak were beaten by accompanying gendarmerie.
“Nobody in the bus did know that the signed documents were related to returning to Syria. And nobody wanted to return. All had jobs in Turkey, with most of them being married and having children in the country,” the unnamed man claimed.
They were released in Syria’s Bab el-Hawa, a town near Idlib, the last rebel stronghold under Russian fire at the time. The man had to live in a refugee camp for two months as he had no relatives in Idlib. Finally, he had to flee the country for the second time.
Since then, the fugitive Syrian has been living in Turkey unregistered, with no official identity document.
After signing voluntary return documents, the refugees are deemed to waive their temporary protection status in Turkey.
“When I first came here [Turkey] five and a half years ago, I was hoping to live freely and safely. However, I do not feel safe and free now,” the man added.
According to the BBC report, the number of Syrians who returned to Turkey is not known.
The Directorate-General for Migration Management (GIGM) is yet to reply to the BBC’s interview request and written allegations by Amnesty.
Amnesty International is a global movement of over 7 million people in more than 150 countries and territories who campaign to end violations of human rights.