Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for the resettlement of one million Syrian refugees in a “peace zone” in the northern part of their homeland – on a voluntary basis but in “a very short period of time”.
“We need to find a formula to allow refugees … who travelled to Turkey to be resettled in their motherland,” Erdogan, whose country hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, told the Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva on Tuesday.
Housing and schools could be set up in the zone, where some 371,000 Syrian refugees have already returned since Turkish military operations to clear the area of “terrorist organisations”, he said, naming the armed group ISIL (ISIS) and the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Turkey-based PKK.
In October, Turkey launched an offensive against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, aiming to push back what it called “terrorist” elements from the border region east of the Euphrates River and establish a “safe zone” to resettle Syrian refugees it hosts.
Erdogan said a lack of international assistance to Turkey to support millions of refugees on its soil pushed Ankara to launch the operation.
“Nobody seems inclined to help us,” the Turkish president told global leaders gathered in Switzerland. “When we haven’t received the support we needed from the international community. We had to take care of our own self.”
On Tuesday, a new survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said the majority of refugees who fled Turkey’s military operation say they will not return to their country, and plan on settling in Iraq, citing ongoing fighting and uncertainty.
“Turkey’s military operation has scarred the lives of tens of thousands of Syrian families,” said NRC’s Middle East Regional Director Carsten Hansen in a statement.
“The families tell us terrible stories of both the violence and the difficulties in trying to escape to safety. They need to be offered protection for the long term – whether in Iraq or in the areas they fled from.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations chief urged the Security Council to authorise the delivery of critically needed humanitarian aid across borders and conflict lines in Syria for another year.
“The United Nations does not have an alternative means of reaching people in need in the areas in which cross-border assistance is being provided,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a report to the council circulated on Monday.
“Humanitarian assistance provided by United Nations agencies included food for an average of 4.3 million people in need each month and more than 1.3 million health and medical treatments to people throughout the country,” Guterres noted in the report.
“Cross-border assistance … remained a vital part of the humanitarian response” to the more than 11 million people in need, he added.
Four entry points into Syria – two from Turkey, one from Jordan and one from Iraq – are currently used to ferry aid to millions after eight years of conflict.
Negotiations are under way to open a fifth crossing, at Tal Abyad on the Turkish border with northern Syria, to cope with the extra needs created by the Turkish offensive in the area earlier this year.