ANTAKYA, Turkey — It was the Syrians who were responsible for the earthquakes. That’s what a Turkish man told Seyfeddin Selim, a refugee from Homs, Syria, who used to sell groceries in Antakya, the capital of Hatay province in southern Turkey. When the earthquakes hit in February, Mr. Selim’s shop was cleared out by looters before he could get there.
The blame that followed added insult to injury, but it wasn’t anything new. Mr. Selim didn’t say anything to the man in his defense, he told me, because he was worried an altercation could get him deported. But when I spoke to him months later, the encounter still made him burn up inside. He didn’t have money to replace the stock, so now he tries to make money however he can — cellphone screen repairs and informal money transfers, known as hawala, from the counter of his shop. Now homeless, he sometimes sleeps in the shop, sometimes in a friend’s tent.
Turkey is host to the largest number of refugees of any country in the world — and currently about 3.6 million Syrian refugees. For the first few years after the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Turkey’s open-door policy was a source of national pride, and Turkey was lauded for its emergency care.
Twelve years, a collapsing currency and runaway inflation have changed the mood. Hate crimes have risen. Reports and rumors accuse Syrians of being responsible for myriad, occasionally conflicting problems in the country: They get salaries from the Turkish government without working and they’re behind the increase in the number of people begging. They push working-class wages down but force taxi prices up. They’re the reason Turks have to wait longer for public services. They commit voter fraud. Their very presence invites natural disasters.
Hatay is Turkey’s southernmost province, poking down into Syria like a thumb. Syrians started crossing into Hatay in the early days of the uprising. By the time the earthquakes hit in late winter this year, more than 400,000 Syrian refugees were living in the province, making up around a quarter of the total population.
Many, including Mr. Selim, would like to make their way to Europe, but the money — nearly $9000, Mr. Selim said — that smugglers want for the trip across the sea is prohibitive. Instead they have been stuck in a kind of extended limbo, unwanted by the country they’re in, unable to move on and unwilling to go back.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, meanwhile, has been staging a remarkable comeback from his long isolation. In May, he attended an Arab League summit, in Saudi Arabia, for the first time in more than a decade. In June, a meeting of officials from Turkey, Syria, Russia and Iran in Kazakhstan had the stated goal of normalizing Syrian-Turkish relations.
Returning refugees to Syria is a big part of the motivation for this normalization process. Syrians might not be ready to move back, but neighboring countries are ready to move on.
In 2011, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey welcomed Syrian refugees as “brothers,” and for a time, they appeared to fit his vision of Turkey — according to the government, around 200,000 Syrians have become Turkish citizens.
But times have changed. Mr. Erdogan announced a plan not long before the presidential elections in May to repatriate one million Syrian “brothers and sisters” to northern Syria.
Mr. Erdogan has said that his government has already facilitated the voluntary return of nearly 600,000 Syrians. In 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish officials had coerced hundreds of Syrians into signing “voluntary return” forms and then forced them across the border “at gunpoint.” (Being able to claim that refugees are willingly returning to a conflict is important because Turkey is bound by the principle of non-refoulement under the 1951 Refugee Convention.) Syrians in Antakya told me that these returns continue and that they’d had friends go back across the border and disappear.
Even so, when Mr. Erdogan won the second round, many Syrians were relieved. In Antakya, some still see him as an ally who welcomed them into the country. Khaled Amr, from Aleppo, sitting in a blue tent within sight of his collapsed apartment building, told me that his “only happy memory this year is that Erdogan won.”
Others said that the one million would surely include many in Hatay because of its proximity to the border and were anxiously pursuing their applications for Turkish citizenship, paying bribes to get the necessary documents or enrolling in a university. Anything to not be sent back.
On a recent Sunday, Om Luay, a 65-year-old widow, sat on a bench at Hama Social Club in Antakya’s northern outskirts, where a group of Syrians sat playing cards and sipping mate. In 2015 she had applied for resettlement to Germany, where two of her daughters live. In February, another daughter and her family died in the earthquakes. In May, she finally received a call from Germany telling her to expect an interview soon.
Ms. Luay waited six days in the cold to identify her family’s bodies in February, she said. Waiting for anything else was easy.
If she is successful, she will be one of the lucky ones. For Syrians in exile there were always few good options, and the list is getting shorter.
One evening in Antakya I walked by a cluster of tents where some Syrians were borrowing the glow from a well-lit, post-earthquake encampment for Turks on the other side of a fence. Nobody I spoke to could countenance returning to a country still ruled by Mr. Assad. I wondered whether anyone is listening.