Last week the Istanbul governor’s office set 20 August as a deadline for Syrian refugees to return to the Turkish provinces in which they were registered on arrival or face forcible transfer.
A 22 July statement said that the Interior Ministry would send unregistered Syrians to provinces other than Istanbul for registration. The move comes amid rising xenophobic sentiment across the political spectrum against Syrian and other refugees in Turkey.
There are reports that the government has quietly rounded up and sent as many as 1,000 Syrian refugees back to their homeland.
However, on Sunday, Suleyman Soylu, deputy chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) who has served as the minister of the interior since 2016, said that Turkey has no plans to deport Syrian refugees who are under temporary protection or have a residence permit, or those who are granted international protection, and that what has transpired in recent weeks pertains to irregular and illegal migration.
“We don’t have the right for deportation. We have no such desire,” Soylu said, adding that those who are granted temporary protection must settle in the cities in which they were officially registered.
“Local reports in Turkey indicate a number of Syrians sent back to Idlib, and one even reportedly was delivered to an Al-Qaeda linked terror group, Al-Nusra,” Washington-based Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“However, the Turkish government does not accept such claims and argues, despite the evidence, they are only relocating Syrian refugees in Turkey where they initially registered, and they deport only those who have no documents, including from other foreign countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.”
According to the Washington-based journalist, Syrian refugees became an important factor in the eyes of voters, according to credible surveys, “and following the historic defeat after the Istanbul rerun elections on 23 June, the ruling party identified the Syrian refugee problem as one thing they ought to tackle more forcefully.”
Gulseren Yoleri, head of the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association (IHD), told Euronews that they had recently received information about forced deportations as the police focuses on identity in public transportation and elsewhere, and that people without identification and proper registration are forced to sign “voluntary return forms” and are being sent directly back to their hometowns.
Istanbul Immigration Department denied the allegations and said that no Syrians are deported back to their country of origin. “Syrians can only be sent to the city in which they are registered in Turkey,” the department stated.
In a telephone interview with theWeekly Ziyad Khayyata, 34, a Syrian refugee who currently resides in GaziAntep said he first came to Turkey in 2013, but settled finally in 2015.
“When I first came to Turkey, I spent a month in Mersin city, then I moved to GaziAntep.” Khayyata, who is originally from Aleppo, has a residency card, not a temporary protection card, which he renews every year and that costs him from $100 to $200. “The residency card is not so affordable. Besides, I have to renew my Syrian passport, which costs me around $1,500. If you do not possess the residency card you won’t be allowed to travel outside Turkey.”
Khayyata didn’t face the difficulties other refugees faced in the past few weeks because of his residency card. “But during my travels in domestic airports I face heavy security measures, of course. Previously, two to three years ago and until very recent, officers in the airport used to treat us in a humiliating way. I would have to place my residency card beside my face; the security officer would take a photo of me and send it somewhere. I would have to wait for more than 30 minutes, sometimes an hour, for approval.”
According to Khayyata, only refugees with Syrian nationality would receive such treatment.
Khayyata is married and has a four-year-old child, Zaki, who was born in Turkey. He works for Baytna Syria (Syria our Home), a leading institution based in GaziAntep, fostering the Syrian civil society movement. The institution promotes an inclusive and democratic future for all Syrians, laying the foundation for long-term stability across the country. Khayyata is also the cofounder and board member of Kesh Malek (Checkmate).
“It’s a group of youth that shared a common belief in the revolution for justice, freedom and dignity and came together with the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011,” he told the Weekly.
Amr Daaboul, 27, was on his way to a Turkish coastal city when the Weekly contacted him. He was born in Idlib but spent his whole life in Aleppo until he decided to leave for Turkey at the beginning of 2017. “I had to leave Syria. I was detained by the regime several times,” he said.
Daaboul is registered in GaziAntep but lives in Istanbul as he works for a digital marketing company there. He is married to his cousin, a Syrian-Belgian who currently resides in Belgium. To unite with his family, Daaboul tried to get to Belgium several times but as he is against his country’s regime he couldn’t complete his travel documents required by the Belgian Embassy in Turkey to fulfil his travel.
“On July 9 I decided to violate the immigration laws and sailed to a Greek island, Farmakonisi, through Izmir port. We were 22 adults and nine children in a rubber boat. After four hours’ sailing the boat stopped suddenly. We asked Greek coast guards for help. They said we should communicate with the Turkish marines to be able to get us a rescue boat,” Daaboul told the Weekly.
The Turkish coast guards took them back to Didim city where they were all brought to the city’s Immigration Department. “There we were all marked as criminals for breaking the migration rules. We then were transferred to Iden city prison.”
According to Daaboul, all non-Syrians were released, while the nine Syrians were not. “Turkey intends to humiliate only those refugees who hold Syrian nationality, they apply the same harsh measures and attitude towards us in a very systematic way, be it on land or on sea.”
Daaboul spent six days in Iden prison. Security forces asked him to show his permanent protection card.
“Despite that I was forced to sign the deportation form. The form does not say it’s for deportation. Before signing I wanted to know what I was signing. I had learned about it previously and I was warned not to sign but I was curious to know their answer. 'This form will be sent to Ankara, it will help release you, you have to sign it’ the security officer told me, swearing a thousand times that he was telling the truth. We argued, he was furious and sent me back to prison telling me not to come back to his office unless I accepted to sign the form. His spoken Arabic was fluent.”
Daaboul had no other choice, either refuse to sign and stay in Iden prison or sign for his deportation to Idlib. “I made the second choice. I was deported to my hometown then was allowed back into Turkey. Today I restart my trials to unite with my family,” Daaboul said, determined.
Amr Daaboul was a student at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Economics. He took part in the Syrian revolution, was arrested several times, and was imprisoned for 21 days. As a result he fled to Turkey.
One young Syrian refugee, Amjad Tablieh, 18, whose story went viral on social media, was also deported to Idlib and was allowed back into Turkey after he recorded interviews with the press. Turkish authorities claimed that his deportation was a “mistake”.
Tanir thinks that the government’s harsh attitude towards Syrian refugees has wide support, including from traditionally non-AKP voters such as secularists and some leftists, in addition to nationalists and AKP’s own base. “Indeed, the opposition party’s new Istanbul mayor appears to be agreeing with the new and harsher policy of the ruling party’s Interior Ministry. I expect the climate in Turkey will further deteriorate against Syrian refugees as there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the decaying Turkish economy either.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report 26 July in which Director of Associate Emergencies Gerry Simpson stated: “Turkey claims it helps Syrians voluntarily return to their country, but threatening to lock them up until they agree to return, forcing them to sign forms and dumping them in a war zone is neither voluntary nor legal. Turkey should be commended for hosting record numbers of Syrian refugees, but unlawful deportations are not the way forward.”
Istanbul is home to 500,000 of the country’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees, “around 200,000 of them are registered in different cities,” according to Interior Ministry statements. Soylu stated that new registrations were not allowed in Istanbul and some other cities unless the person will receive medical treatment, as an exception for “humanitarian reasons”.
According to HRW, 3.6 million is more refugees than any other country in the world and almost four times as many as in the whole European Union.
The HRW report also stated that Turkey has sealed off its border with Syria, while Turkish border guards have carried out mass summary pushbacks and killed and injured Syrians as they try to cross.In late 2017 and early 2018, Istanbul and nine provinces on the border with Syriasuspended registration of newly arriving asylum seekers.
Turkey’s travel permit system for registered Syrians prohibits unregistered Syrians from travelling elsewhere in the country to register from border provinces where they enter.
Turkey should protect the basic rights of all Syrians, regardless of registration status, and register those denied registration since late 2017, in line with the Istanbul governor’s 22 July statement, said HRW.
In the past 10 days, air strikes on schools, markets and bakeries in Syria killed at least 103 civilians, including 26 children.
In a powerful statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday condemned the attacks by the Syrian government of President Bashar Al-Assad, criticising “apparent international indifference”.
“The international community wants to forget about Syria and killings, as it has been hearing about them for the last seven-to-eight years.
There is weariness. Even the risk of new chemical attacks is faced with indifference,” Tanir told theWeekly. “The Assad regime and its main allies Russia and Iran are well aware of this. They are using the opportunity to push Assad to reclaim Syria’s former territories without any sign of reforms and inclusive promises for the future of Syria,” Tanir concluded.
According to the UN statement, eight of the air strikes hit Idlib and two struck rural Aleppo.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A long way to go