Shadi navigates through various alleys and side streets between the neighborhoods of Istanbul to reach his workplace in the Fatih district, all the while attempting to avoid areas where Turkish police gatherings and checkpoints are common on main roads, street intersections, and public squares.
Shadi's efforts come after a noticeable surge in deportation campaigns that the Turkish authorities began early this month against undocumented immigrants, including Syrian refugees with expired permits, scattered across Turkish provinces.
"There are many nights I've had to spend at my workplace, leaving my wife and children alone at home," says the young Syrian man (who asked that we not mention his full name) to Raseef22, explaining that "the police surround us from all sides, leaving no room for error. If they catch you, they separate you from your family and deport you to a Syrian border crossing, condemning you to spend the rest of your life in the north."
During his stay in Istanbul, Shadi couldn't transfer his temporary protection ID card (Kimlik) from the province of its issuance, Urfa, to Istanbul, as his employer refused to grant him a work permit that would allow him to move. This forced him to live in the city illegally while trying to make a living.
In a study published by the United Nations, 82% of Turkish citizens believe that Syrians should be sent back to their homeland.
The 28-year-old man points out that "even Syrians in the city who possess a Kimlik card issued in Istanbul now heavily rely on WhatsApp groups that include Syrians who share info on the roads, passageways, and areas where checkpoints are stationed, despite their limited effectiveness due to the widespread presence of plainclothes police officers who roam through alleys and streets, raiding workplaces, factories, and residences."
A massive wave of deportations
In recent weeks, the deportation of Syrian refugees from Turkish provinces to northern Syria has been on the rise. This campaign has intensified at the beginning of the current month, coinciding with Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya's statement that Turkey is cracking down on irregular foreign immigrants, and that he has "issued instructions to pursue irregular immigrants across the country," expecting their numbers to significantly decrease within 4 to 5 months.
Syrians constitute the largest group of refugees on Turkish soil, with over 3 million and 395 thousand Syrians registered under temporary protection status, according to the latest statistics from the Turkish Directorate General for Migration Management.
The campaign targets all foreign immigrants living illegally in all Turkish states and provinces or working without official permits, especially Syrian refugees who are under temporary protection status but are registered in other provinces. The focus is particularly on Istanbul, which serves as a major gathering point for immigrants of various nationalities. Violators are handed over to immigration authorities for deportation to their home countries.
According to the Ministry of Interior's statistics, there are currently 1,206,153 foreign nationals in Istanbul alone, including 670,988 with residence permits and 531,381 Syrian citizens under temporary protection status, including 3,784 who have applied for international protection.
"The police surround us from all sides, leaving no room for error. If they catch you, they separate you from your family and deport you to a Syrian border crossing, condemning you to spend the rest of your life in the north and possibly never see your family"
Turkey has faced extensive criticism regarding its deportation measures. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicates that Turkish authorities, under various pretexts, deport between 50 to 100 Syrian refugees daily from within its territories to areas in northern Syria controlled by the Syrian opposition, using border crossings between the Syrian and Turkish sides. Among these refugees are women, children, and young men with valid papers, holding temporary protection IDs (Kimlik).
Turkish writer and analyst, Abdullah Suleiman Oglu, believes that "the campaign was largely present in Istanbul before, but it intensified and accelerated after Ali Yerlikaya took office as the Governor of Istanbul and the Ministry of Interior, immediately working on increasing patrols and checking IDs, passports, and documents." He points out to Raseef22 that "sometimes security personnel abuse power, and even if all the refugee's papers are in order, he/she might be detained and later released, or deported unjustly and randomly without specific criteria and without taking into account people's health, family situation, and property in Turkey."
Many Syrians in Turkey had hoped that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's victory in last May's presidential elections would put an end to the threats of deportation and improve relations with the Assad regime, despite Erdogan's promise to work on reducing the number of refugees in Turkey.
Erdogan's promise hadn't alarmed the Syrians, since they thought it was nothing more than an election tactic to counter the Turkish opposition's stance on the refugee issue, which was heavily focused on during the campaigning. This all led to frustration among the refugee community after a period of hope that their situation would improve.
According to Oglu, the pre-election campaigns for the presidential and parliamentary elections heavily focused on the issue of the forced or voluntary return of refugees. Media campaigns, combined with racist and hateful speeches from some opposition parties and figures, fostered negative reactions among the Turkish public towards the presence of Syrians, particularly in major cities. Oglu added that any individual incident involving a Syrian refugee was blown out of proportion by the media, resulting in violence and even killings against Syrians.
This is confirmed by a study conducted by the United Nations in November, highlighting that 82% of Turkish citizens believed that Syrians should be sent back to their country.
It appears that the campaign will continue until the end of March 2024, after the upcoming municipal elections. According to Oglu, "Both the government and the opposition are counting on winning as many municipalities and city councils as possible, especially Ankara and Istanbul, which the government lost to the opposition in the previous elections."
Salim Nassar's joy was short-lived following President Erdogan's recent victory in the elections against his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose supporters took to the streets with racist banners, demanding the deportation of Syrians.
The 45-year-old who works in an Istanbul tailoring factory, laments, "There's no distinction between the opposition and Erdogan's government. They both follow the same approach of forcibly removing Syrians to unsafe regions." He questions the difference between the opposition, which plans to hand refugees over to the Assad regime, and Erdogan's government, which relocates them to areas targeted by the regime, since the death is one and the same.
"What's the difference between the opposition and Erdogan's government? One wants to hand refugees over to the Assad regime, while the other relocates them to opposition-held areas. Both follow the same approach of forcibly removing Syrians to unsafe regions"
A week ago, Nassar returned to Gaziantep, where he had obtained his temporary protection card, fearing deportation for residing illegally in Istanbul without a travel or work permit. This decision came at a considerable cost, as he ceased work and sought refuge with relatives in Gaziantep while still covering the rent for his Istanbul residence.
He points out that securing a travel permit proved challenging for Nassar, as it was restricted to families whose homes were completely damaged by the earthquake. Consequently, he opted to flee Istanbul until the deportation campaign subsides.
Leaving behind his pregnant wife and only child in Istanbul, Nassar dreads the possibility of the campaign continuing on for a long period of time. The campaign has affected earthquake victims living outside designated regions, struggling with mobility, stability, and financial hardships after losing their livelihoods and jobs post-earthquake in February. He says, "This is the fate of Syrians, from the devastating earthquake to deportation to the north of Syria, whose residents already live on the aid of organizations, that is, if you remain alive and weren't a target of the regime's missiles, Russian air planes, and SDF rebel explosives."
Last October, Human Rights Watch documented cases of hundreds of Syrians being forcibly returned by Turkish authorities between February and July 2022, after they were detained, beaten, and coerced into signing voluntary return forms. The HRW report verified that Syria, in its entirety, remains unsafe for return.
Taha al-Ghazi, a human rights activist focusing on refugee issues in Turkey, tells Raseef22 that "there is a distinction between the Syrian presence in Turkey and that of other nationalities like Africans, Afghans, and others. The Syrian community in Turkey is present there as a result of the ongoing war in their country, unlike Pakistanis, Afghans, and others."
Human Rights Watch documented cases of hundreds of Syrians being forcibly returned by Turkish authorities. Some were detained, beaten and coerced into signing voluntary return forms, while Syria in its entirety remains unsafe for return
The lack of a specific legal designation for Syrians poses one of the primary reasons for their complex legal situation in Turkey. Rather than being officially recognized as refugees, they are referred to as "guests", leaving their temporary protection status vulnerable to political and legal uncertainties.
Coinciding with the deportation of around 130 Syrians en masse from the Elbeyli temporary accommodation center in Kilis, Turkey, on June 25th, the region of Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib countryside faced intense bombardment from Russian airstrikes a day prior to the deportations, resulting in the loss of 11 civilian lives. Moreover, in the current month, a Turkish military base at the Azaz Research Center in Aleppo countryside was subjected to heavy shelling by SDF militia stationed in the city of Tall Rifaat, effectively undermining the Turkish government's claims about the area's safety.
Random deportation and legal asylum
Researcher Oglu asserts that "during their previous election campaign, the ruling party pledged to voluntarily repatriate one million Syrians back to Syria and construct housing in 13 locations with support from Qatar and the UAE. However, the implementation of these promises lacks a clear plan. The deportations appear to be done randomly and haphazardly, and the promised housing in northern Syria remains unfinished. Northern Syria is already strained with a large population and is unable to accommodate such an influx. Additionally, there are crises related to housing and camps, economic hardships, funding shortages for operating organizations, and complications in extending international aid through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing."
On the other hand, al-Ghazi confirms that "Syrian refugees in Turkey are not considered illegal, even if they lack temporary protection cards. They have the right to asylum due to the unsafe conditions in Syria." According to al-Ghazi, a law established by the Directorate General of Migration in coordination with the Ministry of Interior on June 6, 2022, governs the status of Syrian refugees detained in deportation centers or shelters without temporary protection cards. This law is based on the third paragraph of Article 8, which stipulates that the situation of all Syrians present in deportation centers without temporary protection documents will be evaluated based on their social and health status, and they will be granted "Kimlik" ID cards accordingly.
Turkey signed the Geneva Convention in 1951 and its Optional Protocol in 1967, with specific temporal and geographic conditions that grant asylum rights only to those coming from European countries. As for individuals coming from other regions, they are provided with temporary protection, which is the case for Syrians. Both agreements share a fundamental principle in the field of asylum rights, which is non-refoulement (forced return of asylum seekers), especially when the life of the refugee or their family is at risk.
Al-Ghazi further explains, "Even if we assume that Syrians in Turkey are not initially recognized as legal asylum seekers due to the geographical condition to only give asylum status to those coming from Europe that Turkey added while signing the agreements, it is crucial to note that the system of temporary protection is established under Article 91 of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection. This system has given important legal rights to Syrian individuals in Turkey, despite not being granted formal refugee status. The most significant of these rights is non-refoulement, which ensures that no matter the reasons, they cannot be forcibly returned."
The massive deportation campaign is still ongoing as part of a pre-election propaganda campaign adopted by the Turkish government to garner support from Turkish voters in the upcoming municipal elections
Over the years, the issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey has been heavily politicized. The Turkish opposition has utilized this matter as a political tool against the government, while the Turkish government has leveraged it in negotiations with the European Union regarding financial aid packages. Now, the ruling coalition seeks to use the issue as part of its election propaganda to regain control of key municipalities like Ankara and Istanbul, after losing both to the opposition in the 2019 municipal elections, affecting Erdogan's votes in his electoral battle.
Al-Ghazi warns that the massive deportation campaign is still ongoing, and it is part of a pre-election propaganda campaign adopted by the government to present their efforts to repatriate refugees and gain the support of Turkish voters in the upcoming municipal elections scheduled for next March. The government also aims to alleviate economic pressures that the country is facing caused by the large number of migrants. For now, the situation for Syrians in Turkey remains complex and challenging, with many grappling with displacement and an uncertain future.
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