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Officials deny Syrian deportation reports as anti-refugee sentiments grow in Turkey

As a rising number of Syrians claim they were illegitimately deported to war-torn Idlib province, Turkish officials say refugee policies remain unchanged.
Syrian refugees stroll at a refugee camp in Osmaniye, Turkey, May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas                           - S1BETFDMXFAA

Hassan, a Syrian undergoing medical treatment in Turkey, was on his way to renew his documents when he was stopped at a police checkpoint in the nation’s southern Hatay province.

“They asked me if I had an ID. I said no,” Hassan told Al-Monitor. Four days later he was sent to Syria’s Idlib province.

Speaking from Idlib, Hassan, whose name has been changed for security reasons, said he was given a temporary protection card when he first entered Turkey in 2013. He remained to work and support his family in Syria until 2016, when he voluntarily returned to Idlib and was asked to hand over his Turkish ID when he crossed the border gate. 

While in Idlib, he said he developed a liver condition that worsened when he was detained and tortured by militant groups operating in the province. Following his release, Hassan returned to Turkey in the spring of 2019 for medical care. He began his treatment at private hospitals and to access more affordable state health care services, he needed to renew his temporary protection card, an identification document used by registered refugees in Turkey.

Then earlier this month, while on his way to the immigration office in Hatay, Hassan was detained by police and held, he claims, for four days without food. In the detention facility he was asked to sign a “voluntary return” form and was eventually sent back to Syria.

“[They] gave me a paper to leave Turkey and I was so afraid of the security officials that I almost collapsed,” Hassan said, adding that after he returned to Syria, he spent many days bedridden due to his illness.

Now he hopes to return to Turkey to complete his treatment and bring his family there, but fears he may be stuck in Idlib as more Syrian refugees arrive by the bus load after being stopped without identification documents.

Stories of forced deportations have multiplied in Turkey this summer as tensions continue to grow between Syrian refugees and their host communities. Accused of taking low-skilled jobs from Turkish citizens and not paying taxes for the businesses they operate, the Syrians’ initial welcome appears to be wearing thin in Turkey, where high unemployment and an economic downturn have aggravated relations.

Violent brawls have erupted in districts with high refugee concentrations and anti-Syrian rhetoric — from both of Turkey’s top political parties — during the recent Istanbul elections have brought long-simmering dissatisfaction with Syrians to the forefront of the national discourse.

In a July poll by the Piar Research group, more than 80% of respondents said hosting Syrians was not the government’s responsibility and that all 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey should be repatriated.

Turkish officials have begun to crack down on unregistered Syrians as well as those living outside the provinces where they are registered. While state leaders claim no Syrian refugees are being repatriated against their will, human rights groups have documented a number of deportation cases indicating otherwise.

“This issue only concerns irregular and illegal migration,” Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said during a press conference on July 28. “It is out of the question and not acceptable for Syrian people who are under temporary protection, foreigners that are granted international protection status or people who have residence permits in our country to be deported.”

On July 22, the Istanbul municipality declared a four-week deadline for Syrians living in the city but registered elsewhere in Turkey to return to their cities of residence or face forced removal. According to official figures, about 547,000 Syrians are registered in Istanbul, but state officials estimate between 600,000 and 900,000 Syrians are living in the city.

Following the announcement, Istanbul security officials increased identification checkpoints, detaining Syrians without documents and sending them to safe houses where some claim they were held until they signed “voluntary return” forms and were then bused to Idlib.

Similar checkpoints have sprung up in Turkey’s Gaziantep, Sanliurfa and Hatay provinces, where large populations of Syrians have lived since the fighting began in their country in 2011. A humanitarian worker in Gaziantep who withheld his name told Al-Monitor Syrians both with and without documents were being deported, pointing to a case where a registered, tax-paying Syrian with a work permit was deported after going to a police station to report an attack on his business.

“If you make problems, you get deported,” the source told Al-Monitor. “When there is a problem between Turks and Syrians, at the end of the day the Turks will go home and the Syrians will get sent back to Syria — a warzone.” The source said Syrians who are registered but stopped without identity cards have also been deported.

Still, government officials maintain those who are detained are being sent back to districts where they are registered and not to Syria.

"We have never deported and cannot deport the Syrians under the scope of temporary protection," Soylu told the Turkish broadcaster NTV.

Metin Corabatir, president of the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration, said reports of forced deportations were based on misformation and misunderstandings. He said the Turkish government has helped 360,000 refugees return to safe areas in Syria under Turkish military control, but none were sent unwillingly to active war zones, as doing so would infringe on international human rights accords.

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Turkey has provided health services, education and financial assistance to millions of refugees and continues to do so with support from the European Union. Yet as the immediate crisis turned into a protracted one, many Syrians concentrated into districts that have come to be described as modern-day ghettos

Such concentrations have not helped relations, particularly in Istanbul, the city with the most refugees in Turkey, Corabatir said. He estimates 200,000 Syrians who are registered elsewhere currently live in Istanbul due to opportunities offered by its large informal labor market. Despite access to free medical and educational services in their areas of residence, Corabatir said both economic and safety concerns have pulled Syrian migration toward Istanbul.

“In small cities, there are increasing attacks and xenophobic accusations against Syrians, so in bigger cities like Istanbul they may feel more secure, may be less visible,” Corabatir told Al-Monitor. 

He added that in recent weeks, as the tensions have drawn more news coverage, he has been asked to speak on national television multiple times, but hasn’t “seen a single Syrian refugee being invited to a TV studio to talk, to defend their case. So there is a one-sided environment against Syrians.”

Corabatir added Turkish society has become highly polarized over the issue and needs an external “referee” to calm tensions, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Selin Unal, a spokesperson for the body in Turkey, said the organization has been monitoring the situation since Turkish authorities asked Syrians to return to the districts where they are registered.

“We have been engaged in discussions with the government of Turkey at the central and local levels about the procedures for implementing this announcement, including to ensure that the people concerned are fully informed about what steps they need to take to comply with their obligations,” Unal said in a written statement shared with Al-Monitor.

According to the state-run Anadolu Agency, at least 2,244 irregular migrants were detained over the past week, some of them of Syrian origin. Such round-ups targeting Europe-bound migrants were already common, but now the increased prevalence of checkpoints in Turkish cities along with hostility toward Syrians have created a climate of fear for Syrian refugees, who have few safe places to go.

Emine San, a clinical psychologist who has worked with multiple refugee institutions since 2015, said anti-refugee sentiments have caused regression in some of her Syrian patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some of those who “had made progress before the recent incidents are suffering from flashbacks and strong signs of PTSD again,” San told Al-Monitor. “Children are having nightmares and showing symptoms of PTSD and wetting their beds again. One patient who was pregnant had a miscarriage due to stress caused by the fear of being sent back.”

She said many refugees are afraid to go to government offices or run errands, as they fear they could be deported at any point, regardless of their official status. San said her patients were also avoiding disputes with locals, choosing to remain silent in confrontations and suppressing their feelings, which can lead to additional problems in the future.

“Schools will open again soon,” San said. “Children will not want to go to school out of fear. Or if they go, they will have to deal with more tension. Syrian kids already suffer from a lot of bullying.”

She added, “This tension needs to be resolved immediately because tension does not only affect one party, but both.”

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