In early August, the media reported the death of a 21-year-old Syrian man as he tried to cross from the rebel-held province of Idlib to Turkey. After eight years of war in Syria, the report may have sounded almost commonplace at first, but the details of the story were far from ordinary.
Hisham al-Mohammed was shot inside Syria, about 400 meters (nearly 440 yards) from the border. Which side the fire came from remains unknown. The wounded man was taken to a hospital on the Syrian side, where he eventually died. What drove him to Turkey was his family, which he left behind in Istanbul when police forcibly sent him back to Syria.
Mohammed had fled to Turkey with his wife, three children, father and the widow and children of his deceased uncle. He was the sole breadwinner of the family, which lived in Bagcilar, a working-class district in Istanbul. In May, police raided their home and detained Mohammed, even though he had a registration document as a person “under temporary protection” — the status that Syrians are given by the Turkish government. After a month at a repatriation center, he was deported to Idlib on June 19. On Aug. 5, the day the Syrian army broke a cease-fire in Idlib, he made the ill-fated attempt to cross the border back to unite with his family.
Mohammed was among thousands of refugees the Turkish police have rounded up and sent back to Syria this summer. According to Turkey’s official figures, there is no refugee forcibly sent back to Syria. Other sources, however, paint a different picture. According to figures released by the Bab al-Hawa border crossing management, 4,370 Syrians were deported in June and 6,160 more in July from this crossing alone.
Those are the highest figures since the flight to Turkey began in 2011. The main reason for the increase is the crackdown on immigrants who lacked permission to live in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, amid a rising anti-refugee sentiment across the country. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said July 24 the police had rounded up some 6,100 illegal migrants, among them 1,000 Syrians, in 12 days alone. The Istanbul governor’s office set an Aug. 20 deadline for Syrians without a permit to live in the city to return to the provinces where they are registered or face forced removal. But even before the deadline expired, police set up checkpoints in neighborhoods with large refugee populations, examined ID papers and sent hundreds of people to repatriation centers, from where they were eventually deported to their countries.
For several weeks, Istanbul became the scene of a “migrant hunt,” with images of migrants bundled into buses making the rounds on social media. While some locals sought to help the migrants, others displayed animosity.
The Platform of Syrian Associations says it has been contacted by 3,000 deportees this month. According to figures from the Istanbul Bar Association’s legal assistance desk, deportations have increased more than threefold since June. The authorities, however, dispute these figures. In a meeting with representatives from the Istanbul Bar Association’s Human Rights Center on Aug. 2, officials from the Migration Management Directorate said that only individuals who had committed criminal offenses were being deported.
Officials also say that many of those sent back are voluntary returnees. The refugees, however, claim they have been forced to sign so-called “voluntary return” papers. Such claims are reinforced by the fact that many, such as Mohammed, are risking their lives to make it back to Turkey.
The forced repatriations have spread fear in the refugee community in Istanbul, with many wary of going out to shop or even to work to avoid police.
Eyup Ozer is one of the locals who feel for the plight of his refugee neighbors. “If part of society in a city cannot go out in the streets, no one in that city is free,” he says. Ozer is a member of the We Want to Live Together Initiative, launched by human rights activist standing up against the heavy-handed treatment of refugees.
The group recently published a report based on interviews with refugees, including individuals in repatriation centers. The report says refugees face “extended periods of hunger, maltreatment and humiliation” while being taken to repatriation centers, with some reporting being called “cowards” by police for having fled the war in Syria. The report recounts cases in which refugees possessing “temporary protection” papers have been deported without any explanation and barred from receiving legal counsel.
The families the deportees leave behind are often in dire straits. An unnamed refugee quoted in the report recounts how her husband, who was registered in the border province of Gaziantep, was stopped by police as he was returning from work and eventually deported. “He was the sole wage earner of the family. My two children and I now go hungry to bed without dinner,” she says.
The report also cites the case of four siblings, ages 6, 13, 16 and 19. The eldest brother, who worked and provided for his siblings, was deported, with the three underage children left behind without an adult caretaker.
The refugees’ refoulement to conflict zones comes amid rising animosity against refugees across Turkey, which often turns into physical attacks. The We Want to Live Together Initiative is putting a focus on the violation of refugees' rights, calling on security forces to stop detaining migrants and to stop forcing them to sign return papers. The report appeals to the authorities to enable those deported to return to Turkey and guarantee the refugees’ right to live in the cities in which they are registered and to travel freely.
The group also calls on Ankara to grant refugee status to anyone fleeing oppression and for the abolition of the readmission deal between Turkey and the European Union that effectively confines refugees to Turkey. The appeal of the group is not only to Ankara but to the entire international community.
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly