Syrians report deportations as Turkey takes harder line on refugees

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ISTANBUL — A sudden shift in Ankara’s attitude toward refugees has raised fears of mass deportations among Syrians living in Turkey.

Amid rising anti-migrant sentiment, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken a harder line on Syrians in recent weeks that — refugees and advocacy groups say — has seen hundreds of Syrians rounded up and forcibly sent back to their war-ravaged country.

The alleged deportations mark a turning point for Turkey’s policy on Syrians. For years, the government insisted on keeping its border with Syria open, making Turkey the country hosting the largest number of refugees worldwide, including 3.6 million Syrians.

In recent years, however, Turkey has gradually restricted the number of refugees crossing by tightening border controls and erecting a 764-kilometer wall along the frontier — prompted in part by its 2016 deal with the European Union, which was designed to limit the number of migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece, as well as by security concerns and growing public resentment of Syrians.

More than 430,000 Syrian babies have been born in Turkey since the civil war began in 2011, and most parents send their children to Turkish schools.

Cases of Syrians being sent back against their will have been reported before, but the scale of the recent crackdown, which began in July, has no precedent.

The government flatly rejects claims it has deported any Syrians. “We officially deny such claims,” Ramazan Seçilmiş, who runs the Turkish immigration agency’s irregular migration department, told reporters last week. “If Syrians don’t volunteer, they are not subject to return to Syria. The return of the Syrians to Syria is on a voluntary basis.”

He added that the roundups are aimed at registering undocumented migrants, especially in the largest city of Istanbul.

Syrians, however, say otherwise.

In the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, Mahmoud, a Syrian father of two, didn’t return home after leaving for work one morning last month. His wife, Nama, did not hear from him again until he phoned her from across the border.

Incoming Syrian refugees who were suddenly deported from Turkey queue up to register at the Bab al-Hawa crossing | Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images

Stopped by police, Mahmoud, 30, had been unable to produce his identification card, Nama later learned, and was put on a bus headed for Idlib, a northwestern Syrian province blighted by a Russian-Syrian bombing campaign.

“I am worried about his safety. Idlib is a dangerous place,” said Nama, 21, who has lived in Turkey for three years. She is now struggling to cover expenses for their daughters, both under the age of four. “I need my husband to come back.”

Rising resentment

Historical, religious and even family ties made Turkey a welcoming haven for Syrians, and as the conflict dragged on, the refugees began to put down roots. More than 430,000 Syrian babies have been born in Turkey since the civil war began in 2011, and most parents send their children to Turkish schools.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s championing of Turkey’s open-door policy and vocal support for the Syrian opposition long kept a lid on simmering public resentment. But after eight years, the tenor has turned increasingly hostile, and intolerance is on the rise.

A July survey by Konda Research showed that just 21 percent of respondents were willing to be friends or neighbors with Syrians, half the rate it was three years ago. Many accuse Syrians of taking their jobs and overwhelming public services amid a painful economic downturn that unleashed soaring inflation and has put millions of Turks out of work.

Official figures show 547,000 Syrians are registered in Istanbul, which is home to some 16 million people.

Violence against Syrians is rare, but angry mobs destroyed Syrian-owned shops in two flare-ups in Istanbul’s western suburbs this year. At one of the only public demonstrations condemning the alleged deportations late last month, a few dozen nationalists broke through a police cordon to shout “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk” and scuffle with organizers.

Frustration with both refugees and the economy saw voters earlier this year elect a slate of opposition mayors, including in the capital Ankara. Opposition parties have blasted Erdoğan’s open-door policy as destabilizing, and some newly elected mayors and city councils have introduced their own restrictions on Syrians, such as banning them from beaches.

In Istanbul, the new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, has taken credit for rousing the government to action, telling a news channel recently that Syrians are altering the “demographics” of the city and that stricter controls over their movements are a “humanitarian” response to their often squalid living conditions.

Official figures show 547,000 Syrians are registered in Istanbul, which is home to some 16 million people. (Turkey obliges Syrians to stay in the province where they are registered, requiring special permission for travel.)

Buses returning volunteers to neighbouring Syria | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

The provincial governor has now given Syrians who are registered in other provinces until August 20 to leave Istanbul. Already, more than 2,600 Syrians have been removed from the city, media reports citing the governor said.

“Istanbul has hit its limit,” said Seçilmiş, noting that migrants have not been allowed to register in the city in recent years. He added that all “3.6 million Syrians would like to stay in Istanbul, and that is impossible for Istanbul to manage.”

Even Erdoğan has joined the chorus of discontent: Last month, he suggested that the government would roll back benefits for Syrians, such as free health care. He also vowed to deport Syrian “criminals.”

International and Turkish law bar deportations of people to places where they face a risk of persecution or violence. (Seçilmiş said refugees who decide to go back return to “stabilized zones” in Syria under Turkey’s control.)

Syrians without the right papers say they are afraid to venture outside of their homes.

The 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal, which envisages sending Syrians who arrive on Greek islands back to Turkey, relies on Ankara complying with these laws in order for Turkey to count as a “safe third country.”

European Commission spokesman Carlos Martin Ruiz de Gordejuela said Tuesday that the EU is “confident” Turkey would look into the allegations and take “appropriate action.”

“Refugees and asylum seekers must not be forced to return to any part of Syria as long as the conditions have not been met for safe and voluntary returns,” he said.

‘Voluntary’ returns

Meanwhile, Syrians without the right papers say they are afraid to venture outside of their homes, worried they may be stopped by police. One witness last week described watching police enter an Istanbul restaurant, check a table of Arabic speakers for their identification and bundle them into cars because they were not carrying their registration permits.

The Istanbul-based charity Özgür-Der has verified 390 deportations, its chairman Rıdvan Kaya said. The refugee initiative Birlikte Yaşamak İstiyoruz (“We want to live together”) put the number in the “thousands,” citing Syrian and Turkish NGOs as well as government figures and the number of registered crossings at the Bab al-Hawa border gate. The government figures and crossings are likely to include voluntary returns, however.

Ankara says that since 2016, more than 330,000 Syrians have returned to areas in northern Syria that are under the Turkish military’s control. The government maintains that these are not forced returns. Seçilmiş, the immigration agency official, said that returnees sign a document in the presence of an official from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that is written in Arabic and states they are voluntarily returning only to areas under Turkish control.

Syrian refugees who were suddenly deported, at the Bab al-Hawa crossing | Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images

Selin Ünal, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Turkey, said that all exit interviews attended by the agency had been with voluntary returnees, but that UNHCR was unable to participate in all interviews.

Several Syrians deported from Turkey told media outlets and the NGO Human Rights Watch that they had been forced to sign a document stating they were returning voluntarily.

Nama, the Syrian mother living in Gaziantep, said that her husband Mahmoud cannot read or write. “They let him stamp these papers with his thumb without knowing what these papers are,” she said.

The whole family has permits to stay in Turkey, she added, but Mahmoud had left his at home the morning he was checked by police. Now he is waiting at the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa, hoping to be allowed back in to Turkey.

“We fled the bombs from the planes in Syria,” Nama said. “Now I am worried about our safety in Turkey.”

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