From Istanbul to Idlib: Deportation ghost haunting Syrians
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Ninar Khalifa | Mohamed Homus | Ouways Akkad
Mahdi has spent fifteen days inside his house in the Turkish city of Istanbul, as leaving it exposes him to the threat of deportation to the city of Chankli in northwestern Turkey, which gave him temporary protection when this was not possible where he lives.
Mahdi, who refused to give his full name for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that he lost his job and his Turkish language studies, in which he reached the fourth level. He explained that this was driven by fear of deportation after the recent Turkish decisions prevented the holders of temporary protection cards (known as Kimlik) from residing in states other than from which they obtained they documents, while those who do not obtain the card are deported to northern Syria via Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing in the southern municipality of Antakya.
Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Hasan Soylu said during an interview with Syrian journalists on July 13 that Turkish institutions would start implementing new policies regarding Syrian citizens in Turkey in the upcoming period. These policies include the deportation and transfer of Syrian refugees.
Mahdi, 24, said he came to Turkey in August 2017. At that time, the issuance of temporary protection cards used to be frequent in Istanbul, so he went to the police station in the area of Avcılar to get an appointment to obtain his card six months later. He added that after he went back to the police station in February 2018, he was informed that the issuance of the cards had been canceled in the province following the decision of the Department of Immigration. Therefore, Mahdi had to carry out the same operation in the nearby city of Chankli.
Mohammad, 35, fears leaving his home in Istanbul, as he carries a temporary protection card issued by the Department of Immigration in the southern city of Reyhanlı.
Mohammad, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he has not gone to work since the start of the implementation of the decisions issued against the violating refugees.
While Mohammad and Mahdi fear forced transfer to their provinces, more than 1,000 Syrian youths have been deported to the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Hasan Soylu asserted during an interview with NTV channel on Wednesday, July 24.
The young Amjad Tabiliah is one of those who were deported from the city of Istanbul to northern Syria, as he confirmed in a video posted on Facebook, telling the story of his deportation although he has the temporary protection document.
Amjad says in the video that he was residing in the house of his relatives in Aksaray district of Istanbul’s Fatih Municipality. When he went to the market to buy some goods, the police stopped him and he did not have the document at that time.
Amjad called his brother to bring the document and asked the patrol officers to wait for the document’s arrival. However, they refused, as he put it, and took him to another police station that started the procedures of his deportation.
Social media websites documented cases of detention of Syrian youths in various areas of Istanbul, such as Esenyurt, Aksaray, Zeytinburnu and other areas. The websites also reported the tightening of procedures on unlicensed work and the imposition of work permits for foreigners, with the exception of the Syrians from the Turkish quota system, which stipulates the employment of five Turkish workers versus one foreign worker.
This campaign was unexpected for thousands of Syrians in Turkey in general, and in Istanbul Province in particular, which includes more than 667,000 Syrian refugees, according to UNHCR figures. A large number of them do not have temporary protection cards bearing the stamp of Istanbul Department of Immigration.
Amjad and Mohammad have lost hope of returning to complete their work in Istanbul. As for Mahdi, he planned to learn Turkish well and obtain a certificate equivalent to a high school diploma in Syria before completing his university studies.
Mahdi said that today he is at a crossroads, either to return to his province and start from scratch or get out of Turkey, prompting him to apply for asylum to France, “which may be the last hope.”
Will Syrian opposition succeed in preventing the deportation of the violating Syrians?
The official Syrian opposition (represented in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the High Negotiations Committee (HNC)) was late in expressing its position on the recent crisis that hit the Syrian refugees in Turkey. The comments were belated by statements made by Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Hasan Soylu, when he announced in an interview with a group of Syrian journalists the launch of the campaign against the violators who live in Istanbul.
The head of the Syrian HNC, Nasr al-Hariri, considered in a press conference on July 22 that any country has the right to implement its law, pointing out that the HNC is ready to find a mechanism that preserves the rights of Syrian refugees in Turkey and respects the Turkish law at the same time.
Al-Hariri said that all the refugees must obtain refugee cards or residence permits, adding: “We do not accept in any way any violations, infringements or actions that do not respect the dignity and rights of the Syrian citizen. We are in contact with the Turkish side, and we have only been met with full cooperation from our brothers there.”
Al-Hariri also pointed out that there will shortly be a formula to solve these problems without further incidents.
In turn, the head of the SNC, Anas al-Abdah, met with Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Hasan Soylu on July 24 to discuss the situation of Syrian refugees and other issues related to the Syrian affairs.
During a press conference about the meeting and what he discussed with Soylu, July 25, al-Abdah classified the presence of Syrians in Turkey into three categories: The first includes those who are under the temporary protection law and the temporary protection card (Kimlik). While the second classification comprises Syrians under the residence system, the third classification covers those who have no restrictions in the Turkish state, whether under the residence system or the temporary protection.
The head of the SNC called on Syrians in Turkey to make their stay in this country legal, considering that through the law: “We can defend ourselves and Syrians,” otherwise “we would be in a situation where it would be difficult to defend Syrians’ interests.”
Al-Abdah pointed out that the large number of refugees in Turkey has not been met with the required international support from the world and Europe in particular, and this has put pressure on resources, especially in major cities such as Istanbul.
According to al-Abdah, the Turkish government has recently started settling the legal situation of the refugees in general in accordance with the Turkish law. He added that after the extreme flexibility in the application of the protection law, there were some violations and abuses, pointing out that in return, Syrians have been under severe pressure in terms of living, schools and children. Many of them have thus failed to follow the procedures of legal coverage, as he put it.
Al-Abdah explained that the discussions with Soylu were based on three axes: first, urgent humanitarian requests, such as families with protection cards from different provinces; second, the issue of deportation, and third, the issue of the time limit that he considered insufficient, especially since there are families that will not be able to settle their legal situation in less than a month.
Al-Abdah expressed his fear that the issue of applying the law to Syrians in Turkey will be exploited to other parties and other reasons, because this is dangerous to Syrians and to Turkey, motivated by political agendas or other agendas. The Turkish government has such fear, as he puts it.
Official coordination committee with the Turks
Al-Abdah also said that among the matter he insisted on in the meeting with Soylu is the formation of an official coordination committee between the SNC and the Turkish Interior Ministry, considering that this is the most important matter addressed during the meeting, as the problems require work meetings between the two sides. Al-Abdah pointed out to a quick response from the Turkish side, as the minister ordered the formation of a joint committee between the two sides, headed by the Assistant Minister of interior, head of the Department of Immigration, head of Integration Department and a number of senior Turkish Interior Ministry officials.
The committee introduced by the Syrian side will be headed by the president of the coalition, Anas al-Abdah, who added that there will be ways of communication between every Syrian in Turkey and the Coalition in order to allow them to express themselves and voice their requests. He pointed out that Turkey is willing to direct Syrians into one unified channel and the Coalition was the one to set the first structure of this channel.
The coordinator of communities’ committee affiliated to the Coalition, Yahya Maktabi, declared that the first meeting, which aims to develop a vision of work mechanisms, find reasonable solutions, and discuss cooperation with the Turkish side to overcome the obstacles facing Syrians and support them to abide by the law, will be held within the next few days.
Maktabi highlighted during an interview with Enab Baladi that one party shall not be the only one to bear the “responsibility of Syrians in Turkey,” and there should be cooperation with all the relevant parties in Turkey.
He denied the existence of any real concern over Syrians who are subject to temporary protection in Turkey and hold the “Kimlik.” He explained that only those having no legal papers are facing a problem, for they are not registered and authorities do not know from where, when and how they managed to enter the country. Thereby, they are to be considered as illegal immigrants representing a threat to the state of security that no state can condone.
Maktabi promised to make additional efforts to support refugees having special needs, and try to communicate their cases to the relevant Turkish authorities to resolve them. He said: “We hope there will be positive responses.”
According to international law, can Turkey deport refugees?
In conjunction with the deportation of a section of a number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Istanbul Directorate of Migration published a statement on July 22 in Arabic explaining the legitimacy of these moves.
“According to Article 33 of the Temporary Protection Regulations, Syrians in our country are bound to comply with the laws set by the Provincial Directorate of Migration Management, and any violation of these laws is to be considered as a threat to public order,” said the statement.
“Threatening public order shall result in removing temporary protection according to Article 8 of the Temporary Protection Act. In this context, if you want to move from one governorate to another, which is not mentioned in the Kimlek, then you must apply to the Migration Department or the relevant units to acquire a travel permit, otherwise administrative and judicial proceedings will be taken against the violator, including the removal of temporary protection. ”
This Turkish policy has been introduced despite the set of international laws that are binding on the protection of refugees or asylum seekers, and not to return them to the places posing a threat to their lives or undermining their freedoms. This applies to all refugees who came from war zones and armed conflicts, whether they took refuge for political or humanitarian reasons.
Turkey has previously ratified several international conventions that provide for the protection of refugees against any forced repatriation, or all that may put their lives at risk, or make them subject to torture or violation.
Director of the Syrian Center for Justice and Accountability, Mohammad al-Abdallah, spoke to Enab Baladi about the way international law perceives Turkey’s repatriation of Syrian refugees and their unwillingness to sign the Voluntary Repatriation Document.
Under customary international humanitarian law, the principle of “non-refoulement” prohibits any host country from returning any person to his country, whether an asylum seeker or approved as a refugee, without taking into account whether he managed to enter the country legally or illegally.
The principle of “non-refoulement” provides that no one can be repatriated to a country in which his/her life can be in danger, whether being common person or an activist having a special condition or being subject to danger requiring him/her to flee as a result of an armed conflict.
Consequently, the repatriation of Syrian refugees is a violation of international law and of the 1951 Refugee Convention to which the Turkish State is a party.
He pointed out that sometimes such agreements are circumvented, forcing the refugees to sign documents indicating their voluntarily return to their country. Turkey took the same measure, forcing Syrian refugees to sign the so-called “voluntary return document.”
Al-Abdullah said that forcing any party to sign such document falls within the procedures prohibited by international law and is considered as a violation.
He pointed out that, according to Syrian refugees, some cases were subject to physical coercion practices in order to sign this document. They were beaten or handcuffed. They were also asked to sign the document without being allowed to read it.
Al-Abdullah explained that even the actions that may not amount to physical coercion to force repatriation, which may include imposing restrictions on refugees and denying them the right to decent work or proper residence, register their marriages and births or enroll their children in school, in an attempt to discourage refugees from coming in or force them to return, is prohibited. Then, how should one perceive such sorts of actions which involve arrest, detention and intimidation. He pointed out that even those who violated the law were subject to such practices, but no matter how legal refugee status is, he/she cannot be deported.
Alternative procedures for deportation
According to Mohammad al-Abdallah, in such cases the host country is supposed to work to regularize the legal status of refugees and require them to register, take the temporary protection card, to pay a fine, and so on. Thereby, the host state is responsible for regularizing legal status, and not a refugee, because he cannot change the laws of that state.
He added that Turkey is not the only country to take such measures against Syrian refugees. Lebanon also has a lot of discriminatory measures against them, including forcing repatriation, which aims at discouraging Syrian refugees from staying and forcing them to return.
What are the possible solutions for displaced refugees?
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) oversees the implementation of the conventions on the prohibition of forcible repatriation of refugees, and may exert pressure on the countries taking such measures and moves.
As the guardian of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shall react in case any state violates the principle of non-refoulement, by intervening along with relevant authorities.
Mohammad al-Abdallah told Enab Baladi that the greatest practical pressure in such cases is maintained through urging donors not to support the country in its forced repatriation operations, as the host countries usually receive assistance from the United Nations, such is the case with Turkey, or from other countries.
Individuals who have been forcibly repatriated and have been subsequently subject to violations in Syria may also bring legal action against the governments of the countries responsible for their deportations, in case they were proved to be victims. Other procedures are also possible in these cases, according to al-Abdallah, as deported refugees may bring legal action against these countries to go back to asylum country in case that state was governed by the sovereignty of law and has a fair judiciary.
In the USA, for example, a court decision can invalidate a decision issued by the Immigration Service when attempting to deport a person. In this case, the court can intervene and give the refugee residence despite the Immigration Department.
However, al-Abdallah casts doubt over the action of the Turkish judiciary in such case, for solutions in this country are usually introduced through political mediation rather than legal proceedings.
International conventions guaranteeing the protection of refugees ratified by Turkey
Article 33 of the Convention essentially guarantees the principle of “non-refoulement” which prohibits the return of persons to places where they may be subjected to persecution, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or threat to their lives, and considers it binding.
The Convention is ratified by 145 states and excludes only the refugees who have committed crimes against peace, against humanity, war crimes or serious non-political crimes outside the country of asylum.
The principle of “non-refoulement” was also included in the 1967 Protocol to the Convention, which removes temporal and geographical factors, in order to be applied to refugees without any geographical boundaries.
Article 3 of this Convention states that “No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture. For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.”
Article 13 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that: “An alien lawfully in the territory of a State Party to the present Covenant may be expelled there from only in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with law and shall, except where compelling reasons of national security otherwise require, be allowed to submit the reasons against his expulsion and to have his case reviewed by, and be represented for the purpose before, the competent authority or a person or persons especially designated by the competent authority.”
Stages of Turkish policy towards Syrian refugees
Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the Turkish government has employed the policy of open doors, considering the Syrian refugees coming to the country as the Muhajirun (the emigrants) and that the Turks are the Ansar (the helpers).
The statements of the Turkish president have always been encouraging for the arrival of the Syrians; explicitly expressing that Turkey will always be with them.
The first group of refugees, which crossed into Turkey in April 2011, to the Turkish border province of Hatay, was composed of 252 people, according to the report of the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management (AFAD), published in 2014.
The flow of refugees
Afterwards, Turkey received larger groups of refugees after the emergence of dissents from the forces of the regime for the first time in the city of Jisr ash-Shugur in the countryside of Idlib.
Al-Quds al-Arabi reported that tens of thousands of civilians fled to Turkey for fear of reprisals after the death of 120 soldiers in Jisr ash-Shughur.
The increased numbers of refugees obliged the Turkish government to open a number of camps in the border and provide refugees with services through the Turkish Red Crescent, Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) and AFAD.
Although a number of Syrians remained inside the camps, most of them went to the Turkish cities trying to start a new life there.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister during that period, said during a press conference on June 10, 2011: “Turkey has no intention to close the doors in the refugees’ faces. What is happening in Syria is very sad and we are following the events there with concern.”
On December 30, 2012, Erdogan spoke during a speech, while putting the flag of the revolution on his shoulder, with a group of Syrian refugees in Akjakali camp near the city of Sanliurfa, south-eastern Turkey, accompanied by Moaz al-Khatib, who was head of the Syrian opposition at that time.
He said that “the number of Syrians in Turkey reached 220.000, including 150.000 inside the camps.”
He continued: “We may not be able to secure luxury homes here as the ones in Syria, but we will do our best to ensure the best for you. We are brothers and neighbors. I hope we will be with you to the end.”
The influx of refugees followed up dramatically, reaching 1.5 million in 2015, according to the annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Since then until 2019, the number has doubled to more than 3.6 million according to the statistics of the UNHCR.
In 2013, the file of granting Syrian residence permits was transferred from the police stations to the Immigration Services of the Turkish Ministry of the Interior. Thus, the files of a number of Syrians were suspended from the blue residence card that was granted to the Syrian residents.
Some Syrians lost their residence papers and had to leave Turkey to obtain a new entry stamp so that they could obtain a residence permit through the newly created Immigration Service.
At the beginning of 2015, the authorities began to scrutinize the legal conditions of Syrians, including the validity of their passports and their health condition after the spread of document forgers. By then, Syrians became aware of the problem of documents they are facing, as some of them came to deal with obstacles while leaving Turkey because they did not have official documents.
Turkish law states that an alien who has been living in Turkey for more than three months must have a formal residence permit.
In October 2014, the Turkish parliament passed a law providing temporary protection for those who leave their country and take refuge in Turkey. Thus, Turkey will grant them the right to remain in its territories until they decide to return home without any compulsion.
This document enabled Syrians to register their children in schools, attend hospitals, travel by plane and carry out all transactions in Turkish state institutions.
Visa in the face of Syrians
When the number of Syrians in Turkey increased, many of them began to spread in major cities carrying their businesses with them. Thus, the Turkish government overlooked the legal status of these projects for some time.
At a later stage, the authorities began to scrutinize these projects and enforce the law. The state provided facilities for Syrians to obtain a temporary work permit, but stipulated that the companies that wanted to obtain a work permit must have five Turkish employees for each Syrian employee.
In October 2015, the Turkish Ministry of the Interior approved a decision that Syrians residing in Turkey should obtain travel permits from immigration departments in cities and towns, as a condition for internal travel within the Turkish territory by land or air.
In January 2016, Turkey imposed a visa on Syrian citizens. The Turkish Foreign Ministry stated that the visa was imposed to limit the number of Syrians arriving indirectly from other countries, such as Lebanon or Egypt.