Zeinab Masri | Hussam al-Mahmoud | Saleh Malas | Hassan Ibrahim
The Syrian refugees in Turkey have been facing a complex and intertwined set of challenges in their quest to pursue stability.
Turkey is not a country of asylum, which represents the key challenge for Syrians as they can not enjoy the same services the European countries provide for refugees, starting with language learning and the process of full integration and ending with finding factors for a permanent presence in those countries.
Since the beginning of the Syrians’ arrival in Turkey in 2011, the Turkish government has recognized them as a collective influx of refugees, not just as individual refugees, and has established a special system for them.
They were classified as “guests,” but this description did not fit with the provisions of any Turkish or international law in order to manage their administrative affairs and legal residence, which turned out to be not of a short term.
The complexities experienced by the refugees in the Turkish states reflect the need for a proper legal process to accommodate their long presence, away from any sudden change borne by administrative decisions.
In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi enters the spiral of the residency papers and requirements that plague Syrian refugees in Turkey and discusses with human rights activists the social and legal consequences of this and the measures that Syrians can take to halt any possible violations of their rights in obtaining valid residency documents.
Syrians suffer from legal complications
Rima, 45, is eagerly counting days to get a travel permit to meet her mother in southern Hatay province after five years of absence.
“I am waiting for the Eid holiday, I may get a travel permit,” she said, to travel from Izmit province, where she is based, with a temporary protection document.
Rima has been busy since she arrived in Istanbul with the issuance of identification documents and in the movement and instability between the states until she was reunited with her children, who had successively arrived in Turkey before her, and who hold identities and identification papers in different states, which prolonged her visit to her mother.
Fear of any legal violation prevented Rima from traveling in a private car to visit her mother, so she tried to register through the e-government portal (e-Devlet) and put her mother’s illness and health condition as a reason to obtain a travel permit.
Despite Rima’s attempts to obtain a travel permit more than three times, her attempts were unsuccessful, without knowing the reasons, although she attached all the required data, in addition to a medical report on her mother’s health condition.
I went to the General Directorate of Security (Emniyet Genel Müdürlüğü) in the state in which I reside to obtain a travel permit, but the answer was that the travel permit is forbidden for Syrians, except in the case of death or work.
Rima returned with great disappointment after she ended her conversation with an employee in one of the departments of the Turkish Ministry of Interior by asking, “Do I have to wait for my mother to die so that I can see her?”
For his part, Abdulrahman (a pseudonym for security reasons) received last March a text message from the Turkish Migration Management stating that his temporary protection document had been suspended, although he updated his data last February.
The young man’s problem is not limited to canceling his registration only, as he said, “I am a refugee supporting my family. I entered Turkey illegally, and the kimlik card (temporary protection identification document) cost me more than ten thousand Turkish liras, and I have not yet overcome all these hardships.”
Abdulrahman told Enab Baladi about the difficulties he had faced since he came to Istanbul about a year and a half ago that he was unable to obtain an ID that would enable him to work in Istanbul, so he had to go to the state of Niğde.
The young man worked to obtain identification papers that would allow him to obtain a “kimlik” as an electricity bill and a residence address, in addition to going to his state every week and bearing the “strenuous” travel costs to prove his presence in the state of residence, which is about 750 kilometers away from Istanbul (about nine travel hours).
A student at Istanbul University, who declined to be named, feared that the (kimlik) identity card might be suspended after registering her new residence address.
They told her that the application to confirm the address of the residence needs a month to be issued, and she was also asked to go to the Migration Management building, even though the registration of the residential address is done in the General Directorate of Civil and Administrative Affairs.
In recent days, a Syrian man set himself on fire in front of the Directorate General of Migration Management building in Istanbul after the authorities refused to allow him, after months of waiting, to bring his family to stay with him, in addition to imposing new complications on the terms of residence, according to what was published by Taha Ghazi, a Syrian activist who covers refugee rights issues.
Mobility is limited
Syrians’ stability in Turkey depends on updated decisions
Since the Turkish authorities began granting temporary protection cards to Syrians coming to their lands with the implementation of the “open door” policy in receiving them since 2014, Syrians have been confronted every now and then with new decisions or procedures related to these cards, the last of which took place in last March, when the Turkish Migration Management deactivated the protection cards for many Syrians.
This decision coincided with the announcement by the President of the Migration Management of the Turkish Ministry of Interior, Savaş Ünlü, that 500,000 Syrians have voluntarily returned to “safe areas” in northern Syria.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the registration of Syrians in the Turkish Ministry of Interior departments is the main legal premise for residency in Turkey. It also allows access to public services and available assistance, which is the most important way to secure refugee rights in Turkey and to protect refugees against forced return.
As part of the temporary protection system, Syrian citizens, refugees, and stateless persons from Syria who seek protection from the Turkish authorities are accepted under normal circumstances and can then request and obtain temporary protection from the Government of Turkey and under normal circumstances, they are only voluntarily returned to Syria.
Protection and assistance in Turkey must be provided to beneficiaries of temporary protection, which includes the right to remain in Turkey until a more permanent solution is found, protection from forced return to Syria, as well as the enjoyment of rights and basic needs, according to the UNHCR.
However, many Syrians face the risk of deportation to northern Syria, which the Turkish authorities consider a “safe area,” as a result of deactivating their registration and freezing their data for residing in states other than the states in which their data is registered, despite their possession of valid official documents.
Many Syrians in Turkey received text messages stating that their temporary protection cards were invalidated for not updating their personal data, although some of them recently updated it.
This action came against the backdrop of a campaign launched by the Turkish authorities during the past two months to verify the residential addresses of Syrians in the data of the Turkish authorities by heading the police to the address recorded in the data and verifying that the registered name matches the names of the residents at the address.
This step has raised fears and controversy among Syrians, as not activating their residency cards or stopping their data is associated with the risk of deportation to northern Syria.
This prompted the Turkish Migration Management to reformulate the text messages sent to Syrian residents according to their residential addresses by adding the person’s name and the number of the temporary protection card (kimlik) to the message in order not to send it randomly.
The Turkish Migration Management also added to the text message that the received message should be ignored if the person receiving the message went to the Management building and updated his/her address after the date of 21 March.
The Turkish Migration Presidency explained that the address verification text messages are a procedure to confirm the need to update data and residential addresses, according to a statement by the Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee.
No residency for new arrivals
Last February, Ismail Çataklı, Deputy Minister of Interior of Turkey and spokesperson for the ministry, announced that no touristic residence or temporary protection card would be granted to Syrians who had recently arrived in Turkey.
Çataklı talked about placing new arrivals from Syria in camps to investigate whether they need temporary protection or not and the reasons for their coming to Turkey.
The Turkish official stated that no migration movements would be allowed again. Wherever someone was arrested in Turkey, he would be sent to specific camps and forced to reside in those camps, and he would be given temporary protection in the camp.
The Turkish newspaper, Hürriyet, reported the decision of the Interior Ministry on 22 February to prevent foreigners with all types of residency and Syrians registered in Turkey under temporary protection from registering their personal data in 16 Turkish states and 800 neighborhoods in 52 states.
The newspaper said that if the number of Syrians exceeds 25 percent of the population in a place, the places of residence will be closed to residency applications, according to the decision of the Interior Ministry.
This was preceded by a statement by the Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, in which he said that the nature of migration from Syria to Turkey has changed, and a large part of those trying to come is from the suburbs of Damascus due to the economic crisis.
Conditions for residency renewal
The Foreigners Communication Center (YİMER) clarified that starting from 10 February, the Turkish Migration Management decided to study the application of each foreigner applying for a short-term residence with the aim of tourism before rejecting or accepting the application.
The center stated that applicants’ requests are evaluated according to the purpose of the residence permit application to stay in the country and that each application will be rejected and not granted residence unless the purpose of applying for a residence permit is attached to it or if the reason explained is not convincing.
YİMER pointed out that applications for residence submitted in the states of Hatay and Şırnak for the first time or for the purpose of renewal would be rejected, regardless of the purpose attached to the application in these two states.
The center added that foreigners, except for Syrians, are not entitled to request residence permits from the following four states: Gaziantep, Mardin, Urfa, and Kilis, while they can apply in the rest of the other states.
On 15 February, the Turkish Migration Management announced new decisions regarding residence permits for foreigners, including Syrians, on its official website.
The decision stated, “Foreigners who wish to reside in Turkey are required to submit a copy of the house rental contract, notarized by the notary, in their residence permit applications, starting from 15 February 2022.”
Lease contracts must also be documented by the property owner or lessor and not by the foreign citizen who wishes to obtain a residence permit, and identity information should be included in the contract form.
The Migration Management said that it is mandatory to submit applications for residence permits through the electronic residence system from within Turkey, and applications for residence permits submitted from abroad will not be accepted.
The Turkish authorities require Syrians holding temporary protection cards to reside in the state where they are registered to provide their data and addresses since 2016.
They are not allowed to move freely between the Turkish states without obtaining a free travel permit.
Syrians residing in Turkey, especially in the border states, find it very hard to obtain a travel permit, especially to Istanbul, where the Turkish authorities are trying to lower the presence of Syrians.
This made them vulnerable to exploitation by brokers who extract permission for them in exchange for sums of money, as well as push them to move around in violation of the law.
Some Syrians resort to taxis whose drivers do not pass through the roads on which they know in advance that there are checkpoints or traveling through tourist buses booked online, hoping that the security personnel at the checkpoints will not check for travel permits.
Meanwhile, airports strictly prohibit Syrians from traveling internally in Turkey in the absence of a valid travel permit.
The Turkish authorities have restricted the movements of Syrians in obtaining a travel permit between states since 2016. The move began in the southern border states, which include large numbers of Syrians and have few job opportunities, but it has included the entire Turkish territory in 2017.
What role do Syrians’ representatives play in Turkey?
The urgent need for an active role by the authorities, institutions, and organizations concerned with Syrian refugee affairs has been recalled by many decisions and procedures that ranged from imposing travel permits, new conditions for tourist residency, and not granting them to recent arrivals, to freezing the temporary protection card (kimlik).
Enab Baladi contacted Ruba Habboush, the Vice President of the Opposition’s Syrian National Coalition (SNC), to figure out the coalition’s role in dealing with the problem of registering residential addresses, which constitutes a source of terror for the Syrian refugee unless it is resolved, but she declined to answer, saying, she does not have enough information, nor is she authorized to make a statement on the matter.
Enab Baladi also asked more than one member of the National Coalition, but without obtaining clear and explicit official answers in a case that directly affects Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of whom suffer from fear of dealing with official and security institutions regarding the issue of identification papers.
Mazen Sheikhani, a member of the Barq Center for Policies and Consultations, called for strengthening social security, transforming the presence of refugees from a problem into an investment, and a state of societal stability for Syrian refugees and Turkish society.
Sheikhani, in an interview with Enab Baladi, has attributed the Turkish measures to the need of the relevant Turkish authorities and institutions for sufficient information about the Syrian refugees to improve visions in order to formulate policies related to the development of asylum programs, to secure the rights of refugees, and to manage this huge human mass within Turkish society.
Amer al-Ghadban, a professor in educational psychology, told Enab Baladi in a previous interview that in a normal situation, there is fear of state departments, with its civil and military employees, and this is part of the culture of some societies. It cannot be overlooked when decisions are issued in which refugees read what threatens their stability because of the repression and intimidation they experienced in their country.
Inas al-Najjar, communications officer in the National Coalition’s Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee, told Enab Baladi that during the last meeting with the Turkish side, the committee presented a set of ideas to ease the hardships of the Syrian refugees in Turkey, especially in the holy month of Ramadan.
Al-Najjar said that one of the ideas was not suspending the “Turkish Red Crescent debit card in the event of suspending the “kimlik” issuing during the month of Ramadan.
Also, excluding emergency cases from the necessity of obtaining an appointment, by taking proof of the case, such as a medical report, for example, when going to the Foreigners’ Division at the Migration Management at any time without an appointment.
The communications officer also confirmed the submission of a set of proposals to discuss ways to expedite the appointments that are granted after a month or two in the Migration Management, provided that the Turkish authorities study these proposals.
Al-Najjar stressed at the same time that the suspension of “kimlik” for the person would end as soon as he visits the Migration Management, as it is “not invalidation, just freezing,” she added.
Regarding the Turkish authorities’ prohibition of registering housing contracts within certain areas, al-Najjar considered this step an encouragement to integration, indicating that the Syrians’ “self-ghettoing” only hinders their learning of the language, their adaptation, and their integration.
The Turkish authorities were drawn to this idea after the events that took place in the Altındağ district in Ankara, she added.
Al-Najjar pointed out the fear that the Syrians live in, some bear the responsibility because of not completing their official residency papers, adding that there are Syrians who do not carry, to this day, what justifies their presence in Turkey legally, such as a “kimlik” identity card, a tourist residence, or otherwise.
Blown by asylum challenges
Addressing administrative complexities is a must for Syrians in Turkey
There are increasing human rights reports related to the legal status of refugees, and the detention of some of them in deportation centers from the Turkish states towards an unknown fate in Syria, and forcing them to sign forms stating their will to return voluntarily to their country.
This comes while the hosting country, Turkey, is suffering from an economic deterioration of its currency against the US dollar, poor living conditions, as well as the growth of hate speech against refugees in the media and social platforms.
Syrians are not refugees in Turkey
Turkey has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, but with the optional geographical limitation in 1951, Turkey now applies this convention only to those seeking protection in Turkey because of events in Europe.
In 2002, the Turkish Official Gazette published within the National Asylum Program that there was an obligation to abolish the geographical restrictions stipulated in the 1951 Geneva Convention on Asylum, carry out large-scale procedures and amendments in legislation, and prepare the infrastructure in order to prevent the flow of refugees from the east to Turkey.
Before removing geographical restrictions, it is necessary to work on preparing the infrastructure of legislation in line with the principle of burden-sharing with the EU.
The legislation is expected to be completed by the date Turkey is considered a member of the EU.
Accordingly, Turkey will not give legal “refugee” status to non-Europeans, with preparations being made in amending the legislation related to this condition. However, these amendments are related to Turkey being a member of the European Union.
The prospects for Turkey’s membership in the EU have narrowed over the years, and Europe is no longer insisting on dropping the geographic scope requirement, but rather, it believes that the new legal framework for immigration and asylum in Turkey, which has been gradually established since 2013, has, however, sufficient protection.
For this, the status of “temporary protection” was provided in Turkey, based on Article No. “91” of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection No. 6458 of 2013.
Turkey has also established the Directorate General of Migration Management, which is the body in charge of immigration and asylum affairs, based on a legal framework for refugees.
After a transitional period, the UNHCR announced, in September 2018, that it would not register the names of asylum seekers in Turkey and would not implement its mandate of granting refugee status, and the new Turkish body has since become responsible for all services related to refugees.
According to the Syrian activist specializing in refugee rights, Taha Ghazi, “the most prominent problem that the Syrian refugee suffers from in Turkey is his legal description. There is no such thing as temporary protection with an unspecified time range.”
Ghazi told Enab Baladi that it is necessary for the official authorities, the Migration Management Presidency, civil society organizations, and Turkish human rights bodies to approve refugee status and define the principle of temporary protection.
This is in the event that it has the desire to solve issues related to administrative problems and complexities, and this solution lies either in creating a legal and human rights environment and a legal description equivalent to “temporary protection” or a more serious structuring of the principle of temporary protection, the activist adds.
Legal weight for Syrians
There are many reasons why it is very difficult or dangerous for people to stay in their countries, fleeing violence, conflict, hunger, and extreme poverty.
According to the report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, called “Syria Descent into the Abyss,” the violence against civilians continues throughout the country, from bombing in the northwest, north, and northeast to targeted killings, unlawful detention, and torture.
The Syrian people suffer from extreme poverty that affects Syrians everywhere, especially the internally displaced.
According to the report of the Investigation Committee, issued on 15 March, there is no safe area for Syrian refugees to which they can move, at the same time, some of them are subjected to psychological abuse and sometimes physical violence in order to force them to sign “voluntary return” forms inside the deportation centers.
According to Ghazi, the Syrian refugees lack a human rights body that represents their voice and presence in Turkey that protects their rights in the event of such violations, provides them with legal support to manage their lives, and provides multiple options that help them create a better reality for them.
The documents and papers dilemma hinders the Syrians in Turkey from building a legal reality of their own and produces binding legal effects.
The majority of Syrian refugees are young people, so access to education and legal work is essential, which is difficult for them to obtain in light of their lack of required documents.
On 30 March, Syrian and Turkish activists held a conference in Istanbul to find actual solutions that fit the refugees legally and established the “Human Rights and Social Security Forum” as a step to find cooperation between Syrian human rights activists and the Turkish authorities concerned with the refugee situation to formulate legislative policies more compatible with the needs of Syrian refugees.
Ghazi recommended that if any Syrian refugee is detained in preparation for his deportation, he should appoint a lawyer through his family or relatives and go to the Turkish human rights organizations spread across all states.
Yıldız Önen, who is active in the Hepimiz Göçmeniz- Irkçılığa Hayır platform, told Enab Baladi that from time to time the Turkish authorities detain some refugees inside “repatriation centers.”
Since the platform was founded 40 years ago, “We faced the same problems with immigrants, as there are many illegal practices inside these centers,” says Önen.
Turkey is bound by the international customary law of non-refoulment, which prohibits returning anyone to a place where they would be at real risk of persecution, torture, other ill-treatment, or a threat to life.
This includes asylum seekers, who have the right to have their claims fair and not to be returned to places where they fear harm without going through all legal procedures.
Referring to the poor administrative organization of the deportation centers inside Turkey, Önen says, “we heard that Afghan refugees were sent to Syria without giving them the right to use the phone, to hire a lawyer, or to communicate with anyone.”
She added that “the refugees find themselves in Syria in a city that is not their city, as they are sent to the nearest place on the border, and they find many difficulties in the issue of returning to Turkey, and in the issue of communication.”
The advocate for the rights of refugees recommended taking concrete government steps, and restructuring the refugee repatriation centers in a way that suits the law, as people who are detained in these centers have the right to hire a lawyer, and they have the right to inform their relatives, calling for these rights to be provided to them immediately.
No special legislation
According to the Turkish activist, the “temporary protection” is clear from its name. It can be applied for a period of two or three years, but after 11 years, this mechanism began to appear deficient.
Önen attributed the chronic situation to the fact that the Syrians do not have work permits, they can not move to live between one city and another as they want, and they still face the risk of being sent back to Syria by a decision of the Turkish Council of Ministers.
For this reason, an official legislation must be enacted regarding Syrians that authorizes the granting of work permits and the right to go to the places they want, as recommended by Önen.
The activist believes that it would be advisable to implement the same EU mechanism in dealing with the Ukrainian refugees as quickly as possible for Syrians in Turkey.
Europe is currently granting a three-year residence permit or a work permit to the refugees of Ukraine, and Turkey should do the same with the Syrian refugees, Önen said.
The majority of Syrians who have committed an offense, misdemeanor, or felony are not prosecuted according to Turkish laws. Instead, they are deported to northern Syria as a punishment. This is mainly due to the absence of a law that would allow lawsuits, lawyers, and judicial decisions based on this law.
Without this law, the fate of refugees will be unknown if they commit any act in violation of Turkish laws, and their deportation is a decision that violates the law and human rights, according to the Turkish activist.
Most of those who have actually been deported have a residence permit, but in other than the cities in which they reside. In these cases, they must be returned to the places where their official papers are registered and not to Syria.
Önen concluded that the deportation of refugees is a “violation of the refugees’ rights,” suggesting that people whose rights are violated in this way should file lawsuits in the courts.
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