Quake-affected Syrians face restrictions in Istanbul
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
A new displacement hardship was incurred by Ola Jatal’s family, who was residing in the southern Turkish city of Antakya as the region witnessed great devastation following the Feb.6 earthquake.
The family of the Syrian refugee girl, Ola, decided to go from Hatay to Istanbul in search of a house to live in, but they faced many difficulties.
Enab Baladi met Ola when she was trying to make her voice heard at a symposium for organizations concerned with refugee rights in Istanbul, during which she appealed to the Turkish authorities to look into the conditions of refugees in the country and allow legal facilities for them.
Ola is one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Syrians who decided to go to Istanbul to escape the devastation caused by the earthquake in the southern Turkish states, but the legal complications put many obstacles in front of them.
Facing an unknown future imposed by the conditions of asylum and residence in Turkey is what most disturbs the displaced Syrians to Istanbul, a psychological and economic burden that was exacerbated by the state of internal displacement after the earthquake.
Ola recounted the events that drove her and her family to the state of Istanbul during the symposium, which was attended by local and international human rights organizations, noting that two of her family members are disabled and need special medical care.
A few days after the earthquake, the Turkish Immigration Presidency allowed Syrian refugees in the earthquake-affected areas to move to another state, provided they obtain a three-month travel permit.
However, Turkish Immigration did not clarify the stage after the expiration of the travel permit, especially since a period of three months is not considered sufficient to allow the return of the displaced refugees to the affected areas.
Basil and his brother survived under the rubble of their earthquake-damaged home in Antakya and moved to Istanbul to stay at a friend’s house temporarily.
Basil expressed his concern about the unknown future in the country and told Enab Baladi that in mid-February, he went to the Immigration Department in the Beyazit district of Istanbul to obtain a travel permit to allow him to reside legally in Istanbul for a period of three months.
Although ten days have passed since the earthquake, the employee refused to grant him permission to travel for more than two months, even though the decision issued by the Presidency of Immigration provides for granting Syrians a three-month permit.
Basil was curious about his situation, like the case of Syrians who have been displaced to other cities, so he asked the employee about the possibility of renewing the permit or obtaining a new one after its expiration, “but it seems that nothing is known even to the immigration officials,” according to what he told Enab Baladi.
The state of fear and anxiety for the Syrians coming to Istanbul from the southern Turkish states is not limited to the ambiguity of the legal aspect, as the randomness of the decisions of the Immigration Department affects the simplest details, including the refusal of the electricity and water institutions of the Istanbul municipality to deliver service to the homes of Syrian refugees who were displaced by the earthquake.
Some of the quake displaced were forced to search for a Turkish person or a Syrian person registered in Istanbul to register water and electricity meters in their names, and the employees’ justifications were that no decision had been issued in this regard, some of those interviewed by Enab Baladi said.
Omar, a young Syrian who also came to Istanbul from the city of Antakya, told Enab Baladi that he is thinking of returning to the city where his place of residence was destroyed to live in a tent or even in the street, “better than moving between government departments whose employees do not know what is happening there.”
More restrictions ahead
Refugee rights advocates in Turkey expect an increase in legal restrictions on Syrian refugees in the future.
Activist Taha al-Ghazi told Enab Baladi that he attributed the reasons for the restrictions to the Turkish government’s desire for the Syrians to leave its lands, as it is trying to force them to leave for Europe or Syria voluntarily.
Al-Ghazi added that this legal complexity was evident in some cases that he was able to document during the past few days.
One of them is the deportation of some families upon their arrival in Istanbul, noting that their members come from the affected areas under the pretext that there are “codes” on their registration records.
According to the “MIHCI” human rights office, “Codes” are symbols applied to the registration records of foreigners residing in Turkey and explain several cases: informing the foreigner in some cases, indicating the reason for preventing entry to the country, or notifying foreigners of the reason for deportation in other cases.
The reasons for placing these symbols differ in different cases, and the duration of the symbols remaining in the foreigner’s record varies, given the importance of the action taken against him/her.
Al-Ghazi also said that some of these cases involving Syrian families took place in the two main deportation centers in Istanbul, in the Tuzla region, south of the city, or in the Silivri district.
Reasons for restrictions
Enab Baladi interviewed four families coming from the earthquake-affected areas to Istanbul, who were able to obtain a travel permit upon their arrival in Istanbul.
All of them said that the procedures for granting a travel permit were not complicated. However, activist Taha al-Ghazi told Enab Baladi that some families’ requests to obtain a travel permit remained pending.
He added that this restriction may fall under the item of the individual actions of the Turkish Immigration Department employees, but he did not rule out at the same time that it is among the measures aimed at pushing the Syrians out of the country.
The activist added that the coming period may witness more pressure on the Syrians residing in the country, including those residing in the quake-affected areas.
Urge for solutions
During a symposium organized by a group of Syrian and Turkish civil society organizations, a statement was issued calling for solutions to the legal status of Syrian refugees following the earthquake disaster.
The organizations said that responding to the items mentioned in their statement could reduce the suffering of Syrian refugees, especially in light of the deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
The most prominent proposals for solutions were the demand of the Turkish government to conduct a serious investigation into the allegations of violations and to start an investigation with those who took the earthquake aid provided to the Syrians, attacked them, or removed them from the shelters and tents.
The proposals also included stopping the “pressure easing” strategy, lifting all travel restrictions related to Istanbul and other provinces, and canceling the requirement to stay in safe states for a period of 60 days.
The Turkish authorities gave permission to travel to Syria between three and six months, but it is sometimes interpreted as a “voluntary return,” according to what was stated by Turkish ministers and government officials, and the Syrians who went to Syria to reach their relatives affected by the earthquake should not face any difficulties in return, according to the statement.
Turkish immigration services should also allow time to identify refugees killed under the rubble and bury the dead in a manner that respects funeral and burial requirements.
In their statement, the civil society organizations also called on the United Nations and other international organizations to increase their assistance to the affected Syrian refugees, in line with the scale of the disaster.
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