Legal restrictions, security concerns push Syrian refugees beyond Istanbul borders
Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud
The mid-July statement of the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management (PMM) caused a state of anxiety among Syrian refugees in Istanbul after setting a deadline of two months for refugees registered in other states to leave Istanbul before September 24.
Lawyers and activists considered the specified deadline a “legal warning” for the refugees to return on their own to their states without being subjected to deportation outside the Turkish borders through land crossings with Turkey towards northern Syria.
The Migration Management Presidency followed its first statement with another on September 18, in which it clarified the fate of violators after the expiration of the deadline.
The PMM said that the inspections that the authorities will conduct as of September 24 will impose administrative penalties on Syrians who hold the Temporary Protection Identification Document (Kimlik) if they do not leave Istanbul at the end of the period granted to them.
Enab Baladi contacted Syrian families with irregular status living in Istanbul as they began searching for other options, which differed in view of what was available to each of them.
Fear haunts Syrians
The recent security campaigns announced successively by the Turkish authorities caused fear among Syrian refugees residing on Turkish territory, which made them turn to solutions that would protect them from a possible deportation decision to the regions of northern Syria.
Khaldoun (pseudonym) told Enab Baladi that he has a Kimlik registered in the state of Bursa, but he has been residing in the Fatih district of Istanbul for five years, and it is considered one of the most vital points for Syrian refugees in the city.
The young man, who declined to mention his real name due to security concerns, stated that he cannot find a solution for his condition, and his circumstances force him to remain in Istanbul.
Despite his continuous attempts to find a house in the city of Bursa to live legally, he did not find anyone to rent a house to him, as he is a single young man.
Khaldoun works as a photographer in an accessories company, a few minutes walk from his place of residence, which caused him to be isolated from the surrounding community for about four months, as during that period, he only went out to work to avoid the police patrols deployed in the alleys, he told Enab Baladi.
He was previously imprisoned in November 2022 due to his illegal residence in Istanbul and the expiration of the “travel permit” he had previously obtained.
Since 2016, Syrians in Turkey have been prohibited from leaving the states in which they are registered or residing in other states without a “travel permit” issued by the PMM.
Syrians residing in Turkey, especially in the southern border states, find it extremely difficult to obtain “travel permission,” especially to the state of Istanbul, where the Turkish authorities are trying to reduce the presence of Syrians.
No legal Syrian entity defends refugees in Turkey
Istanbul-based Lawyer Ghazwan Kronfol told Enab Baladi that the Syrian Lawyers Association in Turkey is unable to develop any plan to keep pace with the deportation campaigns that have occurred recently, especially after the deadline granted to Syrian refugees staying in Istanbul to leave to their states.
Kronfol attributed the inability of the Syrians to establish an entity that defends their rights in Turkey to several reasons, the most important of which is the absence of financial and human resources to organize this entity.
He added that 97% of the members of the Lawyers’ Association are already subject to the Kimlik system and are not able to venture positions or statements that might be deemed hostile to the Turkish state, which also exposes them to the risk of deportation to northwestern Syria.
The lawyer believes that people who reside in Istanbul can obtain a work permit and legalize their status, which qualifies them to transfer the Kimlik to the same state, and this is one of the ways to limit deportation.
Rahaf al-Hamidi, who holds Kimlik issued by Yozgat state, like her family members, told Enab Baladi that the family found the option of staying in Istanbul threatening them with direct deportation to Syria, which prompted her to think about returning to Yozgat to avoid this possibility.
Rahaf’s family put the furnishings of their home in Istanbul up for sale after making the decision to leave and began searching for a new house in Yozgat to move to on September 22, that is, two days before the deadline expired.
During the preparation of this report, Rahaf packed her belongings towards Yozgat province to escape the security restrictions that began to intensify in Istanbul over time.
At least 3,288,755 Syrian refugees reside in Turkey under temporary protection documents. The majority of them reside in Istanbul, as their number reached 532,235 people, according to the latest statistics of the Presidency of Migration Management (PMM).
Next stage is “more dangerous”
Refugee rights activist Taha al-Ghazi told Enab Baladi that activists, civil society organizations, and Turkish non-governmental human rights bodies play an essential and influential role in changing the direction of the decisions of the Turkish PMM in the next stage.
Al-Ghazi believes that the most important role of these human rights organizations and bodies lies in coordination and communication with various Turkish parties and movements from the opposition and the government as well.
Al-Ghazi said that the security campaign will be concentrated in the city of Istanbul, attributing this to the approaching municipal elections in Turkey to win the votes of the Turkish voters by conveying an indirect message that the government is resisting “illegal” migration and returning refugees to their country.
The refugee rights advocate added that deporting Syrians directly to Syria violates the system of the Temporary Protection, the International Protection law, and the Geneva Convention, which Turkey signed in 1951.
Legal consultant Ali Kaya, for his part, believes that the next stage of deportation will be “more dangerous and massive” for Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Kaya told Enab Baladi that the campaign will start from Istanbul and expand to the rest of the governorates, and it may later include those affected by the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey on February 6.
Syrians residing in southern Turkey were forced to change their cities and move to states that were not destroyed by the earthquake, which led to a doubling of their suffering and the living difficulties they faced in Turkey.
The legal consultant believes that the Turkish state has the right to deport violators who do not have any identification papers, but as for those who violate it by moving to another state to work or live, this is a natural right.
Kaya criticized not allowing Syrian refugees residing under “Temporary Protection” to move freely in Turkey, stressing that there is no clause in the “International Protection” law that requires a refugee to commit to a specific city unless he wants to go to areas that would put his life in danger.
Article Three of the Turkish Penal Code No. 5237 states that “it is not permissible to discriminate between individuals in terms of race, language, religion, sect, nationality, color, gender, or national or social origin.”
The Turkish authorities arbitrarily deport Syrian refugees by forcing them to sign (voluntary return) papers, but the widespread pictures of deportees who had their hands tied show the reality that the authorities are trying to hide.
Ghazwan Kronfol – Lawyer and Human Rights Activist
Return of refugees
Fines and forced deportation violate the basic rights of Syrian refugees, as the option of “voluntary return” to Syrian territory by the person’s own decision has become a possible outlet as a result of restrictions rather than improving conditions in Syria, according to human rights and international organizations.
Under “Customary International Law,” the principle of “non-refoulement” prevents any host state from returning anyone to its country, whether an asylum seeker or a recipient of asylum, without taking into account whether they entered that country legally or illegally.
Based on international law, the process of returning Syrian refugees to their country is considered a violation of International Law and the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which the Turkish state is a party.
Abdul Rahman al-Hammadi, who was residing in Istanbul, told Enab Baladi that he had no choice but to return to northwestern Syria, his hometown, driven by legal restrictions, which Turkey calls “voluntary return.”
Al-Hammadi holds a Kimlik issued by the state of Çanakkale in northwestern Turkey and resided in Istanbul, as he was at risk of forcible deportation at any moment during the repeated security campaigns that the city witnessed.
He added that what he described as “racist treatment” against Syrian refugees in Turkey was one of the main reasons that prompted him to think about returning, as he had recently been exposed to clashes with his colleagues at his workplace.
The PMM decisions also increased the psychological pressure on him and doubled his desire to return to northwestern Syria, according to him.
On May 8, the Turkish police detained a group of Syrian refugee families residing in the capital, Ankara, estimated at 120 people, most of whom held legal identification papers, without clear reasons, according to what was revealed by social media activists.
On October 24, 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Turkish authorities of arbitrarily arresting, detaining, and deporting hundreds of Syrian refugee men and boys to Syria between February and July of the same year.
The HRW report stated that Turkey is obligated under treaties and customary international law to respect the principle of “non-refoulement,” which prevents anyone from being returned to a place where they face a real risk to their lives of persecution, torture or other risks.
In its report, the HRW collected testimonies of many people deported to Syria “forcibly,” confirming that they were forced to sign “voluntary return forms” to northern Syria under violence and threats in deportation centers in many Turkish provinces.
The Presidency of Migration Management (PMM) defined the Temporary Protection law under which Syrians live in Turkey as a form of “protection” developed by Turkey to find immediate solutions in cases of mass influx of refugees.
One of the most prominent provisions of the law is “non-refoulement,” which has been repeatedly violated for more than a year by the PMM.
What is the “September 24 deadline”?
The Turkish PMM published a statement alerting Syrian refugees in Istanbul to the need to leave the state and return to the states in which they were registered before September 24.
On September 18, the PMM confirmed its previous decision regarding the violators, indicating that it would transfer them to “temporary shelter” centers and sort them to the states in which they were registered.
According to Law No. 6458, penalties will be imposed on them within the laws of Foreigners, International Protection, and Temporary Protection.
The decision stressed that the specified period will not be extended, as the competent authorities will begin inspections from September 24 indefinitely.
Since the start of the security campaign early last July, it has affected the movement of Syrians and their movement between their places of residence and their workplaces, especially in Istanbul.
At the end of last July, the Turkish Minister of the Interior, Ali Yerlikaya, said that he had issued instructions regarding the prosecution of “irregular” immigrants who reside illegally throughout the country and not in Istanbul alone.
The security campaign included Syrians who own Kimlik in violation of their supposed place of residence.
The minister spoke in previous statements published on September 13 that the authorities arrested more than 75,442 irregular immigrants and illegal immigrants during the last three months and deported about 33,000 of them outside Turkish territory.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on September 18 that about 600,000 Syrians had returned to their homeland “voluntarily,” and “with the completion of the construction of permanent housing in northern Syria, a million people will be added to them.”
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