Istanbul’s Syrian refugees fear deportation as officials step up raids

Officials in Turkey’s largest city of Istanbul have stepped up operations against Syrian refugees as part of new policy aiming to shrink the country’s some 4 million Syrian population.

Istanbul hosts over one-eight, 500,000, of Syrians living in Turkey. There are increasing reports of rising animosity against Turkey’s Syrian refugees, which analysts maintain is fuelled by Turkey’s stumbling economy and rising unemployment. A large number of Turks resent Syrians, who they see as cheap labour taking over jobs and using services. 

Officials over the past 10 days have been raiding the homes and businesses of Syrian refugees in Istanbul, causing widespread fear of deportation among the city’s Syrians population, left-wing newspaper Evrensel reported on Sunday.

Gerry Simpson, the associate Director of the crisis and conflict division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Sunday said there were reports of Turkey beginning mass deportations from Istanbul.

“They rounded up a lot of people and sent them back home. Syrian workers are afraid. The owners of the workshops where they are employed too are afraid of hefty financial penalties. The owners are telling us that we have to leave. There are workers that haven’t left the workshops for days out of fear,‘’ one Syrian refugee in Istanbul’s Küçükçekmece district told Evrensel.

Küçükçekmece, which is home to a sizeable Syrian community, has witnessed an increasing number of attacks on refugees, in addition to a municipal campaign to curb Arabic shop signs following complaints from locals.

A lawyer working focusing on refugees, Abdulhalim Yılmaz  told the daily that there were signs pointing to such a move by the Interior Ministry, which had taken on an increasingly harsh tone where refugees are concerned since the March 31 local elections. The Ministry of Interior Süleyman Soylu said earlier this month that Turkish authorities would no longer register Syrians in Istanbul, excluding exceptional cases.

“The topic of deportation was in the spotlight during the local elections. If they are doing this in order to pander to the nationalist crowds, then the outcome will not be a good one,” Yılmaz said.

The lawyer said that Turkish laws regarding deportation were very “flexible,‘’ and officials had the freedom to send any foreigner outside a city or even deport them.

However, “the lives of refugees must not be under danger in the countries they are being sent to. Countries such as Afghanistan and Syria are in the category of unsafe countries,’’ according to Yılmaz.

Turkish police are forcing Syrian refugees to sign voluntary return forms from Turkey form as part of the deportation, Syrian civil society and human rights activist Asaad Hanna said on Twitter, sharing an image of said document.

Hanna also shared video footage of Syrian men handcuffed while being transported on a bus.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has in the past said up to 1 million of Turkey’s Syrian population would return to their homeland once a safe zone is established in northeast Syria along their shared border. However, following the March polls, which saw his ruling party lose five of Turkey’s most populous provinces, Erdoğan has taken on a harsher stance, announcing the deportation of Syrian refugees involved in crime and the cancellation of free health services.

Syrians in Turkey do not have an official refugee status, but live under temporary protection, which does not allow them legal rights to counter deportations.

The raids on Syrian businesses have also spilled over to capital Ankara. The municipality in the capital Ankara’s Polatlı district closed 39 shops belonging to Syrians, Akif Haber reported on Friday.

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