Turkey accused of forcibly deporting Syrian journalists

Turkish authorities have been deporting Syrian opposition journalists who sought refuge in Turkey after fleeing President Bashar Assad’s repression, journalists and non-government organisations said.

International media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) demanded an end to the deportations in a letter to the Turkish government in August, warning that journalists sent back to Syria face imprisonment or death.

Obeida al-Omar, one of the journalists whose story was cited in the letter, told Ahval that he and his family had been struggling to survive in a ruined house under frequent bombardment since being deported to opposition-controlled Idlib province in July.

Another journalist, Yaroub al-Dalie, said he had paid people smugglers $6,000 to return with his family to Turkey after being deported in August. But now Dalie said he had been unable to seek the urgent medical care he requires for serious kidney disease out of fear that he will be deported again.

The journalists have been on the receiving end of a crackdown by Turkish authorities this year, after results in the local elections threw a spotlight on discontent with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

One of the main sore points for many Turkish citizens is the presence of more than 3.6 million Syrians, who are seen by many as a drain on the country’s resources during a period of economic turmoil.

The government responded by instructing police to round up Syrians who are found without documentation or outside the province they are registered. The temporary protection status Turkey grants Syrian refugees requires they remain where they registered.

The Interior Ministry said those discovered with incorrect documents are sent back to their province of registration, though media outlets and rights groups say many have been forcibly deported to Syria.

“Syrian journalists are facing the danger of being deported back to Syria or to another country,” said Firas Diba, the head of the Istanbul-based Syrian Journalists Association. “If they are sent to Syria, their lives will be in danger, but if they are forced out of Istanbul, they’ll lose their jobs, since most media organisations that publish in Arabic are based there.”

Diba has faced problems after being left without any identification since applying for temporary protection status.

“I was in Turkey on a tourist visa, but that finished three years ago, and I couldn’t renew it because my passport has expired. When I applied for temporary protection, they didn’t give me any ID,” he said.

The journalist’s wife and children are registered in Turkey’s southeastern Gaziantep province, but the whole family lives in Istanbul. If Diba is caught and returned to Syria, he fears he could be killed.

“I’m a target of the Syrian regime, Islamic State and the Nusra Front because of my work as a journalist,” Diba said.

“I’ve got four children, we came to Turkey after Russia bombed the place we were living,” said Omar. “Then, I tried to cross to Greece on a boat, but it sank and I nearly drowned.”

Omar said he was then caught by Turkish police, who he said took a picture of his passport and forced him to sign a document saying he had returned to Syria voluntarily.

Now the journalist is in Idlib with his wife and children, struggling to survive.

“We’re living in a house with no door or windows. I’m hopelessly trying to get out of Syria, but I don’t have any money to pay people smugglers, and while I’m in Syria we can’t access any right to asylum,” he said.

“My family is in a sad state, we were forced to leave our home with just the clothes on our back. Once I have money I’ll come back to Turkey,” he said. “I want to call out to Turkey. I’m a journalist who has documented human rights abuses in Syria, please help me leave the country. Give me and my family a safe place to live.”

Dalie, a 26-year-old journalist for the Levant News who has also been deported from Turkey, said he had been captured by al Qaeda in Syria.

“They kept me in an underground prison for 10 days, and they tortured me and made me collect stones. For some time the only thing they let us eat was grass we’d gathered. We saw them execute and brutally interrogate people,” he said.

Dalie said he had been released when his friends from the city intervened on his behalf, and then contacted international media organisations.

“They told me first to go to Turkey and apply for asylum at the French mission. I travelled to Turkey and applied for temporary protection status to get my identification, but the government by that time had moved to a policy of deporting Syrians and had suspended applications,” he said.

“So, I didn’t have any documents, and the police detained me while I was looking for a way out of the country. I told them my life would be in danger if I returned to Syria, but they didn’t listen. They drove us to the border, and I tried to escape, but I couldn’t,” he said.

After being deported, Dalie said he had spent months in hiding before making his way back to Turkey.

“It’s terrible, but I paid $6,000 to people smugglers to come back to Turkey. I had a choice between staying in Syria and dying, or being thrown in an unknown prison, or leaving the country,” Dalie said.

Now back in Turkey, Dalie is applying for asylum for France. Until the response comes, he is unable to leave home for fear he will be deported again, even though he needs treatment for kidney disease.

“What we’re going through is really hard. My world now consists of a single room. I can’t go outside. I can tell my wife is afraid from her eyes. I worry about what will become of my child if something happens to me,” he said.

“I’m at the point of losing hope, I feel like I’ve come to the end of the road. All I want is a safe place where I can live with my family and continue my work as a journalist,” he said.