Fear of deportation haunts Syrians in Istanbul

Many Syrians in Istanbul live in constant fear of deportation despite living legally in Turkey, as officials in the city step up efforts to combat irregular migration.

The Istanbul governor’s office on Monday set an Aug. 20 deadline for Syrian refugees to return to the Turkish province in which they registered on arrival, or face forcible return to those regions, or worse. In the past week, the government has quietly rounded up and sent as many as 1000 Syrian refugees back to their homeland, according to the Arab News.  

Some 3.6 million Syrians are registered in Turkey under temporary protection status, but some estimates put the total number of Syrians, including a million unregistered, at more than 4.6 million. Some 550,000 Syrians are registered in Istanbul, for instance, but the city's new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, says the real number is as high as a million.

Opposition newspaper Evrensel reported on Sunday that many Syrians in Istanbul stay indoors fearing deportation. The city’s Esenyurt district has a considerable Syrian population, but the streets are less crowded than usual.

“Syrians freely worked and walked here before. Now police continuously checks identity cards. The customers in the cafes show their identity cards to the police. The police handcuff those who are not registered and take them away,” said a Syrian who runs a cosmetics shop in the district.

Some of those caught are sent to the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, media reports say, where Syrian government forces launched a Russia-backed offensive in April, and where deadly violence has spiked in recent days. 

Resentment against Syrians in Turkey is high, particularly among opposition supporters who see the refugee population as a consequence of the government’s foreign policies. But anger has risen since an economic downturn began last year, raising unemployment to 13 percent. A recent survey by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University shows that 68 percent of the Turks are “not content with the presence of Syrian refugees”. Pollster Piar said Turks see Syrian refugees as the second most important problem after the economy. 

Local elections on March 31 also served a catalyst for anti-Syrian sentiment. The government says it has spent more than $37 billion on Syrian refugees. Many Turks say Syrians undercut wages, increase rents, pay no taxes, and establish ghettos. The crackdown on unregistered refugees appears to be a response to that anger.

The document Syrians are forced to sign before deportation, according to advocates on social media.
Advocates on social media share this document saying that Syrians are forced to sign it before deportation.

One Syrian man, Musa, is registered in the central Anatolian province of Konya, but his wife and children are registered in Istanbul. “I asked them to correct it, but they did not. What will I do now if they send me to Syria saying that I am residing here illegally?” he asked. 

“People are reporting us. We are afraid at home because of police raids. We cannot sit in a café and have one cup of tea, as they can report us. We cannot go to work, as someone at work can report us. We cannot walk in the park, as the police can take us,” he said. 

Musa said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the mayor, İmamoğlu, should help. Erdoğan, who has always proudly touted helping Syrians fleeing the civil war, has been silent on the issue, while senior officials like the Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu have signalled a shift in government rhetoric and policies toward Syrians.

İmamoğlu, days after he took office last month, said the issue of Syrian refugees was a serious trauma. “There are many Syrians that work unregistered. We have to protect our people’s interests,” he said. Turkey had mismanaged the refugee problem, he told the BBC last week, but pledged to protect the rights of Syrians, especially women and children, staying legally in Istanbul.

Salih, a Syrian shopkeeper, said İmamoğlu had never visited shops run by Syrians. “If he says that he loves Syrians and visits us, then his voters will behave nicely towards us,” he said. 

Videos and photos of 18-year-old Syrian Amjad Mohamad Adel Tablieh being handcuffed by police prior were widely shared on social media last week.

Amjad used to work in a restaurant. His colleagues said he spoke Turkish fluently and was registered in Istanbul. “Just two years ago there were no identity cards. Now we hear that even those who have identity cards are being deported. But for example Amjad had one. His family had permission to live in Istanbul,” said Muhammed, the Turkish owner of the restaurant.  

Speaking on the phone, Amjad said he had been caught by police having left his identity card at home and swiftly taken to the border province of Hatay and deported. 

“We received a phone call from Amjad. He said he was being taken to Hatay and he had been forced to sign a paper. I asked him why he had signed it . He said ‘I thought they were going to release me’,” said Amjad’s mother Vefa Mohammed Jarkes

“President Erdoğan, please bring him back. We have nobody there. Amjad lives on the street. He sleeps in a vacant building near the border. I am so afraid that something will happen to him,” she said. 

The temporary identity card of Amjad Mohamad Adel Tablieh granted by Turkish authorities.
The temporary identity card of Amjad Mohamad Adel Tablieh granted by Turkish authorities.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.