Syria Weekly: Turkey's image as 'Syria protector' suffers following 'forced deportations' to Idlib

Syria Weekly: Turkey's image as 'Syria protector' suffers following 'forced deportations' to Idlib
At least a thousand Syrian refugees are thought to have been deported to Idlib from Turkey, despite the opposition province being subject to a fierce bombardment.
5 min read
27 July, 2019
Millions of Syrians have found refuge in Turkey [Getty]
Turkey's image a protector of Syrians was sorely tarnished this week, when hundreds of refugees were deported from Istanbul back to war-torn Idlib, amid a fierce regime and Russian bombardment which has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

The clampdown on Syrian refugees has centered on the city of Istanbul, which recently witnessed Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) defeat in mayoral elections. It came amid growing anger towards the thousands of Syrians living in the city, with videos showing refugees beaten by mobs on the streets of Istanbul.

As if to placate the growing xenophobic sentiments and to respond to the election losses, thousands of refugees have been detained in a new crackdown by police. Human rights groups have said that police have stepped up spot checks across Istanbul over the past week. Syrians who are unable to present the relevant registration documents, for whatever reason, are arrested. 


Over 6,000 refugees have been detained in the clampdown, rights groups have said, sparking fears among the millions of Syrians living in Turkey that they could be next.

What is of most concern is that hundreds of Syrians caught up in the anti-immigration dragnet have been deported to the opposition province of Idlib, home to around 3 million people, half of them displaced from the rest of Syria.

The deportations come as Russian and regime forces intensified their bombardment of Idlib with at least 50 people killed on Monday alone and 400,000 people displaced since the assault began in April.

"These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident," UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a statement, underlying the dangers for Syrians who are forced into Idlib.

Turkey has been widely commended for its hosting of at least 3.6 million refugees, but a series of harsh measures against Syrians over the past year have worried human rights groups. Turkey has closed its borders to Syria amid one of the worst assaults on Idlib province during the war, killing well over 500 civilians since April. Desperate Syrians who have tried to cross the border into Turkey have been shot and killed by border guards.

Human Rights Watch have said that Syrians recently detained in Turkey have been "coerced" into signing "voluntary return documents" before being sent to Idlib.

"Turkey claims it helps Syrians voluntarily return to their country, but threatening to lock them up until they agree to return, forcing them to sign forms, dumping them in a war zone is neither voluntary nor legal," said Gerry Simpson, from Human Rights Watch in a statement. 
"Turkey should be commended for hosting record numbers of Syrian refugees, but unlawful deportations are not the way forward."

Official denial

Turkey's Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has denied that refugees are being deported to Syria but said those "who voluntarily want to go back" can return to "safe areas". Given the dangers and dire humanitarian situation in opposition areas of Syria, it is unlikely that many would want to return to the war-torn country, least of all "voluntarily".

Senay Ozden, a Turkish researcher of refugees studies told The New Arab, that there are accounts of Syrians being deported to Idlib, which is a violation of international treaties regarding the protection of refugees which Turkey has signed.

"They are basically sending people to [areas] bombed by Russia," Ozden said. "One of the problems is that the Turkish state does not accept they are deporting people… so far we haven't heard any official statement about the number of people deported back to Syria from Turkey and this is a figure which needs to be officially announced by the Turkish state."

Syrian refugees are required to register for temporary protection in certain regions, usually cities and towns they moved to when first entering Turkey, and need separate documentation to work in other areas. Many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees are registered in southern Turkey, where unemployment and poverty are rife, forcing thousands to seek work in Istanbul, the economic hub of Syria.


Over the past weeks, factories, offices and restaurants in Istanbul have been raided by police looking for workers without official work permits.

"Obviously the vast majority of SyRians working in Turkey are without a work permit but this is not their fault. They are cheap labour in Turkey, they are mostly working for less than the minimum wage, and they don't have social security so it is the employers who are benefiting from the situation," Ozden added.

She said these conditions are a major factor in racist attitudes towards Syrian refugees in Turkey and elsewhere. "The discourse of 'Syrians are taking our jobs' has surfaced in Turkey as well. The real fault lies in the employers but the anger is being directed at the refugees, so it is Turkish workers being pitted against exploited Syrian workers," she said.

"On the other hand the increasing racism is caused by a lack of structural solutions to this problem by the state and also the exploitation by the employers. The Turkish state is saying 'if we don't do anything there will be clashes and we need to prevent this' and there is obviously an economic crisis in Turkey so the solution the state has found to this problem is apparently to prevent Syrians from working.

Continuing the crackdown against refugees could deepen divisions, worsen the exploitation of illegal workers and see Syrian family members forced to live in separate cities in Turkey. "What will the Turkish state do about this problem?" Ozden asked.

The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces - Syria's main opposition group - have held talks with the Turkish interior ministry on the subject, but appear to have accepted the government's account of the deportations.

Anas al-Abdah, head of the coalition, said "we have been promised that no Syrian will be deported outside Turkey" and assured that Ankara has not changed its official position on hosting refugees.

Syrians in Turkey have found themselves in an increasingly precarious position with few protectors, while over the border the Russian-regime assault on Idlib continues unabated.​

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.

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Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin