Why is once refugee-friendly Turkey now turning its back on Syrians?

Why is once refugee-friendly Turkey now turning its back on Syrians?
Turkey threatens to split apart families with the decision to force unregistered Syrian refugees out of Istanbul. Why have tensions with Syrians risen so high?
9 min read
20 August, 2019
Thousands are estimated to have been deported back to Syria [AFP]
Tuesday marks a particularly painful day for Syrian refugees living in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city.

It is the last day in the metropolis for thousands of them - a day that might leave dozens separated from their families for an indefinite period of time.

The Turkish authorities announced last month that Syrians without a "temporary protection status" - the country's legal designation for Syrians in absence of an official refugee and asylum seeker status - registered in the city, would have just under a month to pack their bags and leave.

They must relocate to the province where their temporary protection status was registered. If they were unfortunate enough to arrive in Turkey after 2017, when the country all but stopped issuing the status to new arrivals, they likely lack a temporary protection ID and will thus be shipped to a refugee camp in another Turkish province. 

While having a temporary protection ID registered in another province means that someone should not move elsewhere, many Syrians have across the years found themselves in Istanbul, whether for the promise of improved work opportunities or reunification with family members already in the city.

It is not uncommon for one family member to be registered in Istanbul with another registered in a distant border province.

In opening its doors to Syrians back in 2011, Turkey has undoubtedly given hundreds of thousands a chance to live in relative safety and calm.

But how did the Turkey that routinely presented itself as a brother to Syrian refugees become the Turkey in which the separation of families and alleged illegal deportation of refugees became a popular policy?

Unity despite deep polarisation

Turkey is a deeply polarised society, where elections are tightly run and political tensions run deep, often dictating friendships and familial relationships. 

Turks placed on either side of the divide often agree about very little, but a majority across the spectrum do share one belief - they're not happy with the presence of more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in their country.

Dr Sebnem Koser Akcapar, director of the Global Migration Research Center at the Social Sciences University of Ankara, told The New Arab that the satisfaction level of Syrian refugees living in Turkey has gradually fallen.

At the same time, the number of Turkish citizens unhappy with the Syrian population has grown - regardless of their political affiliation.

A recent poll by Istanbul's Kadir Has University showed that almost 70 percent of Turks were unhappy with the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

More than half of the respondents said that Turkey should stop accepting refugees - a policy informally adopted in 2016 when the country's borders with Syria were shut and Turkey’s border force instead began to shoot at Syrians fleeing brutal aerial bombardment and other horrors.

Just nine percent of those surveyed said that refugees should be accepted regardless of their numbers and an even smaller 3.6 percent believed that the best policy would be for the living conditions of refugees to be improved.

Political maneuvers 

In the wake of its loss to the country's largest opposition party in the June Istanbul mayoral election, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ramped up anti-refugee measures to satisfy the growing demand for Syrians to vacate the country.

Analysts say that the government is hoping to retain its hold on power by turning to what a recent poll by PIAR ranked as the second highest problem for Turkey behind the economy.

"It is only natural that political parties try to devise certain mechanisms to lure votes," Dr Akcapar said. "However, rising populism and neoliberalism in the world do not help the situation of refugees."

In July, a trickle of videos on social media showing young Syrian men crowded into buses soon became a flood of reports that hundreds of Syrians had been taken from the streets of Istanbul and deported to Syria.

Syrian refugees seen in a bus traveling from Turkey to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Syria [AFP]

If reports by a host of international media and human rights organisations are correct, such measures would be in contravention of the principle of non-refoulement.

Non-refoulement means that refugees or asylum seekers should not be deported back to a country in which they are likely to be at risk of persecution.

Although it is a fundamental standard of international law, advocates say that European states deporting asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, among other countries, is an example of non-refoulement that has gone unpunished.

Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The New Arab that workers at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing estimate around 6,600 have been deported from Turkey to Syria in recent weeks.

In addition, HRW has documented the "refoulement of hundreds per week who try to cross the border, are immediately captured and sent back by Turkish border guards," she said.

Turkish officials have refuted claims that the country has violated the principle of non-refoulement, instead insisting that Syrians detained in Istanbul last month were sent back to their provinces of registration or to refugee camps within the country.

"There is no forceful deportation being undertaken, and Turkey respects the principle of non-refoulement," the Turkish Embassy in London told The New Arab.

"Some foreign news outlets that have made these ridiculous allegations make similar accusations from time to time, with the sole purpose of tarnishing Turkey's reputation."

Despite those claims, Syrian refugees have been speaking to a number of credible international media and human rights organisations and have said they were deported to Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

Many allege they were coerced into signing a document stating their return to Syria was voluntary. Such a document would render their temporary protection status void.

"There is no doubt that what is happening in Turkey is one of the world's greatest mass refoulement, where Turkey with full knowledge of the threat of persecution faced by Syrians is nonetheless forcibly returning them," Kayyali said.

"Many of the Syrians currently being deported, are ending up in Idlib where the Syrian government and Russia have launched an offensive characterised by indiscriminate bombing of civilians, and the use of prohibited weapons," she explained.

"As Idlib is being
bombed to smithereens, Turkey deporting Syrians back to it is an act that is not just a violation of humanitarian law, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a flagrant disregard for their humanity."

Fuelling tensions

Life in Turkey for many Syrian refugees has not been easy even with a temporary protection status.

While the status gives Syrians access to public education and healthcare, and the right to establish businesses and have work permits, accessing those services, particularly the labour market, has been tough.

Work permits are often at a snail's pace, meaning only 82,000 Syrians have them, according to Dr Akcapar. 

According to a 2017 poll by Istanbul Bilgi University's Centre for Migration Research, some 71 percent of Turks believe Syrians are taking jobs away from them. The reality of course is more complex.

"Employers are usually reluctant to pay large sums of money," Dr. Akcapar said. Refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and other countries suffer exploitation, primarily in the industrial and agricultural sectors, from business owners who know they can get away with paying migrants low wages under the table.

"Since the economy is slowing down in Turkey it is very hard to integrate Syrians into the formal labour market currently. This is why nearly all those Syrians working hold jobs in the informal economy for very low wages and under precarious conditions," Berkay Mandiraci, an analyst for International Crisis Group in Turkey, told The New Arab.

"With a long term perspective Turkey needs to be supported by the EU and other international donors to generate more jobs," he said, suggesting investment in agribusinesses and apprenticeships for young Syrians.

But improvements to the lives of Syrians are hard to imagine when intolerance and direct racism are so commonplace, which Dr Akcapar says stems from a lack of proximity and interaction between Syrians and Turkish citizens.

Sukru Oktay Kilic, a digital content strategist for independent Turkish fact-checking organisation Teyit, told The New Arab much of that is driven by misinformation and "fake news".

Teyit produced a series on Syrian refugees in Turkey and fake news [English subtitles are available]

The majority of Turkish citizens, he said, believe that Syrians are responsible for widespread unemployment and rising crime rates. They are also allegedly putting Turkish traditions and culture in danger.

"Those who produce and spread fake news targeting Syrian refugees are well aware of these perceptions of threats and try to make them worse," Kilic said. "Fake news targeting them are mostly about Syrian refugees getting a stipend from the government while Turkish citizens suffer financially due to the currency crisis, getting involved in crime, and making cities less safe."

Fake news and rumours have also driven violence against Syrian refugees, with Syrians and Syrian-owned businesses in Istanbul attacked in late June after rumours that a refugee had sexually harassed a child spread.

But tensions have also risen due to uncertainty as well as economic anxiety, he added.

"The government have always said that this is a temporary crisis… that they'll be going back [but] providing no details at all about how this will happen," Kilic explained. 

The longer Syrians remain in Turkey as "temporary guests" - rather than legitimate residents with paths to citizenship, as suggested by Mandiraci - the more fake news and inflammatory statements by politicians are able to "fuel already existing stereotypes and prejudices about Syrians".

Dr Akcapar agreed that fake news has played an important role in stoking racist stereotypes against Syrians.

"We need more aggressive media campaigns to disseminate the truth to the Turkish public and to prevent anti-migration, anti-Syrian sentiments," she said.

"We need to accept that and work with different institutions in society to make them more integrated and feel more welcome."

What's next for Syrians?

Around half a million Syrians are registered in Istanbul, but estimates suggest twice that number live there.

While Turkey has promised to send those without a valid Istanbul registration to other provinces in Turkey, many are worried that will not be the end of hardship for Syrians in Turkey.

Ankara and Washington last week agreed to cooperate in building a "safe zone" in northern Syria.

Turkey has long hoped for the initiative, which would place a buffer between the Syrian Kurdish forces and its border, to be realised. 

It has also insisted that the so-called "peace corridor" will provide a place to which Syrian refugees currently in Turkey can return.

Knowing what Syrians have experienced in the past few months - both in Idlib and Turkey - observers are justifiably afraid that refugees, many of whom surely risk detention and imprisonment by the Syrian regime, will be summarily returned to a country whose fate hangs in the balance.

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