On the frontline of justice and development: Syrian legal activists defend rights in Turkey

Syrian legal activists on frontline in Erdogan's Turkey
5 min read
07 September, 2022

Turkey continues to shelter more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, a number which considerably increased between 2013 and 2017 before stabilising, according to the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management.

Concomitantly, the Turkish government undertook reforms to create a national asylum system complying with EU standards. As explained by Hussam al-Nahar, a Syrian journalist and activist based in Izmir, the first Turkish law “on Foreigners and International Protection” was created in 2013.

However, it does not grant refugees the right to settle down in Turkey or obtain citizenship, causing integration issues. Moreover, only applicants fleeing a Council of Europe member state can obtain asylum; Syrians, for their part, can only pretend for “temporary protection”.

"Social violence always has repercussions on women; even when it affects men, they suffer with them"

Until 2016, Syrians automatically received a temporary protection card “Kimlik”, renewable after two years.

Slowly, new instructions by the Ministry of Interior tightened the procedures, resulting in capital changes: the Turkish government now considers each application separately and has the right to refuse to grant the “Kimlik” after an undefined period, exposing Syrians to uncertainty.

Through daily media monitoring and analysis, Hussam sheds light on the injustices faced by the Syrian community.

His articles closely follow recent legal developments from the European Court of Justice and the UN working group on Arbitrary Detention, as well as Erdogan’s “voluntary return plan”, aiming to relocate 1.5 million Syrians in Northern Syria.

In August, fear reached another level, when Ankara opened the door to discussions with Bashar al-Assad, radically shifting from its 12 years old position. For the journalist, “it is capital to mediatise the expulsions and the discriminations every day, as the current legal framework does not fulfil its obligations”.

Indeed, as explained by Ghazwan Koronful, director of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association (FSLA) founded in 2012 and currently counting 106 members all over Northern Syria and Turkey, xenophobic speeches have considerably increased since 2019 and become linked with forced displacements as Erdogan’s party lost municipal elections in Istanbul and Ankara.

If calls to deport Syrians and racist attacks have been present since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2017, they were relatively moderate.

While “the topic of refugees should constitute a strictly legal and humanitarian challenge, not a card played by political groups”, it is currently highly politicised in the political arena.

As the smallest mistake can become a pretext for expulsion or altercation with Turkish nationals, Syrians live in constant fear and hypervigilance: “people don’t even dare speak Arabic on the phone in public spaces.”

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To tackle the situation, FSLA implemented educational strategies aiming at providing Syrians with a simple understanding of Turkish laws: four leaflets in Arabic summarising the legal context that they must know including the attribution of work permissions, temporary protection and residency permits; 4000 copies were printed and distributed to NGOs until a numeric version was available.

FSLA also organises meetings in areas where Syrians are concentrated, such as Antakya, Gaziantep, Urfa, or Mersin and helps them clarify their legal situation, rights, and duties. Finally, legal consulting is offered through Facebook lives and Syrian radio broadcasts.

For his part, renowned activist for refugees’ rights Taha Elgazi assists voluntarily and independently victims of racism and violent hate crimes and their families by keeping up on the legal process and being in close contact with human rights organisations and Turkish lawyers.

"Defending children’s rights to education and helping adults to learn the language, he believes, will help improve Syrians’ rights, as 35% of children are still deprived of education according to the Turkish government"

Taha explains that meeting with Turkish politicians is essential in hope that they will alleviate their anti-Syrian rhetoric.

His advocacy visits included prominent politicians such as the leader of the Republican People's Party Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Future Party Ahmet Davutoğlu, leader of the Democracy and Progress Party Ali Babacan, MP for the Republican People’s Party Mustafa Sezgin Tanrıkulu and MP for the People’s democratic party Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu.

Despite the threats and calumnies that the activist faced, small victories made it worth it.

They include participating in the creation of the first “Refugee and Immigrant Rights Centre” at the level of the Istanbul Bar Association at the end of 2021, which should “create a safe environment for the rights of the Syrian refugee in Turkey”.

Building bridges between Turkish and Syrian societies and collaborating with political parties is also important in the eyes of the medical doctor and general coordinator of “Solutions table” collective Mehdi Daoud, who regrets that “all the failures imputable to the economic authorities are currently being blamed on the Syrians.”

Defending children’s rights to education and helping adults to learn the language, he believes, will help improve Syrians’ rights, as 35% of children are still deprived of education according to the Turkish government. His dream is to open a private university, to make knowledge accessible to all.

Taha Elgazi, Ghazwan Koronful and Nesreen Alresh, board chief of the Jana Watan organisation, finally underline the central issue constituted by marriages of underaged women in the Syrian society, who may be prosecuted under Turkish law.

As polygamy is illegal as well, single women marrying religiously Turkish men already committed to a Turkish wife are exposed to the same risk.

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While presenting the research Is Syria Dafe for Return? Returnee’s perspective, a comprehensive report giving a voice to Syrian returnees and evaluating the situation in Northern Syria, Nesreen stresses again the great difficulties that women and youngsters face: “Social violence always has repercussions on women; even when it affects men, they suffer with them. For example, when their husbands get arrested or deported, women find themselves alone, in charge of the whole family.”

Her team visit cities regularly to document violence and reassure victims. She listened to 50 testimonies depicting fights opposing Turkish and Syrian children later escalating into altercations between families.

Some children, she explains, even bring knives to school, leaving Syrian women terrified. “Today, we hear racist words in the mouth of politicians, heads of parties and mayors, when racism should actually be considered a crime under the general law,” she concludes.

Elise Daniaud is a researcher and PhD candidate specialising in Russian-Syrian relations, the Syrian conflict and political discourse analysis.