As 1,000 Syrians arrested in Turkey, crackdown fears intensify
Refugees tell Al Jazeera why they worry about being returned to the Turkish province they arrived in, or worse, Idlib.
Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities
Sitting in an inner-city Istanbul park, Ahmad* was enjoying music and the company of his friends, until someone spotted police walking over.
His heart started racing, though calmly he stood up and started walking away, between the trees and out through the park’s gates.
He sat for a moment to gather himself and work out his next steps. By this stage he was overcome with fear.
This state of panic has become the norm for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who call Istanbul home, since the Turkish government announced a crackdown on unregistered migrants in the city.
Since July 12, Turkish authorities have arrested at least 6,000 unregistered migrants in Istanbul, including 1,000 Syrians, according to Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.
Around one million Syrians live in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, though only 547,479 are registered in the metropolis.
If I was sent back to Damascus it would be so dangerous for me, my life would be done.
Of the remaining Syrians, around 350,000 are registered with temporary protection in other cities within Turkey, and roughly 100,000 are unregistered, according to figures from the Migrant Solidarity Association.
For refugees like Ahmad, who fled Syria in 2015 after being imprisoned for participating in protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the current situation in Istanbul reminds him of Syria.
He told Al Jazeera he was heavily traumatised by Syrian police, always having to hide from them during the revolution.
“Now I feel exactly like I did in Syria, trying to go as far from the police as I can,” Ahmad said.
The governor of Istanbul issued a statement recently declaring that all Syrians who are unregistered in the city have until August 20 to return to the province they first registered in.
For those unregistered anywhere in Turkey it read: “Irregular migrants entering our country illegally are arrested and deported.”
Ahmad worries that he could be arrested in Istanbul, seeing as he is registered in Bolu, four hours towards Ankara.
“I went downstairs just to buy something from the market an hour ago, and I was really afraid that there were police and they will ask me for my ID,” he told Al Jazeera.
Interior Minister Soylu’s statement on Turkish NTV last week led to further confusion and fear.
“When we catch unregistered Syrians, we send them to camps,” Soylu said. “We will continue to take steps to maintain order … we are running a huge operation, no other country in the world could cope.”
The crackdown in Turkey comes as Syrians in Lebanon, which hosts about 1.5 million refugees from the war-torn country, report increased raids and the threat of deportations.
Of the nearly four million Syrians in Turkey since the outbreak of the war, none have been granted refugee status due to Turkey’s exception to the Geneva Conventions.
Instead, in the first few years of the influx, temporary protection status was offered, with only limited rights and no freedom to move between cities.
At the end of 2017, Turkey stopped registering Syrians in 10 provinces including Istanbul, leaving people like 23-year-old Hassan* most vulnerable.
Hassan fled his home in Damascus in November 2014, taking a ship from Tartus to Mersin in the east of Turkey, then travelled to Istanbul.
“I stood in front of a choice, I should go to war, and be forced to fight next to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad or run away from the country,” Hassan told Al Jazeera.
At the time Hassan came to Istanbul, showing his Syrian passport to police at checkpoints in the city was enough to satisfy the authorities.
Since moving he has worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, which made it too difficult for him to attend appointments to apply for temporary protection.
He also did not see the protection as any benefit to him. Healthcare was not offered, Syrians could not open bank accounts, buy sim cards or rent a house in their name.
Hassan said he needs to stay in Istanbul and continue his job making leather goods in order to provide for his family back in Damascus.
“When the government started to crack down, I felt really worried, I feel stuck and I can’t do anything about this,” Hassan said.
“I can’t leave Istanbul, I can’t find other work in another city. I can’t just move from here.”
Since the authorities started arresting Syrians, Hassan has taken taxis to and from the metro after work because he is too afraid to walk home.
“It’s expensive for me, I can’t do it long term.
He pays 50TL (US$9) each day just in taxis and fears the situation will worsen after August 20.
Migrant Solidarity Association Project Coordinator, Erhan Kelesoglu, told Al Jazeera Syrians moved to Istanbul in order to secure livelihoods.
“They cannot have a living [in smaller cities] so they are travelling to big cities where they cannot get registered,” Kelesoglu said.
Mohammed*, from Damascus, arrived in Istanbul aged 18 and has made friends, making it difficult for him to move from the city.
He is registered in Sanlıurfa in the east of Turkey, but moved quickly to Istanbul to find better-paid work.
“The biggest thing I would miss is my friends and places like Kadikoy. I really feel free there,” Mohammed said, referring to a progressive district of Istanbul.
“The most important thing for me is friends.”
You cannot deport people to conflict areas … even if they are unregistered.
Ahmad also pointed to his friendship circle as one of the main reasons he needs to stay in Istanbul.
“There’s so many people here, every day you’ll meet new people. We need human connection right now to survive.”
Accounts of Syrians being deported to places like Idlib in Syria have surfaced, spreading further fear into the community.
Turkish Deputy Interior Minister Ismail Catakli has said that Syrians who entered irregularly would be deported.
But many of those who have ended up in Idlib province, where fighting is ongoing, claim to have been registered under temporary protection.
Syria TV reported 4,380 people have been deported from Turkey since the beginning of the month, according to the Director of Public Relations and Media at Bab al-Hawa crossing with Syria.
The Syrian Association Forum has reacted by collecting a database of names of those who have been deported.
Kelesoglu said this process is strictly against the rules of non-refoulement under the Geneva Conventions.
“You cannot deport people to conflict areas … even if they are unregistered,” Kelesoglu said.
The Turkish government is allegedly circumventing this by having people sign a voluntary deportation form, as Syrians and rights groups claim they are being forced to sign against their will.
Hassan said some of his friends have been deported this way, being threatened with jail unless they sign.
“If I was sent back to Damascus it would be so dangerous for me,” said Hassan. “My life would be done.”