Turkey has extended a deadline for unregistered Syrian refugees in Istanbul to leave the country’s largest city by more than two months.
The announcement of the new October 30 deadline by interior minister Suleyman Soylu came late on Tuesday, the day that had initially been set for Syrians in Istanbul to return to the provinces in which they were first registered upon arriving in the country.
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Speaking to foreign journalists in Istanbul on Wednesday, Soylu also said that Syrians studying in the city – some 2,600 people – would be exempt from the order, along with their families.
Owners of active businesses, taxpayers or employees registered under Social Security Institution (SGK) would also be allowed to stay.
The exemption also includes Syrians with serious health conditions who need to be treated in Istanbul and some split families, depending on certain conditions.
Istanbul authorities insist the city cannot accept any more refugees and demand they return to other areas of the country or face deportation.
In previous weeks, Turkish authorities detained thousands of unregistered refugees and migrants in Istanbul, including Syrians.
The city, Turkey’s most populous, already hosts the largest number of registered Syrians, nearly 548,000, out of 3.6 million Syrian refugees and migrants who have found a home in Turkey after fleeing violence and civil war.
But according to Al Jazeera’s Istanbul-based correspondent Sinem Koseoglu, more than a million Syrians are estimated to be living in the city.
Syrian businesses have been affected by the authorities’ decision, refugees in the city told Al Jazeera, many of whom say they were caught unprepared by the deadline set by the Istanbul governor’s office last month.
Syrians in Turkey have been offered “temporary protection” which, unlike full refugee status, does not provide complete legal protection.
While many refugees remain in the Turkish provinces bordering Syria, many others moved to Istanbul in search of work. They largely subsist in a shadow economy and form the cheapest labour force in the city.
Soylu also said Syrians in Turkey return to Syria only if they voluntarily want to leave.
Asked about accusations of forcing Syrians to sign a voluntary return document, the minister said it was impossible as the process was physically monitored by a member of the United Nations refugee agency, a Red Crescent member or another non-governmental organisation member assigned by Turkish authorities.
He also said unregistered migrants and refugees in the capital Ankara and Bursa, cities which were also overpopulated, faced the same procedure as Istanbul.