Syrian refugees in Turkey face return to quake-stricken areas
Government directives issued after the earthquakes allow refugees in affected provinces to move around, but only for a limited time.
After earthquakes destroyed her home, Raghad fled Antakya in southern Turkey, a city she had called home for the past three years.
The 26-year-old Syrian refugee lived there with her four younger sisters, mother and four-year-old nephew after her father disappeared during the Syrian civil war. When the quakes hit on February 6, she took it upon herself to deliver her family to safety.
Wearing nothing but her pyjamas, Raghad guided her family through the cold night until she persuaded a bus driver to take 2,000 lira ($106) to drive them to Istanbul, the only place where they have extended family.
After a 17-hour journey on snow-covered and damaged roads, they are temporarily safe in Istanbul with the support of Raghad’s uncle and fiancé. But due to a government directive issued immediately after the earthquakes, Raghad faces the possibility of being forced to return to Antakya within two months.
“We have nowhere to go,” Raghad told Al Jazeera. “Our home’s been levelled to the ground. If we go back, we’ll be on the streets or in a tent.”
Raghad said everything she and her family owned was lost in a matter of seconds during the quakes. Gone was the inheritance money from her grandfather, her education certificates, passport and what she considered her most valuable possession – the white dress she planned to wear for her wedding in March.
“I’d only received it the night before,” she said. “I saw it hanging on the closet door as the walls started to crumble around us.”
According to government estimates, more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees lived in the 10 southern Turkish provinces devastated by this month’s earthquakes.
Like Raghad’s family, most rely on temporary or international protection status, which confines them to the provinces where they are registered residents. Until the earthquakes hit, they could not travel to other provinces without authorisation.
The day after the earthquakes, Turkish authorities issued a directive allowing refugees in the 10 provinces to travel to other cities or provinces, except Istanbul, for up to 90 days if they could secure their own accommodation.
But after many refugees fled to Istanbul in the first days following the quakes, the Directorate General of Migration Management revised its decision on a case-by-case basis, allowing families who had already arrived in the metropolis to stay for up to 60 days.
On February 13, the Ministry of Interior issued a second directive, giving people under international or temporary protection living in any of the five worst-hit provinces – Kahramanmaras, Hatay, Gaziantep, Adiyaman and Malatya – a 60-day exemption to travel to other provinces without seeking permission.
Upon arriving in another province, they are expected to apply at the Directorate General of Migration Management for a 60-day permit to stay there. Those in the other five quake-stricken provinces – Adana, Osmaniye, Sanliurfa, Kilis and Diyarbakir – must seek a travel permit before leaving.
It remains to be seen if the second directive overrides the first, and multiple attempts by Al Jazeera to seek clarification from authorities went unanswered.
Paal Nesse, secretary general of the Norwegian Organisation of Asylum Seekers, said that when a person has been granted refugee status in a European country, “they should be able to move freely inside that country.”
“Turkey has some shortcomings in their legal systems as compared to other countries that have ratified the refugee convention without reservation,” he said. “Turkey’s interpretation of the refugee convention has placed limits based on geography – only Europeans in Turkey have the full right to seek asylum, but Turkey made an exception for Syrians, allowing them to become refugees once they are registered.”
He added that Turkey’s decision on the movement restrictions was possibly related to the economic difficulties facing the country. “It may have been a way to limit the number of refugees drifting to Istanbul and other big cities,” he said.
Syrian activists and human rights organisations have denounced the government directives as “inhumane” and “unrealistic”, saying refugee families would be unable to rebuild their lives in southern Turkey in such a short time.
“This 60- to 90-day respite is not realistic because no long-term solutions will be in place by then,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch.
“These [decisions] are temporary stopgaps to a massive internal displacement,” she said. “There is currently no safe housing, a lack of infrastructure and greatly reduced employment in the quake-stricken provinces.”
Sinclair-Webb called on the Turkish government to devise a “more sustainable, long-term policy that respects people’s rights to establish stable living situations with access to education and employment to sustain and rebuild their lives”.
Taha Elgazi, a Syrian activist working on refugee rights in Turkey, called the decision “arbitrary and inhumane”.
“What are Syrian refugees going to return to? Piles of rubble?” he asked.
‘Facilitation’ not restriction
According to Enas Al-Najjar, a Syrian member and director of communications for the Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee, the directives were an initial response taken to help Syrian refugees affected by the quakes move and travel.
The committee, which was created in 2019 on behalf of the Turkish interior ministry and the opposition Syrian National Coalition, includes the Turkish deputy interior minister and head of the Directorate General of Migration Management, Al-Najjar said.
“These criticisms are a surprise to me,” she said. “We [members of the committee] requested this permit. The idea was to ensure that no one is left on the streets – a means to facilitate people’s travel to areas where they had families.”
She said they called for the decision after Syrian refugees reached out to the committee on the first night of the earthquakes, complaining that they were unable to leave through airports and bus stations.
She added that the decisions were only “an initial plan” to respond to an overwhelming situation and a huge demand for accommodation after the quakes.
“We were trying to find quick solutions,” Al-Najjar said. “We are yet to see what will happen after three months, especially that reconstruction will take a year. These directives might be renewed.”
In addition to calling for an extension to the 60- or 90-day exemption period to at least a year, Elgazi also raised the alarm on a government-imposed quota limiting foreign residence permits to 25 percent of the population in specific neighbourhoods.
When this law rolled out in July, the interior ministry effectively shut off at least 1,200 neighbourhoods across the country to foreigners wanting to move there, Elgazi said.
“This [the quota] is the biggest immediate challenge facing Syrian refugees displaced from southern Turkey,” Elgazi said.
“If they end up in neighbourhoods closed off to foreigners because their families are there, they won’t be able to get residency permits,” he said. “This will, in turn, cut off their access to social and public services, including education and healthcare.”
Al-Najjar said the quota has been put on temporary hold, allowing people affected by the quakes to live wherever they have family.
“However, they can’t transfer their residency to those neighbourhoods, so the worry is after three months, what will they do,” she told Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera phoned and emailed questions to officials at the Directorate General of Migration Management and the Ministry of Interior for comment but has not received a response.
Growing anti-Syrian sentiment
Ankara says it has spent more than $40bn to accommodate Syrian refugees who have crossed the border into Turkey since the civil war erupted in their country in 2011. Most Turkish citizens welcomed Syrian refugees into their country as Turkey became the host of the world’s largest refugee population.
But a financial crisis and economic decline in recent years have fuelled anger and public discontent over the nearly four million Syrian refugees who are seen by some Turkish citizens as competition for jobs.
Since claims spread that Syrians had robbed and looted in the aftermath of the earthquakes, resentment towards Syrians in Turkey has grown over the past week. Anti-Syrian slogans have resurfaced on Turkish social media, and far-right politicians have resumed calling for their deportation.
With anti-immigrant sentiment piling pressure on the Turkish government ahead of May’s general election, Elgazi expects the situation to get even more challenging for Syrian refugees over the next six months.
“The situation that has unfolded since the earthquake and rising anti-Syrian rhetoric will only push refugee families to return to Syria or migrate to Europe,” he warned. Hundreds of Syrian families who survived the earthquakes have already crossed the border back into war-torn Syria.
For Raghad, making plans for her family seems impossible. Even though they have experienced upheaval dozens of times due to the war in Syria, this time feels the hardest.
“Every time we’ve been displaced before, I still had a sense of what to expect,” she told Al Jazeera. “But this time, I have no idea what’s next.”