Turkey’s Deportation Policy Is Killing Syrian Refugees
Ankara once welcomed millions of Syrians as “guests.” Now, as anti-refugee sentiment rises, they are being sent back across the border, where they face danger and death.
“My future is destroyed,” said Hani Hilal, lamenting his deportation order on July 10 from Turkey to northern Syria. The 27-year-old was among the 1,000 Syrian men who recently received deportation orders from the Turkish government. Like many other Syrian refugees, he holds kimlik documents—legal papers guaranteeing his protection.
However, arrests and house raids have recently surged for Syrians living in Turkey, especially Istanbul, where many work. Turkish officials strictly refer to Syrian refugees as “guests,” potentially to sidestep international obligations to protect them. As a result, Syrian refugees are told they are overstaying their welcome.
Once an outspoken activist against the former al Qaeda-affiliated group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Hilal now fears he will face retaliation from the militant group since his deportation to a Turkish-controlled area in northern Syria. He condemned the group for changing “the path of the revolution from aiming for a secular democratic state to an Islamic caliphate.”
Until recently, Hisham Moustafa Steif al-Mohammed worked in a garment factory in Istanbul and lived there with his wife and three children, where he was the only breadwinner. The Turkish police detained the 25-year-old one morning in late May while on his way to work because his kimlik was from another state in Turkey. A few weeks later, on June 15, he found himself on the Bab al-Hawa border crossing station heading to Idlib.
Turkish government officials claim that they are only deporting criminals and people who do not have kimlik papers. Hilal and Mohammed were neither. Hilal says he was threatened, harassed, and beaten after being rounded up alongside other Syrian men, all of them under 35 years old, on a bus in Izmir. He also said he was forced to sign deportation papers after being detained arbitrarily for a week. Hilal is now in an area controlled by Turkish-backed opposition forces in northern Syria, where he feels extremely unsafe. “I am not safe here, even in Turkish-controlled areas, and I can’t leave this house out of fear of al-Nusra and other groups,” Hilal said.
Human Rights Watch has condemned these recent developments, and several Syrians have reported that hundreds of men have been deported summarily, with their legal documents and belongings confiscated. Human Rights Watch documented that they have returned to neighborhoods in northern Aleppo and Idlib, both of which are far from safe.
Idlib continues to be pounded with Russian and Syrian army airstrikes. In July alone, Save the Children found that more children died in Idlib within that month than in all of 2018. On the ground, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham continues to kidnap aid workers, journalists, and activists across opposition areas.
Istanbul’s recent mayoral elections exposed growing intolerance toward Syrian refugees in Turkey. The newly elected mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), followed his landmark victory by describing the refugee situation in Turkey as a “severe trauma.” Imamoglu also mentioned that many Syrians are working unofficially, without noting the hurdles they face to obtain work permits and legal documents.
Syrians in Turkey told Human Rights Watch in 2018 that they were arbitrarily “turned away from registration offices at least twice.” Only three interviewees were able to register after bribing officials with amounts between $300 and $500. Officials would often tell them there were “no more kimliks” to provide.
Anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey is not exclusive to the CHP. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), often seen as sympathetic toward refugees, has also promoted returns, despite the United Nations’ position that Syria is not yet safe. After establishing a northern enclave in Syria along the Turkish border, patrolled by Turkish-backed opposition groups, Erdogan said up to 1 million Syrians would return home. So far, around 6,000 have received deportation orders, according to the official website of one of the main crossing points on the border, Bab al-Hawa.
Syrians have played a significant role in Turkish domestic and foreign policy. A couple of years ago, Turkey had used Syrian refugees as a political bargaining chip in its deal with the European Union. The EU-Turkey deal in 2016 granted Turkey some $7 billion between 2016 and 2019, in addition to what seemed to be a revival of Turkey’s bid for EU membership by granting Turkish citizens visa-free access to Europe.
In exchange, Turkey would act as a border patrol to prevent refugees from migrating to the EU. Since the deal, Turkey has threatened to “open the border gates” for refugees to flee to Europe should the EU not resume discussions about Turkish membership. With Turkey not receiving its end of the deal—the expected visa-free access to the Schengen countries—it appears as though Ankara is abandoning this political venture.
Hilal feels that Turkey’s targeting of young Syrian men is not a coincidence either; he believes they are being sent back to join the ranks of Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups. He says the economic conditions are so dire that this is the only viable option for a stable economic livelihood. Hilal claims that this development resembles a statement by former Ankara Mayor and AKP member Melih Gokcek calling on Syrians to fight in Turkish-backed armed opposition groups. “All of the Syrians who live in Turkey and are under 35 years old should join the military training camps in Turkey and then be sent to the front lines in Syria,” Gokcek wrote on Twitter.
Syrian refugees are facing worsening conditions not just in Turkey but also in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. Jordan hosts over a million Syrian refugees, though most are not registered with the UNHCR. As of March, only about 2 percent of some 680,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan have returned home thus far. While the Jordanian authorities have encouraged Syrians to go back, many in Jordan are reluctant, fearing for their well-being, citing government blacklists, forced conscription for young men, and their lack of shelter. A UNHCR survey indicated that almost 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan do not plan on returning to Syria in the next year.
Jordan closed its borders to Syrian refugees in June 2016, following a car bomb attack that killed six Jordanian security personnel near the Rukban camp for internally displaced people in southeastern Syria. The Jordanian authorities claimed that the Islamic State orchestrated the attack from the other side of the border through Syria.
Most of those living in Rukban are Syrians fleeing from eastern cities and towns taken over by the Islamic State starting in 2014, and Rukban quickly grew into a large informal encampment. However, following the attack, U.N. agencies operating in the Jordanian capital, Amman, no longer were permitted to access to the camp of some 45,000 Syrians seeking asylum next door. Meanwhile, U.N. agencies in Syria also faced restrictions by the Syrian government, which claimed that international aid organizations were violating its sovereignty to fill the gap left by their counterparts across the border.
It wasn’t until November 2018, following negotiations between Syria, Russia, Jordan, and the United States, that a UNHCR aid convoy from Damascus was able to access the camp. After a second convoy arrived the following February, no aid has arrived since. Thousands of people have since fled the camp to government-held areas, due to the dire conditions.
Despite Rukban’s crisis, Jordanian and Syrian authorities agreed to reopen the Nassib border crossing in October 2018, primarily to restore trade. The strategic border crossing is a transit point for billions of dollars’ worth of goods transported across the region. Prior to 2011, almost 17 percent of all of Jordan’s exports went through the Nassib crossing. The strategic border crossing and its surrounding free trade zone was at one point controlled and used to generate revenue by opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Lebanon has also taken steps toward restoring economic ties with Syria. The Lebanese government estimates that there are a total of around 1.5 million refugees, and their numbers often change. Though Lebanese officials have discussed implementing what is often described as “safe”—but not explicitly voluntary—refugee returns since 2016, it was not until late 2017 that Lebanon’s General Security Directorate arranged self-described voluntary returns for Syrian refugees. According to the directorate, only around 170,000 have returned since.
In April, Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council, a military-run body, decided to demolish all semipermanent refugee structures; structures made of material other than wood or plastic above a certain height were to be destroyed starting with the northeastern border town of Arsal. Despite pleas from humanitarian organizations, the demolitions went through in July without any guarantee of alternative housing. Up to 15,000 Syrian refugees were rendered homeless—up to 9,000 of them children.
Donor fatigue continues to worsen, further limiting the UNHCR and other aid groups in their work. In 2018, the UNHCR was only able to receive 45 percent of its funding needs for Lebanon alone.
Governments that previously supported the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria have suddenly resumed diplomatic relations. Syria was thrown out of the Arab League after the onset of the uprising in 2011, but it appears that most Arab states were looking to readmit it in 2019. Last March, in a joint press conference with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Emirati minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, praised Russia for its “uncompromising fight against terrorism” and expressed his hope to “ensure that Syria returns to the Arab region.” Even Assad himself boasted in an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper that ties are being rekindled regionally and globally.
As Turkey deports Syrians and Arab leaders warm to Assad, those who fled his regime have been left out to dry. Syrian refugees were once seen as a humanitarian problem but they are now regarded as a political one—as investments shift from aid organizations toward restoring economic ties with the Syrian government. Many countries are now simply turning a blind eye to human rights and the protection of Syrian refugees and civilians.
Though his safety and economic well-being hang in the balance, Hilal vows to never take up arms but feels that most others will do so out of necessity. “You either enlist with the regime’s army or with opposition forces,” Hilal said. “This is the future of the young men who are returning.”
Mohammed tried to cross back to his family many times during the month following his deportation, but he failed each time. This week, on Aug. 5, the 25-year-old was killed by a Turkish sniper near the Syrian-Turkish border.
Update, Aug. 12, 2019: This article has been updated to include Hisham Moustafa Steif al-Mohammed’s full name and to clarify the sources of return numbers.
Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese journalist and researcher based in Beirut. His work focuses on human rights, inequality, and vulnerable communities. He has written for Al Jazeera English, CityLab, the Los Angeles Times, Middle East Eye, and other platforms. Twitter: @chehayebk