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A fading dream: Turkey ‘no longer a safe haven’ for Syrians, citizens and refugees alike

Some Syrians in Turkey have built their dreams on the idea of getting citizenship to build a future and a life there. Amid skyrocketing anti-Syrian sentiment, the promise of that dream is slipping away, even for those who achieved it

12 August 2022

PARIS — In Turkey, which has seen unprecedented and escalating anti-Syrian political rhetoric and incidents of discrimination for months, no sooner has the memory of the latest incident faded than yet another rises to the forefront. 

When asked about the fate of Syrian refugees in Turkey during a visit to Adana on August 7, Turkish Minister of Derya Yanık, said that “after 2023, none of them will be left” in the event that Ankara “prevents the establishment of a terrorist state in its cross-border operation.” She was referring to a military operation targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier this year. 

Yanık’s words sparked a large response from Syrians on social media, as they went beyond Ankara’s previous statements that it plans to return one million out of a total 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to their country through “voluntary return.”

On a popular level, a few weeks earlier a video went viral showing a 17-year-old Syrian student, Ahmed Kanjo, facing verbal attacks during an on-the-street interview with a Turkish television channel on July 19. In the video, Kanjo tries to clarify misperceptions about Syrian refugees to Turkish bystanders, including one woman who says “citizenship isn’t bought and sold,” in an apparent reference to the naturalization of Syrians as Turkish citizens. 

These recent events highlight a sentiment expressed by many Syrians in the country that they feel “rejected,” and that “hatred” towards them is more than incidents exaggerated by the media. Even some who hold Turkish citizenship feel this way. Citizenship “is no longer a safe haven for us,” said Ahmad Bakr, a 25-year-old from Idlib province who became a Turkish citizen alongside his parents four years ago. 

Bakr is one of more than 200,000 Syrians who hold Turkish citizenship as of March 2022, according to Turkish Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu.

Syrians in Turkey—naturalized citizens and refugees alike—are facing escalating racist discourse and attacks, including racially motivated murders. At the same time, Ankara is changing its policy towards Syrian asylum, amid political sparring between the ruling party and its opponents. Both sides are using Syrians as a wedge issue in the upcoming elections, scheduled for June 2023. 

The future of Bakr’s family in Turkey is tied to “the results of the upcoming presidential elections,” he told Syria Direct. If the opposition, which has adopted anti-Syrian rhetoric in recent years, wins, the family intends to “leave Turkey, and look for somewhere else,” Bakr said.

‘Citizenship can’t change how we’re seen’

For several months now, Turkey has seen “acute and early political polarization between the parties wishing to come to power,” said Issa al-Karim (a pseudonym), a Syrian citizen of Turkey who works at a Syrian humanitarian organization in Ankara. As election day approaches, he expects polarization will “escalate.”

Al-Karim and his family became Turkish citizens three years ago. They are originally from Aleppo city. Gaining citizenship was a positive turning point, and made him feel “more stable,” he told Syria Direct. But today, al-Karim is looking towards “an uncertain future” ahead of the elections, which he called “pivotal” for Syrians. 

He linked Turkey’s political polarization to several racist situations he and his family experienced in recent months. Al-Karim said he heard racist remarks from some teachers and administrators at his children’s school while dropping them off, and that the school excluded “students of Syrian origin from the class photo—it was limited to native Turks only.” 

In June, he went to open a bank account in Ankara. As soon as he showed his Turkish ID, he said the employee told him “The place of birth is Aleppo. It isn’t possible to open an account for you.” He replied “‘I’m a Turkish citizen,’ but that didn’t change anything,” al-Karim recalled. Later, he was able to open an account with the same bank online. “The employee was racist, there was no problem with the transaction.”

Having Turkish citizenship functionally protects al-Karim, but “on the ground, I’m treated as a Syrian,” he said. “Racism in Turkey has become like a torrential flood—you can’t stand and face this flood.” 

Repeated incidents of discrimination that he and other Syrians have experienced has made al-Karim and his family withdraw into themselves. “We’ve started to prefer not to come into contact with Turkish people, to avoid any provocative, racist situation,” he said. When he does come in contact or has to identify himself, “I say I’m Jordanian or Emirati, so the treatment is different than if I said I’m from Syria.” 

Dealing with anti-Syrian situations in government transactions is different from being out on the street, as it depends on “the employee’s racism,” he said. Still, to avoid any situation similar to what happened at the bank, he does any governmental procedures online, unless he must appear in person. 

Bakr, who studies journalism at a university in Ankara, limits his friendships at school. When meeting new people, “I don’t engage with political discussions or irrational questions, especially if they’re related to the Syrian refugee issue,” he said. Even so, he has faced “provocative” situations, as he described them, including when he says one Turkish student asked him disapprovingly: “‘Are you thinking of going back? There are people who go back. Why don’t you go back?’” Bakr remembers responding, “this is a personal decision, and I’m Turkish by citizenship.”

“Legally, I’m a Turkish citizen. But socially, Turkish citizenship can’t change how we’re seen,” Bakr said. “Any public employee can treat you as a refugee and a foreigner, “ and although “our legal status is good, it doesn’t dispel our fears of the street.” 

Celal Demir, a Turkish writer who follows Syrian refugee issues, said what Syrians and other foreigners face in Turkey cannot fully be included under the term “racism.” He said “there is a mixture of racism and situations of injustice, insult and violating rights,” which sometimes take place within a single group.

As for racism against Syrians, Demir accused “specific parties from the Turkish opposition, [that] are trying to manufacture an agenda to use this issue for political purposes.” But despite repeated racist incidents, “the entire society cannot be described as racist and hating Syrians,” he said. “There is a certain segment [of society], and their main target is the Turkish government and the Justice [and Development Party (AKP)], before Syrians.” 

‘Our lives are on hold’

Since the beginning of the wave of asylum in Turkey since 2011, Syrian students have received administrative and financial incentives to enroll in Turkish universities. These included Syrians being exempted from university fees and treated as Turkish citizens. But in recent years, this situation has changed, after the fee exemption was canceled for new students and tuition was gradually raised at a number of Turkish universities.

Three years ago, Saif Abdulhamid arrived in Turkey on a government scholarship to complete a master’s degree in the capital city of Ankara. At the time, Turkey was “the best and easiest option, compared with neighboring countries, in terms of the availability of scholarships for Syrian students,” he told Syria Direct. He planned to “complete my education, get a doctorate and obtain citizenship, hoping to preserve my dignity and ensure the freedom to live and travel.” 

Abdulhamid’s scholarship has not been affected, but since the beginning of the year, he has started to feel that “the dream is slipping away,” he said. “Hardly a day goes by at the university, in the street or on [public] transportation without a racist situation, or a look of contempt at the very least.” 

“Our lives are on hold,” Abdulhamid said. He, too, is waiting for the 2023 election results. In the worst case scenario, he will look for “a smuggling route to Europe.” 

Like Abdulhamid, Rania al-Issa (a pseudonym) received a Turkish government scholarship to complete a doctorate in 2018. She made friends quickly, but over the past four years discussions about politics and Syrians left her feeling unwanted.

The “biggest shock” for her, though, was at the university. Al-Issa “noticed a change in how the professors treated me at the university—it wasn’t how they treated an Arab friend of mine, of another nationality.” Often, her conversations with professors would veer into talking “about Syria, the war and the right to stay” in Turkey. 

Legally, al-Issa is in Turkey as a student, and she has a student residency permit. But at the same time, she is a refugee, and cannot return to her country for fear of the security forces, like hundreds of thousands of refugee students in Turkey. After she arrived, al-Issa became involved in media work with media opposed to the regime under her real name. 

Her experience in recent years left al-Issa with “a negative reaction,” she said. “I integrated with the Turks, to the extent of following how they dress and wear hijab.” But now, “I’ve started to show what sets me apart as a Syrian, regardless of the consequences.” 

Before the current wave of anti-Syrian sentiment, al-Issa built her dreams on “Turkish citizenship, to bring me success and stability.” But in truth, “Turkey is not a stable place for me,” she said. She believes some Syrians currently trying to obtain citizenship “are doing it in the hope of making it easier to leave Turkey, not stay in it.” 

Three of al-Issa’s who received advanced professional degrees from Turkish universities, including a newly graduated doctor, recently “left in the space of a month, because they didn’t feel accepted by society,” she said. 

‘Government inaction’

Continued racism and incitement against Syrians in Turkey, as well as the Turkish government’s changing attitude towards refugees, has impacted Syrian’s real or perceived ability to access justice or make legal complaints in the event of discriminatory or criminal incidents. 

After 10 years in Turkey, Salam al-Abdullah, 27, worries that, after the past two years “the law no longer protects me, and I can’t demand my most basic rights.” If she were to file a legal complaint, she fears it could cost her “immediate deportation to the north” of Syria.. 

Turkey allocates specific license plates for non-Turkish residents, with the letter “M” as an abbreviation for the word “misafir,” or “guest.” Due to this visible status, al-Abdullah worries that if she were to get into an accident with a car belonging to a Turkish citizen, “the policeman could shrug it off or the Turkish person could leave [the scene] when he sees the car with an M.” 

Ghazwan Koronfol, a Syrian lawyer in Turkey and the President of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, said the best solution for anyone who encounters a situation of racism or any another issue, “is to file a complaint with the public prosecutor directly, and not to turn to the police departments.” If a complaint is filed directly with the prosecutor “accompanied by evidence, it must file suit against the defendant,” he explained. 

It is important to do so due to “government inaction in many incidents [of racist practices] that should have been confronted,” Koronfol said. 

Turkish writer Demir agreed, saying “there is governmental inaction and negligence in applying the law against those who take racist actions.” However, “this doesn’t mean the government has changed its position in support of Syrians,” he said. 

Demir said “some incidents that have been raised [in the media] have been exaggerated.” He accused some of “trying to inflate the issue and create an image that Turkey is unsafe, and that any Syrian who goes to the migration department is subject to arrest,” citing the June 30 arrest of Syrian journalist Radwan Hindawi in Istanbul. 

Syrian media reported at the time that Turkish authorities intended to deport Hindawi to Syria after he went to the migration department to update his personal information. But the actual story, Demir said, was that Hindawi had a security issue. “In any country in the world, when you go to a security body or immigration office and you have an issue, you’re arrested for investigation before you’re released, which is what happened with Radwan.” 

In contrast with what happened to Hindawi, who was released after his arrest, Turkish authorities conduct continuous security campaigns against Syrians who are in violation of residency laws. Those arrested end up deported to northwestern Syria. This practice increases Syrians’ sense of panic and fear of deportation, especially since there are cases of people with valid Turkish documents being deported. 

For that reason, Koronfol called on Syrians in Turkey to look for another place to go, “not wait for their inevitable fate of deportation and waste their time and health by working 12 hours a day in exchange for an income that does not build their future.” For Syrians who have Turkish citizenship, too, “their opportunity to work and secure a good future here is limited,” he said, expressing concerns that more than the stated one million refugees could be pressured to return to Syria. 

Facing her own uncertain future in Turkey, al-Abdullah asks herself a set of questions every day. “What will happen tomorrow? Will I have a house to live in or a job here? Will I stay here? Or will I leave?”


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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