Syrian travelers leave a bus at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and northwestern Syria, 6/7/2021 (Syria Direct)
PARIS — The Turkish government’s decision this month to prevent Syrians living within its borders from traveling to Syria for the Eid al-Fitr holiday as in previous years came as a shock to Mouaffaq al-Naal. The 60-year-old, displaced from East Ghouta and living in Azaz city in the northern Aleppo countryside, had been eagerly anticipating seeing his two sons, after three years of separation.
Al-Naal, his wife and six children, were displaced from Douma city in Reef Dimashq in April 2018 alongside thousands of civilians and opposition fighters who refused “reconciliation” agreements that saw rebel enclaves outside of Damascus returned to government control.
After spending a year in northwestern Syria, two of al-Naal’s sons left for Turkey “because of the deteriorating security situation and lack of job opportunities,” he told Syria Direct. Since they left, neither has been able to visit their family.
In 2019, “I didn’t hold a temporary protection card (Kimlik),” said Emad al-Naal, one of the sons in Turkey. Holding a Kimlik is required for refugees living in Turkey to visit their family members in northwestern Syria during Eid. Then, Turkey closed its border with Syria between March 2020 and July 2021 as a measure to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the border reopened, Emad, 27, did not apply to visit Syria during Eid al-Adha last July “for fear of Turkey reimposing the ban and closing the crossings again.”
So when Turkey opened registrations in late March for Syrians to make holiday visits during Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan that falls in the beginning of May this year, Emad and his brother made up their minds to spend it with their displaced family in northern Aleppo. Their hopes were dashed on April 22, when Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu stated that back-and-forth holiday visits for Syrian refugees would be canceled, telling a Turkish news channel that “they can go to the safe zone and stay there.”
Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior exempted two categories of Syrians from the decision: those with permission to attend a funeral, and those making a final return to Syria.
Since 2014, the Turkish government has allowed Syrian refugees living in its territory to spend the Eid holidays in their home country, under specific conditions that vary from year to year. This year, before visits were canceled, they were restricted to Syrians holding an updated Kimlik card. Earlier this year, Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management canceled thousands of Syrians’ Kimliks, requiring that they update information such as their current place of residence in order to reactivate them.
The Ankara-backed Syrian opposition-controlled Bab al-Salama border crossing between Turkey and northern Aleppo announced on April 20 that the entry of refugees was suspended “until further notice.” By that time, 3,150 Syrians had already crossed for holiday visits.
The Turkish government’s decision to cancel Eid al-Fitr visits for Syrians came in line with the rhetoric of local opposition parties opposed to the presence of Syrian refugees and the holiday visits. It also matched “the positive reaction from the Turkish people and their large support for the rhetoric of Turkish opposition parties, such as the Victory Party, Good Party, and Nationalist Movement Party [MHP],” according to Turkish writer and journalist Hisham Günay.
These parties have used the issue of Syrian refugees in their political platforms, stressing the need to return them to their country. In response, large parties “such as the Justice and Development Party [AKP] and Republican [People’s] Party [CHP]” have been forced “to make similar statements with the aim of reassuring Turkish public opinion,” Günay told Syria Direct.
This dynamic was evident in remarks made by Interior Minister Soylu to Turkish media on April 19 that Ankara was considering restricting visits to Syria during this Eid and the coming Eid al-Adha in July. Soylu’s statement followed a speech by the Chairman of the MHP, Devlet Bahçeli, in a parliamentary meeting the same day saying that “there is no need for Syrians who go to spend the Eid holiday in Syria to return to Turkey.”
In turn, the leader of the CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said his party would work to send refugees back to their country while ensuring the safety of their lives and property if he came to power. Soylu called Kılıçdaroğlu’s remarks “a provocative approach to inflame xenophobia in Turkey.”
But it was the statements by Bahçeli, who leads the ruling AKP party’s partner within the People’s Alliance, that marked a “major turning point,” according to refugee rights activist Taha al-Ghazi. Bahçeli’s remarks “affected the rhetoric of Turkish parties this year unlike previous years,” he told Syria Direct, and also impacted “the Turkish Interior Ministry’s decision regarding the Eid visit.”
More than at any time in the past, the rhetoric of Turkish opposition parties holds “great danger to Syrians,” according to lawyer Ghazwan Koronful, head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association in Turkey, as it “comes within a frenzied context of exploiting the issue of refugees in the hope of winning votes in the 2023 elections.”
The intervention of Turkish opposition parties, which call for Syrians to go back to their country, may also come from the starting point that “the Eid holiday is not a legal right for refugees in Turkey,” Koronful said. “International laws on asylum do not permit a refugee, or those under protection, to go to the country from which they fled in search of a safe place.”
Koronful said that allowing Syrian refugees to visit their country “was a mistake and it has been retracted.” He warned that preventing the return of refugees who already entered Syria for Eid to Turkey before the visits were canceled “does not contradict the law, because they chose to go to their country, which is a waiver of the right to protection.”
Speaking to that, Günay stressed the need to draft a law to ensure that Syrians remain in Turkey, noting that remaining under the designation of temporary protection “will not protect them from possible repatriation.”
The future of Syrian asylum
Syrian lawyer Koronful said the issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey is headed in one direction: “returning them to their country.” By the time of Turkey’s presidential elections in 2023, he expects “1-1.5 million Syrian refugees will be deported from Turkey.”
Returning Syrians, in his view, will not take the form of “forced deportation,” but cannot be taken out of the context of deportation. Turkey, “across the board, will not allow 4 million refugees to remain in its territory,” Koronful said. “It may allow one million Syrians in the years to come, at best.” Turkey currently hosts 3,763,000 Syrian refugees, according to the latest UNHCR figures.
“The upcoming Turkish presidential elections will determine the fate of Syrian refugees living in its territory,” Günay said. Voters “will wait for the opposition parties to carry out the promises they have made to return refugees if those parties win a high percentage of the votes.” Turkish political parties, including the ruling AKP, have used refugees as leverage in past presidential and municipal elections.
Syrian refugees have found themselves “between the hammer of hate speech and racism from some Turkish opposition parties and the anvil of arbitrary decisions imposed by the Turkish government,” according to activist al-Ghazi. The current stage is the most critical for Syrians in Turkey, he said, since all parties are working seriously “to retain the popular support base before the elections.”
On that basis, “the power alliance between the AKP and MHP may sacrifice the Syrian refugees file, even if only partially, in order to retain their percentage of votes in the next stage,” al-Ghazi said.
However, the features of recent Turkish policy towards Syrians are not a departure from the regional framework. There is “a repositioning by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and these countries are rewriting their new policies from the perspective that the Syrian regime remains and must be reintegrated into the Arab community and its regional surroundings” until it is presented to the international community, “which has no problem with what is happening,” Koronful said.
That reading corresponds with statements by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, on April 22, in which he said that his country had started a project to return Syrians in the coming period alongside four other countries, while ensuring the safety of Syrians first.
Apprehension and disappointment
On April 19, 27-year-old Haitham al-Najjar entered Syria through the Bab al-Salama crossing to spend the Eid vacation there, after being unable to “visit the graves of my parents and brother for two years because of the coronavirus pandemic,” he told Syria Direct. On the first day of Eid, Syrian Muslims traditionally visit the graves of their loved ones to leave flowers and pray for the dead.
Since arriving in Turkey in 2017, al-Najjar—who is originally from the northern Aleppo countryside town of Marea—was accustomed to spending the Eid holidays in Syria. But this year, after crossing the border, the issue of Syrians visiting their country came up in Turkey.
Al-Najjar, a second-year teaching student at Siirt University in Turkey, worries that Syrians like him who have entered the country already will not be allowed to return. This would mean “losing my studies, after I have come a long way in them,” he said. But other than that, there is nothing making him hold on to the country, as “nothing in Turkey is ours, not even the air we breathe.”
In turn, 22-year-old Abdulrahman Abu Abadah said he was disappointed by the decision to cancel the Eid holiday visits. He had planned to visit his family, displaced in 2018 from the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar to Afrin, and to be “close to my father during an operation to remove shell fragments he was wounded by in a previous bombing in Ghouta,” he told Syria Direct.
Abu Abadah has always felt close to his family living in northern Syria, and visited them during the Eid al-Adha holiday last year. But with visit permits for Syrians canceled and Turkey tightening measures for Syrians living in its territory, “the thought of emigrating became logical,” he said.
Emad al-Naal thinks similarly. Returning to Syria and settling there is “not possible in the current circumstances,” in his view, and with the latest decisions making it difficult to visit his family, “I started thinking about emigrating,” he said.
Amid a change in Turkish policy that portends a worse future for Syrian refugees in the country, activist al-Ghazi called for “concerted efforts by institutions, organizations and Syrian cultural elites to limit the consequences of what will happen to Syrians in the coming stage.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.