ISTANBUL — On December 6, 2022, police raided Ammar al-Shalabi’s home in the Kahramankazan district northwest of the Turkish capital, Ankara. Within 48 hours, he and his entire family were deported to northwestern Syria—expelled so quickly that he had no time to settle his affairs in Turkey, leaving some “unresolved until now,” he said.
Deportations of Syrian refugees from Turkey made headlines in 2023, particularly during the run-up to the country’s presidential elections in May. Refugees became a wedge issue for the competing candidates: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who won reelection, and challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Although at a slower pace than at the time of last year’s elections, Syrian refugees are still being forcibly expelled from Turkey, and the challenges they face do not end when they find themselves back in northern Syria. In addition to facing security risks in the area, they struggle to manage properties or settle accounts they were forced to leave behind in Turkey.
From transferring ownership of their cars to shutting down businesses and wrapping up financial transactions, deported Syrians are left with few options. Ultimately, many are forced to relinquish their property for extremely low prices, while paying large sums of money to lawyers or brokers in order to do so.
Protecting or transferring rights
More than a year after al-Shalabi and his family were deported—alongside 20 other families—he has not been able to sell or rent his car, which remains in Turkey. He hired a lawyer as soon as he was arrested in 2022, but she “could not help me,” he told Syria Direct.
Al-Shalabi also reached out to the Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC)—the Turkey-based political opposition’s highest body—but it did not inform him why he was deported, and could not help him sell his car or transfer ownership of it, he said.
His experience is not unique. Abu Ziyad (a pseudonym), who is also Syrian, settled in Turkey with his wife and children after traveling there from Saudi Arabia six years ago. After two years in Istanbul, Turkish authorities required him to obtain a valid Syrian passport to renew his residency permit. Abu Ziyad submitted a request to the Syrian embassy, but did not receive a passport for security reasons, he told Syria Direct. With that, all his attempts to renew his residency failed.
On June 2, 2023, a Turkish police patrol stopped him at the Yusufpaşa station in Istanbul’s Aksaray neighborhood. “Within four days, I was deported to Syria,” he said.
During those days, Abu Ziyad told Turkish authorities he wanted to contact a lawyer in order to grant his wife power of attorney to wrap up his affairs in the country, including selling his private car. They refused, he said, telling him this could be done from inside Syria.
It was only months after Abu Ziyad was deported to the northern Aleppo countryside, controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), that he was able to authorize his wife to manage his financial affairs in Turkey.
He found a lawyer, who he said charged him three times the usual cost to appoint a power of attorney under ordinary circumstances, to meet with him in northwestern Syria, draw up the document and authenticate it with Turkish government departments.
In all, Abu Ziyad paid 5,000 Turkish lira ($167 according to the exchange rate of TRY 29.24 to the dollar). If he were on Turkish soil, the process would cost no more than TRY 500 ($50), he said.
A ‘life’s work’ lost
Until last September, brothers Mundher and Muhammad al-Ahmad lived in Turkey’s southern port city of Mersin. They ran a printing business, which they had operated for seven years, valued at around TRY 200,000 ($6,680).
To market their business, in July 2023 the brothers—who are originally from Aleppo—posted a video on TikTok showing young men from a number of Syrian Arab tribes raising tribal flags. They did not expect the video to become the source of a complaint filed against them, calling it “provocative for the Turkish people,” Mundher told Syria Direct.
Based on the complaint, both young men were arrested the month the video was posted. In September 2023, they were moved to the Directorate of Migration Management’s Foreigners Division, then deported to SNA areas of control in northern Aleppo, even though they were cleared of the charge filed against them.
Before they were deported, Mundher and Muhammad paid approximately TRY 3,000 to a lawyer, and also paid TRY 5,000 ($167) in advance for three months’ rent of their shop. After they were deported, their printing equipment had to be moved to their father’s home, and they relinquished their shop without receiving a vacancy payment (furough)—a sum commonly paid by a new renter to the previous tenant before taking over a commercial space.
Their business, which had provided them and their families with a decent life, was destroyed. They lost “a life’s work,” as one brother put it, and their family became split between southern Turkey and northern Syria.
Abu Ziyad’s family was similarly shattered. His wife and children remained in Istanbul, while he found himself in the northern Aleppo countryside. For more than six months, they did not see each other, until they reunited a few days ago in an Arab country to start rebuilding a life together.
In September 2023, the month that Mundher and Muhammad were deported to northwestern Syria, Turkey’s Yeni Gün newspaper reported nearly 22,000 Syrians had left the country in August alone, citing data issued by the Turkish Directorate of Migration Management. According to figures for the same period published by the administration of the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Syria, that number included 2,356 people who were deported in August.
Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a Syrian human rights organization, reported that some 29,895 Syrians were deported from Turkey from the start of 2023 to the end of August.
‘Emergency’ power of attorney
Syrian refugees in Turkey met Erdoğan’s victory in the May 2023 presidential elections with cautious relief, after a season in the crosshairs of electoral propaganda between the candidates. But despite hopes that deportations, ongoing since 2019, might ease, forced returns continue.
Official Turkish statements describe the return of Syrian refugees as “voluntary,” in line with Ankara’s stated aim to return one million Syrians to northern Syria. However, many Syrians have confirmed they were sent back by force.
Taha al-Ghazi, a Syrian refugee rights activist in Turkey, said many “business owners,” like Mundher and Muhammad, have been deported without having time to settle their business affairs. Turkey’s migration directorate has not issued any statement about the reason for these deportations, he said. However, some Syrian NGOs and organizations contacted the directorate’s leadership, and were told the deportations were related to allegations of posing a threat to Turkish national security.
Code G-87, one of the restriction codes Turkey places on non-citizens barred from entry or ordered deported, is applied to people considered threats to Turkish security. Affected individuals have the right to object to the Administrative Court if deportation would put their lives in danger. However, many Syrians have also been deported due to expired work or travel permits, or because they lived in an area other than the one where their Kimlik (temporary protection card) was initially issued. In other words, they were deported but not considered security threats.
Forcibly returning any refugee to Syria appears to violate Turkey’s temporary protection system, under which those holding Kimlik cards have the right to remain in the country and are to be protected from forced return.
One Turkish lawyer, who works at a legal consulting firm in Gaziantep and spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said Syrian refugees in Turkey are subject to “flexible law” which can be bypassed, resulting in Syrians holding Kimliks being deported. Additionally, Turkish areas of influence in northern Syria are “classified as safe from the Turkish government’s perspective,” he explained to Syria Direct.
The United Nations (UN) and its affiliated institutions have repeatedly warned that Syria is not safe for the return of refugees. In September 2023, Hany Megally, a member of the UN’s Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told Syria TV “Syria is not ready to receive refugees, and the current conditions are not favorable for that.” He also noted that very few Syrians are returning compared to the number leaving the country.
Deportations to Syria are a “legal violation,” Syrian lawyer Ghazwan Koronfol, who lives in Turkey, told Syria Direct. “It is not permissible to return a person to the country they fled seeking safe haven.” By extension, any act leading to or resulting from deportation “is contrary to the law,” he explained.
“In practice, there is no entity that can protect a refugee from deportation, unless you get a legal ruling from the Administrative Court canceling the deportation order,” Koronfol added. “In most cases, the person has been deported before the ruling is issued.”
With no time given to refugees to liquidate their financial affairs—a bank account, shop, car, or company with real estate registered to it—“the only solution is for the refugee to have a legal agent to represent him in carrying out these tasks,” Koronfol said.
The Turkish lawyer agreed, and called on Syrians to “grant legal authority to their spouses or a relative, in case of any emergency.” Those deported before they could do so can “bring the notary to Syria,” he added.
Abu Ziyad was able to give his wife power of attorney from the northern Aleppo countryside after he was deported a year ago. But Ammar al-Shalabi has not been able to do the same, although he was “prepared to pay $500 to appoint someone to sell my car,” he said. “To this day, it’s parked at a friend’s place, and I cannot rent or sell it.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.