Syrian refugees in Istanbul wait in front of buses as they are deported to Syria, 6/8/2019 (Zaman Al Wasl)
PARIS — Less than a month ago, Muhannad al-Sayyad was in the process of completing family reunification procedures at the Swedish consulate in Istanbul. Today, he is in the northern Aleppo countryside, one of 150 Syrian refugees deported by Turkish authorities in late January.
Al-Sayyad, displaced from the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, holds a Temporary Protection Identification Card (Kimlik) issued by Mersin province. He lived there with his wife and two sons since arriving in Turkey in 2018, until his wife was able to travel with one of their children to Sweden in October 2020.
Following their departure, al-Sayyad moved with his other son to youth housing in Istanbul, “to apply for family reunification with the Swedish [consulate], and to do the necessary interviews,” he told Syria Direct. The move to Istanbul was so “I would not travel long distances between Mersin and Istanbul to visit the consulate.”
Then, on January 22, al-Sayyad left his son with a friend and went to buy groceries from a market in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district, only to be arrested by the police because he did not have an Istanbul Kimlik. “After being detained for eight days, I was deported to Syria,” he said. “My son Rayan stayed alone with my friend in Istanbul.”
Muhammad Hussam Ramadan, 47, was deported for similar reasons. He came to Istanbul to get an industrial license that would allow him to live and work in the city with his family without running afoul of Ministry of Interior laws regarding where refugees live. But three days after arriving in Istanbul, he was arrested. The deportation order came faster than the license, he said.
Ramadan, originally from the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus, had lived in the southern Turkish city of Urfa with his wife and five children since arriving in the country in 2019. “The lack of job opportunities in my profession [shoemaking] led me to think about living and working in Istanbul,” he told Syria Direct. “I didn’t expect to end up in Syria.”
Al-Sayyad and Ramadan’s violations of Turkey’s residency laws does not justify their deportation to Syria, according to refugee rights activist Taha al-Ghazi. “A Syrian refugee is supposed to be returned to the Turkish province in which the temporary [protection] card was issued,” he said, citing Article 6 of the Temporary Protection Regulation.
The law, issued by the Turkish Council of Ministers in Decision No. 6883 of October 2014, states that “no one within the scope of this Regulation shall be returned to a place where he or she may be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment or, where his/her life or freedom would be threatened on account of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
The latest mass deportation of 150 Syrian refugees in January, including university students, most of whom hold official documents such as work permits or Kimlik cards, is the largest since 2019. For the recent deportees, like those before them, deportation has shattered hard-won stability and cast them into the unknown, far from loved ones and under the threat of dangers they fled years ago.
In October 2021, Turkish authorities arrested 19 Syrians for “inciting people to hatred and hostility” against the backdrop of the so-called “banana case,” an outpouring of Syrians inside and outside of Turkey denouncing a video clip posted online by a Turkish citizen complaining that he was unable to buy bananas, while Syrians in his country could.
Journalist Majed Shamaa, who works for the pro-Syrian opposition Orient News channel, was one of those arrested in the fallout from the banana case after posting a humorous video online. He was nearly deported to northern Syria, despite a court ruling acquitting him and citing the security risks he would face if deported.
“The deportation decision wouldn’t have been stopped if not for the great solidarity I received from Syrians, many organizations and human rights bodies, and hundreds of activists on social media,” he told Syria Direct from his new residence in France.
None of the Syrians arrested in connection with the banana case have been deported to Syria, according to the Deputy General Manager of the Directorate General of Migration Management, Mehmet Sinan Yıldız. But continued incitement against Syrians in Turkey and political parties using them as leverage leaves them constantly worried about deportations.
Even as Shamaa was allowed to leave Turkey for France last month, Syrian activist Munib al-Jalha, 27, was deported to Syria after being detained for seven months in Turkish prisons for “inciting sedition and spreading it among the people,” he told Syria Direct.
Turkish authorities deported al-Jalha, also known by the name Munib al-Ali, on January 29 for “communicating with suspicious people,” he said. “I was charged one day after being released from prison.” Al-Jalha had been initially arrested on May 4, 2021 for writing a tweet criticizing “the use of tear gas by the Turkish police to disperse mu’takafin [people in religious retreat during the last 10 days of Ramadan] at a mosque in Gaziantep.”
Several examples exist of Syrians being deported for their political and media views or activities, including the arrest of defected Brigadier General Ahmad Rahal on August 18, 2020 on the charge of appearing on anti-Turkish satellite channels and criticizing the Turkish-backed opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) factions. An order of deportation has been issued for al-Rahal, but has not been implemented as he appeals the ruling.
According to Shamaa, “the Turkish opposition’s political discourse significantly contributes to the deportation of Syrians,” noting that “my arrest was because of incitement against me by some Turkish opposition figures, such as İlay Aksoy, a member of the founding and administrative councils of the opposition Good Party.”
Officially, Turkish authorities only deport Syrian refugees after they sign a “voluntary return document.” But sources who spoke to Syria Direct said they signed under duress, and that deportees are prevented from reading the document.
Journalist Shamaa refused to sign the document because of the risks facing him if he returned to Syria, but “was met with screams and punching, which forced me to sign,” he said. Muhannad al-Sayyad and Muhammad Hussam Ramadan said they signed the “voluntary return” document under pressure and threats.
Activist al-Jalha said he was given a choice between “imprisonment for a full year for a charge I have nothing to do with, and then the deportation decision would be made, or to sign the voluntary return, which is what happened.” He said “the deportation center in Gaziantep took a video of me stating that I want to return voluntarily without coercion or threat.”
From a legal perspective, deporting Syrians to their country violates national and international laws and conventions that warn against refoulement, according to refugee rights activist al-Ghazi. He noted that the deportations violate Article 33 of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Article 4 of the Convention’s 1967 Protocol, both of which Turkey has signed.
Article 6 of Turkey’s Temporary Protection Regulation, approved by the Turkish Ministry of Interior in 2014, also prohibits “deporting a Syrian refugee if there is a danger to him,” said al-Ghazi, stressing that “forcing Syrian refugees to sign a voluntary return document is contrary to the human rights and refugee conventions that Ankara has signed.”
For his part, the president of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, Ghazwan Koronful, said “the temporary protection law grants those subject to it protection against refoulement, but what is happening is contrary to that.”
And although the temporary protection law “strips people [of protection] and allows for their deportation in cases such as the person’s membership in a terrorist organization or promotion of its ideas, or working without a permit,” said Koronful, “at the level of international law, people may not be returned to the country they fled seeking safety.”
Moreover, “the Turkish migration department makes deportation decisions without bringing people before the judiciary,” said the lawyer, which “threatens the stability of residents under temporary protection.”
In the wake of the latest mass deportation, Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management has not issued any statement about the 150 Syrian refugees clarifying the circumstances of their expulsion.
Turkish Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu and General Director of Migration Savaş Ünlü attended a meeting on February 8 that included active Syrian and Turkish figures, during which several issues concerning Syrians were discussed. The coordinator of an alliance of groups focused on Syrians in Turkey involved in the meeting told a local media site that the issue of the detainees had been raised with the Turkish side in the days before the meeting, and they had “received promises that [the deportees] would be returned.”
For its part, Amnesty International published a report in September 2021 calling on countries hosting Syrians not to force them to return to Syria due to safety risks. The organization documented 66 cases of individuals subjected to violations after returning to Syria, including 13 children, and urged countries neighboring Syria “including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, to put an end to returns of refugees to Syria and to respect the principle of non-refoulement.”
The decision to deport Ramadan destroyed all he had built in three years in Turkey. “I had established a new life,” he said, “my children were in school, and I was on the verge of launching my own business.” Now, “I’m in one place, and my family is in another,” he said, “I lost everything overnight.”
Activist al-Jalha fears for his life. “I am at risk of being disappeared or arrested by opposition factions in northwestern Syria that I previously criticized,” he said.
As journalist Shamaa sees it, deporting Syrians “destroys the deportee and his family,” while deporting activists and politicians is “a death sentence—everyone knows the fate of an activist who has exposed the Assad regime if they are deported to its areas.” And “deporting activists to SNA and Jabhat al-Nusra [the precursor of HTS] areas endangers them if they have criticized these parties,” he said.
As deportations of Syrian refugees in Turkey continue, Muhammad al-Abed (a pseudonym) is looking for any chance to leave the country, telling Syria Direct that it is “no longer safe for us, it’s not a stable environment.”
Al-Abed, 25, holds a Kimlik issued by Mersin province, but lives in Istanbul. “There are no job opportunities in Mersin,” he said, “and if I can find a job, the salary isn’t enough, especially since I set part of it aside for my family in Syria.”
Al-Abed tried to transfer his Kimlik to Istanbul, but was not able to as “transferring the Kimlik requires a work permit, student card, or first-degree kinship with a person who holds an Istanbul Kimlik.” This is not available to him, he says, since “employers refuse to issue a work permit, and the other conditions don’t apply to me.”
Al-Sayyad, the father deported in January, refuses to talk about his fears after finding himself in northwestern Syria. He holds onto the hope that “the Turkish authorities won’t accept that my son is left alone in Turkey while I’m in Syria,” while only weeks ago he was trying to make arrangements to meet his wife and other son in Sweden. Today, what matters to him most is “to be with my son in Turkey.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.