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Syrians in legal limbo after Turkish security crackdown

AMMAN - When Othman al-Shami (pseudonym) walks through Istanbul’s markets, he does so with great caution, as he is wary of the recent crackdown on Syrians living and working in Turkey, which imposes upon them unprecedented security measures and the possibility of forcible transfer or deportation. 

AMMAN – When Othman al-Shami (pseudonym) walks through Istanbul’s markets, he does so with great caution, as he is wary of the recent crackdown on Syrians living and working in Turkey, which imposes upon them unprecedented security measures and the possibility of forcible transfer or deportation. 

These measures came into effect immediately following a statement by the Turkish Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, on July 13. At a meeting in Istanbul with Arab journalists, Soylo revealed a new policy targeting illegal residents and workers in the city.

Since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, which forced millions to flee the country, Syrian refugees in Turkey have enjoyed a relatively favorable status in comparison to their fellow citizens in other neighboring countries. 

Refugees in Turkey are required, however, to obtain Temporary Protection Identification Documents, known as ‘Kimlik’, which is localized to a specific city assigned by the Turkish authorities. Furthermore, foreign workers, including refugees, are required to have work permits. 

“A time until Aug. 20 has been given for foreigners of Syrian origin under temporary protection who are not registered in Istanbul (registered in other provinces) to return to the cities of their registration. Those determined not to have gone back will be transferred to the provinces of their registration in line with the instruction of our Interior Ministry,” said a statement released by the Istanbul Governor’s Office on July 22.

In the case of Syrians who are not under temporary protection status, they will be “transferred [from Istanbul] to the cities determined with the instruction of our Interior Ministry. Istanbul is closed to [any more] temporary protection registration,” the statement added. 

Al-Shami, who works at a non-profit organization, holds a ‘Kimlik’ from Istanbul city but wasn’t –like many of his colleagues- issued a work permit. Compounding the personal risk of arrest and deportation he faces, is the fact that his organization will be closing by the end of this month to avoid a penalty by the government.

He told Syria Direct, on condition of anonymity, that the events taking place in Istanbul are “unexpected … and alarming”, as security crackdowns are taking place in areas known to be inhabited mainly by Syrians. 

Turkish law asserts that the ‘Kimlik’ allows refugees to reside legally in assigned cities and receive work permits to work within those cities. However, the lack of work-opportunities has pushed refugees to travel to other cities in Turkey to find work—something which is not permitted under the ‘Kimlik’ legal structure. 

Yassin Aktay, an adviser to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), on Saturday, promised consultations with Syrian (opposition) leaders in Istanbul to find a solution to this refugee crisis. 

“No work here”

According to a Turkish source close to the ruling AKP who spoke to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity, the current campaign only targets Syrian refugees residing and working illegally in Istanbul and will last for six months. Nonetheless, Turkish security forces had set up checkpoints targeting Syrians in Hatay, Gaziantep, Mersin, and Adana as well. 

As the unemployment rate among Turkish citizens has increased so have the charges made towards refugees working illegally in cities they are not authorized to reside in. As a result, many refugees are taking precautionary measures to evade security forces. 

The Turkish Minister of Interior’s statements on July 13 circulated throughout Istanbul’s Syrian neighborhoods and social media, raising tension and anxiety. On social media applications such as Whatsapp and Facebook, Syrian refugees exchanged warnings and information about the security presence on the streets of Istanbul using phrases and sarcastic remarks they used in conflict zones inside Syria before leaving.

For example, phrases like “Al Fateh-Asenort street is ‘enemy’,” is said to indicate there is a security check in the street. Those streets that are clear are referred to as “friend.”

The security situation is “not without a sense of humor that the people of Eastern Ghouta brought with them from the siege,” Abdel Aziz al-Hassan (a pseudonym), 25-years-old, told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. The chat groups on WhatsApp that are now being used to monitor the movement of security personnel in Turkey are very similar to those that once tracked the movement of fighter planes in Syria.

Al-Hassan is a holder of ‘Kimlik’ issued in Mersin, a city in Southern Turkey. He is allowed to receive a work permit and work legally there; however, the poor job market forced him to move to Istanbul, where he now works and resides illegally. If al-Hassan is caught, he will be found guilty of two offenses: illegally residing outside his assigned city and working without a work permit.

He paid smugglers $3,000 to drive him from Eastern Ghouta to Northern Syria and into Turkey in April 2018. “I borrowed the [money] to get to Istanbul, and I [still] haven’t paid the money back,” he said.

Al-Hassan’s case resembles that of many Syrian refugees in Istanbul who must return to the poverty-stricken cities where they are authorized to live and work. But for al-Hassan, returning to Mersin is impossible and out of the question. “There is no possibility of living without work, and there is no work there.”

Old policies, new complications

The Turkish government has provided many services to Syrian refugees over the last eight years, in addition to turning a blind eye to those Syrians residing and working illegally in the country. 

“What made matters worse was the recent statements by [the Turkish interior minister] which complicated the situation, rather than clarifying ways and procedures to bypass and correct the violations,” al-Hassan said.

This has made Syrians stuck in legal limbo vulnerable to local ‘job agencies’. Advertisements have appeared on social media claiming that these agencies can help Syrians resolve their legal situations, even though the Turkish government has yet to make any decision regarding their legal status as of yet.

The outcome of the municipal elections in Istanbul, with the victory of the opposing Republican People’s Party candidate against his rival of the ruling AKP, was the turning point in official Turkish policy towards the Syrian refugee crisis, which was a prominent issue in the campaign. 

The AKP has begun strictly applying laws which for years had been on the books, but were rarely applied to Syrians. The new, tough stance of the AKP is an attempt to reconcile with the popular sentiment which has arisen against it, mainly as a result of the last government’s lenient policies towards Syrian refugees.

Syrian opposition-affiliated media outlets recently reported that the Turkish authorities deported several ‘Kimlik’-holding Syrian refugees from Istanbul to both province of Idlib and the city of Afrin in northern Syria. This has caused fear among some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, who make up 64 percent of the total number of Syrian refugees in the world according to the latest UN statistics.


Translated by: Nada Atieh

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