PARIS — After his kimlik—the temporary protection card used by Syrians to prove legal status in Turkey and access services including healthcare—was suspended last month, Ali Anas Zaidan, who lives in Istanbul, must “travel 600 kilometers to update my information in the province where I got the kimlik,” he told Syria Direct.
Zaidan, 24, who came to Turkey in 2017 after being displaced from the Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh, is one of thousands of Syrian refugees who received a text message from Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management starting on March 22. The notification stated that their kimlik cards had been canceled following the expiration of a 60-day period for them to update their information, requiring them to go to the directorate as soon as possible.
Prior to sending the cancellation message, the directorate had asked Syrian refugees to update their residential addresses, warning that their kimlik would be suspended. However, Syrian refugees told Syria Direct that the directorate did not abide by the deadline. Yassin Abu Fadel, 36, who lives in Istanbul and carries a kimlik card issued there, said he received the first message “on February 16, while the cancellation message came on March 23, before the deadline,” he said.
A screenshot of messages Yassin Abu Fadel received from Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management. The first, dated February 16, tells him he must verify his address within 60 days after a police check could not confirm he lived there. The second, received March 22, informs him that his temporary protection card (kimlik) has been canceled pending verification of his information with the directorate. (Yassin Abu Fadel/Syria Direct)
But for Zaidan, who works illegally in Istanbul, updating his information with the migration directorate means he must travel to Isparta province, in southwestern Turkey, where he originally received his kimlik. He must do so “by private car, since I don’t have a travel permit,” he said, the cost of which “could reach 1,000 Turkish lira.” Zaidan makes TRY 4,250 a month at a carpet cleaning company.
Thousands of Syrians like Zaidan work in Istanbul city without work permits or protection cards issued by the Provincial Directorate of Migration Management there. This means they must renew their information in the provinces where their kimliks were issued.
The difficulty of traveling to the original provinces adds to “the difficulty of getting an appointment due to the pressure on the system, or paying money to middlemen to secure an appointment,” refugee rights activist Taha al-Ghazi told Syria Direct. “For a family of seven or eight people, the cost of booking an appointment through a broker could reach TRY 1,500.”
Consequences of cancellation
The latest messages from the migration directorate have renewed the anxieties of Syrians in Turkey. To Abu Fadel, it is as if there were “a systematic policy pursued by the Turkish authorities, represented by the Presidency of Migration [Management] and the Ministry of Interior,” he said, referring to ongoing campaigns against Syrians such as deportations.
Abu Fadel, originally from Hama city in central Syria, said he updated his address “at the Department of Population in the Avcılar area where I live,” but has not updated it with the Directorate of Migration in Istanbul due to “the difficulty of getting an appointment and the huge pressure on the city’s three migration departments.”
While Abu Fadel grapples with the difficulty of getting an appointment and the psychological impact of the message, Zaidan faces a different set of obstacles. Most importantly, he has to “establish a residential address with the Department of Population before I can update the information at the migration office.” This means he cannot renew his information without renting a residence in Isparta, which he cannot afford, he says, “since I would have to pay insurance, the broker’s fee, and the first month’s rent.”
One solution is to “get a residential address through a broker for TRY 1,300,” said Zaidan. But “if the police investigated the new address and didn’t find me there, I’d face the same problem again.” Earlier this year, Turkish police began a campaign to verify the addresses of Syrians under temporary protection.
Zaidan previously tried to transfer his kimlik to Istanbul, but was not able to do so “because I couldn’t get a work permit from the place I work at.”
Ahmad Tizini, 25, from Homs, faces the same problem as Zaidan. He has to update his information in Kütahya province, 300 kilometers from where he lives in Istanbul. He told Syria Direct he is confused about “how to get a residential address for the lowest cost.”
Furthermore, Tizini will have to take an open-ended break from the sewing workshop where he works, since he does not know how long he will need to complete the procedures of updating his information. He worries about “not being able to return to Istanbul if I don’t get a travel permit, which would force me to return illegally.” The Turkish government requires those carrying a kimlik to get a permit to travel between Turkish provinces.
For the majority of Syrians working in Istanbul, “stopping work for a number of days is a big problem for us, given the difficult living conditions that most Syrians suffer from,” said Zaidan. Although he is not married, he is “responsible for my family in Damascus, and I have to send a monthly allowance to them.”
Until Syrians whose kimlik cards are canceled resolve the issue, they could face the “almost complete stopping of their benefits,” according to the president of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, Ghazwan Koronful. He feared those whose kimliks are suspended will lose access to Red Crescent aid and access to hospitals.
Responding to that, the communications officer of the Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee, Inas al-Najjar, said the committee “held an urgent meeting with the Presidency of Migration on March 24.” One of the direct results of the meeting, she told Syria Direct, was to “not cut off Red Crescent assistance from those whose kimlik is frozen.” For urgent humanitarian cases, such as those who are ill, the presidency “promised to issue a notice allowing them to go to the Directorate of Migration without needing to book an appointment in advance, and renew their data.”
The latest measures coincide with indications that the voluntary return of Syrians is a high priority for Turkey, which hosts an estimated 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees.
Speaking on a panel entitled “The International Community’s Role in Managing Refugee Flows: Syria and Beyond” at the Doha Forum on March 27, the President of Migration Management at the Turkish Ministry of Interior, Savaş Ünlü said that his country had established, with its own capabilities, safe zones in northern Syria, pointing to the voluntary return of 500,000 Syrians to those areas.
That coincided with a statement by the President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Salem al-Muslat, who told Turkish journalists at a press conference in Istanbul last week that the body seeks “the safe and voluntary return of Syrians from Turkey,” sparking a wide debate among Syrians.
Prior to that, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in a joint press conference with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi on March 2 that his country was working with Jordan for the voluntary return of Syrian refugees to their country.
On February 27, Turkey announced a number of measures for Syrians residing in the country and new arrivals, including distributing population densities in neighborhoods in order to prevent the emergence of Syrian neighborhoods, as happened in Istanbul and Ankara.
Abu Fadel worries that he may run up against the “density distribution,” as he holds a kimlik from Istanbul. If his card were permanently canceled, he fears he could be asked “to get a new kimlik from another province,” he said. “Everything is possible, especially since there is a plan to reduce the density of Syrians in some parts of Turkey, including Istanbul.”
All of this “worries the Syrian community in Turkey, as all sides and parties are pushing Syrians to return voluntarily, but it is completely forced,” said activist al-Ghazi.
Lawyer Koronful agreed that the latest measure, canceling kimlik cards, comes “within a general context, which is to pressure Syrian refugees as much as possible to drive them to return to their country,” he said.
While Syrian human rights institutions and media working from Turkey have emphasized that there is “no need to worry” about the latest messages, with Syria TV noting the possibility of an “error in the Turkish Directorate of Migration system, and it will be addressed within days.”
Some messages arrived in error to individuals who did not have a kimlik in the first place, or who have obtained Turkish citizenship. Koronful, who himself received a message despite having Turkish citizenship, stressed the seriousness of the message since it “means the refugee loses the legal status that entitles them to be legally present in Turkish territory.”
“The police arresting any individual whose kimlik has been canceled could expose the person to deportation,” said Koronful. “This is a disaster, especially since we are talking about entire families. When the head of the family is deported, other members will have to leave with them.”
But al-Najjar said fears of deportation are unfounded. “The message does not mean the kimlik is revoked, but rather suspended. Nobody will be deported because of the problem of the recent cancellation messages.” She said the procedure is “a security check by Turkish authorities to find out refugees’ current place of residence.”
The messages reached “Syrians who have not done any activity in the system, whether in hospitals or education, or even the HES code used for verification [tracking activities like use of transportation] during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said al-Najjar. By updating their information, “it can be confirmed that those people are present in Turkish territory.”
Al-Najjar explained that “everyone can check their e-Devlet account. If their information is not found, or if the kimlik is suspended, they should go to the Directorate of Migration.” If the information is complete, the person “can ignore the message, even if it is received.”
Searching for a way out
Despite assurances, the pressure Syrians in Turkey are under—including from bureaucratic residency procedures—in the current atmosphere is intense. Al-Ghazi said that a young Syrian man contacted him on March 22 and told him that he had “attempted to set himself on fire because he was unable to transfer the kimlik of members of his family from Osmaniye province to Istanbul, despite having legal papers and that the transfer conditions apply to him,” he said.
The young man, according to al-Ghazi, “changed his decision after [I] contacted the Directorate of Migration and he got the kimlik for his family members.” But “for a refugee to think of setting himself on fire out of his helplessness to resolve his minimum administrative rights is serious,” he added. “All concerned parties must ask themselves: What drove him to that?”
Facing these measures and the latest “negative” messages, Abu Fadel is hoping to get “Turkish citizenship, which my wife got, or to find a way to migrate to Europe.” Amid the current circumstances and decisions, “Turkey is no longer safe for Syrians,” he said.
Zaidan, meanwhile, ruled out the idea of seeking asylum in Europe, but said he is looking for a way to leave because of “the constant pressure on us.” What he hopes for now is “to get a chance to live a decent life that would enable us to help our people.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.