Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

Syrian refugees in Istanbul nervous over raids, arrests by Turkish authorities

Amid an economic downturn, the government is cracking down on undocumented migrants

Istanbul's courthouse is surrounded by police fences on July 17, 2019. AFP
Istanbul's courthouse is surrounded by police fences on July 17, 2019. AFP

Adnan is stuck at home again. “I’m not leaving the house today,” he says, speaking from his apartment in the Istanbul suburb of Esenyurt.

When he does venture out into the streets of Turkey’s financial capital, the 27-year-old refugee from Syria jumps at the sight of passing police cars. He avoids crowded places. Sometimes, like today, he prefers not to go out at all.

Originally from Yarmouk refugee camp in the south Damascus suburbs, Adnan arrived in Turkey last July after paying smugglers to get him across the border from northwest Idlib province.

Because of tightening restrictions on the registration of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Adnan still has not been able to get a temporary protection ID from Turkish authorities. This means he is undocumented, and now at risk of arrest as authorities step up arbitrary arrests of Syrians without papers.

Since the weekend, Turkish authorities have increased stop-and-search checks around Istanbul, targeting Syrians without registration papers or for working informally. The interior ministry announced planned raids to find undocumented migrants in Istanbul on July 13, with local security officials also calling for the arrest of Syrians allegedly involved in unspecified crimes.

Authorities have not released details about the raids or how many arrests were conducted in recent days, however the news has sparked fears in the city’s Syrian unregistered community, with many staying home and avoiding work. About half a million Syrians are registered legally in Istanbul and perhaps another half million undocumented refugees like Adnan.

One Syrian factory worker in Istanbul, speaking on condition of anonymity, said more than 50 of his Syrian colleagues had not shown up on Tuesday, out of a total workforce of 110.

The latest campaign comes amid growing public discontent with the country’s deteriorating economy and rising anti-Syrian xenophobia.

‘Don’t open the door’

Starting on Tuesday morning, WhatsApp groups used by local Syrian activists started spreading warnings about security checks happening in metro stations, buses and public squares. One video appeared to show a Turkish police checkpoint in Istanbul’s Aksaray district, stopping young Syrian men to examine their papers. In another, shared on Thursday, shows a busload of young Syrian men after being apprehended by authorities. “We don’t know where we’re going,” one man says.

Earlier this week, 32-year-old Malik told his wife to stop answering the door after hearing stories that the police were looking for Syrians without ID cards and temporary protection papers.

Malik is registered in a province outside of Istanbul. “And I couldn’t get papers for my wife and daughter," he says, meaning all three could face arrest.

For Mohammed, a 29-year-old originally from Damascus, the fear of checkpoints reminds him of home. His fear of arrest in Damascus in 2013 was part of the reason he fled to Turkey.

Now, he says, he feels like he is living the same life in Istanbul.

"I have to stay in hiding,” he says, because he carries a temporary protection card from another province. “So I can’t continue my work.”

To work legally in the city, a Syrian worker must have a temporary protection card issued by the province of Istanbul, formal authorisation for a job, and social welfare payments. Tens of thousands of Syrians in the city do not meet these conditions.

But at the same time, informal labour is cheap. Factories often prefer illegally employing Syrians to Turks because they can pay them less and avoid contributing to their social insurance.

The arrest campaign is the latest sign of a hardening of both rhetoric and policy towards Syrians in Turkey.

In Istanbul, the leftist nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) ran against a candidate from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) party and won—twice. Unsatisfied with the first poll’s purportedly “tainted” result, AKP officials called for a rerun. The second vote produced a resounding victory for the CHP.

The CHP was repeatedly criticised for using anti-refugee rhetoric in its campaign, with Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu continuing the incitement in office, but xenophobia has become a cross-party issue. AKP-run municipalities have enforced new regulations cracking down on Arabic-language signage above shops and businesses across the country. And incidents of mob violence against Syrian-owned businesses have continued in post-election Istanbul. A coarsely worded hashtag, widely shared right after the election, also made the sentiment clear: “Syrians go home.”

Threat of expanded deportations

The latest raids are the result of an economy in decline twinned with growing resentment from local Turks about government policy towards Syrian refugees, according to Omar Kadkoy, a policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey think tank.

“When the government does not present an integration policy based on checks and balance, we arrive at [the point] we’re at now,” he told The National, referring to “discontent from locals over the overall policy towards Syrians [and] economic competition that is fuelling social tension.”

He continued: “And then, the government is trying to gain control by implementing theses harsh measures to contain the social tension and to present itself to its constituency as in charge. But how is that being done? By basically threatening those who are undocumented or working informally to be deported.”

In recent years, Turkish authorities have rounded up Syrian refugees across the country and forcibly deported them – often after short spells in EU-funded detention centres used to hold non-nationals before they are removed from the country. The government claims well over 300,000 refugees voluntarily returned, although human rights groups question just how voluntary these returns were. According to Human Rights Watch, these returns likely constitute refoulement, the illegal forceful repatriation of refugees to unsafe countries of origin.

Syrian detainees are effectively given a choice between prison time or signing a so-called “voluntary return document,” after which they’re deported into opposition-held areas of Idlib or Aleppo.

While the practice is not new, growing tensions around Turkey’s Syrian community could leave more vulnerable to deportation.

Turkish authorities deported Ashraf, a 34-year-old Syrian refugee living in Istanbul, back in April.

He was walking through one of the city’s squares when he was picked up by police, transported to a detention facility and then deported across the Bab Al Salameh crossing into Aleppo province.

“How am I supposed to stay in Syria?” says Ashraf, who eventually smuggled his way back into Turkey. “Danger is everywhere.”

Back in Esenyurt, Adnan is running out of options. Returning to Syria is of the question, he says, but Turkey is feeling less hospitable by the day.

"In Idlib and northern Aleppo, life is impossible – there are weapons everywhere and you can’t work,” he says. “[And] Turkey wasn’t my choice, but I found myself forced to come here.”

“So I basically have no choice.”

And so he sits at home, and waits.

Updated: July 18, 2019 07:42 PM

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