On 22 July, the governor of Istanbul announced that all unregistered Syrians must leave the city by 20 August. At least 2,630 refugees have been removed since, many of whom say they have been sent back into the warzone in contravention of international law.
The Turkish government says that the new ruling in Istanbul is necessary to relieve pressure on the city, the biggest refugee hosting province in Turkey by sheer numbers. Nearly 550,000 Syrians are registered there, and the real figure may be as high as a million.
“Refugees and asylum seekers must not be forced to return to any part of Syria as long as the conditions have not been met for safe and voluntary returns,” the European Commission spokesman Carlos Martin Ruiz de Gordejuela said in a statement on 6 August.
Those arrested are taken first to police stations and then to detention centres around Istanbul. From there, buses carry them 500 miles down to the Syrian border in groups of about 100 every Tuesday and Thursday. The Syrians must sign a paper saying that they want to return — but many say that they were forced to do so, or that they did not understand the papers.
“I didn’t sign yet, but everyone who comes here is eventually deported,” one person told The Times. “Sometimes the police force your fingerprint onto the paper.”
Nama, a Syrian living in Gaziantep, told Politico that her husband Mahmoud cannot read or write. “They let him stamp these papers with his thumb without knowing what these papers are,” she said. The whole family has permits to stay in Turkey, she added, but Mahmoud had left his at home the morning he was checked by police. Now he is waiting at the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa, hoping to be allowed back in to Turkey.
“We fled the bombs from the planes in Syria,” Nama said. “Now I am worried about our safety in Turkey.”
There are more than 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey. They are still eligible for “temporary protection”, a quasi-refugee status that grants Syrians the right to be in Turkey, albeit without the full scope of rights articulated in international conventions on refugees.
Getting the necessary paperwork has grown increasingly difficult since 2015, when responsibility for migration procedures passed from the police to the migration ministry, leaving many Syrians without papers. Others are stuck in bureaucratic loops that complicate family and working life.
Officially, Turkey is running a “voluntary return” scheme under which Syrians can choose to give up their temporary protection status and resettle in the 1,500 sq miles of northern Syria controlled by the Turkish army and allied rebel forces. Some 347,000 have already done so, according to Turkish officials.
“Turkey claims it helps Syrians voluntarily return to their country, but threatening to lock them up until they agree to return, forcing them to sign forms, and dumping them in a war zone is neither voluntary nor legal,” Gerry Simpson, associate Emergencies director, told Human Rights Watch. “Turkey should be commended for hosting record numbers of Syrian refugees, but unlawful deportations are not the way forward.”
The deportations mark a turning point for Turkey’s policy on Syrians. For years, the government insisted on keeping its border with Syria open, making Turkey the country hosting the largest number of refugees worldwide.
The crackdown is a way for Mr Erdoğan to win back electoral support as a recent poll showed that only 40 per cent of Turks are now happy for Syrians to live in their city, compared with 72 per cent in February 2016. The ruling Justice and Development Party suffered a huge blow in the Istanbul elections in June.
A July survey showed that just 21 per cent of respondents were willing to be friends or neighbors with Syrians, half the rate it was three years ago. Many accuse Syrians of taking their jobs and overwhelming public services amid a painful economic downturn that unleashed soaring inflation and has put millions of Turks out of work.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement that “the vast majority of Syrian asylum-seekers continue to … need international refugee protection” and that it “calls on states not to forcibly return Syrian nationals and former habitual residents of Syria.”