Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Ministry of Interior of the Turkish national government controls immigration policy, and that the precise mechanics of the anti-refugee crackdown in Istanbul remain unclear.

Supporters of the newly elected opposition mayor of Istanbul hoped that he would act as a check on the burgeoning authoritarianism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In late July, following the inauguration of Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, Turkey witness an unexpected new policy: the deportation of Syrian refugees, who had—up until now—enjoyed a safe haven in Turkey. Initial reports suggest that police now are detaining Syrians who are legal residents of Turkey and transporting them back to Idlib province in Syria, which is currently an active war zone.

“We were treated like criminals, they humiliated us as if we were not human at all,” one Syrian refugee told TCF, recounting by telephone from Idlib city how he was held incommunicado, despite having legal Turkish resident papers, and transported to Syria on July 19.

The deportations mark a surprising reversal by Turkey, which currently hosts an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees—more than any other country—and which previously had steadfastly welcomed Syrian civilians.

It is illegal under international law for a country to deport asylum-seekers or refugees to their country of origin if they face the threat of violence there (a principal known as “non-refoulement”). Most of the estimated 6.7 million refugees who have fled Syria since 2011 fear detention, torture, or death if they return to Syria. Independent reports confirm that Syrians who have returned to government-controlled areas this year have faced violent retribution.

It is illegal under international law for a country to deport asylum-seekers or refugees to their country of origin if they face the threat of violence.

The deportations are all the more distressing because they are taking place at a time when the Assad regime is accelerating its military offensive on Idlib, which has killed hundreds of civilians since April.

No Longer Safe

According to accounts from Syrian refugees and human rights monitors, Turkish authorities are roaming the streets of Istanbul, detaining and deporting hundreds of Syrians—including unaccompanied minors—back to Idlib province.

The crackdown on Syrians in Turkey started in recent weeks, and the initiative is the largest since the war started in 2011. The detentions are mainly taking place in Istanbul, which is the economic capital of Turkey, and thus the destination of many Syrian refugees, as well as other immigrants.

Hundreds of Syrians have been stopped by police officers in metro stations and other public areas, and sometimes taken from their own shops in the city, according to refugees in Turkey and deported Syrians interviewed by TCF, as well as accounts from journalists. When stopped, they are asked to show their “kimlik” (Turkish for “identity”), shorthand for the identity card issued by the Turkish government.

In Turkey, foreign residents are supposed to reside in the city where their permit was issued. Authorities in Istanbul have been using this as a pretence to detain foreigners who did not have their identity card, or who were not in their city of legal residence. Instead of then being returned to their city of legal residence in Turkey, the Syrian detainees have been taken to police stations, and then to a military facility, before being put onto buses heading into Syria. After crossing the border, the deportees have been handed to Jabhat Ahrar al-Sham, one of the Sunni Salafist militias that—along with other Islamist militias—control northern Syria.

This drastic shift in Turkey’s policy toward Syrian refugees comes a month after Ekrem Imamoğlu, a candidate from Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), won the mayoral election in Istanbul earlier in June 2019. The policy is being executed by the Ministry of the Interior, which is under the control of the Turkish president, who was directly stung by his ruling party’s loss of control of the Istanbul mayoralty. The opposition has been critical of the government’s refugee policy. Despite the CHP’s anti-refugee stance, it is not clear if the deportations have any connection to the mayor’s office. 

It remains unknown how many people have been deported until now, or who is ultimately responsible for deporting them to Syria instead of returning them to their cities of legal residence in Turkey. On July 22, the authorities announced they would pause the deportations and give refugees until August 20 to leave Istanbul for their assigned province in Turkey. Eyewitnesses interviewed by TCF said, however, that at least fifty Istanbul residents were deported to Idlib on July 22 alone.

Growing Anti-Syrian Sentiment

I spoke to four young Syrian men in Turkey, and to one who had just been deported to Idlib, Syria.

Saleh, age 26, who is originally from Aleppo spoke to me from Istanbul, and asked not to have his last name published for fear of retribution from Turkish authorities. “There has been a growing anti-Syrian sentiment in Istanbul resulting from rumors about Syrians taking Turkish jobs and getting unlimited benefits,” Saleh said.

Saleh then introduced me by telephone to a friend—who wanted to be identified by the pseudonym Hamza—who was detained in Istanbul on July 17, and then deported to Syria on July 19. Hamza spoke to me by telephone from Idlib. His father, speaking by telephone from Istanbul, confirmed his son’s account.

Hamza, also age 26, fled Aleppo in June 2014. He is registered in Istanbul and has been living and working in a clothing shop in the city for five years. He explained that he was detained Wednesday morning from a metro station in the Avglar area of Istanbul. He was on the way to work, when he was detained by three police officers, purportedly for not having his identity card with him. Two days later, Hamza woke up in Syria.

Hamza said he has no criminal record, and has been living in Istanbul with his family (all registered in Istanbul) since they fled their home in Aleppo. “I have never been arrested before,” he said. “I didn’t know what was happening, but I decided to cooperate with the police and get in the car as they instructed.”

At the police station, Hamza and the other young men detained along with him were asked to hand over their personal belongings, including their phones, to the police. After hours of waiting, each person was given their phone to briefly call their family. Hamza’s father and his siblings came to the police station, but their attempts to get him out failed.

After nine hours in the police station, the men were asked to fill in their personal information and sign a paper written in Turkish before being loaded onto a bus. “We translated the paper later and found out that we signed to voluntarily leave Turkey to Syria,” Hamza said.

The bus was carrying seventeen detainees, including Hamza and three minors under 18 years old.

An hour and a half later, the bus stopped at a prison facility across the Bosporus Strait, on the Asian side of Istanbul. The men were forcibly removed from the bus, and were forced to wait in the prison yard as the police brought in three more buses, each carrying about thirty detainees. Some of those who had been transported with Hamza were detained by boarding them on these other buses; Hamza was detained in the prison facility, which he described as “filthy.”

Around midday on Thursday, July 18, another bus arrived with two empty seats, and Hamza and another man from his group were directed to board the bus. Before getting on the bus, however, everyone was lined up, and each person was given a paper with their name on it. “We were told to hold it under our chin as one of the officers took an individual photo of each person then a group photo of all of us,” Hamza said. “Another person without a uniform was shooting a video of us from a distance.”

After photos were taken, everyone’s personal items were taken away, except for paper currency, and they were then handcuffed before getting on the bus, accompanied by five military officers.

“Everyone started getting nervous, including six Afghan men in my trip,” Hamza said. “When we asked where they’re taking us, one of the officers sarcastically said: ‘Syria,’ then said we’re being taken to Reyhanli, a Turkish city near the border to get new IDs.”

Five hours into the trip, the bus stopped at a military facility in Bolu, where detainees were allowed to use the bathroom and were given food before being handcuffed again and loaded back onto the bus.

“After midnight, I fell asleep. I woke up around 10:00 a.m. on Friday to find myself near the Syrian border walls.” When Hamza asked the officers who had ordered their detention, one of the officers replied that it was coming from the Ministry of the Interior.

Around midday Friday, eight buses arrived in Syria. The detainees were lined up again and the Turkish border officers took additional group photographs before transferring the men, with their personal belongings, to fighters from Jabhat Ahrar al-Sham, a Syrian anti-Assad militia group with close links to Turkey.

“The Afghan men started crying and refusing to go with the fighters. The border guards stripped their clothes, beat them, and forced them to stay with us.”

One by one, the young men were given their personal items and fingerprinted on what looked like public records that included fields to be filled with basic information. “We later learned that the lists are used to ban the people mentioned in them from entering Turkey for five years.”

Ahrar al-Sham had minivans ready to take people to different areas in Idlib province, where Hamza and the others detainees are now. Hamza no longer has his Turkish identity card, or any proof that he used to live in Turkey. His father is now working with a lawyer from Istanbul in the hope that his son may be allowed to return. “I left my country to keep my children safe, and I thought we made it. Nothing can make me feel safe in Turkey anymore,” his father said when I spoke to him about Hamza.

A Grim Turn

Like many others, Hamza cannot return to his home in Aleppo, or any other area controlled by the Syrian government. He fears being drafted or detained. He and the other deported young men face two choices: remain in Idlib, which has been under heavy bombardment by the Syrian government and its allies for months, or attempt to return to Turkey with the assistance of smugglers. The smugglers’ roads are extremely dangerous and are exposed to snipers, who shoot at civilians trying to cross illegally.

In Syria, some of these young men have disappeared upon arrival. Activists report that some deportees were immediately detained by militants in Syria, and have not been heard from since.

The deportation campaign has also worsened the lives of those who avoid capture, in that it breaks the trust between Syrians and Turkish police—leaving Syrian refugees more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their host communities. Moreover, Turkey’s new policy raises fears of setting a precedent for the Syrian refugee community elsewhere in the world. This step might encourage other countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, to implement forced deportation, especially as the Syrian refugee crisis is no longer at the center of international attention.

In response to the deportations, Syrian communities in Istanbul organized a strike and a demonstration on July 25, in front of the mayor’s house, and launched a campaign named “BenInsanim”—which means “I am a human” in Turkish—on different social media platforms, hoping to catch the attention of international human rights organizations and activists, and to pressure the Turkish government to step back from their new arbitrary policy.

International Leverage

There is only limited leverage that can be used to pressure Turkey to change its treatment of displaced Syrians.

Most Syrians in Turkey have not been given official refugee status by either the Turkish government or the United Nations, but rather are given temporary protection under the Temporary Protection Regulation, which Turkey adopted on October 22, 2014. While temporary protection gives the Turkish government a way to organize displaced Syrians, and gives these refugees access to some benefits such as health care and education, this status does not meet international standards of protection. Without full refugee status, displaced Syrians are consequently more vulnerable to forced deportation.

The European Union signed a €6 billion deal with Turkey on March 18, 2016, in which Europe agreed to help Turkey shoulder the costs of providing education and health care to Syrians in Turkey who had temporary protection status. The agreement was engineered to prevent Syrians from going to Europe: the money is intended to aid the Turkish government in covering the costs of hosting Syrians, and in return Turkey has also agreed to continue providing refuge for displaced Syrians. The European Union and individual European governments should use this agreement as leverage to hold Turkey to its obligations, and urge it to halt current efforts to force some Syrians back to an active war zone.

The United States and European Union should also urge Turkey to honor its obligations under the Temporary Protection Regulation. The regulation lays out the rights of individuals under temporary protection status, including the right to not be forcefully deported to a country where their life will be at risk.

With international attention on Syria waning following the defeat of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate and the survival of the Assad regime, vulnerable communities, such as displaced Syrians in Turkey, now face grave risks, exacerbated by the contentious domestic politics that surround the issue of displacement and migration. The plight of the individuals discussed here should serve as a warning of the new dangers facing Syrians as the war enters its later stages.

Cover Photo: A Turkish military “forbidden zone” marks the border with Syria, near the town of Reyhanli, Turkey. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)