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Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Legal Frameworks and Recent Developments

Syrians in Turkey are currently coping with a broad set of challenges that human rights defenders are tackling with their limited means, from administrative complexities, restriction of movement, precarity and lack of integration, policy changes, securitization, to exposure to xenophobic rhetoric, racist crimes, arbitrary arrests, forced displacement to Northern Syria, and fears of reconciliation as Turkey is laying the ground for closer political relations with the Syrian regime. Yet, at the same time, they try to be integrated, support their families, send their children to school, and have access to healthcare structures. Integration success varies significantly according to age, gender, social class, marital status, and regions, among other factors.

Hamza Ajjan, Ali Hamdan al-Asani, Ghina Abu Saleh, Sherif Khaled al-Ahmad, Mamoun al-Nabhan, Ahmed Al-Ali, Muhammed el-Bish, Nail al-Naif, Sultan Jabna, and Faris Muhammed Al-Ali: these are all names of young victims of hate crimes committed by Turkish nationals among the Turkish-based Syrian community. Such crimes are leaving Syrians feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and result in deep feelings of trauma, fear, and insecurity as in most cases, justice fails to be served.

Due to its geographical proximity to Syria and Europe, Turkey officially shelters more than 3.7 million Syrian refugees, representing 4.4 percent of the total population, a number which greatly increased between 2013 and 2017 due to the country’s open door policy. Turkey also welcomes migrants fleeing other countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Social, educational, and protection infrastructures that had to be built from scratch to address these arrivals do not offer the same opportunities as the European ones in terms of language and integration, underlines Inas Al-Najjar, director of communication of the Syrian National Coalition’s Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee.

Syrians in Turkey are currently coping with a broad set of challenges that human rights defenders are tackling with their limited means, from administrative complexities, restriction of movement, precarity and lack of integration, policy changes, securitization, to exposure to xenophobic rhetoric, racist crimes, arbitrary arrests, forced displacement to Northern Syria, and fears of reconciliation as Turkey is laying the ground for closer political relations with the Syrian regime. Yet, at the same time, they try to be integrated, support their families, send their children to school, and have access to healthcare structures. Integration success varies significantly according to age, gender, social class, marital status, and regions, among other factors.

Building a national immigration framework at a fast pace

Turkey’s immigration policy was regulated by the 1950 Law No. 5683 on “Residence and Travel of Foreigners in Turkey.” In 2013, Law No. 6458 on “Foreigners and International Protection” was implemented and established the Presidency of Migration Management under the interior ministry and its 81 “Provincial Migration Management” directorates. With this, Turkey adopted a state-centric model with an approach that made residence permits tied to provinces. Today the main actors of Turkey’s asylum policy are the Presidency of Migration Management and the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency.

Under this system, however, refugee status is only granted to applicants from “member States of the Council of Europe as well as other countries to be determined by the Council of Ministers,” since Turkey implements geographical limits to the 1951 Geneva Convention. In addition to this, Turkey does not grant refugees the right to settle down in the country in the long term or obtain citizenship, removing all perspectives of potential integration.

There were 224,655 Syrians under temporary protection in Turkey in January 2013. Twelve months later, their number reached 1.5 million. To deal with the massive arrival of refugees, the council of ministers adopted in October 2014 a complementary regulation on temporary protection focusing on Syrian nationals, as well as stateless persons and refugees from Syria. Refugees can benefit from “temporary protection,” which in theory offers them the possibility to obtain a work permit with the 2016 work permit regulation, but also gives them access to healthcare and education services, social assistance, and psychological support. Camps were established for the more vulnerable.

Potentially granting citizenship to Syrians remains an important taboo in the society as tensions against them are rising. Since 2016, Ankara has granted exceptional citizenship to a small number of Syrians. The selection criteria remain however very opaque, seemingly on an invitational basis and strongly depending on the applicant’s educational background and social class. Exceptions were also demanded for minority ethnic groups such as Turkmens from Syria. Overall, the segmentation of migrants associated with complex procedures created confusion, frustration, and incomprehension among foreigners.

For Inas Al-Najjar, the Turkish government was not familiar enough with the Syrian society and its mindset: “in Syria, we do not have the same administrative system and we are not used to these procedures. For example, we do not inform the government when we move to a new location…the government needs to give us clear instructions.”

Influence of the EU’s neighboring policy

Turkey’s proximity to the EU also affects its policies. As Syrians, among other migrants, were crossing Turkey to reach Europe, Southern European countries voiced concerns regarding the crossings along the Western-Balkan road, which they stated threatened European stability. In the follow-up of the 2013 readmission agreement of irregular migrants, the EU Council and Turkey reached an agreement in March 2016, which aimed to stop irregular migrations to Europe.

Both parties agreed that all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece as of March 20, 2016 would be returned to Turkey, while for every Syrian deported to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian would be resettled in the EU. As part of the deal, Turkey would take measures to prevent new sea or land routes for irregular migration. To support Turkey’s efforts, The EU promised to speed up the disbursement of the initially allocated a little of $3 billion under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey and added additional funding of up to an additional $3 billion by the end of 2018. In September 2016, the European Commission announced the creation of an Emergency Social Safety Net of $357million. Up to one million of the most vulnerable refugees were set to receive monthly cash-transfers via an electronic card, which would help them meet their basic needs.

From a progressive policy to a hostile one in 2019

Up until 2016, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP implemented hospitable policies toward Syrians and Erdoğan expressed the will to care for those he regularly referred to as “brothers.” Syrians were automatically granted a temporary protection ID card named Kimlik upon registration. Concomitantly to the construction of a wall separating Turkey from Syria, the ministry of interior introduced changes complexifying the procedures.

Moreover, for Al-Najjar, in the aftermath of the 2018 economic crisis and 2019 municipal elections, the Turkish opposition started to use Syrians as scapegoats and resorted to hate speech to win votes. She vividly remembers the night of August 11, 2021, when shops and houses were violently vandalized by a hundred Turkish men in eastern Ankara following reports of a knife attack committed by a Syrian refugee on two Turkish men.

The situation is only deteriorating on the ground, affecting every aspect of Syrians’ lives. In July 2019, the Istanbul governorate decided to expel Syrians who were not registered in the city or were registered in other regions. In February 2022, quotas were imposed by the Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu to limit the number of foreigners to 25 percent in all neighborhoods, leading the government to close areas to new foreign residents in 16 provinces. Earlier this October, these restrictions led to seven areas in Istanbul to be closed to newcomers. The government could also send foreign residents to other neighborhoods should the quota be reached. In March 2022, thousands of Syrians also received a text message informing them that their Kimlik was canceled, leaving them without being officially registered.

Fears culminated in May of this year, when Erdoğan announced a plan for the voluntary return of one million Syrians. Following this declaration, civil society witnessed the multiplication of arrests of Syrians and Kimlik withdrawals as well as testimonies of detention and forced signatures on repatriation sheets. Human Rights Watch reported hundreds of Syrians forced to sign voluntary return forms before being forcibly deported between February and July 2022. Early September 2022, 300 Syrian refugees living in the Osmaniye camp in the Hatay province were deported to Northern Syria, despite having been informed that they would be granted official documents. In October, 57 Syrians—35 of whom are children—returned to Syria from Esenyurt, a district in Istanbul, as part of the voluntary return program. A Turkish official confirmed in October that Turkey was continuing its program of voluntary returns.

Finally, during this summer, the events took another turn when Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recognized having met his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad in October 2021. The possible restoration of diplomatic ties between both states left Syrians fearing for their lives, as cooperation with Damascus could lead Turkey to deport people wanted by the regime, including activists, journalists, former officials who left the regime, and army deserters.

Response to growing threats

For Taha Elgazi, a renowned activist for refugees’ rights, Turkish politicians paved the way for xenophobia to push Syrians to leave, “as aggressions are being instrumentalized, people are starting to consider going back to Syria,” he explains. Elgazi volunteers independently with victims’ families who struggle to access justice, and fear exercising their rights. Despite the difficulties that he faces, he collaborates with Turkish authorities, organizations, and media outlets. In the hope to see politicians set aside their anti-Syrian rhetoric, he participates in advocacy meetings with prominent Turkish political figures and parties’ representatives.

Ghazwan Koronful is the director of the association Free Syrian Lawyers (FSL) which was founded in 2012 and is present in Turkey and Northern Syria. He agrees that the ongoing wave of hostility faced by Syrians in Turkey is the result of political motivations, leaving them terrified: “legal processes must be implemented faster so that people feel safer. At the moment, Syrians keep a low profile and avoid speaking in Arabic in public, in fear of becoming the targets.”

Successes under international law

Koronful emphasizes the significant role that international and human rights laws can play, as they do not allow forced deportations to Northern Syria, a region characterized by its instability due to fights between militias, air raids, sociodemographic challenges, the dire humanitarian situation, and the lack of adequate infrastructure.

The principle of non-refoulement which prohibits states from sending back individuals at risk of harm was successfully invoked by the international director of Prisoners Defenders Asia Kurtuluş Baştimar who represented Syrian human rights activist Anas al Mustafa before the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (opinion no. 12 of 2022). Anas was arrested on May 15, 2020, by Turkish authorities, and was forced to sign a voluntary return form before getting deported to Syria on May 22. By doing so, the Turkish state violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Anas, who made it back to Turkey by crossing the mountains illegally, is entitled to have his status regularized while Ankara facilitates his travels to a third country. For the international counselor, this case constitutes a capital step guaranteeing Anas’ security, as the verdict is binding based on the Turkish constitution. Despite this and after waiting for his Kimlik card to be issued, a Turkish administrative court ruled on November 1 in favor of deporting Anas to Syria.

On June 21 2022, Syrian national Muhammad Fawzi Akkad also won request no. 1557/19 against Turkey before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after having faced “inhumane treatments” in 2018 and being forcibly and illegally deported to Syria by the Turkish authorities “under the guise of voluntary return.” When he was arrested, Akkad was benefiting from the “temporary protection” status and was trying to reach Greece near the Maritsa river. He was sent back to Syria two days later. According to the ECHR, both Turkish law and the European Convention of Human Rights were violated, and Turkey should pay Akkad a fine for moral damage and the costs of the procedure.

According to Koronful of the FSL, “if a person gets arrested, they should immediately contact a lawyer who will appeal the decision. [People arrested should not] sign any paper.” As most Syrians do not have the resources to hire a professional, he calls for volunteers based in Europe to lend them a hand in submitting the necessary documents to the ECHR.

Shedding light on women and children’s struggles

Nesreen Alresh is the board chief of Jana Watan, an organization working in the humanitarian sector and supporting civil society. She insists that hate crimes must be integrated into the Turkish general law, as in its current state, racism and hate crimes are not part of the country’s legal framework. Only article 122 of the penal code penalizes discrimination in the context of economic activity, while article 10 of the constitution guarantees people’s equality before the law without distinction.

Her association reports on deportations while supporting families, women and youth, who are, she insists, particularly exposed to violence and xenophobia. “Racism begins in the classrooms,” where fights between Syrian and Turkish children frequently escalate into family disputes. As a result, Syrian families are afraid to send their children to school. Young girls also face animosity due to the way they wear their hijab, making them easily recognizable. Finally, according to Alresh, women are exploited, harassed, and underpaid at work.

The Turkish family law also harms uninformed young brides as they face the consequences of underage marriage and polygamy, two illegal practices in Turkey which can lead to legal action and deprive their children of legal status. Finally, women are deeply affected by forced deportations: when their husbands get arrested, they become in charge of the family, must provide for it, and decide whether to stay or return.

A bilateral diplomatic initiative: the Syrian-Turkish joint committee

Created in 2019 on behalf of the Turkish ministry of interior and the Syrian National Coalition, the Syrian-Turkish joint joint committee aims to tackle Syrians’ lack of diplomatic representation in Turkey. For Al-Najjar, the committee works toward “promoting [Syrians’] integration, delivering their voices, and improving community services and bilateral exchanges,” as the coalition itself cannot deal with the struggles affecting Syrians all over Turkey.

She denounces the instrumentalization of the Syrian community, “on one hand stuck between Turkey and the rest of the world, and on the other hand, constituting an issue between the different political sides inside the country, when what they really need is a political solution in Syria to go back home.” According to her, this situation is the responsibility of the European Union, a point of view shared by Baştimar: “the EU did not pass its human rights exam.”

Al-Najjar understands the frustration expressed by many of her compatriots as well as the criticism that they address the Syrian-Turkish joint committee, perceived as powerless. However, she stresses on their efforts to collaborate with the ministries of education, foreign affairs, interior, health, labor, family and social services, the presidency of migration management, as well as the police and security forces to inform them about people’s daily troubles and propose concrete solutions.

“As Syrians, the EU’s double standards regarding refugees deeply affect us,” she adds, “we saw injustice and slacking at all levels.”

The level of pressure applied on the Syrian population in Turkey could lead to even more tragic developments and open a new dark chapter. According to several Arabic-speaking media outlets, a caravan of refugees, mostly Syrian and Afghan nationals, organized itself through Telegram groups. Hundreds joined the “caravan of light,” to escape deteriorating living conditions in Turkey and forced returns, and tried to reach Greece before getting stopped at the border. According to the organizer of the campaign who is calling on all countries to facilitate their movement, “the Turkish state carried Syrians in their heart and soul […]; the EU should bear part of the burden to relieve the Turkish people.” 

Elise Daniaud Oudeh is a researcher and PhD candidate in Politics at LUISS University, Italy.


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