Syrians sit at a coffee shop

'I'm being strangled here': Refugees returned by Turkey to Syria say conditions are bleak

In the Turkish city of Istanbul, police have continued a stepped-up campaign of random ID checks in immigrant neighborhoods. This week, officials acknowledged that 19,000 people have been deported over the past eight months. It’s not clear how many of them are Syrians.

The World

In this photo taken on July 31, 2019, Syrians pass time at a coffee shop in an Istanbul neighborhood where many Syrians live. Syrians say Turkey has been detaining and forcing some Syrian refugees to return back to their country over the past year. The expulsions reflect increasing anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey, which opened its doors to millions of Syrians fleeing their country's civil war.

Mehmet Guzel/AP

Seven months ago, Ahmed earned a good living as a tailor in Istanbul, supporting his wife and their 10-year-old son.

They had fled the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2012, around the start of the country’s civil war, as the front lines drew closer to their home. They built a new life for themselves in Turkey, making friends and learning the language.

But all of it came crashing down last January when Ahmed was stopped by authorites for a random ID check on his way home from the grocery store, and deported to Syria, despite having legal papers that allowed him to live in Turkey.

“I’m being strangled here,” Ahmed said. “I just want to return to my wife and son. That’s the bottom line.”

Because he is in a part of the country controlled by pro-Turkish militias, The World is not publishing his last name out of concern for his safety.

Ahmed’s story has strong parallels to testimonies given by other Syrians who say they were arrested at random checkpoints, detained and coerced or forced to sign legal documents saying they were voluntarily returning to Syria.

It’s part of a larger sweep that has been ramping up in Turkey since January.

In the Turkish city of Istanbul, police have continued a stepped-up campaign of random ID checks in immigrant neighborhoods. This past week, officials acknowledged that at least 19,000 people in the city have been deported over the past eight months. It’s not clear how many of them are Syrians. A government spokesman declined to comment on the cases mentioned in this story. 

“No sane person would voluntarily return to Syria at this point,” said Nesreen Alresh, a Gaziantep-based activist working with the Voices for Displaced Syrians Forum (VDSF). “People risked their lives to be here, they didn’t come as tourists.”

Syria, a nation of 17.5 million people, remains controlled by militias and government forces, with clashes breaking out regularly. With 90% of the population living below the poverty line, millions of people are relying on humanitarian aid, deliveries of which are unreliable and based on agreements between warring factions.

And yet, sending Syrians back to Syria is a popular idea among Turkish voters. It has become an election promise for opposition candidates, as reports of hate crimes and bullying toward Syrian refugees continue to rise.

On May 3, in a televised address, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a government plan to resettle up to a million Syrian refugees in parts of Syria under Turkish control. The country has already begun to build 100,000 cinder block homes funded by relief groups.

“We have not only opened our doors to save the lives and dignity of the oppressed, but we have also made every effort to help them return to their homes,” Erdoğan said. “We believe that our God bestows much more on us.”

Already, Erdoğan said that 500,000 refugees have resettled in “safe zones” created by the Turkish military in northern Syria.

The United Nations, however, estimates the number of total refugee returns from Turkey to be closer to 140,000 across the entire country of Syria.

And yet, these returns are likely not entirely voluntary. In a VSDF report based on interviews with returnees from several nations to Syria, 22% of respondents said they were forced by their host countries to return. Another 16% said they were pressured by authorities to go.

The returns have put families like Ahmed’s in a precarious situation.

Ahmed is the primary breadwinner for his wife and son and his deportation to Syria, he said, has left them homeless.

“My family sold the furniture, and now they’re living with the neighbors,” Ahmed said. “Business owners won’t allow women to work if they have a child.” 

Desperate, he scraped together a personal loan to send her 500 Turkish liras, or $28.

His only hope at this point, he said, is to borrow enough money to pay smugglers to help him cross the border back into Turkey. He would be breaking the law for the first time, he said, but it would potentially enable him to bring a case to court alleging that he was wrongly deported.

“I dare to speak because I know that I’ve done nothing wrong,” Ahmed said. 

‘I have no criminal cases against me’

Ahmed’s experience isn’t isolated.

Hussein, a Syrian refugee who says he was deported from Istanbul in March, recalls being stopped by a plainclothes policeman who asked to see his ID. He presented a temporary protection card given to Syrian refugees in Turkey, but admitted that he had had difficulties updating his information in an online system two months prior.

To his surprise, he was handcuffed and taken on a bus with dozens of others to a migrant detention center.

“I have no criminal cases against me, nothing,” he said.

After 10 days in detention, Hussein said that he and 150 others were put on a bus, and sent to Kilis, a city on Turkey’s eastern border with Syria. He remembers a fenced area with low, prefabricated containers used in construction areas. People were told to wait outside before being called into the trailer in groups of five.

There, Hussein said, a Syrian translator told the men to sign papers so they could return to their home city, Istanbul. But some members of the group spoke Turkish and realized that they were being asked to sign a document agreeing to “voluntarily return” to Syria.

"They said, 'Sign it with your dignity — or you’ll be beaten,'" Hussein said.

Hussein said he personally witnessed men who refused to sign and were beaten into submission. Word spread quickly, down the line.

So, he signed.

The group was bussed across the border, into a section of Syria under the control of Turkish-backed militias.

Hussein has been there ever since. In Turkey, he was working to support his family — his wife and two children stayed in Syria. He was hoping to bring them to Turkey.

Now, he said, he has no work and no prospects. Utilities are minimal — his family relies on expensive water deliveries and privately generated electricity.

Also, he worries about an expected military incursion from Turkey, which Erdoğan has said he is planning in an effort to combat Kurdish militias accused of working with the PKK. 

Complicating matters, these militias are also backed by the United States, a NATO ally.

“The security situation is stable now, but it can turn upside down at any moment,” Hussein said.

Translation from Arabic provided by Kinan Diab of the Voices for Displaced Syrians Forum.

Related: Jackie Chan is producing a movie in Syria. Some Syrians are outraged.

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