The Tribulations, and Deportations, of Syrian Guests in Turkey

Almost 5,000 Syrian refugee have been deported from Turkey to the Idlib area of Syria, an area still experiencing intense shelling and where 86 people were killed in just one week in July. In this piece, Diane al-Mehdi draws on her research to describe ‘horrendous detention conditions’ and the ‘humiliating’ process of deportation and traces the history of refugee legislation in Turkey to document its impact on the lives of Syrian refugees living in, and being deported from, Turkey. The labelling of Syrian refugees as ‘guests’ (muhacir), with ‘temporary protection status’, removes the protection of (inter)national laws, and the (mis)use and (mis)administration of (kimlik) (temporary protection) ID cards restricts free movement and increases vulnerability to abusive labour practices. It is these state-led actions, al-Mehdi argues, that have enabled the recent and ongoing mistreatment, arrests, and mass detention and deportation of Syrian refugees seeking refuge in Turkey. For those Syrian refugees remaining in Turkey, their lives are becoming increasingly precarious, as, without the protection of (inter)national laws, they are left vulnerable to Turkey’s changing and volatile political environment.

If you found this piece of interest please visit our recommending reading at the end of this post.

This post was originally posted on the Refugee Hosts’ website, here.

The Tribulations, and Deportations, of Syrian Guests in Turkey

By Diane al-Mehdi, Independent Researcher

“I was deported to the Bab el Salameh crossing point on the 16th of July with a group of forty Syrians from different cities. On the journey from Aydin prison to Bab el Salameh we asked the Turkish army to stop because we needed to use bathroom. The bus stopped four hours later. We were then asked to exit the bus in groups to use the bathrooms. We were ten guys facing a wall in an abandoned gas station and were ordered to do it right there because there were no toilets around. After we were done we started to head back to the bus while a Turkish soldier was filming us in this humiliating position, and shouting the sounds a shepherd uses to lead his flock: “Trrrr.. Go on… Trrr”. I stood in front of the soldier and looked at him with hatred another soldier then approached me from behind and started beating me and dragged me to the bus.”

These are the words of Amr Dabool, a young man who was deported from Turkey to Syria despite being registered in the city of Gaziantep and thus having officially been granted temporary protection in Turkey. He recalls the horrendous detention conditions in the centres where Syrians who refused to sign the deportation form have been held and brutalised for several months by Turkish guards. He also reports that, among the people who were deported, were sick men and a child who were also mistreated by the soldiers.

According to Syrian authorities holding the Bab al Hawa crossing, so far in July, 4800 Syrians were deported through this crossing point to Idleb area, an area under intense shelling, where 86 people were killed between 13th and 22nd of July, when the wave of deportations from Istanbul reached its peak. Others were sent to the so-called ‘safe area’ under Turkish control. Officially, only Syrians who had not registered in Turkey and do not hold a kimlik [i.e. temporary protection ID card] or a residence permit were deported. However, among those deported from Istanbul to Syria were Syrians holding kimlik from municipalities other than Istanbul and those who were not carrying their Istanbul-issued kimlik at the time of the arrest (see testimonies by Mhamad Mitavi and Amjad Tablieh). All of the testimonies of Syrian deportees confirm that deportations happen in humiliating conditions, including long bus rides without stops to use the toilet and barely no food, and are accompanied by verbal and physical abuse. Moreover, many Syrians have been forced to sign deportation forms, without which they cannot be deported.

To understand the recent, and ongoing, deportations and the increasingly precarious position of Syrians in Turkey, it is important to take a step back and reflect on the position and everyday challenges that Syrians have faced since the outbreak of conflict in 2011 (also see here).

Syrian ‘guests’ in Turkey: increasing precarity since 2011

As a result of the on-going conflict in Syria, 3.6 million Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey, mainly in cities, where they have actively participated in the local and national economy. Istanbul counts 547,479 Syrian ‘guests’ among which a majority hold kimlik cards from other cities, often issued in border cities as Gaziantep and Urfa, where they first arrived.

Despite falling under the international legal category of ‘refugees’, Syrians have been labelled ‘guests’ (muhacir) in Turkey, a category that became a ‘temporary protection status’ in 2015. As a result, Syrians have a very precarious status in Turkey since they are not protected by (inter)national laws, but by rapidly changing regulations.

Since the 28th of April 2011, Syrians have officially been able to obtain a kimlik upon their arrival in Turkey, and yet the delivery of such ID cards has often been suspended for long periods of time in different regions. Syrians in Istanbul, however, have regularly been unable to obtain their kimlik, as applications have only been accepted on sporadic days, few and far between. Since Syrians cannot reside in the country legally without a kimlik, they were thus forced to register in other municipalities where they do not live or work, in order to benefit from the protection status: this made them ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the Turkish law.

At first, a kimlik allowed Syrians to access healthcare and education free of charge. However, it did not allow one to work, although in industrial cities like Gaziantep and Istanbul Syrian guests have been largely employed by textile workshops, completing 12 hour shifts six days a week for miserable salaries.

Yet, since they started being issued in 2011, the restrictions on kimlik holders have increased and have been dictated by the volatile political climate in the country. At the time of the Turkish General Elections in 2015, Syrians carrying kimlik cards saw themselves temporarily, and then permanently, forbidden from traveling from one province to another without obtaining a travel authorisation from local authorities. Moreover, those who did not hold kimlik saw themselves losing their right to free healthcare in Turkey, even in the case of an emergency. In the summer of 2017, at the time of the referendum a series of new regulations led to the deportation of Syrian employees (mainly working with NGOs and INGOs) to Syria and Sudan (the latter is the only country where Syrians can enter and remain permanently without a visa). In a crackdown on Syrian organisations, Syrian employees holding work permits issued in cities other than the one they were working in, or those without work permits, were detained and asked to choose between being sent back to Syria or deported to Sudan.

The politics of deportations and increasingly unlivable lives in Turkey

The deportations witnessed in mid-July 2019, as well as the enforcement of regulations that limit Syrians’ movement and access to work, inscribes these measures as part of a longer series of attempts to render Syrians’ lives unlivable in Turkey. They are similarly happening in a politically tense context, just a few weeks after the ruling party lost the Istanbul municipality after re-running the elections.

On the 22nd of July, the Istanbul governorate announced in a press release that Syrians in Istanbul have until the 20th of August to return to the place where their kimlik was issued; after that date, they will be forcefully returned there. Those who do not have a kimlik will be sent to cities chosen by the Ministry of Interior and will be registered there. Since the 22nd of July, no deportations have been reported, and yet arrests are still ongoing in Istanbul at the time of writing – Al Jazeera estimates that over a thousand Syrians have been arrested-, lawyers have been banned from visiting detention centers, and police stations deny having detained anyone. The wave of arrests and deportations has been accompanied by an increase in hate speech, discrimination (e.g. refusing to rent properties) and physical violence against Syrians.

These arrests and deportations are only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, a campaign of arrests is happening on the national level. Syrians, even those holding kimlik, are being arrested if they are found at a work place. The workers risk a fine of 3527 TL (the equivalent of 617 US Dollars) and deportation to Syria. But the residency necessary to legally work in Turkey is very hard to obtain and its delivery is unpredictable.

Moreover, a new set of regulations obliges Syrian organisations and businesses to employ 5 Turkish people for every 1 Syrian worker, which reduces current employees’ chance of renewing their work permit. If these new regulations are not respected, employees also face fines and deportation. Finally, Syrians holding kimlik cards can no longer travel outside the province where the card was issued, as travel authorisations are no longer being issued.

This new crackdown on Syrian ‘guests’ in Turkey shows, once again, that Syrians, without proper legal status (i.e. refugee status) are hostage both to Turkish and international politics. Indeed, since the EU-Turkey deal signed in autumn 2015, Syrians’ situation in Turkey has continued to deteriorate as push-backs from Greece became routinized and Syrians trying to flee to Europe became criminalised.


Diane al Mehdi is a member of the Syrian Refugees Protection Network (SRPN). All data referred to in this post has been collected by this group. 

At the date of posting, despite announcements to the contrary issued by the Turkish authorities, detentions and deportations were ongoing from detention centres in Turkey


If you found this piece of interest please visit our recommended reading below:

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) ‘The Changing Faces of UNRWA: From the Global to the Local,’ Journal of Humanitarian Affairs, 1 (1): 28-41. (Open Access here – the article examines the insecure employment and pension situations of Palestinian refugees employed by UNRWA against the backdrop of a preference for so-called ‘refugee self-reliance’ programmes)

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Anti-Syrian banners and graffiti in context: racism, counter-racism and solidarity for refugee in Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Palestinian refugees lament as Trump funding cuts create job insecurity and a pension crisis

Greatrick, A. (2018) Sounds from Istiklal, Turkey

Greatrick, A. (2017) Photo Gallery: Istanbul

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A day with displacement Syrians in Southern Turkey

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) Loss and Everyday Life on the Syrian-Turkish Border

Ozturk, M. (2019) Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Rowlands, A.  (2018) Turkey – Crossroads for the Displaced

Steinberg, A. (2019) Sustaining protracted displacements: A brief history of labor policy for Jordan’s refugees.

Featured image: Syrian artist Mohammad al Haj Ahmad expresses his community’s feelings towards their ‘temporary protection status’ in the wake of mass deportation and new regulations affecting Syrians’ freedom of movement and work in Turkey.

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