The legal status of Syrians seeking asylum in Turkey is extremely precarious, despite Turkey being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and host to the largest number of Syrian refugees. This can be attributed to Turkey’s Temporary Protection Regulation, which does not grant them full refugee status, and the 2015 deal with the European Union.
There are over 3 million Syrians living in these obscure legal conditions which recently took an ugly turn under newly imposed martial laws, as the Turkish government started a harsh crackdown on dissidence in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016.
The crackdown has employed a seemingly random logic, affecting those beyond the ‘usual suspects’ (i.e., Kurdish activists and the Gülen Movement, which was accused of plotting the putsch) to reach anyone that could be remotely affiliated with them. Consequently, Syrian refugees and residents were affected alike.
The targets of these repressive measures have included INGOs, and their foreign and Syria staff, working to deliver international aid to Syrians in Turkey and in northern Syria, and especially those active in Kurdish-controlled areas.
However, the crackdown has even reached foreign university students who are apparently not affiliated with any international activities. These students now face deportation despite their residence permits.
Hanan Martini’s sister, was working for the US-based International Medical Corps (IMC)in Gaziantep, a city in south-eastern Turkey north of the Syrian border. On April 20, the Turkish police raided their office. “They checked residence permits, work permits, staff listings and contracts, anything they could think of to find some irregularity,” Martini told Syria Untold.
The only irregularity found was that the staff’s work permits were issued for work in Hatay province while the office was operating in Gaziantep, and so all foreign staff were arrested. “The European staff were deported to Europe, while the Syrians were held in the detention [deportation] center. I cannot begin to explain you how terrible conditions were there. The IMC lawyer told them they would’ve been far better off in a regular Turkish prison.”
Hanan’s mother tried to visit her detained daughter there through the help of the appointed lawyer, to no avail. “She went there early that day and waited for hours. Later on, my sister told us she had seen her from her room window and waved at her. But she was not allowed to enter,” said Martini.
After two weeks of detention, the IMC staff were finally released, though their legal status remains unclear. “They had no grounds to jail them for two weeks to begin with. The administrative irregularity was so minor, and the organization was responsible for that, not the staff. She is now considering options of moving somewhere else, and so is the organization all together. You cannot trust the situation here [in Turkey] anymore.”
Maysah[i], the wife of a detainee from another INGO, said in a conversation via Facebook: “Those detained all face ‘security threat’ accusations. Those who actually face real charges will be able to openly consult their files. But if there is nothing against them and no evidence, they [the Turkish authorities] will say that it’s a high security issue that no one is allowed to learn about, not even the appointed lawyer. I feel like I’m back in Syria!”
In ‘NGO-packed’ Gaziantep, rumors abound as to the reasons behind the crackdown. Speaking to several Syrian NGO employees under anonymity conditions, SyriaUntold was told by some that the reasons behind the raids were the rise of nationalist tendencies after the attempted coup, and a desire for the Turkish government to tighten its control over the financial resources and operations of these organizations.
Others claimed there is a push to employ more Turkish citizens in these INGOs, as evidenced by some of the new regulations introducing higher quotas of Turkish employees in each organization.
However, the possibility of this occurring still seems far-fetched to those we spoke with, as the Syrian employees’ knowledge of their country and its language cannot be fully replaced by Turkish staff, at least not without these organizations’ functionality being seriously hindered.
A third opinion favored international relations as the driver behind the crackdown, since so far Syrian NGOs have not been the primary targets of these raids. The EU’s failure to hold up its promises to remove visa restrictions for Turkish citizens and facilitate Ankara’s access to the EU have motivated the Turkish government to apply pressure against the EU’s outreach, operations, and citizens on Turkish territories.
Furthermore, EU and US support for Kurds in northern Syria has been unwelcome by the Turkish government, which has reignited its military campaign against Kurdish insurgency in Eastern Turkey and Iraq since mid-2015, and most recently in Syria. Over the past two years, INGOs have been increasingly accused in Turkish media of funneling support to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) under the guise of aid for Syrians.
What all those we spoke with seem to agree on, however, is that the days of INGO work in Turkey as they know it are over, and that they are all looking for other options to move elsewhere in the foreseeable future.
The University “Terrorists”
Fadel, a Syrian university teacher, left Aleppo in 2014 and moved to Gaziantep with his wife and children. At first he took a teaching position at Zirve University for a year, then left it in 2015 and began teaching at other Turkish universities.
After the coup attempt of July 2016 was blamed on Fethullah Gülen, Zirve University was shut down for alleged connections to the US-based preacher, and its approximately 10,000 students were transferred to other universities to continue their studies. This included almost a thousand foreign students, an estimated 300 of whom are Syrian.
When Fadel went to renew his annual residence permit in January 2017, he was told that there were some irregularities in his file that needed to be cleared out, and was requested to provide extra documentation. Upon his return a week later, his passport was confiscated and he was asked to remain in the waiting hall for several hours. “When I walked close to the door, I was stopped by a security officer that asked me where I was going. That is when I knew this was not a normal delay, I was being arrested,” he told SyriaUntold.
Fadel was taken to a EU-funded reception center for refugees, which was turned into a detention and deportation center. “The building had sport facilities and open grounds around it, but we were only allowed to move on the floor of our room, and only between 6am and midnight. Our mobile phones were confiscated, we were not allowed contact with the outside world and visits were not allowed.”
(Zirve University in Gaziantep. The university was shut down in 2016 due to its alleged ties with the Gülen Movement. Syrian former students have been arrested and deported by Turkish authorities under legally inconsistent charges)
With him were two of his previous Syrian students from Zirve University and two other foreign students. Together they organized a hunger strike on April 25, demanding a solution for their situation.
“When we first arrived, they tried to make us sign some documents without explaining what they were. One of them was in Turkish, with random handwritten Arabic translation on it. I just read the words ‘voluntary repatriation[ii]’ and I refused to sign. They tried again a few days later, it was in Turkish only this time, but I had learned Turkish since coming here, and I refused again,” said Fadel.
Meanwhile, Bilal, a close relative of one of the detained students and an ex-Zirve University student himself, told us that his own bank account was suspended pending investigation, as he is now wanted for interrogation too, along with seven other ex-students he knows.
His residency permit has expired but learning from his relative’s harsh experience, he chose not to try to renew it. “I want to try to finish this academic year at least, before I have to leave the country. My relative was dismissed from his new university ten days after his arrest, based on an order from the Turkish authorities.”
The fact that some of the detained students submitted documents proving that they had enrolled at Zirve University thanks to an NGO-funded scholarship, and not by their own choice, did not help their case either.
After three days of hunger strike, Fadel’s health deteriorated. He was taken to hospital, where he still refused to eat, so he was given a serum and then sent back to the detention center. On the sixth day, they were reassured the situation would be resolved, so they broke their strike and received a visit from the head of the Provincial Directorate of Migration Management in Gaziantep reassuring them that he would find a solution.
“But their solution was deportation. They know that according to Turkish law they cannot send us back to a war zone, unless we volunteer to, so they said: ‘If you don’t sign your voluntary repatriation, you will stay here for a year.’ They know my situation, they know I’m a father and I have responsibilities,” said Fadel.
It has been legally argued that one of the main reasons against considering Turkey to be a “safe third country” for EU members to send asylum seekers back to are the instances of forced or “voluntary” repatriation of asylum seekers. According to article 4 of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, refoulement is prohibited in Turkey. However, under the newly imposed martial laws, a new decree was announced (decree number 676, art. 35), stating that it may be permitted if the individuals in question are linked to terrorist organizations. This has further supported the argument against Turkey as a safe third country, upon which the EU-Turkey 2015 agreement was based.
Orcun Ulusoy, a Turkish lawyer and researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, clarified that “the concept of ‘safe third country’ is in itself against the soul of the [1951 refugee] convention. UNHCR has issued a position paper against it. It emerged in the EU in the 1980s to establish a concept of very safe European countries and third countries elsewhere that could also be considered safe if the refugees face no risk of refoulement. In Turkey, the term ‘safe third country’ was added to legislation without a clear definition of its meaning.”
Fadel told SyriaUntold that no accusations of being associated with the now-banned Gülen Movement was made against them at any stage in their detention or interrogation: “We kept asking the staff what our accusation was, […] they just kept saying: ‘You know what you’ve done’ and nothing more.”
Asked about the legal nuances of the alleged charges, Turkish lawyer Ulusoy explained that “it is an administrative decision based on intelligence reports that decides who a terrorist is, not a court decision.” Deportation is also an administrative ruling, but a court order could accept or revoke it. Nonetheless, since no court decision is issued on terrorism charges, there is no verdict that can be revoked in a court either. “I am aware of some cases where the lawyers of these foreigners took the administrative deportation orders to court. However, courts refused or did not find it necessary to discuss the legality or process of labelling [them as terrorists]. […] The problem is detainees are regularly misinformed [about their rights] and access to legal representation is very hard,” concluded Ulusoy.
Since Fadel speaks Arabic, English, and Turkish, he was often requested to help with translation during his detention, which exposed him to several other cases there. He said there were entire families, women and children, on another floor, in addition to two male minors on the floor he was held.
“Treatment was so bad: threats, solitary confinement, even beatings were used to force people to sign the ‘voluntary’ departure document. If you got sick and needed medication, even if it was prescribed to you by the center’s doctor himself, you had to pay for it yourself,” he explained.
He told SyriaUntold of one case he witnessed of a diabetic man that was denied insulin for four days until he accepted to pay for it himself. Then the staff reportedly refused to refrigerate it and give him the necessary needle. “On the sixth day I went down to their office and told them: ‘This man’s life is in danger, he should be taking his medication twice a day. If anything happens to him, it is your responsibility.’ At hearing that, the employee went up to the second floor and fetched the needle. That was all he needed to do!”, recalled Fadel.
More worryingly was the case of a Syrian boy, whose age had been registered by Turkish authorities as 20 when he had entered Turkey without any official identifying documents. The boy, who clearly looked younger according to Fadel, was put into solitary confinement for almost two weeks to force him to sign a “voluntary” repatriation statement.
“The room door had a glass window; one of the other detainees saw him trying to hang himself with the curtain rope and informed the staff. That day they put another detainee with him in the room, and he later signed the statement to return to Syria.” Fadel had no further information about the fate of the boy since he left the detention center.
Deported to Sudan
Fadel was ‘lucky’ enough to hire a lawyer to follow his case, at his own expense. “If the [first instance] court in Gaziantep had ruled to deport me, I could have appealed to the [constitutional] court in Ankara to revoke that sentence because Syria is not a safe country. So what they did is that they simply did not give a verdict. Normally they can’t delay it so long, but now, under the emergency laws, they can do anything.”
Ulusoy added: “There is also the option of applying directly to the European Court of Human Rights to pause the implementation of the deportation, in order to have time for the Turkish court procedures.” Nonetheless, Fadel’s lawyer did not inform him about this possibility.
He was held for over three months until he finally signed a one-year-ban from Turkey and was released. Since he could not return to Syria, he told us the only countries left to which he could travel as a Syrian national without the need of a prior visa were Malaysia, Sudan and Mauritania.
“Malaysia only grants a three-month tourist visa [upon arrival], then I have to leave again. Mauritania needs some sort of local guarantee sponsor, and Sudan does not accept cases of deportation. So being the ones deporting me, the Turkish authorities paid for my ticket to Malaysia, then I paid another ticket from there to Sudan” explained Fadel.
But the Malaysia route was not the norm for all deportees. Shamel, another detainee who was also deported, shared his experience over Facebook. “I don’t know on what bases they told us we would be going to Sudan directly, but they said we had to buy tickets from there to another country, so that the Sudanese police would know we were not going to live there. We bought tickets from Sudan to Cyprus, and the deportation was carried out on these grounds.” Nonetheless, he confirmed that most detainees are not allowed into Sudan for the aforementioned reason.
Overall, the legality of the process is rather vague. Firstly, article 9 of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection allows the Turkish authorities to ban foreigners from re-entering the country for up to five years. If the matter is related to national security, that could reach ten years. The ban is actually an administrative decision that could be revoked in a court. However, it is not clear why Turkish authorities would insist on someone signing a ban that lasts one year only, when Syrians now need to be issued a visa to enter Turkey if they do not hold residency permits, and Fadel was detained while trying to renew his expiring residency.
Secondly, as a country that is signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, Sudan should accept those individuals’ entry request despite their being deported. However, there are no laws that force governments to accept the entry of any nationals other than their own, and Syrians being deported to Sudan risk being returned to Turkey if Sudan refuses their entry. Therefore, it seems that the route via Malaysia was occasionally the solution for the Turkish authorities to make sure the Syrians do not return to Turkey even if Sudan rejects them.
Despite her valid residence permit, Fadel’s wife left with their children to join him in Sudan, leaving behind her own studies as a senior student in her final year of her bachelor’s degree at a Turkish university.
Fadel was still struggling to understand his losses as he spoke to us: His young children had learned Turkish at school and could not read or write in Arabic and he had established his own business in Gaziantep, in addition to teaching, with what little he had managed to get out of Syria. Now he has lost all that and has to start from scratch again in a country, Sudan, with very little opportunities for its own citizens.
Syrian residents in Turkey told SyriaUntold that they are increasingly convinced that these repatriation pressures are to be ascribed to the Ankara-backed “safe zones” solution. “I had left Zirve a year before the coup attempt. I know of several previous students of mine who continued their studies in other universities and their residence permits were renewed normally. They are randomly selecting some people. They just want to register names of people that volunteer to leave for to the ‘safe zones’ they’ve made in northern Syria, to promote them as a solution. They even told me in the center to sign, cross the borders into Syria, then sneak back to Turkey if I wanted to. They don’t mind me living in Turkey, they just want to show border crossing registry of returning Syrians,” said Fadel.
Now that all these INGO staff and ex-students with valid passports have been deported from Turkey, the life-threatening risk remains for those who do not hold valid travel documents, because the only country they can be sent to is Syria. Therefore, unless their families manage to convince the Syrian Consulate in Turkey to issue them new passports, they might remain incommunicado in those deportation centers, or be returned to the war-zone.
Ulusoy, the law researcher, further elaborated on this loophole. “Normally they stay in detention for up to one year, then they are released, but if they are accused of terrorism, it can take longer. There is no time limit mentioned in the martial law.”