HAREKACT NEWSLETTER VIII – July – September 2019

The official migration policy in Turkey has shifted in the summer months. The government has made serious alterations in its treatment of Syrians and other migrants in the country in response to increasing domestic pressure caused by anti-migrant sentiments, and as a means of political leverage to force the EU into supporting their plans for a ‘safe-zone’ buffer in North Syria. Just recently president Erdoğan emphasized his plans of sending up to three million Syrians in these so called ‘safe-zones’. Mid-July witnessed the start of an intense deportation campaign to the regions of north Aleppo and Idlib, which goes to show how serious Erdoğan is about his plans. In early September 2019, Erdoğan announced to “open the gates to Europe” should the EU not provide further financial support for the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country. Meanwhile, the number of migrants arriving to the Greek islands has already increased immensely during the summer months.

The start of July witnessed heightened cases of anti-Syrian discrimination and xenophobia, including Syrians living in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Küçükçekmece being lynched after false claims were made that an underage Syrian boy verbally harassed a Turkish underage girl. Syrian shops were damaged, some lootings reported and police intervened with water cannons and tear gas. Between 15 June and 1 July Turkish authorities inspected 730 places of business with Arabic shop signs in Istanbul with the aim of ensuring that signs have 75 percent of their content in Turkish and only 25 percent in other languages (see more in Turkish, in English). Syrians were banned from public beaches, in some municipalities in the country, blamed for inciting disorder and targeted by various social media campaigns. The hashtag #SuriyelilerDefoluyor translated as “Syrians Fuck off” but more accurately meaning “Syrians are getting the hell out of here” was trending on twitter in early July. Xenophobia was directly institutionalised in local governance policy by a newly elected CHP mayor in Bolu, who cut municipal financial aid to Syrians and other asylum seekers, and refused to grant them municipal permits to open businesses.

An abrupt change in policy towards Syrians, which also targeted other migrants and asylum seekers, was announced by a mass deportation campaign initiated in mid July. It was prefigured by a speech which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made on 13 July 2019 in which he stated that Turkey was preparing a series of policy changes regarding the country’s Syrian refugees, including the deportation of criminals and ending free healthcare services:

Mass Deportation Campaign

Starting from mid July, Turkish authorities increased their stop-and-search checks around Istanbul, targeting Syrians without registration papers (including those who were registered in other cities) or for working informally and allegedly detaining and deporting individuals to Syria after forcing them to sign a “voluntary repatriation” form.

The governorate of Istanbul announced that between 12 – 31 July they had sent around 12,500 migrants to removal centers to be deported. During the same period, they said they had transferred 2,600 Syrians “without temporary protection status, or registry and proper identification” to “pre-determined provinces”. Together, security forces intercepted more than 15,000 people in just 20 days. The Migration Management authorities claimed that those who were deported were involved in crime or living unregistered in Turkey, while those who were not previously living in their cities of registration were being returned to those cities. The Istanbul governorate announced on 28 July 2019 that Syrians in Istanbul who were either registered in other cities or were not registered at all would have until 20 August to leave the city and register elsewhere. They subsequently extended this date until 30 October.

However, many reports from journalists, lawyers, activists and academics indicate that the deportations are forced, that Syrians are being returned to a war zone, and that they constitute a breach of the international laws which Turkey is committed to (see statements from Mülteci-Der, Human Rights Watch, several NGOs, Groups and the Progressive Lawyer Association).

The solidarity initiative ‘We want to Live Together’ (Birlikte Yaşamak Istiyoruz Inisiyatifi) released a comprehensive report, entitled “Two Weeks of Deportations” which details a few accounts of the deportations, forced signing of voluntary return documents and ill-treatment of Syrians at the hands of Turkish armed forces.

“Control-oriented practices such as return to registration city, travel bans, and “satellite cities” mean migrants are being deprived of their most basic rights, such as housing, work and education. People who were forcibly displaced are being displaced once again and pushed into living spaces where they will face greater disadvantage and insecurity in economic and social terms, and where racism and discrimination are more dominant. […] These most recent deportation policies stand in direct violation of international human rights conventions, and particularly the principle of “non-refoulement”, which Turkey is legally bound to adhere to.”

In his contribution to HarekAct, Sadek Abdul Rahman, a Syrian Journalist living in Istanbul, highlighted the impact of the deportation campaign in striking fear upon Syrians. He indicates the siege-alike conditions which Syrians are existing in, writing:

“Using the term “siege” is no exaggeration here – many don’t dare step out of their homes to secure their basic needs. They cannot go to work, and they can’t even leave their homes in order to try and correct their legal situation, according to the demands of the Turkish government. Even in their homes, tens of thousands of Syrians don’t feel safe. It is reported that Turkish police patrols have entered homes in Istanbul and Gaziantep, arresting anyone without a Temporary Protection ID, and even those who have Temporary Protection IDs but registered in different provinces…They are reliving their worst nightmares, carried over from their time in Syria where people were detained and even killed by the Syrian regime on a daily basis.”

Continuing conflict on the Turkey-Syria border

While the Turkish government is continuing to claim that Syria is a ‘safe’ place to return to, the situation there remains extremely fragile. The Syrian Network for Human Rights released a report on 15 August documenting the human rights violations mainly conducted by the Syrian regime. Having documented the disappearance of at least 638 forcibly returned refugees, and the deaths of 15 due to torture, the report demands that Syrian refugees never return to Syria. The report also calls on countries of asylum to end the racist harassment campaigns against Syrian refugees which is leading them to feel forced to return and thereby risk arrest, enforced disappearance or fatal torture. They urge these nations to assume their responsibilities in this regard and to stop forcibly returning Syrian refugees, which fundamentally violates the principle of non-refoulement in customary international law, which is binding on all states.

Continued military campaigns around Idlib are displacing people, many of whom have been displaced up to five times already within Syria, at an increasing rate. The bombing campaign in Northern Syria by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies between late April and August 2019 has displaced more than 550,000 people, half of them children according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  Following a military offensive by Syrian and Russian government forces and intensified airstrikes in which hundreds have been killed in North Syria, hundreds of Syrians marched towards the border gate to Turkey, ‘Bab Al-Hawa’. Protesters called for Turkey to either open its border or demand an end to the government offensive. In response, the Turkish border guards fired warning shots into the air and tear gas at the protestors. The demonstrations happened shortly before Russia announced a ceasefire. At the same time Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu again pointed to their plans to shelter newly displaced Syrians in humanitarian camps along the border inside the Idlib province, despite this still being under intense shelling by Assad’s regime.

Uncertain Future Prospects for Syrians in Turkey

The ongoing anti Syrian discourse of key Turkish politicians is continuing further. Turkish  Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu further fueled the xenophobic atmosphere commenting that Turkey would be “faced with a migration wave” and measures would be necessary to “prevent Turkey from turning into an illegal migration center.” He further underlined efforts to prevent immigrants from entering Turkey and announced the goal to deport an average of 80,000 people in 2019, which would be 40-50 percent higher than the previous years. 

In the beginning of September Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened European countries with opening the borders if the long-awaited safe zone in northern Syria is not established. In a speech in Ankara he said “Our goal is for at least one million of our Syrian brothers to return to the safe zone we will form along our 450 km border.” He went on to call on European countries to “Give us logistical support and we can go build housing at 30km (20 miles) depth in northern Syria. This way, we can provide them with humane living conditions. Either you will provide support, or excuse us, but we are not going to carry this weight alone. We have not been able to get help from the international community, namely the European Union.”

Considering that, in August Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said only 17 percent of refugees in Turkey hail from northeast regions of Syria, the region in which the proposed safe zone is to be established, the planned settlement of Syrians to the area would represent mass internal displacement and huge demographic shift from predominantly Kurdish to predominantly Arab.

The EU remains determined to distance themselves from any provision for migrants, clearly reflected in their resolute silence to the multitude reports of human rights violations through the mass deportations of Syrian nationals from Turkey. The German government, confronted with the accusations being made against Turkey by the leftist party ‘Die Linke’, said that they are aware of the ‘alleged returns of Syrian nationals’, but that the Turkish government denies the reports and the UNHCR have also not verified the accounts. However, on 24 July, the Turkish Government announced that they had suspended the readmission agreement, and therefore the EU-Turkey Deal. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, “We will not wait at the EU’s door. The readmission agreement and visa-free deal will be put into effect at the same time.” He further stated that Turkey will suspend its commitments to the deal. This being yet another empty threat, the conditions of the deal between Turkey and the EU didn’t change (yet).

Anti-Migrant Discrimination and Hostile Environment Affects Afghans, Palestinians, Uighurs, Turkmen

The intense deportation campaign, which was arguably prompted by and has exacerbated anti-migrant sentiments across the country, has helped create a hostile environment which is negatively impacting all migrants and refugees across the country.

An Afghan migrant worker interviewed by Evrensel Newspaper in Çağlayan district of Istanbul describes how he had to leave his home country which has an ongoing internal conflict, that he is doing any work he can find in Turkey and that he’s living in a house with twenty people together:

We have heard that Syrians will be sent back. Out of fear, we’re also not going to workers’ market we used to hang out in to find a job. There were workers from Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt… people from everywhere waiting for a job. Now nobody goes there because they are afraid that they will send us too.”

Esther Solomon comments on resentment against Syrians in Turkey turning into hostility towards all Arabs in general, from which not even Palestinians are spared despite the popular empathy for the Palestinian cause. She mentions two focuses of the anti-Arab hostility, the first directed against tourists from the Gulf, characterized as rich and condescending who flock to the city to live large, go shopping and get hair transplants. The second mainly targets the refugees from the Syrian civil war.

Al Monitor covers the situation of Uighurs in Turkey, refugees from so-called East Turkestan or Xinjiang region of China, who are increasingly looking for support as Ankara is turning its face to China in order to build better business ties. As the activists and community leaders contacted by Al-monitor claim, the Uighurs have not been spared form the massive detention and deportation campaign of the past weeks.

“Hundreds of Uighurs are currently held in Turkish deportation centers, while many others have lost their residency in recent months. With no ability to renew their Chinese passports and no legal status in Turkey to protect them, these people face an uncertain future,” they write.

A young activist from the Turkmen minority of Syria who is living as a refugee in Istanbul, Amin Noor, writes on the anxiety caused by the escalating anti-Syrian policies and discourse. Discussing who he is, why Syrians are in Turkey, and the various positions of the left and right wing political parties in Turkey towards Syrians, he discusses how to combat the false conceptions, hatred and xenophobia that is spread towards them.

The heightened discrimination is not just limited to national identities. HEVI LGBTI+  have released a report on the racism and discrimination being experienced by LGBTI+ refugees in Turkey: HEVI LGBTI+ is an NGO working at the intersection of the LGBTI+ movement, discrimination and migration, founded in 2013 as an initiative by majority Kurdish and later included LGBTI+s from various identities (Arab, Farsi, Armenian, Greek, Alevi, Christian). The report was released as the result of an education program on the multiple discriminations experienced by refugee LGBTI+s.

Increasing Migration towards Greece leads to new repressive migration policies in the country

The number of arrivals to Greece spiked in the month of August as a result of Turkey’s deportation campaign and hostile environment towards migrants as well as deteriorating conditions in countries of origin such as Afghanistan. According to data from the UNHCR, there were 1,570 arrivals by sea in the first week of August, compared with 479 in the same week last year. On the 29 of August more than 500 Afghan and Syrian migrants landed on the island of Lesvos, Greece within an hour. In response, authorities increased border patrols and sped up deportations. Together with EASO and the EU they’re turning a blind eye to the obvious rights violations in Turkey, considering it to be a “safe third country”.

In July, frequent cases of pullbacks were being reported in the Aegean. The WatchTheMed Alarm Phone published their regional analysis on Greece and the Aegean Sea, in which they reported increased attacks by ‘masked men’ in Greek territorial waters, which were followed by pullbacks by Turkish authorities. Their report gives insights on the current situation at sea, crossings and shipwrecks and the situation on the Greek islands, particularly on Samos.  

The aid organisations Refugee Rescue & Lighthouse Relief, who operate search and rescue operations in Lesvos documented a violent pullback by the Turkish Coast Guard in the North of Lesvos on 2 July. A refugee boat had already entered Greek territorial waters, when the Turkish Coast Guard approached the boat at high speed and performed a number of dangerous manoeuvres, subsequently forcing the boat to return to Turkey. Just a day after Refugee Rescue went public with evidence of the pullback, the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone announced via Twitter that they had been in contact with people in distress who reported that Turkish authorities had shot at them, beat them, taken their engine and pulled them back to Turkey in the Northern Aegean Sea.

The new Greek government has announced seven measures to respond to the increase in arrivals. Among others, Greece wants to increase border control with the help of Frontex and NATO, as well as deploy ten more speedboats to the Coast Guard in order “to intercept suspected smuggling vessels heading towards Greece from neighboring Turkey.”

Another very worrisome development is Greece‘s announcement that they will resume deportations to Turkey. The Council for National Defence and Security said that the Second Degree Asylum Committees would be abolished. According to comrades from Greece, this would not just mean the abolition of a review process for rejected applications, but that all migrants with rejected application would have to be held in detention centers until deportation. That could mean that, in addition to the already existing detention camps on the Greek mainland, camps like Moria would be transformed into closed detention centers.

Orçun Ulusoy, Martin Baldwin-Edwards and Tamara Last published a paper on ‘Border policies and migrant deaths at the Turkish-Greek border’ in ‘New Perspectives on Turkey’. They analyze “the impact of developments in Turkish migration management policy and changes in management of the Greek-Turkish border on border deaths prior to the 2015 mass inflow of refugees.” They find that the “chaotic mix of national politics, policy development and law enforcement practices, flexible smuggling networks, and Frontex operations” contributed to the high number of clandestine crossings in 2015 and 2016, which coincided with a high number of casualties. To read the full paper, click here.