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Syrians in Turkey face deportation into an unknown future

June 29, 2024

Turkey is deporting Syrian refugees back to Syria, despite mounting international concerns. Human rights groups have condemned the plans and warned of serious ramifications for the returnees.

A young Syrian refugee taps on his tablet PC
Hafis A. was returned to Syria after years in Istanbul, in a move that human rights organizations have decried as involuntary returnsImage: privat

Much like every morning, Hafis A. was making his way to the restaurant where he used to work. The young Syrian man had no idea his life as a refugee in Istanbul was about to change.

When Turkish security authorities pulled him over and demanded his papers which had expired two days earlier, he was taken straight to a deportation center.

A few days later he found himself together with other Syrians at the Bab al Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria. "They dropped me off at the border, and suddenly I was back on Syrian soil," he told DW in the province of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

Hafis A. was born in the Syrian capital, Damascus. In 2020, the then 22-year-old decided to leave Syria to avoid being conscripted into the Syrian army. "I didn't want to fight, I wanted to live," he said.

Turkey has taken in more refugees from Syria than any other country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 3.6 million Syrians have been living in Turkey under temporary protection since the Syrian war broke out in 2011.

The high number of refugees is in part also due to the European Union's controversial deal with Turkey in 2016, which was intended to stem the flow of refugees and migration to Europe via the Aegean Sea.

Hafis A. found a new home in Turkey's capital, obtained the necessary papers to stay, managed to get a job and was even able to buy a small car after a while.

But despite his life going smoothly, Hafis A. said the atmosphere was getting increasingly tense. "You could tell that Turkey wanted to get rid of us Syrians," he told DW.

"Syrian refugees only ever had temporary protection in Turkey," said Anita Starosta from the organisation Medico International. "Syrians were and are always treated like guests. They are not supposed to settle and become Turkish citizens."

A girl hangs out washing nears tents in a a camp for displaced Syrains
Amid dwindling aid and political unrest, civilians face tough circumstances in Syria's Idlib region under Islamist rule Image: Omar Albam/DW

Precarious security situation awaits deported Syrians 

This type of temporary refugee status, introduced specifically for Syrian refugees, has enabled Turkey to simplify deportations.

"Since 2018, there have been repeated waves of deportations," said Starosta.

According to Human Rights Watch, or HRW, Turkish authorities deported over 57,000 Syrians and other people between January and December 2023.

HRW also reported that Turkish authorities put pressure on border authorities to list the majority of border crossings as "returnees" or "voluntary".

So far, it hasn't been easy for Hafis A. to build a new life in Idlib even though he found a job in a cafe. However, he earns much less than he used to make in Turkey.

Idlib province is the last region to be controlled by Syrian rebels and Islamists. It is predominantly under the control of Islamist militias, in particular the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militia, which evolved from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

Yet the region is in a state of turmoil and there have been protests against the Islamists in recent months. Idlib province is characterized by poverty; many of the 2.9 million internally displaced persons are dependent on international aid which is becoming increasingly scarce.

The precarious supply and security situation in the region exacerbates the lives of returning refugees who also have to deal with the administration of the property they left behind in Turkey. Hafis A. still has his car in Istanbul and some money saved in an account.

"Of course, everything is much more familiar to me in Syria, the people, the language. I live in my own country, but I'm still so far away from my parents because I can't visit them in Damascus due to the political situation," he said.

Having fled his military service, he would have to expect consequences from the Assad regime if he returned to Damascus.

Demonstration against Idlib's ruling Islamist militia Hayat Tahrir el Sham
Idlib has been long ruled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but there are now protests against the Islamist militiaImage: Omar Albam/DW

Syrian refugees 'used as political pawns'

Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya announced in February that "around 625,000 Syrians voluntarily returned to Syria" because living conditions had improved. In the cities of Jarabulus, Al-Bab and Azaz (cities located in the safe zone — Editor's note), efforts had been made to stem irregular migration towards Turkey, he said.

However, Human Rights Watch recently documented that these areas are anything but safe.

"Turkey has failed to ensure the safety and well-being of the civilian population. Instead, the lives of the region's 1.4 million residents are marked by lawlessness and insecurity," HRW said in a report

"Turkey has always used Syrian refugees as a political pawn, whether through its EU-Turkey deal and the billions of euros associated with it, or to exert influence on the reorganization of Syria if the regime were to fall," said Starosta of Medico International.

However, as the Assad regime is well-entrenched, she believes this is highly unlikely for the time being. "Erdogan is currently using Syrian refugees to pursue his colonisation policy in the Kurdish regions," she said.

So for now, Hafis A. has no choice but to stay in Idlib city.

But he refuses to give up hope. "Syrians have to start all over again so often and this makes us tired. I would love to go back to Turkey."

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Elmas Topcu contributed to this article, which was originally written in German.