Police in Turkey have rounded up and deported hundreds of Syrian refugees in Istanbul and sent them back to Idlib, in new crackdown on asylum-seekers.
Turkish authorities have deported roughly 1,000 Syrians to Syria’s Idlib province since last week, in a new effort to round up people who illegally crossed into Turkey or allegedly committed a crime, Middle East Eye has learned from Syrian opposition sources.
The police also detained more than 5,000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul whose residency permits are registered in other parts of the country. They are expected to be relocated to the areas of Turkey in which they are registered.
Police last week increased their patrols and raids in neighbourhoods where Syrians commonly live and began to detain even refugees who were registered with the authorities but that didn’t have papers with them at the time.
Footage has been circulated on social media showing refugees put in plastic handcuffs and being transported to relocation centres.
Khaled Khoja, a Syrian opposition politician, told MEE that one registered Syrian refugee was deported to Idlib because he didn’t have his papers on his person.
“The Turkish government has a point about the unregistered refugees, but this could have been done in a better way that wouldn’t risk people’s lives. They are being put in a war zone,” he said.
Idlib province is the last remaining territory held by the Syrian opposition, and is under daily bombardment from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by his ally Russia.
The rebel enclave is predominantly under the control of al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch and currently holds some three million Syrians, the vast majority of them civilians.
Activists on social media have said that the Turkish authorities have been forcing refugees to sign “voluntary deportation papers”, fearful of international legal repercussions for sending the displaced to war-torn Idlib.
“We continue to deport irregular refugees who illegally arrived in Turkey,” the Istanbul govenor’s office said in a statement on Monday following the criticism raised by activists on social media.
“The refugees who have temporary protection status have until 20 August 2019 to return to the provinces where they were originally registered. Otherwise they will be relocated by our security forces.”
More than half a million Syrian refugees with temporary protection status are registered in Istanbul, the statement added.
The move came after Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu held a meeting with members of Istanbul’s Syrian refugee community last week.
Soylu told Arab media reporters in the same meeting that the Turkish government, from now on, wouldn’t be able to tolerate Syrians who illegally entered the country.
“We already provide residency and work licences to Syrian businesses. It isn’t right that there are individuals who still would like to illegally operate,” he said.
One official from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), speaking anonymously, told MEE that the decision was very much related to the AKP’s defeat in the Istanbul local elections.
“The party’s grassroots have been complaining about the Syrian refugees as something that angers the voters. Many in the party believe that economic hardships along with the refugee crisis in Istanbul led to the defeat,” the official said.
Top AKP officials have conveyed similar messages to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the source added.
“This had two aims: one is to deflate the anger within the party cadres, and second to show Syrians their boundaries,” the source said.
Erdogan has been personally credited for allowing more than three million Syrians fleeing their country’s conflict, which is now in its ninth year, to settle in Turkey.
One recent poll conducted by the Piar research company shows that the Turkish public sees Syrian refugees as the second-most important issue the country is currently facing, outpacing the unemployment problem.
Eighty-seven percent of the respondents also said they do not support the Turkish government’s current policy of hosting the Syrian refugees.