After fleeing conflict in their homeland, nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees have begun to wear out their welcome in Turkey, although not necessarily due to their own fault; after spending years in their host country, many simply moved on from their previous lives and became fully-integrated into Turkish society. For example, refugees have created 15,000 businesses, birthed babies, and built homes for themselves – actions which would be impossible to even consider if they were living in Syria.
Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, all of which share a border with Syria, welcomed refugees with open arms when the conflict began eight years ago. They did so based on an Islamic duty to help their brethren, but it was also a preemptive solution to the inevitable influx of migrants. As part of the Turkish programme, refugees were initially settled in camps, close to the border, but gradually, nearly all the refugees became integrated into Turkish society. After relocating across the nation, Syrians registered with the government in the provinces where they would build new lives.
Ankara required all Syrians to file for a Temporary Protection Permit, commonly known as a ‘kimlik.’ These identity documents afford migrants legal standing in the country, but are heavily tied to the state where they registered. According to the law, anyone holding a kimlik should have a written permission to travel between Turkish states. While this law has widely been ignored, a crackdown on immigrants from Ankara has seen more Syrians stopped at border checkpoints and even during their daily lives with law enforcement officials demanding to see their kimliks.
On Monday, the government ordered all Syrians to return to their places of registration, a move designed to force immigrants to leave major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, both of which have swelled with both documented and undocumented individuals. Officially, 500,000 refugees are registered in Istanbul, however there could be up to one million in total.
The consequences for not carrying a kimlik or living in a state outside of its original registration are quite severe. In one case, an 18-year-old student went out to an Istanbul grocery store only to find himself on a bus back to Syria. Tablieh had a proper kimlik to live and work in Istanbul, but had left it at his home when a police officer stopped him. He offered to go home and retrieve it, but the officer instead forced him onto a bus transporting other refugees. Shockingly, once the bus arrived at a police station, they “were beaten and forced to sign a document they were not allowed to read.” The form was likely a “voluntary” return application that authorities are using to send refugees back to their homeland.
Tablieh and other Syrians were taken from the police station to the Syrian province of Idlib, which is not exactly the safest place to be. It is held by rebels, but the government, backed with Russian support, is trying to reclaim the territory. Tablieh, a Damascus native, knew nothing about Idlib and, fearing for his safety, posted a video online which prompted some activists to fight for his right to return to Istanbul. Tablieh’s story is only one of thousands making headlines and giving Syrians a renewed fear. After years of building their lives in what they assumed would be their new home – and being encouraged to do so by the Turkish government – they now have to face the reality that it all might be coming to an end.
The problems began with the downward turn of the Turkish economy. While there have been some issues of crime and safety, a bulk of the outrage against Syrian refugees is simple math. The economy is in a recession and unemployment is at 13-precent. Many Turks blame refugees for taking their jobs and in some cases this may be true as they often work for lower wages and sometimes illegally.
Furthermore, accommodating the refugees has cost Ankara $37 billion over the past eight years, a price that many Turks feel is unreasonable in light of the economic problems. According to a poll from Kadir Has University, 68 percent of Turks responded with an unfavorable opinion of Syrian refugees. In addition to the economic woes for which migrants make an easy scapegoat, they are also blamed simply for enjoying life. After a cartoon circulated which portrayed Ankara as persecuting refugees, Turks responded by spreading images of Syrians enjoying their lives, such as laying on the beach or smoking hookah.
Anti-refugee sentiment has boiled to the point that the Turkish government, and President Recep Erdogan, must act. Many in Erdogan’s AK Party blame their electoral loss of Istanbul on mishandling of the Syrian crisis. Erdogan used to be a man of the people, but seems to have lost his connection with voters. By failing to address the perceived issues that migrants have caused, the AK Party left from for the Republican People’s Party to exploit the issue and connect with voters. It doesn’t help matters that Erdogan often spoke proudly of how much money Turkey spends on refugees.
While the government denies the mass deportation of legal, kimlik-bearing migrants, it is clear that forced deportations are already underway and many expect future initiatives to cut down the Syrian population in Turkey.
“We are preparing to take new steps. We are going to encourage them to return to their countries,” Erdogan said. “We are going to deport those who have committed crimes. Furthermore, we foresee a contribution payment from them in exchange for the health services provided to them.”
For many Syrians who escaped war to Turkey, it may have felt like they had won golden tickets to new lives. Although the Turkish government spent billions on them and helped millions successfully integrate into Turkish society, Ankara’s inability to properly manage the issue has led to that golden ticket losing its luster and Erdogan’s mismanagement of the economic turmoil has only made the issue worse as Turks blame the immigrants, justifiably or not, which is sadly a natural reaction to this sort of situation. Migrants not registered in Istanbul must return to the province where their kimlik was issued by August 20. For those who stay, shop signs may no longer feature Arabic script, healthcare may soon no longer be free, and life in general will become more burdensome. The message is clear: leave Istanbul.