Despite official denials, many are being sent forcibly back to Syria
LIFE WAS HARD enough in Istanbul, says Mahmoud, speaking by phone from a police station on Symi, a tiny Greek island. Jobs were scarce, rents were high. When he heard he was to be sent back to the Anatolian province where he had first registered as a refugee years earlier, he decided instead to leave Turkey altogether. In August Mahmoud paid a smuggler $1,500 for a place on a rubber boat and headed for Symi.
Few countries can claim to have done more than Turkey for the millions fleeing the war in neighbouring Syria. The country has taken in 3.6m Syrian refugees, offering them free public health care and education along with limited access to the labour market. Over 100,000 have been granted citizenship.
Opposition parties, backed by public opinion, have long argued that some refugees should be sent packing. Stung by an economic downturn and a series of losses in municipal elections this spring, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have come to the same conclusion. Mr Erdogan has reportedly drawn up plans to resettle 700,000 refugees in a “safe zone” he plans to set up in Syria’s predominantly Kurdish north-east. The government has ordered hundreds of thousands of Syrians who, like Mahmoud, first registered outside Istanbul to leave the city by the end of October.
Some will end up back in the war zones of Syria. Suleyman Soylu, the interior minister, says that around 350,000 Syrians have voluntarily returned home. Some say their return was not remotely voluntary. Ibrahim, who came to Turkey four years ago, says he was arrested in Istanbul earlier this summer because he had never applied for Turkish identity papers. Along with other refugees he was put in a bus, driven to the Syrian border and handed over to jihadists. He is now back in his home town, Al-Hasakah. His wife and baby daughter remain in Istanbul.
Turkey’s government insists that it does not deport people without consent. But the ruling-party candidate in this spring’s mayoral election said he would have refugees who committed crimes in Istanbul “grabbed by the ears and sent back”. Officials acknowledge that refugees deemed a threat to public order or security are regularly forced to choose between returning to Syria and a year in a detention centre. The state news agency recently reported that over 6,000 people were deported from a single border province in the first half of the year.
Some of those facing expulsion have gone into hiding. Others have followed in Mahmoud’s wake; he says he saw 200 more refugees arrive on Symi in the two days after he got there. Almost 10,000 Syrians got to Greece in August, mostly by sea, the highest monthly total since Mr Erdogan and the EU signed a deal to stem the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe in 2016. As one crisis unfolds on the border with Idlib, another may be brewing on the Aegean.