Unwanted “Guests”: Syrian Refugees in Turkey

If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up  on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will? | The  Independent | The Independent

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2017, pp. 28, 41

Special Report

By Sara R. Powell

HOW MUCH IS reality and how much my expectations is difficult to say, but the atmosphere in Izmir following the failed July 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan felt palpably different. And there are some distinctly discernible differences. Where last year the only portrait adorning the streets and shops of Izmir was that of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, that has now been largely replaced by Erdogan’s visage. And although I witnessed several demonstrations when I was in Izmir for two months in the spring of 2016, in three months this summer I saw and heard of no protests in Izmir. All refugee-oriented NGOs such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Mercy Corps and Médecins Sans Frontières have been forced to shut their offices, and a number of web services, including Wikipedia and Paypal, have been banned. Moreover, many more women were covered than had been less than a year earlier, not just in the poorer districts, but even in affluent, touristy Alsancak on Izmir’s seaside. 

Just as the situation is changing for the Turkish people, so it is changing for the refugee population, and with far more immediate and serious consequences. Due to these changes, and the potential danger for those involved in refugee assistance in Izmir, I do not name any volunteer organizations. 

Syrian refugees in Turkey are not legally considered refugees, but rather “guests.” One of the ramifications of this status, according to the Syrians I interviewed, is that Syrians cannot access any services deemed specific to refugees, like registering with UNHCR for relocation. While Afghans, Iraqis and other national groups can still avail themselves of UNHCR services through websites, allowing them to register for refugee programs, Syrians are issued a form of identification called a Kimlik. This card must be carried at all times and is required for virtually everything, including renting an apartment, visits to the doctor or hospital, travel, or opening a bank account. Moreover, reissuance of Kimlik cards is restricted. A lost card can only be replaced with multiple proofs of having had one already, and the process takes months. Babies born to families holding Kimlik cards are granted their own cards, but recently arrived Syrian refugees have no such guarantee, and are often turned down. 

Moreover, even refugees with the card face restrictions. Syrians can only open bank accounts at one specific bank and cannot access more than a certain amount of their own money monthly. Among refugees I spoke to, none had opted to open an account, preferring to deal in cash and pay fees associated with money transfer businesses like Western Union.

Travel is also restricted, with limits on time and distance, even for those holding a Kimlik card. Many Syrian refugees I spoke to needed to renew their passports, problematic in and of itself, as it requires a trip to the Syrian Embassy in Ankara or the consulate in Istanbul, where the wait is usually longer than the travel time allowance. Some go back and forth, which is expensive and often self-defeating; others take their chances with overstaying their allotted time. 

Of course, renewing a Syrian passport is often dangerous for a refugee, anyway. Men who have not completed their mandatory military service, or any refugee who may be on a wanted list, or even have a relative or friend on a wanted list, could be either turned down, at best, or arrested in the embassy at worst. An alternate Syrian government, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, does offer passports. Although the alternate government was created as part of a multinational agreement, and is recognized by a number of nations, including the United States, none of the refugees I spoke to who tried to obtain the alternate passport were successful. 

Since Syrians are considered guests rather than refugees, there are too few official camps. Many refugees rent apartments, mostly in Izmir’s poorer districts, and some squat in crumbling buildings. Nonetheless, there are unofficial camps that have sprung up on farms which allow refugees to pitch a tent in return for what amounts to indentured servitude as farm labor. There are no toilet—or other—facilities, the camps often have to move, and volunteers are not allowed to enter, a restriction enforced (sometimes ineffectively) by both permanent and floating checkpoints on roads leading to the camps. Additionally, the labor-based camps deprive itinerant Turkish laborers of work, causing resentment.

For Syrian refugees who don’t live and work in the camps, there exist some possibilities of work for those with either education or money. I met a number who worked in translation in fields ranging from refugee-related work to game translation. Many with some capital to invest have opened small shops or stalls. Ths ability to work, albeit not entirely legally, has been one of the greatest advantages for Syrian “guests” in Turkey.

Most refugee-oriented volunteer organizations working in Izmir comprise primarily refugees and Turks. Other volunteers are severely limited in what they can do. While this was somewhat true in 2016, it’s even more the case this year. A year ago, when I wanted to teach English with an Izmir-based volunteer group, I was told they only wanted refugee or Turkish teachers; this year I was told that every attempt to teach English drew police to the center. 

Education is available to Syrian children in Turkish schools; any Syrian child with a Kimlik card may enroll. All lessons are taught in Turkish, and Syrian children are mainstreamed into the regular classes.

Alternatively, some parents opt to send their children to study with an imam, but these classes are restricted to religious education. Although all Syrian refugee children theoretically should be attending school, many do not. As families struggle to save enough to move on to Europe or merely to survive and build a life in Turkey, too many children are kept from school in favor of the work force. In various interviews with refugees, I was told of children as young as 10 being sent to work 10-hour days in butcher shops and factories, and saw many, many children as young as 5 or 6 years old out selling tissues on the streets at all hours. It is both horrifying and heartbreaking to encounter a small child alone at 2 o’clock in the morning, selling packs of tissues for the equivalent of 30 cents.

Even as the situation for Syrian “guest” refugees of the Turkish government is bleak, that of Afghans, Iraqis and others considered refugees must be even more so, and I did hear stories of Afghans, caught in boats attempting to reach Greece, being deported back to Afghanistan in contravention of international law. However, as those considered “refugees” rather than “guests” are not allowed to stay in the larger cities, including Izmir and Istanbul, I was not able to speak to refugees who were not Syrian. 

Even though Turkey’s designation as a “Safe Third Country” is at the heart of the EU/Turkey agreement to restrict the number of refugees flooding into Europe, the “safety” it supposedly provides seems more and more compromised. 


Sara R. Powell is a former Washington Report staff member and a frequent volunteer.

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