The European Union has shown brilliant timing: on July 19, it unlocked €1.41 billion intended for the support of Syrian refugees in Turkey. To be clear, this itself is nothing new. It is a part of the second tranche of the €6 billion that Brussels put on the table in 2016, to get Ankara to keep the over 3.6 million refugees who have fled the Syrian war.
What makes the timing bitterly ironic is the fact that just three days later, the governor of the province of Istanbul issued an order legitimizing anti-refugee raids. This borrows quite a bit from the Trump model, which made its debut in the US at the hands of ICE, constantly on the hunt for irregular migrants both at home and at the workplace. In the Turkish case, the targets are refugees who have not been granted asylum (only “temporary protection”) and whom the megalopolis no longer wants to host.
Erdogan believes that the growing anti-Syrian sentiment was behind his losing the Istanbul stronghold to the CHP: many have accused him of excessive hospitality, i.e. of providing the Syrians with essential services, education and healthcare. According to a number of analysts interviewed by the local media, this operation was in preparation ever since the March 31 elections: the campaign was full of xenophobic and nationalist messages.
“The foreigners of Syrian origin under temporary protection who are not registered in Istanbul are given until Aug. 20 to return to the city where they are registered,” the order reads. “Whoever is not under temporary protection will be transferred from Istanbul to other cities to be determined. Istanbul is closed to new registrations.”
The measure is fully in line with the instructions of the Interior Ministry, i.e. the AKP. The superficially aseptic language is meant to upend the lives of thousands of people who have sought out the largest city, the economic heart of the country, to find a way out of the precarious status they have in the refugee camps in the south.
There are 547,000 Syrians registered in Istanbul, with a temporary protection card that allows them to work. For many others—it’s difficult to say how many—the city is being closed off. The governor is also asking the “registered” to always carry the card proving their legal status on their person. This is because raids have already started for weeks: the police are patrolling streets, bus stations and trains across the province, as well as neighborhoods where there is a greater presence of the Syrians, hunting for “irregulars.”
Whoever is arrested in these raids is forced to sign a document in Turkish which is simply a request for voluntary deportation to Syria: a photo of such a document was published on Twitter by the Syrian activist Asaad Hanna. Thousands have been deported to Syria already, after being detained on the street without papers, handcuffed and forced to get on a bus to the border. According to Turkish lawyers, they have even been forced to go to Idlib, the province that has become an Islamist hub and which has been the target of the last military campaign by Damascus and Moscow for months. Thus, the Syrians are still living in fear, always on the run from something.
Human Rights Watch has denounced the start of mass deportations, and many are avoiding going to work or opening the door when the doorbell rings, as a 32-year-old refugee tells The National. “They capture a large number of people and send them away. Syrian workers are terrorized,” another one told the newspaper Evrensel. “The employers who have hired them are afraid of heavy fines. They are the ones telling us to leave.”
The government is banking on the mounting popular resentment against the Syrians, an easy target (nothing new about that) for those frustrated with 13% unemployment and an economic crisis. They have overlooked the mass purges, the client economy and the oligopoly set up by the Erdogan family and their cronies on the juiciest public contracts—so much so that in a recent survey, 82.3% of respondents said that they wanted to “send all of them [i.e. the Syrians] home.”
Still, the Syrians are surviving on the margins of society. While those who had some savings opened up small businesses, there are many who are homeless, women who are forced into prostitution and child laborers working for a few euros (over the past years, cases have emerged of large European clothing brands that moved their production to Turkey, where the workforce is made up of underage refugees). There have been more frequent attacks against Syrians since the start of the year, both against persons and shops, especially in the districts of Istanbul where their presence is most widespread, such as Kucukcekmece, with signs in Arabic and a “Little Syria” which has blossomed among the forced diaspora.