ISTANBUL, Turkey — During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, family and friends often gather together during the night hours, sipping tea and nibbling on sweets after a long day of fasting.
For Mustafa al-Mohammed and his family, a certain Ramadan night in May was all the more special. The day before, his son, 21-year-old Hisham al-Mustafa, and his son’s wife, Mariam, 18, birthed their third child. They named him Shoaib.
“We always felt very comfortable here in Turkey,” said Mohammed, whose family fled fighting near Aleppo, Syria three years ago and arrived in Istanbul, where they received temporary protection. “We were making a life here and we were almost happy.”
‘If we knew we would face this in Turkey, we would have stayed in Syria to die.’
At about 11:30 p.m. that evening, the family sat on the floor of their spacious, unfurnished living room in Istanbul’s Bagcilar district, chatting with friends who had come to congratulate them. Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by a loud banging on their apartment door.
A group of police officers, armed and wearing bulletproof vests, stormed into the apartment and shouted orders in Turkish. “I couldn’t understand anything because I don’t speak Turkish,” Mohammed said.
After searching the house for about two hours, the officers told his son Mustafa to come with them and brought him to a local police station. The family immediately called a lawyer, who said the detention was routine and that the 21-year-old would most likely be released in a few days.
Instead, however, Mustafa was transferred to a detention facility and on June 19, along with a busload of other Syrian refugees, deported to rebel-controlled Idlib, where Syrian and Russian bombardments have killed hundreds of people since late April.
“I was shocked,” Mohammed recalled. “My son is legally registered in Istanbul. He has a family and three children. He was the main provider for our family. How could they deport him?”
Mustafa, desperate to reunite with his family, attempted the dangerous journey across the Turkish-Syrian border numerous times. It involves scaling a more than 450-mile-long cement barrier Turkey has erected along its border. Each time he was caught and sent back. August 5 proved to be his last attempt. Turkish border guards released a flurry of bullets at the young man, shooting him to death.
During a recent interview, Mustafa’s young wife Mariam sat on the floor of the family’s living room, holding one of their children in her arms.
“I never thought something like this could happen,” Mariam told The Indypendent. These were the only words she could muster before her eyes flooded with tears and she could no longer speak.
The loud wailing of Fatema al-Khalif, Mustafa’s mother, filled the silence. “If we knew we would face this in Turkey, we would have stayed in Syria to die,” she said.
Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees — more than any other country in the world — who have been afforded temporary protection. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), half a million of these refugees are registered in Istanbul. Another 350,000 Syrians in Istanbul are reportedly registered in other Turkish cities, but have migrated to Istanbul to find work.
Syrians with kimlik documents — legal papers guaranteeing their protection — need special permission to travel outside the province where they initially applied for protection. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Istanbul are not registered at all.
Over the past few years, Turkey has pulled back its open-door policies for the refugees, sealing its border and limiting their movement within the country. Turkish border guards have been accused by HRW of using “excessive force” to repel Syrian asylum seekers from attempting to cross into Turkey, resulting in injuries and death, and in 2017, Istanbul and nine other provinces on the border with Syria suspended the registration of new asylum seekers.
Just as the Trump administration has bullied Mexico into thwarting the passage of Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border, stricter immigration measures here follow a 2016 deal between Turkey and the European Union aimed at curbing the passage of refugees to Europe, and coincide with a rise in public intolerance for the refugees, who are increasingly blamed for an economic downturn in Turkey.
In July, reports emerged that Istanbul police were cracking down on undocumented migrants, randomly stopping people on the streets to check IDs and raiding apartments. Images and videos circulated on social media show Syrians sitting on the floor of police vehicles in plastic handcuffs. Reports of refugees being coerced into signing “voluntary” return forms and being deported to northern Syria have sent the Syrian refugee community into a panic.
Istanbul authorities warn that Syrians registered outside of Istanbul have until October 30 to return to the province where they initially registered. Syrians who are unregistered will be taken to camps. But reports of even refugees living within the provinces where they registered being deported have sent a tremor through the Syrian community, which is becoming increasingly mistrustful of Turkish authorities.
The number of refugees who have been deported is difficult to determine, Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Turkey researcher for HRW, tells The Indy, but advocates estimate that it is a fate that has already befallen thousands.
Turkey is bound by the international customary law of non-refoulment, which “prohibits the return of anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life,” says Sinclair-Webb.
Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has denied reports that Syrians are being deported, and instead has maintained that some refugees “voluntarily want to go back.”
“We have introduced policies to ensure that they go to safe areas,” he said in July.
Critics say Turkey is abusing the voluntary return process.
The Istanbul-based We Want to Live Together Initiative has interviewed numerous deportees, all of whom were forced into signing voluntary return documents, which waived their temporary protection status. Refugees report being coerced into signing the form amid threats of ill-treatment and violence. Others have been threatened with indefinite detention and some were forced to sign the document despite not understanding Turkish.
“If people are being coerced into signing forms to voluntarily return [to Syria], this constitutes deportation and that’s illegal,” Sinclair-Webb said.
After news of Hisham al-Mustafa’s death reached the press, Soylu alleged that the young man had volunteered to return to Syria, claimed Mustafa was arrested for having ties to “terrorist organizations” and denied that he was shot at the border.
“Why would he voluntarily return to Syria when his whole family is here?” his father Mohammed said. “It was only after he was killed that the Turkish government started to tell everyone that he’s connected to terrorist organizations.”
Under international law, suspicions of criminal activity do not legally nullify a person’s protection status and are not grounds for deportation.
“You can’t just smear someone with the taint of criminal activity or terrorism to justify deporting them,” said Sinclair-Webb.“You have to follow a due process and investigate the allegations they are accused of.”
Allegations of terrorism by the Turkish government are “overused and misused to describe activities that don’t even constitute criminal activity,” she added. “It has become a way of smearing people, even in the absence of any evidence of criminal activity. It’s a word that is used to stop the debate and repel any criticisms.”
‘Sick From Fear’
Thousands of Syrian refugees in Istanbul like Mustafa’s family are now living in a state of terror.
Bayan, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo, is afraid to leave her house. She is registered in Bursa Province but moved to Istanbul to find work.
“I’ve been living in Turkey for seven years,” she said. “I have friends here and a life. I can’t imagine leaving and starting from zero all over again.”
Bayan works at a Syrian TV station, about a 40-minute drive from her home in Istanbul. Since the crackdown, she has stopped driving her car to work, as the license plate identifies her as a foreigner, which she worries will make her a target for the police. Too afraid to take public transportation, where Turkish police often stop people and check IDs, she takes a taxi, forcing her to pay $26 each day just on transportation.
“We’ve heard so many stories about police arresting people, even those who are registered in Istanbul,” Bayan told The Indy. “It feels like there’s nothing we can do to be safe. I started to feel sick from fear. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I have fallen into a depression. Now I’m taking medicine just to go to sleep and stop myself from thinking.”
“We [Syrians] have tried so hard to live, but we are not accepted anywhere,” she added. “We are all so scared and at the same time it feels like we have no power to do anything. It’s like we’re not humans.”
Randa, 39, a refugee from Damascus, is registered in Sakarya, about a two-hour drive from Istanbul. She has also been avoiding leaving her house unless absolutely necessary. To make matters more complicated, her husband, a Palestinian from the northern occupied West Bank, is also living in Istanbul without any documentation. After meeting each other in 2014, he decided to overstay his student visa to be with her.
“We obviously can’t go to Syria and she would not be allowed into the West Bank, so this is the only way we can stay together,” he said.
Randa says that if she does leave her house, she keeps an eye out for the police. She noted that many Syrian refugees have stopped speaking Arabic on the street in fear the police will hear them.
“Many of my friends are now thinking of risking it at sea to try and get to Europe,” she said. “It’s not safe here anymore.”
Other refugees are contemplating suicide, according to Bayan.
Back in Istanbul’s Bagcilar district, Mustafa’s family continues to mourn his death.
“We’ve been running for eight years,” said his mother, Fatema al-Khalif. “And just when I think I’ve finally found a safe place for my family, they killed my son.”
The family is desperately seeking resettlement to another country.
“We are afraid, and we have no way to defend ourselves,” al-Khalif said, clutching her dead son’s identification card. “All we have is this ID and it doesn’t protect us anymore. Every day when the night comes, the whole family gathers together. We are scared that they will come and take one of us again.”