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Turkey has deported hundreds of Syrian migrants, advocates and refugees say

People walk past a Syrian jewelry shop in Istanbul. (Kemal Aslan/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — Turkish authorities have rounded up and deported hundreds of Syrians in recent weeks, in one of the harshest crackdowns on the refugees in Turkey since the beginning of the civil war next door, according to the migrants and their advocates.

The bulk of the arrests are said to have occurred in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and a primary destination for the refugees because of the availability of work. After being detained, the refugees reportedly have been sent back to areas in northern Syria that are plagued by instability and violence, including Idlib province.

It was difficult to determine exactly how many people had been deported. Refugee advocates said hundreds had been arrested, then put onto buses and dropped off at the border with Syria. Turkey’s Interior Ministry did not respond to a message seeking comment.  

The purported deportations, which have sent tremors through Istanbul’s large population of Syrian refugees, signal a shift in Turkey, which hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians after keeping its border with Syria open for years. More recently, though, Turkey has moved to stem the migrant flow by tightening security along the frontier and has increasingly limited the movements of Syrians within Turkey. 

The stricter measures are a partial consequence of a 2016 deal between Turkey and the European Union aimed at curbing the passage of refugees to Europe. But the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been forced to respond to growing public intolerance of the refugees. Their presence has sparked anxiety amid an economic downturn and prompted scapegoating of the Syrians for problems, real or imagined, plaguing Turkey, analysts said.  

Anti-Syrian sentiment spiked during the recent election campaign in Turkey, in which many voters criticized Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, for accommodating the refugees and providing them access to state resources, including education and medical care. This month, mobs attacked Syrian stores in Istanbul.   

“We were expecting this,” Senay Ozden, a Turkish researcher who specializes in refugee studies, said of the purported deportations. “But I wasn’t expecting it to be this harsh and this quick.” The Syrians had little recourse to protest because they are considered guests by the Turkish government rather than legally protected refugees. 

“If you do not fully legalize them, it enables the state to exercise such policies,” Ozden said.   

A 28-year-old Syrian refugee who was in Istanbul for more than two years said he was detained this month while walking home from a doctor’s appointment and deported. The man, who spoke in a telephone interview from Syria, talked on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation against his wife and children, who remained in Istanbul.  

He said his Turkish identity permit had allowed him to live in the city of Bursa but not in Istanbul. Normally, authorities respond in such cases by sending the Syrian refugees back to the city where their identity permits were issued.

After he was arrested, he was handcuffed and placed on a bus with other Syrians and detained in Istanbul for eight days, he said. He was told that if he signed some documents, he would be released. He did not know what the documents said because they were written mostly in Turkish. “There was no translator,” he said. Syrian migrants are asked — and sometimes forced — to sign papers agreeing to voluntarily return to Syria, according to advocates for the refugees.  

The man and 26 other men were finally put onto a bus and told they would be transferred to another Turkish province. But the bus arrived at the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the border with Syria, he said. After waiting for hours until the crossing opened, he and the others were handed over to Syrian opposition forces in Idlib. 

Idlib, which is largely controlled by an Islamist extremist group, has been under bombardment by the Syrian government and its Russian allies for several months. Airstrikes hit a busy market in the province on Monday, killing at least 27 people, the Associated Press reported, citing opposition activists and a war monitor. Shortly afterward, state media said rebels shelled a government-held village, killing seven, the AP reported.

The man said he would attempt to cross back into Turkey in the coming days. “I had my job in Istanbul,” the man said. “I have a shop, I have a car.”  

On Monday, the governor of Istanbul announced stricter controls on Syrian refugees in the city, saying that refugees who were not registered to live in the city would have to return to their assigned provinces by Aug. 20. The announcement also appeared to suggest that the deportations would stop, perhaps in reaction to an outcry on social media in recent days.

Unregistered Syrians would be “referred to provinces designated by the Ministry of Interior,” the announcement read.  

Assad urged Syrian refugees to come home. Many are being welcomed with arrest and interrogation.

The U.S. has slashed its refugee intake. Syrians fleeing war are most affected.

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