A life in constant fear

By Leonie Kupferschmidt

The civil war in Syria plunged the country into suffering and misery in 2011 and triggered a large movement of refugees. Initially known as a welcoming and solidary society, the tone towards refugees in Türkiye has become very heated in past years – but especially during the recent election: strange stares, verbal harassment, violence and even unjustified arrests – these are things that Syrian people in Türkiye must expect nowadays.

Najim* and his family live in hiding and under constant fear of being deported. Although lawyers have tried to help them, proving they have been falsely arrested in 2018, courts continue to try to act against them. They have a new court date in four months, but lawyers advise them not to show up, as they will most likely be detained again or deported directly. All of the family’s documents got taken by the officials when they were arrested and without any, Najim cannot take up work and the children are not allowed to go to school. They can only survive because family members in other countries send them money. “Moreover, after many months in prison and what they experienced there, our children couldn’t sleep, they were awake all night, crying and afraid when they see police or Turks.”

Since they were released from prison, the family has to appear before authorities every 20 days to confirm that they are not leaving the country illegally before the next court date. “Every 20 days they are changing the places. They’re using like hard and difficult places to go which is costing so much for us. Sometimes it takes three hours, four hours to reach those places.” They are also exposed to racism on the ground. They have to introduce themselves separately, they are looked at strangely and are insulted.

During the election, the atmosphere was so heated that the family no longer dared to go out on the streets. Also because of the increased police presence. “Since then, we have not been back to the authorities.” This is despite the fact that, according to Najim’s lawyers, it would most certainly lead to the police coming to their home and putting them back in jail. “For four months we have not been back. We changed our residence out of fear that they will find us.”

Alev Yucel, a migration researcher and professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul explains: “Challenges such as language barriers, cultural differences, and competition for jobs have created a lot of tensions against refugees. And the government uses them as a political weapon.”  According to the “Syrer-Barometer” more than 88.5 per cent of Turks would like to see Syrian refugees return to their home country. “The atmosphere is getting more and more heated, and the Turkish media is deliberately spreading misinformation. They and the government blame the refugees for the bad economic situation in the country, but that is only a small factor,” Yucel explains.

When Najim came to Türkiye in 2015, he was still full of hope. Full of hope for a legal life in Türkiye (at that time Syrians could still enter normally with a passport, editor’s note). Soon he had to realise that life for himself, his wife and their two children would not get any better here. “When I started to live with the Turkish people, they started to look differently at me because I have a long beard and my wife is covered. It is not forbidden, it’s allowed so everyone can live his own life, but we were facing difficulties with that.”

But it did not stop at simple harassment on the street. In August 2018, the family’s life changed completely: Najim was working in his small shop in Esenyurt, Istanbul, when heavily armed police officers drove up. When asked, Najim said he owned the shop, whereupon the officers asked to see his flat. “They said they were just looking for something.” When they saw his wife and their two children (2 and 5 years old), they took them and Najim to the police station. “They said, just come with us for a few hours and then you will be free again. We are just looking for something here.” A few hours turned into 3 1/2 months in Silveri Prison for the wife and children and 12 months in Binkilic Goc Idaresi and Kırklareli Prison for Najim.

There was no reason to imprison them, “they just don’t like Arabs in Türkiye,” Najim tells. “They think all the wars between Turks and Arabs in history were their fault.” Najim retells that they were harassed, shouted at and beaten up in the prison. “Some people even just got killed.” The prison guards told them to leave Türkiye, go back to Syria and “run away to Europe from there.” Najim’s stories about prisoners being forced to sign a “voluntary return” to Syria are also confirmed by aid organisations. “They threatened to kill them if they don’t sign. Some people couldn’t handle that and they signed for it. And they actually left to Syria.

According to Amnesty International, Human rights organisations documented hundreds of arbitrary arrests, detentions and unlawful deportations of Syrian refugees by the Turkish authorities between February and July 2022 alone. Additionally, in April 2022, numerous guards at Istanbul’s Silivri Prison beat inmates and tried to drive them to suicide.

After one year of fear and suffering in the prisons, Najim eventually got free again. But like it is for his wife and kids, the officials took all their documents. From this day on they are living illegally in Türkiye.

Since the crisis in Syria began, Türkiye has taken in the largest number of refugees worldwide, with estimates surpassing nearly four million individuals by 2023. The number of unreported cases is much higher. The impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on Türkiye has been multifaceted. Economically, the sudden increase in population has strained resources and public services. Socio-culturally, the presence of Syrian refugees has had an impact on Turkish society. The integration of such a large number of individuals from a different cultural background has required adjustments and understanding from both host communities and refugees.

According to Yucel, there is no improvement of the situation in sight. “It is getting worse and worse for Arabic refugees and with the current government, I don’t see any chance. They will just carry on as before, weaponizing refugees.”

Najim has tried everything since his time in prison. Worked with several lawyers, written to aid organisations and even the president. Nothing helped. “We can’t live here without our documents, but we can’t go anywhere else either.”  Hope has left them. “I will just wait for one more year after the elections, maybe something will change. Maybe they will give us our documents and then we can go somewhere else. Otherwise, I will just leave this life.” A hopeless situation for the Syrian and his family. But also, for millions of other Arab people in Turkey. In the end, Najim adds: “You know, there is no other door in front of me, I tried so hard but there is no chance.”

* Name has been changed for security reasons. The real name is known to the editors.