ANKARA: As signs of social discontent rise, Ankara has taken new measures to restrict the movement of Syrians within the country’s territories, banning them from visiting their homeland during the approaching Eid Al-Adha holiday.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced the new precautions on migration control during a press conference in the capital Ankara on Saturday.
The percentage of foreigners who are allowed to live in each neighborhood will be reduced from 25 percent to 20 percent, starting from July 1, closing 1,200 districts to settlement.
Metin Corabatir, president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara, said that Syrians preferred living in districts near to industrial zones where they worked, mostly illegally on lower wages to make ends meet.
“If authorities bring quotas on their settlement, it will both violate human rights and impact the industrial hubs where they are currently working as a critical workforce,” he told Arab News.
Turkey hosts more than 4 million refugees, 3.7 million of whom are Syrian.
Begum Basdas, researcher at the Center for Fundamental Rights at the Hertie School in Berlin, thinks that none of these measures can be recognized as migration management.
“The new restrictions brought by the authorities continue to be ad-hoc reactions to mislead the public that they are in control of the situation,” she told Arab News.
“If the government and the oppositional parties wish the Syrians to return to Syria some day, they should promote cross-border relations instead of banning them. Half of the Syrians in Turkey are young people, many of them being born in Turkey. They have no real connection or memory of Syria as they have grown up in Turkey,” Basdas said.
“If the authorities would be sincere in ‘voluntary returns’ they would ensure routes for people to visit their homes and return to their lives in Turkey until Syria is safe to return to. The majority of Syrians in Turkey repeatedly say that they have nowhere to return to, and the ban further limits that possibility.”
With rising economic problems in the country and elections on the horizon, incidents of violence against Syrian refugees are escalating. A 70-year-old Syrian woman was recently kicked in the face by a Turkish man over a local rumor that a refugee kidnapped a child.
The refugees mostly maintain a low profile in public to avoid trouble, after increasingly becoming the scapegoat of the country’s heated domestic politics.
Although governments have the exclusive right to manage irregular migration, Corabatir said that there are increasing reports of new asylum-seekers facing problems in being registered by Turkish authorities, which prevents them from sending their children to school or using health services.
“They are trying to remain invisible. Decreasing the quotas in some neighborhoods will only relocate the integration problems from one district to another if refugees are treated like merchandise. It looks like a forced migration within the country,” he said.
Some far-right politicians have also capitalized on the resentment with inflammatory anti-refugee rhetoric for political gain ahead of approaching elections, as some Turks blame Syrians for stealing their jobs and increasing rental prices.
The number of refugees deported by Turkey rose by 70 percent this year. According to the latest figures, about 30,000 irregular migrants were deported. The government, however, opts for a softer approach on refugees, preparing the ground for the voluntary return of 1 million Syrians.
So far, as many as 503,150 Syrians in Turkey have returned voluntarily to areas that have been secured in their country. Turkey has been building houses in Syria’s Idlib province — the number has reached 59,000 — with the aim of creating the conditions for return.
Friedrich Puttmann, a researcher at the Istanbul Policy Center, thinks that there is nothing wrong with distributing refugees across different localities as such.
“In fact, it lets you tailor the respective burden on social services to the capabilities of local authorities and may facilitate social and economic integration. In Germany, for example, there’s an official scheme by the government which distributes asylum seekers upon their first arrival across the country according to every region’s population size and tax revenue,” he told Arab News.
“In Turkey, in contrast, Syrian refugees have moved to areas where they already knew someone or where they could find job opportunities and affordable housing. This has led to clustering and indeed often upset local Turkish citizens who felt left alone by the state,” Puttmann said.
However, he also agrees that to simply undo this development after 10 years of refugees living in Turkey by forcing people to leave their homes, jobs and social environments is not advisable, neither morally nor in practice.
“You tell people to leave, but you don’t give them an alternative of where to go instead. Since many Syrian refugees live in decaying buildings that Turks no longer want to inhabit, Syrians might not be able to afford housing anywhere else unless they receive additional support from the state. Syrians would have to leave their current workplaces and look for new jobs in new localities, which would negatively affect Syrians’ living conditions as well as the respective local economies and, as a result, increase rather than decrease social tensions with Turkish citizens.”
Puttmann also underlines that under these new measures, refugees would lose important social connections with local Turkish citizens that they may have built over time, especially for children at school who have been at the forefront of integration.
“Finally, it would fully ignore the rights of the refugees themselves. In a nutshell, the social problem Soylu is trying to address here is real; however, his proposed solutions are likely to hamper rather than fuel social integration and would violate refugees’ rights,” he said.
Basdas thinks that these latest measures create a false sense of migration management to ease public tensions and to intimidate refugees and migrants to better exploit their vulnerabilities.
“But they also must know that many people forcefully returned to their home countries return to Turkey through irregular routes and without access to registration they further deepen exploitations of the informal economy,” she said.
Under the new measures, taxi drivers have permission to ask clients for their official documents when they travel across different cities. There has been a public outcry recently with the release of videos of illegal migrants jumping from the trucks and mingling with local people in different cities.
“The authority given to taxi drivers to act as security forces to check documents is unacceptable. While we wish for freedom of mobility, the authorities cannot transfer the right to ensure ‘security’ to ordinary citizens. This would potentially have devastating results not only for refugees but also for all citizens of Turkey,” Basdas said.
The ban on visiting family in Syria over Eid has also been criticized by experts.
“The fact that Syrians may be able to safely go there for a few days does not imply that they would also be able to safely live there, which most of them still can’t due to the Assad regime. Instead of travel bans and demographic engineering, it would therefore be wiser to think about practically feasible policies that foster Syrians’ integration in the places where they are now by strengthening social ties with Turkish citizens and creating jobs for all,” Puttmann said.