Syrians in Turkey struggle against mounting obstacles and restrictions

Refugees tell of increasing difficulties with bureaucracy and access to aid in a country where 3.1 million fled from Syria's civil war

Children look on during the inauguration ceremony of newly constructed homes for displaced people near the Syrian town of Qabasin, located northeast of the city of Al-Bab, some 30 kilometres from Aleppo on May 28, 2024.  AFP
Powered by automated translation

Sitting on brown floor cushions in his father’s home, Abu Abdu is frustrated and tense.

Convoluted registration processes and crackdowns on informal Syrian workers in Turkey mean the 34-year-old is mostly confined to the house, where he moved after his wife and son were killed in devastating twin earthquakes last year.

“I have residency papers but [Turkish authorities] won’t give me a work permit,” he said. “I feel frozen, I cannot work. We are like the living dead.”

Abu Abdul is one of 12 Syrians interviewed by The National in the south-central Turkish city of Gaziantep, following the EU’s pledge last month to give an extra €1 billion ($1.09 billion) in aid funding for Syrians in Turkey.

The funding comes as EU member state voters elect new European Parliament representatives, amid high levels of anti-immigration sentiment, and questions over how the union outsources management of its borders.

Recently, the bloc pledged a similarly large sum to Lebanon, where reports of abuses against Syrians are widespread

By dint of geography, Turkey has become the largest host of Syrian refugees in the world. There are 3.1 million Syrians registered with “temporary protection” in the country, according to government figures. Based on The National’s interviews, there seem to be many more without papers.

They began to flee violence and arrests in their home country after the 2011 uprising and subsequent government crackdown and civil war.

Previous funds provided by the EU have enabled Turkey to improve the lives of many refugees. Nearly two million Syrians in the country receive cash transfers, schools and hospitals have been built, and more than 800,000 Syrian children get an education, the EU says.

But the extent of the needs are so great, and the bureaucratic mazes so convoluted, that there is much scope for things to go wrong.

Refugees in the city of Gaziantep, close to the border with Syria, described movement restrictions, confusing and extensive bureaucratic documentation procedures, absent aid deliveries and accruing debts to pay for rent and basic foodstuffs.\

Many are unable to obtain official residency and work permits, leaving them living in limbo – and unable to access aid programmes funded by the EU and other donors.

Abu Abdu’s three siblings do not have residency permits, known as “kimliks”. According to their father, the Turkish authorities repeatedly told them that the registration system was broken. By the time it was working again, their applications were no longer valid, the father said.

“I don’t go out, I’m scared of the police sending me back to Syria,” said one of Abu Abdu’s brothers, aged 19, on condition of anonymity.

Turkish authorities say they have “captured” nearly 18,000 Syrian irregular migrants so far this year. It does not say what happens to the people detained and the government’s migration management unit did not respond to a request for comment.

Bureaucratic tangle

Bureaucratic hurdles make accessing aid money and work a challenge. The Turkish government requires foreigners in the country, including Syrians, to register their addresses with authorities.

But some districts are “closed” to new registrations, to minimise the clustering of foreigners.

Abu Abdu has not registered his current address in Gaziantep because the area where his family could find affordable housing is among those blocked off by authorities.

Although he has a papers, without a registered address, Abu Abdu cannot get a work permit. Without one, nobody will officially hire him. The number of casual labour jobs has also decreased, due to police crackdowns and an economic crisis in Turkey that have prompted businesses to lay off workers, according to Syrian refugees and a human rights activist in Gaziantep.

When he was able to find casual work, Abu Abdu brought in the equivalent of less than $3 a day for each of the six family members relying on his wages.

“It was not enough, but it was better than staying sat at home,” he said.

Without a registered address, the family does not receive aid money either: the procedure is a requirement for EU-backed cash transfers distributed by the Turkish Red Crescent Society.

“We haven’t received one Turkish lira, dollar or euro,” said Abu Abdu’s father, aged 61.

The Turkish Red Crescent said that applicants for cash assistance must meet criteria that “align with Turkey’s national social assistance system”.

Economic woes have exacerbated the problems. Inflation in Turkey is currently running at 75 per cent and for both Turks and Syrians, work opportunities have dried up as living costs have spiralled.

Hiba fled to Turkey after her husband was killed in a missile strike in Aleppo over a decade ago, and her family received money for marrying her off to another man 30 years her senior. He then abandoned her, Hiba said, leaving her with little way of supporting her three children.

The 40-year-old receives cash transfers – but the 2,100 Turkish lira ($65) monthly payment is barely enough to pay rent, let alone feed her family.

Figures provided by the Red Crescent show that many Syrians receiving EU-funded cash transfers get 500 to 700 Turkish lira a month for each person. The Turkish lira has lost over 80 per cent of its value against the dollar in recent years, and the money does not go far.

“This is another thing throttling us,” Hiba said, twisting her fingers in her hands as a fan pummelled the day’s dry heat. “To be honest, we don’t buy fruit or meat. It’s too expensive.”

EU-Turkey politics

In 2016, the EU and Turkey signed a deal in which Ankara was promised €6 billion in exchange for stopping migrant crossings into Europe. The €1 billion pledged last month is in addition to those funds.

“The deal had 10 points to it, but only two are functioning – that the EU sends money and then Turkey keeps the refugees in Turkey,” said Murat Erdogan, head of the Migration Research Centre at Ankara University.

The EU’s own auditors say they do not have full information on how aid funds are dispersed. In a report in April, the European Court of Auditors said that Turkey’s Education Ministry did not provide statistics on how the money was used.

The report’s findings will be discussed with member states and the European Parliament and, “reflected in future programming of funds for the refugees and host communities in Turkey” an EU official told The National.

EU figures show that Syrians continue to smuggle themselves from Turkey into the union.

According to data from EU border agency Frontex, 11,259 Syrians were found entering the union using irregular routes in the first five months of 2024 – among the nationalities most frequently detected.

“Refugees are still braving dangerous routes to reach Europe's shores. It is high time for the EU to acknowledge that Turkey is falling short of meeting its criteria as a safe third country for asylum seekers,” Hiba Zayadin, senior Syria researcher for non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch, told The National.

Many Syrians say that they want to overcome bureaucratic hurdles so that they can work and better contribute to Turkish society.

“If there were work opportunities, we would work. We like to help people,” said Abu Abdu’s father.

“Turkey embraced me, and we want to work, to help build this country.”

Updated: June 07, 2024, 12:51 PM