Syrian refugees in Istanbul are waiting anxiously ahead of an August 20 deadline for those without papers or who have been registered elsewhere in Turkey to leave the city or else be resettled forcibly or, worse, be sent back across the border to Syria.
In mid-July, authorities in Istanbul announced plans to crack down on unregistered Syrians and informal labourers in the city, framing it as a campaign against “illegal immigration”. More than 1,000 Syrians have been deported by security forces since by then, according to rights groups and media reports. As deportations escalated, and outcry with it, authorities issued a statement on July 22 claiming that Syrians found in Istanbul without proper registration after August 20 would be returned to the cities where they were first registered after leaving Syria.
But it is not clear what will happen to those without any proof of legal stay in Turkey, particularly those Syrians displaced into Turkey last year, around the time that several Turkish cities including Istanbul halted registration activities.
Some refugees now fear the worst, particularly deportation back to Syria, not least because many of the recent deportations appear to have contravened both Turkish and international law, and even targeted those legally registered in Istanbul, despite authorities’ claims of there being a proper legal process in place.
"Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen after August 20," said Muhammad, a Syrian refugee who has been in Istanbul for several years. Like all Syrians who spoke to The National for this report, he asked for his identity to be withheld.
“But everyone is expecting the campaign to become even more ferocious [afterwards].”
Their fears have only been compounded by the recent death of one deportee.
Hisham Mustafa, a father of three, had the necessary documents meant to protect him. Still, he was arrested without clear charges and deported in late May, before the official announcement of the crackdown.
"We did not know what [the police] were doing," Mustafa's father told The National. "They took Hisham away with them."
He said Turkish security forces sent his son through the Bab Al Hawa crossing into Syria’s north-western Idlib province in the first week of July. Hisham was later shot dead by Turkish border guards while trying to slip back into the country. His three children remain in Turkey.
Last month, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu denied that Turkey had deported Syrian refugees, instead claiming in a television appearance that those “who voluntarily want to go back” have access to procedures for their return to “safe areas.”
Opposition-affiliated authorities at the Bab Al Hawa crossing, which links the Turkish province of Hatay and Idlib, said recently that more than 6,100 people had crossed into Syria in July. The crossing ordinarily sees up to 3,500 crossings into Syria per month, a spokesman told The National.
Accounts from recent deportees suggest that small numbers are being sent back clandestinely through an unofficial border crossing further south, contrary to claims by Turkey that Syrians are only sent to safe areas in north-western Syria after stating their intention to voluntarily return.
Among them is Zakariya, who said he was arrested by police while walking home from work one night last month despite holding temporary card issued by Istanbul authorities.
Zakariya said that after hours on a bus, he and the other Syrians on board travelled down a back-road towards an “iron gate separating Syrian and Turkish territory”.
"I only saw one Turkish soldier sitting in an armoured vehicle at the Turkish gate, before we entered through another gate into Syria,” he said.
From there, they started walking. “There were no towns or villages along the road. We were walking in completely empty countryside.”
Zakaria found shelter in a local mosque in Salqeen, where he has remained. He is waiting to return to his wife and two children left behind in Istanbul.
Other recently deported Syrians tell a similar story.
Mahmoud told The National he was deported through the same crossing after he was arrested in a raid on his home in Istanbul's Avciler district last month.
“I have a temporary protection card issued in Gaziantep” province in Turkey’s south-east, Mahmoud said, meaning that according to the new regulations in Istanbul, he should have been allowed to return to Gaziantep.
“Even then, the authorities said that Syrians had until August 20 to leave the city. But the police didn’t listen to me during my arrest.”
Instead, he and other arrested Syrians were taken by bus directly to the border. ”They forced me to return to Idlib via the Friendship Bridge crossing,” Mahmoud said.
He said that members of the hardline Hayat Tahrir Al Sham group that controls most of Idlib were waiting on the other side. “They interrogated me briefly, and then let me go.”
He was back in Syria.
Turkish authorities have used this crossing to deport Syrian refugees in the past. Human Rights Watch reported last year that Turkish border guards “forced [Syrians] to return to Syrian territory … across a small dam on the Orontes River known as the Friendship Bridge”, usually after refugees were apprehended trying to slip across the border into Turkey.
Officials from the Turkish interior ministry and Istanbul province could not be reached for comment.
The recent deportations raise questions about what may follow the August 20 deadline, but also about how Turkey will treat the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in its territory in future.
For months, rhetoric and policy towards Syrian refugees has hardened amid a floundering economy and growing xenophobia.
Turkey has likely been emboldened by its migration deal with the European Union. In March 2016, the EU agreed to pay Turkey billions of dollars provided it acted to block migrants from attempting to reach Greece by sea. Deportations increased in the immediate aftermath of the deal. Previous EU funding has gone to Turkish detention facilities used to deport unwanted foreigners.
Other neighbouring countries, particularly Lebanon, have restricted entry to Syrians for years and started either coercing them to go back or returning them by force.
Streets in the Istanbul district of Esenyurt, home to large numbers of Syrians in recent years, now bear posters encouraging Syrians to go home.
"Syrians have begun to return," declares one with a photograph of Syrian children waving, all smiles. The poster only talks of voluntary returns, and even provides a phone number for those thinking about heading home.
According to Salem, 34, the writing is on the wall.
A refugee in Istanbul, he has started looking towards Europe rather than face increasingly unpredictable living conditions in Turkey.
Smugglers are still using WhatsApp and Facebook pages to advertise trips to Greece for up to $1,000.
“It’s half an hour across the sea, the cost isn’t that bad, and once you reach a Greek island, it's in God's hands,” he said.
Although aware of the risks at sea and the realities of life for refugees in Europe, Salem said he would still go.
"There are no options left.”