Syrian Refugees Concerned at New Turkish Residence Rules

Ninety-day stay now being enforced, and breaking the rules can lead to a re-entry bar.

Syrian Refugees Concerned at New Turkish Residence Rules

Ninety-day stay now being enforced, and breaking the rules can lead to a re-entry bar.

Wednesday, 4 March, 2015

Tighter restrictions affecting Syrians crossing in and out of Turkey are making life difficult for those who have fled the four-year armed conflict.

Under new rules which came into force on January 1, Syrians can only remain in Turkey for a maximum of 90 days without a permit. They must then spend a minimum of 90 days back in Syria before returning to Turkey again. Those wanting to stay longer in Turkey must either get a temporary residence permit or register as refugees.

There are almost two million Syrian refugees in Turkey living in formal camps or in towns along the border.

The new procedures are a response to Turkish worries about the sheer numbers of people entering the country, and the social and political consequences. These concerns have been exacerbated by the rise of extremist groups like Islamic State.

Because of the conflict in their country, Syrians were previously exempt from Turkish immigration restrictions and were allowed to come and go freely.

“Since the start of fighting in Syria, most residents in the north have fled to Turkey within the framework of temporary residence rules,” said Mohammad Baroudi, a journalist who works for a Syrian pro-opposition radio station in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. “The Turkish government turned a blind eye to people who violated the three month rule as they entered and left, but the huge increase in Syrian arrivals have prompted it to revive the law. Its goal is to push Syrians to obtain residence and to curb violations, particularly those that might impact security concerns.”

If Syrians break the rules or overstay their residence period in Turkey they can be fined up to 570 Turkish liras (250 US dollars). Refugees who remain within Turkey and do not try to cross back to Syria are unaffected by the rules.

Under the old system, people were only fined for staying beyond the 90-day period if they were travelling in and out of Turkey through an airport. Those going overland were exempt. But now anyone who crosses the land border will have to pay a fine if they have outstayed the permitted period. They are then barred from re-entering Turkey for between one and five months, depending on how long they have overstayed.

According to Syria’s justice ministry, people arriving at the border without a passport or proper travel documents will not be allowed to enter Turkey, either.

The new rules pose a challenge for many refugees, thousands of whom fled their homes without passports or any documentation. Although they cannot obtain residence rights, they can get a temporary identity card.

“The temporary ID cards protect Syrian and Iraqi refugees who don’t have passports, under a law on foreigners and temporary protections,” Ghazwan al-Masri, a Syrian businessman with Turkish citizenship, told the Turkpress.co website, “Of course, this does not exempt foreigners from paying a fine if they [break the rules and] decide to leave Turkey.”

In order to travel freely, Syrians must now apply for a temporary residence permit in Turkey. But to obtain this, they need to meet a number of conditions including having a valid passport. Many of those who fled the conflict no longer have their personal documents, and the only way to renew them is at the Syrian embassy in Istanbul. Temporary residents also require Turkish health insurance, which costs a minimum of 300 dollars. They must also have a bank account containing the equivalent of at least 6,000 US dollars, a prohibitive amount for most.

“The conditions for residence are extremely unfair,” said Rania, 37, a housewife who now lives in Gaziantep. “Securing 6,000 dollars is very difficult in these circumstances, as is getting an official passport, not to mention the health insurance that we may not even benefit from.”

“We have just moved from one bad situation to another,” she said. “We face two choices – either we pay a fine, or we pay an exorbitant amount of money to obtain a residence permit.”

Because so many people lack passports, forgeries are widely available in Turkish border towns like Akçakale and Gaziantep.

Mahmud, 31, works at a restaurant in one of these border towns, and is wanted by the Syrian authorities because he took part in anti-government demonstrations.

“My passport expired years ago,” he told Damascus Bureau. “It was impossible to renew it because of my status with Syrian security, so I turned to a middleman who told me it was 100 per cent guaranteed and no one would be able to tell the difference between a real passport and the forgery.”

However, after paying 500 dollars for a fake passport, Mahmud was stopped by Turkish frontier officials.

“It seemed fine, but the Turkish authorities spotted it at the border and ripped it up,” he said. “I had to find another way in through smugglers.”

This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists. 

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