When Amjad Tablieh went out to buy some groceries one night this week, he thought it would be a quick trip. But when police stopped him to ask for his identification card, known as a kimlik, all he had in his pocket was about $5 in cash.
The 18-year-old student from Damascus is one of a half-million Syrian refugees officially registered to live in Istanbul. But increasingly, he and others are finding that their welcome is fraying, and Turks want them to go back to the war-ravaged country they fled.
“I told the police officer my kimlik is at home, it’s a 15-minute walk away and I can go get it, but he didn’t want to listen,” Tablieh said in an interview.
Shoved onto a waiting bus, Tablieh said he watched as it filled up with other migrants. They were taken to a police station outside the city, where Tablieh says he and the others were beaten and forced to sign a document they were not allowed to read.
The bus then carried them south toward the Syrian border. Less than 24 hours after he stepped out to buy bread, Tablieh found himself in the Syrian northwestern province of Idlib, the rebel enclave that is under siege by a fierce, Russian-backed Syrian government offensive.
“Never at any point were we told we were being sent to Syria. I’m not even from Idlib, I am from Damascus, I don’t know how to live there, I don’t even know how to start a life there,” he said.
Tablieh posted a video describing his ordeal online. It went viral, and a few well-connected activists were able to obtain permission to have him returned to Istanbul. Others are not so lucky.
For years, Turkey framed its largesse toward Syrians fleeing the civil war as an Islamic duty. Officials would often invoke the notion that Turks were “Ansar,” a religious reference to the supporters who hosted the Prophet Mohammad and his followers in their travels.
But the case of Tablieh and others — rights groups in Istanbul say between 600 and 1,500 Syrians were wrongfully returned to Syria from Istanbul in the last week — shows a growing exasperation with the roughly 3.6 million Syrian refugees who have settled in Turkey.
Faced with a battered economy — Turkey’s unemployment rate surged to more than 14% this year, its highest level in nearly a decade; the Turkish lira has fallen by an even larger margin — Turks have turned on Syrians they believe have taken their jobs and overwhelmed government services such as health and education.
One poll conducted by the Piar Research group this month found that Turks ranked the Syrian presence as the second most important problem in the country after the economy. More than 80% said they thought hosting Syrians was not the government’s responsibility, and that all Syrians should be sent back.
Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, an opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who won a surprise victory last month, put the issue at the core of his campaign. He complained of Arabic signs dominating shop fronts, and said Syrians were stealing jobs from locals.
“There are some parts of Turkey where the refugees outnumber the actual residents,” he told the BBC earlier this month. “No country in the world would accept this and nor should they.”
Those sentiments cut across political lines. Many believe the opposition’s victory in Istanbul was, in part, due to a view that Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party was too soft on the Syrian issue, said Omar Kadkoy, a policy analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation.
“But whether [Erdogan’s party] won or lost, the situation would have gotten to the same place, because what we have now is just the result of a policy of turning a blind eye to a problem for eight years,” he said.
In the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey had what was in effect an open-borders policy. Millions of Syrians escaped to Jordan and Lebanon, but it was Turkey, which shares a 510-mile border with Syria, that became the primary destination for refugees.
They deluged cities, including Antakya and Gaziantep. Smaller towns such as Reyhanli became in effect rear-guard bases for rebel factions, which were given carte blanche (as well as armed support) to regularly traverse the border to fight the loyalist forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
As the prospects of returning to Syria diminished, many Syrians made Turkey their home. They bought houses, sent their kids to Turkish schools and set up businesses. (Syrians started 15,000 companies in Turkey, according to official figures; only 3% of refugees still live in camps.)
Nevertheless, in recent years, Turkey began imposing restrictions on where Syrians could live. It closed its border to new arrivals from Syria in 2016.
Syrians need written permission to travel outside the province they are registered in, but the rule was largely unenforced until recently.
They also need the kimlik for employment, along with official permission to take the job and be registered for taxes. Some find illegal employment from companies happy to avoid paying higher wages and social welfare contributions.
“Having unregistered Syrians is something that has been the case for several years, as has having Syrians working in an informal economy, or owning informal businesses,” said Kadkoy.
Since taking office, Imamoglu has set up a special desk to handle complaints about the refugees, and pressure to crack down on Syrians has increased.
On Monday, that crackdown was announced formally by authorities, who issued a warning saying Syrians who are registered in other cities have until Aug. 20 to return there or be forced to leave Istanbul. Those who are not registered at all could be deported to Syria, where Turkey has set up enclaves for returnees. But those areas are subject to attack by Syrian and Russian warplanes, as well as fighting among the various rebel groups.
One of those caught in the dragnet was Mohamad Hamda, a 26-year-old who fled Damascus with his family last year, paying smugglers to make his way to Istanbul.
Told that no new Syrians could be registered in the city, he tried to register in the nearby city of Bursa, but was unable to gather the required documents and gave up. After his wife gave birth to a child, they applied for registration for the baby, hoping eventually they would be allowed to remain in Turkey as well.
On the morning of July 18, Hamda left his home to go work at a textile factory, and found himself before a police checkpoint.
“They asked me for my identification, and all I had with me was my passport, and documents showing my son was born here, that he was waiting for proper papers,” he said.
Unsatisfied, police put Hamda on a bus nearby, had him and others sign a document in Turkish they could not read, and drove them to the Syrian border.
Now in the Syrian city of Al Bab, Hamda has no way to return to Istanbul. “I have a wife, I have kids in Istanbul, they need me, I cannot stay here, I am not even from here, I am from Damascus,” he said.
Stories like Hamda’s have spurred a wave of fear among Syrians in Istanbul. Many share news on social media, including activist WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages.
An umbrella group that advocates for refugee rights, the Syrian Assns. Platform, has begun compiling thousands of reports from Istanbul-based Syrians detailing ill treatment by police and asking anyone wrongfully deported to contact them for help. “They are afraid to go outside their homes now because they think they will be checked,” said spokesman Mehdi Dawud.
The new regulations follow convulsions of anti-Syrian fervor. Rumors that a Syrian boy harassed a Turkish girl sparked violent clashes last month in an Istanbul suburb, with hundreds of Turks surrounding a police station where the accused was being held, demanding Syrians be removed from the area. On social media, Turks revived hashtag campaigns telling Syrians to “get out.”
Life in Istanbul for Syrians, whether they have papers or not, now seems precarious.
In the city’s Fatih district on Sunday night, dozens of young police recruits assembled before the police station to receive their orders. Smartphones in hand, they fanned out into the streets, past the Syrian shawarma shops and bakeries that have earned the neighborhood the title “Little Damascus,” past the mosque courtyard that has been the site of funerals for rebel fighters killed in the war.
Through the stream of pedestrians they singled out a young Syrian man. He smiled, took the earbuds out of his ears and handed over his identification card to an officer who checked it against a database on the street.
Special correspondent Farooq reported from Istanbul and Times staff writer Bulos from Amman, Jordan.