The dawn of February 6, 2023, at 4:17 am was a tragic turning point for the residents in southern Türkiye and northwestern Syria, as a double earthquake struck the Turkish province of Kahramanmaraş with a magnitude of 7.7 and 7.6, leaving terrible destruction and thousands of victims in its wake. The quake affected 10 of Türkiye’s southern provinces where about two million Syrian refugees are concentrated close to their country’s borders.
This catastrophe has revealed a major deficiency and discrimination with regard to the issues of Syrians and the way their humanitarian crisis has been dealt with that has been going on for about 12 years; at home, and in neighboring countries. The number of Syrian refugees under “temporary protection” in Türkiye reached 3,762,686 as of April 28, 2022, according to the Turkish Immigration Department. The earthquake, which did not distinguish between Turkish and Syrian, claimed about 46,000 victims according to the Turkish Minister of Interior (March 4, 2023), including 4,267 Syrians.
They [sYRIANS] spent years trying to find a home with neighbors who are not bothered by living next to a Syrian refugee, to find a job that guarantees to secure the minimum needs for the house and the children. Now, they are left with nothing
After the disaster, another catastrophe exploded: A cumulative one that resulted after many years spent by refugees in Türkiye. Many of those who did not die under the ruins of Antakya, Marash, Gaziantep, and other stricken cities, literally wished they had died after this disaster after having spent years collecting the necessities of the houses they lived in, houses that were supposed to compensate them for their homes in Syria to which they could no longer return. They spent years trying to find a home with neighbors who are not bothered by living next to a Syrian refugee, to find a job that guarantees to secure the minimum needs for the house and the children. Now, they are left with nothing. They abandoned their feeling of relative security under the rubble, and some left one or more family members there as well.
Syrian civilians began fleeing to neighboring Türkiye in 2012 hoping to find a safe place away from the brutality of Bashar Assad’s regime and its allies. Syrian refugees have been widely distributed among the different Turkish provinces and the “temporary protection” status they are given does not guarantee them international refugee rights or benefits.
There are many thorny files in Türkiye that the refugee suffered from even before the earthquake disaster, and there has been ambiguity about the most sensitive matters; from preventing the movement of Syrians between provinces under the penalty of deportation to the voices of hatred that began to rise in 2018 and increased with every crisis that Türkiye suffers from, especially the economic one, and are fueled by politicians, journalists, artists, and even staff at many universities and schools. Unfortunately, there have also been violent attacks that have claimed the lives of refugees over the years.
Syrian refugees in Türkiye live mostly on the minimum wage, or a little more, and more than 80% of them are in the Turkish labor market without work permits that guarantee their legal rights as employers refrain from obtaining them in order to escape paying legal insurance for each worker and covering possible work-related injuries. Nevertheless, employment of Syrian refugees constitutes 2.9% of the Turkish labor market, according to Turkish government statistics (2021). This dire and fragile economic situation becomes even more stressful for some refugees in Türkiye who are subsidizing family members still living in a completely collapsed Syria, many of whom do so every month and deduct from their already meager salaries, which always puts refugees in narrower options.
Those who could not manage were told to go to evacuation points, places where most refugees are afraid to mix with Turkish citizens for fear of encountering a racist backlash at an already critical time
To complicate matters even more, the instructions to Syrian refugees on how to deal with this emergency situation were not officially published by government agencies. They were reportedly sent by a source in the Immigration Department to coordination groups, activists, and organizations. Such discriminatory measures are not officially declared by the Turkish state and as such cannot be counted on.
In such a catastrophic situation, Syrian refugees already had no right to use aviation as a means of evacuation, and no accommodation or assistance was provided in the governorates to which they would arrive. Those who could not manage were told to go to evacuation points, places where most refugees are afraid to mix with Turkish citizens for fear of encountering a racist backlash at an already critical time. The instructions stated that the affected foreigner was asked to go to his/her relatives or acquaintances, where urgent and basic needs could be secured, and told them to contact the Immigration Department in the province to which they would be arriving in order to grant them a travel permit document for a period of 90 days.
Indeed, Syrian refugees have suffered and will suffer in the future, from being left to face their tragedy alone, as happened with their peers inside Syria, where their moans were left under the rubble as if it were a piece of music to enjoy until the score was completed.
some Turkish politicians have come out to spread the poison of racism and discrimination, and refugees have been subjected to smear campaigns and accusations even while helping with rescue operations
How will Syrians be treated in the provinces they went to after the expiration of the permits they were granted? How will they get by? And when can they return? And what and how will they work? Will their circumstances be taken into account and helped? There are no answers as always. Nothing is clear about the situation of Syrians in Türkiye before the earthquake, and it is clear that the situation will continue to be so. After all this bitter death of Turks and Syrians, which should revive a human seed in the heart of every human being living in this geographical area and elsewhere, some Turkish politicians have come out to spread the poison of racism and discrimination, and refugees have been subjected to smear campaigns and accusations even while helping with rescue operations.
On February 13, a week after the disaster, the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syrian side announced an exceptional leave for Syrian refugees holding a temporary protection card for the stricken Turkish provinces. The announcement also claimed they would be able to return to Türkiye, but only after 3 months. It was a shocking and sudden decision which means a clear and explicit evasion by the Turkish authorities towards their responsibilities regarding the situation of affected refugees. And the Bab Al-Hawa crossing was followed by the opening of three other crossings with Syria opening an even wider door for the exit of those affected under the same conditions.
As of February 22, about 24 thousand Syrians have entered Syria from Türkiye through the four crossings and this number continues to increase daily as they are indirectly being pushed into doing so by not being provided with the aid that would help them survive and prevent them from further displacement throughout Türkiye; so they prefer to enter Syria in the hope that the situation will be a little better there. But the situation in Syria is even more tragic as people have been pushed into an already disaster-stricken region, crowded with more than 4.5 million people who were already suffering from lack of services, insecurity, and a poor economy before this disaster. So, how can one imagine the situation now?