Separated by War: Lovers on Either Side of Syrian-Turkish Borders

Wednesday 14 March 201808:37 pm
Yasmin is a few kilometers away from her husband Awaad, yet it is virtually impossible to be reunited with him. She lives in the Syrian town of Salqin, Idlib's countryside, while her partner dwells in Antakya in the far south of Turkey. Neither can cross the border to see the other. Lovers on either side of the Berlin Wall were able to meet when the German capital's landmark monument was still standing. Today, couples separated by the Syrian-Turkish borderline cannot rejoice in such delightful moments. Turkish guards alongside police dogs constantly monitor the border, ruling out any possibility of sneaking in. It is a risk that Obida Ghanoum, a father of three, could not take. In late 2013, the Syrian young man had to move with his family from Homs to Raqqa, and then to Hama to escape the dominance of the Islamic State group. Eventually, he traveled to Turkey, this time on his own, in the hope that his family would join him later. "My young kids, who were attached to their father, saw me disappear," Ghanoum told Raseef22 while speaking of his ordeal. "It was impossible for them to pass through the border illegally. Such a mountainous road at night would've been a great risk for the children." A year later, Ghanoum remains in Turkey, with his family behind. He was the breadwinner of the family, thus his absence has left them facing an unenviable situation. Now he talks to them for up to four hours every day via mobile chatting applications. Ghanoum failed for no apparent reason to invoke a Turkish law allowing bearers of the kimlik, a temporary protection status, to bring in their first-degree relatives. Meeting his family in a country other than Syria and Turkey was also not an option; on the one hand they could not issue any visas, and on the other hand he did not hold Turkish residency -- meaning he would not be able to return to Turkey should he travel abroad. Yasmin and Ghanoum are not the only Syrians who suffered from new regulations, which neither allow them to enter nor stay in Turkey without papers. Also, those who live in the country illegally cannot legalize their status, according to the regulations. Half the three million Syrians who have fled to Turkey since the Syrian war erupted are still struggling with visa and residency regulations, according to opposition lawyer Ghazwan Koronfel, the head of the Free Syrian Lawyers' Association. Turkey has not released official figures, yet the fact remains tens of Syrians have been facing stern tests like Yasmin and Ghanoum.

The Door No Longer Open

Turkey had allowed Syrians to cross its borders freely since the breakout of the war in 2011, before imposing restrictions on them starting 8 January, 2016. The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced that Syrians would have to issue visas before entering the country, whether coming from Syria or another nation. Earlier on 30 December 2015, a ministry spokesperson said the new regulations aimed to "deter illegal immigration". Although Syrians who enter Turkey through the borderline are exempted from the new regulations, crossing between both countries is all but stopped. Meanwhile, Turkish guards have gunned down around 300 civilians trying to cross the border, according to a report issued by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on 30 July, 2017. "Obliging Syrians to issue visas was a turning point; the communication between Syrians and their families have been severed," Koronfel said. Husbands and wives found themselves living separately; those in Turkey cannot leave because they would be denied entry upon their return, and those in Syria or other countries cannot travel to Turkey without visas. Amar H. lives in Istanbul while his Syria-based fiancée cannot move to Turkey. They could not be reunited in another country such as Lebanon or Malaysia; the Syrian couple are left stranded until further notice. "I went to Turkey three years ago and couldn't obtain residency," the 28-year-old man said. "Now I cannot leave Turkey because I won't be able to go back...The purpose of the papers is not only to enter and leave freely, but also to be able to rent a house and open a bank account." "I don't feel any stability, my situation with my fiancée is in limbo," Amar went on. "Up till now we haven't decided yet whether or not we will continue our relationship." Turkey's new regulations came in accordance with a Turkish-European agreement reached mid-March 2016 to stem the follow of refugees to Europe.

Types of Residency

Syrians in Turkey can hold three types of residency: kimlik, work and tourism. The breakdown of Syrians bearing the three documents is unavailable, even though officials say kimlik bearers comprise the majority. The kimlik grant refugees protection by Turkish authorities, not the UN like in Lebanon and other neighboring countries. Even though kimlik bearers are entitled to medical treatment at public hospitals, they cannot open bank accounts, work on a regular basis or travel outside Turkey and go back. They are also not allowed to travel from one Turkish province to another without a permit. The tourism residency is granted to a small number of Syrians thanks to its demanding requirements, including a bank statement and a rental lease. Work residency is even harder to obtain not only for Syrians, but non-Turks altogether as it allows bearers to apply for Turkish citizenship after five years. Koronfel explains that residency can only be obtained when the applicant has been in Turkey for less than 90 days. Occasionally, however, immigration authorities would not accept residency applications, and therefore applicants would exceed the time limit without finishing the requisite paperwork and miss out on their sole chance to legalize their status.

Attempts and Campaigns

On 16 June, 2017 two Syrian young men sought to amass 10,000 endorsements in a signature drive aiming at enabling Syrians who stay in Turkey illegally to legalize their status. The campaign did not pay dividends, nonetheless. Also, numerous attempts from Syrian refugees based in different Turkish provinces to bring in relatives from abroad were unsuccessful, according to Koronfel. Most of these endeavors aimed at allowing first-degree relatives to come from Syria to Turkey through a borderline crossing, like what Ghanoum tried to do. There are many difficulties to pull it off. To begin with, the procedure is very time consuming, and would require those in Syria to travel through war-hit areas to reach the border with Turkey. Moreover, Syrians' chances to issue Turkish visas are affected by the countries they apply from. For example, Syrians who apply for visas from Egypt or Lebanon are usually turned down. On the other hand, applications coming from Qatar are likely successful, according to Yasin Aktay, a chief adviser to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has no diplomatic mission in Syria, thus all visa applications of Syrians come from other countries. This feature is produced with the support and supervision of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).
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