Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has been alarmed to learn that Turkey has been sending a few Syrian refugee journalists back to Syria since June and fears that there will be many more expulsions from tomorrow onwards, the deadline for Syrian refugees in the Istanbul metropolitan area to regularize their status.
RSF has written to the Turkish authorities asking them to respect the principle of non-refoulement – which forbids governments from sending asylum-seekers back to a country where they are likely to persecuted – and instead to protect these journalists, for whom being forced to return to Syria would often be tantamount to a death sentence.
Hundreds of Syrian journalists thought they had found a safe refuge in Turkey in recent years but this refuge is proving to be increasingly precarious. RSF has established that, in the past few weeks, at least three have been forced to return to Syria, where they risk arrest by the authorities or an even worse fate at the hands of the many armed groups.
The letter that RSF has written to Turkish interior minister Süleyman Soylu urges the Turkish authorities to put a stop to the forced returns and to not subject refugee journalists in Turkey to threats that would result in their having no choice but to go back to Syria.
“The forced return of refugee journalists to dangerous areas violates the principle of non-refoulement, a principle of international customary law that is binding on all states,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “After receiving a large proportion of the Syrian refugees in recent years, Turkey must continue to guarantee their safety, and the safety of the journalists who are among them.”
RSF has learned that Hussein Al-Taweel, a Syrian journalist who worked for Al-Jisr TV, was sent back to Syria after being arrested in June in Reyhanli, a Turkish town near the Syrian border, while trying to reach a province where he could apply for an official Turkish document granting him provisional protection (a document known as the kimlik).
Yaroub Al-Dalie, a Syrian journalist who worked for The Levant News, was on the point of obtaining a kimlik when he was arrested on 9 July and was sent back to Syria. When he tried to reenter Turkey a month later, he was arrested by Turkish soldiers at the border and was expelled again. He began being threatened immediately after his forced return and had to flee to another city to avoid reprisals.
Finally, Obaida Al-Omar, a Syrian journalist who worked for Horrya.net, was arrested in Antakya on 26 July and was forced to sign a Turkish-language document which he did not understand and which proved to be a form requesting “voluntary return” to Syria.
Coerced “voluntary returns”
The Turkish authorities deny that any Syrian refugees are being returned against their will, insisting that only those who express the wish to go back are being helped to reach “safe areas.” But the information gathered by RSF paints a much darker reality.
Many journalists with a kimlik have been unable to renew it in recent weeks, depriving them of legal status in Turkey. When stopped for an ID check, more and more refugees are being threatened with detention or are subjected to other forms of pressure until they sign a "voluntary return” request without always understanding what it says. They can then be sent back to areas in Syria such as Idlib where fierce fighting continues.
Concern has been fuelled by a new directive from Istanbul’s governor, under which Syrian refugees without Turkish papers can be expelled from the Istanbul metropolitan area from tomorrow onwards. The Association of Syrian Journalists in Turkey estimates that more than 300 journalists are concerned.
Although their news media outlets and sometimes their families may be in Istanbul, many are officially required to live in another regions. Given the latest precedents, many fear that their transfer to another region could end up turning into a forced return to Syria.
Pressure on exile media
They also fear losing their jobs. Most of the Syrian media outlets in Turkey are based in Istanbul. At the start of August, Watan FM, Orient TV, Aram News and Bisan FM all warned their Syrian employees that they could be fired if they did not legalize their status in Turkey.
These media outlets are themselves under pressure. According to Firas Diba, the founder of the Association of Syrian Journalists in Turkey, Turkish legislation allows them to employ only one foreign citizen for every five Turkish employees. The virtual impossibility for Arabic-language media to comply with this requirement forces them to operate illegally.
Turkey’s legislation must take account of the specific needs of its Syrian refugees, RSF says. Turkey should allow Syrians more time to sort out their paperwork, should issue temporary press cards to Syrian journalists to facilitate travel from one province to another, and should exempt Syrian media outlets from the obligation to employ five Turks for every foreigner.
Turkey is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, while Syria is ranked 174th.