Demonstrators hold placards in support of Syrian refugees during a protest in Istanbul.Murad Sezer / Reuters

ISTANBUL—Under the cover of night, Turkish police officers pushed Ahmed onto a large bus parked in central Istanbul. In the darkness, the Syrian man from Damascus could discern dozens of other handcuffed refugees being crammed into the vehicle. Many of them would not see the Turkish city again.

Ahmed, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety, was arrested after police discovered that he was registered with the authorities not in Istanbul, but in a different district. Turkish law obliges Syrian refugees with a temporary protection status to remain in their locale of initial registration or obtain separate permission to travel, and the officers reassured him he would simply be transferred back to the right district.

Instead, as dawn broke, the bus arrived at a detention facility in the Istanbul suburb of Pendik, where Ahmed said he was jostled into a crowded cell with 10 others and no beds, and received only one meal a day, which was always rotten. “The guards told us we Syrians are just as rotten inside,” he told me. “They kept shouting that Turkey will no longer accept us, and that we will all go back to Syria.”

Ahmed would spend more than six weeks in the hidden world of Turkey’s so-called removal centers. His account, as well as those of more than half a dozen other Syrians I spoke to, point to the systemic abuse, the forced deportations, and, in some cases, the death of refugees caught in a recent crackdown here.

Yet Turkey is not the only actor implicated. In a deeper sense, the backlash also exposes the long-term consequences of the European Union’s outsourcing of its refugee problem. In March 2016, the EU entered into a controversial deal with Turkey that halted much of the refugee influx to Europe in return for an aid package worth €6 billion ($6.7 billion) and various political sweeteners for Ankara. Preoccupied with its own border security, EU decision makers at the time were quick to reassure their critics that Turkey constituted a “safe third country” that respected refugee rights and was committed to the principle of non-refoulement.

As Europe closed its doors, Turkey was left with a staggering 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees—the largest number hosted by any country in the world and nearly four times as many as all EU-member states combined. While Turkish society initially responded with impressive resilience, its long-lauded hospitality is rapidly wearing thin, prompting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government to take measures that violate the very premise of the EU-Turkey deal.

Last month, Turkish police launched operations targeting undocumented migrants and refugees in Istanbul. Syrian refugees holding temporary protection status registered in other Turkish districts now have until October 30 to leave Istanbul, whereas those without any papers are to be transferred to temporary refugee camps in order to be registered.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walks past a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Ankara.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the presidential palace in Ankara (Reuters)

Both international and Turkish advocates of refugee rights say, however, that the operation sparked a wave of random arrests and even forced deportations. The Istanbul Bar Association, too, reported its Legal Aid Bureau dealt with 3.5 times as many deportation cases as in June, just before the operation was launched. UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, and the European Commission have not said whether they believe Turkey is deporting Syrians. But one senior EU official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the issue, estimated that about 2,200 people were sent to the Syrian province of Idlib, though he said it was unclear whether they were forcibly deported or chose to return. The official added that, were Turkey forcibly deporting Syrians, this would be in explicit violation of the principle of non-refoulement, on which the EU-Turkey deal is conditioned.

The Turkish interior ministry’s migration department did not respond to questions about the allegations. In a recent interview on Turkish television, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said that “it is not possible for us to deport any unregistered Syrian” and insisted that returns to Syria were entirely voluntary.

Ahmed and several other Syrian refugees I spoke to, however, experienced firsthand what voluntary can look like in practice.

After being transferred from the facility in Pendik to a removal center in Binkılıç, northwest of Istanbul, Ahmed said he was pressured into signing a set of forms upon arrival. The female official in charge refused to explain the papers’ contents, he said. As Ahmed was about to sign and fingerprint the last document, he noticed she was deliberately using her fingers to cover the Arabic translation of the words voluntary return. When he retracted his finger, she called in the guards, who took Ahmed to a nearby bathroom with another Syrian who had refused to sign. There, he said, the two were intimidated for several hours, and he was shown images of a man who had been badly beaten and tied to a chair with plastic tape. According to Ahmed, an official told him, “If you don’t sign, you’ll end up like that.”

The other Syrian present at the time, Hussein, offered a similar account. In a phone interview from Dubai, where he escaped to after negotiating deportation to Malaysia instead of Syria, Hussein, who asked to be identified by only his first name to protect relatives still in Turkey, detailed the abuse in the same terms as Ahmed, and added that he was personally beaten by one of the guards. When the ordeal was over, both men said, the other Syrians who had arrived with them were being taken to a bus, apparently to be deported.

Ahmed was detained in Binkılıç for a month before being taken to another removal center in nearby Kırklareli, where he said he was made to sleep outside in a courtyard together with more than 100 other detainees. The guards kept the toilets locked throughout the day, he said, so inmates had to either wait for a single 30-minute toilet break at night or relieve themselves where they were sleeping. When Ahmed fell seriously ill, he told me, he was repeatedly denied access to a doctor.

After nine days in Kırklareli, the nightmare suddenly ended. Ahmed was called in by the facility’s management, asked who he was, and released when it became clear he did in fact hold temporary protection status, albeit for a district other than Istanbul. The Atlantic has seen a photo of Ahmed’s identity card, as well as his release note from the removal center.

The EU has funded many of the removal centers in which refugees like Ahmed are held. As stated in budgets from 2010 and 2015, the EU financed at least 12 such facilities as part of its pre-accession funding to Turkey. And according to a 2016 report by an EU parliamentary delegation, the removal center in Kırklareli in which Ahmed was held received 85 percent of its funding from the EU. The Binkılıç facility, where Syrians were forced to sign return papers, also received furniture and other equipment funded by Britain and, according to Ahmed, featured signs displaying the EU and Turkish flags.

It is hard to determine the extent to which the $6.7 billion allocated to Ankara under the 2016 EU-Turkey deal has funded similar projects. While the bulk of it went to education, health care, and direct cash support for refugees, a 2018 annual report also refers to funding for “a removal center for 750 people”—language conspicuously replaced with the more neutral “facility for 750 people” in this year’s report.

According to Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s former Turkey rapporteur, even lawmakers like her struggle to scrutinize the precise implementation of EU-brokered deals on migration, which include agreements not just with Turkey, but also with Libya, Niger, and Sudan.

“In this way, the EU becomes co-responsible for human-rights violations,” Piri said in a telephone interview. “Violations against refugees may have decreased on European soil, but that’s because we outsourced them. It’s a sign of Europe’s moral deficit, which deprives us from our credibility in holding Turkey to account.” According to the original agreement, the EU pledged to resettle 72,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey. Three years later, it has taken in less than a third of that number.

A Turkish military watchtower stands at a crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border.
A Turkish military watchtower stands at a crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from Idlib, on the Syrian side. (Khalil Ashawi / Reuters)

Many within Turkish society feel their country has simply done enough. With an economy only recently out of recession and many Turks struggling to make a living, hostility toward Syrians is on the rise. A recent poll found that those who expressed unhappiness with Syrian refugees rose to 67.7 percent this year, from 54.5 percent in 2017.

Just as in Europe, opposition parties in Turkey are now cashing in on anti-refugee sentiment. In municipal elections this year, politicians belonging to the secularist CHP ran an explicitly anti-Syrian campaign, and have cut municipal aid for refugees or even banned Syrians’ access to beaches since being elected. In Istanbul, on the very evening the CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu was elected mayor, a jubilantly racist hashtag began trending on Twitter: “Syrians are fucking off” (#SuriyelilerDefoluyor).

In a statement to The Atlantic, a Turkish foreign-ministry spokesperson said, “Turkey has done its part” when it came to the deal with the EU. “The funds received amount to a fraction of what has been spent by Turkey,” the text noted, adding that Ankara expects “more robust support from the EU” both financially and in the form of increased resettlements of Syrian refugees from Turkey to Europe.

Though international organizations say that more evidence of Turkey’s actions is needed, Nour al-Deen al-Showaishi argues the proof is all around him. “The bombs are falling not far from here,” he told me in a telephone interview from a village on the outskirts of Idlib, the Syrian region where he said he was sent. Showaishi said he was deported from Turkey in mid-July after being arrested in the Istanbul neighborhood of Esenyurt while having coffee with friends. Fida al-Deen, who was with him at the time, confirmed to me that Showaishi was arrested and called him from Syria two days later.

Having arrived in Turkey in early 2018, when the governorate of Istanbul had stopped giving out identity cards to Syrians, Showaishi did not have any papers to show the police. Taken to a nearby police station, officers assured him that he would receive an identity card if he signed a couple of forms. When he asked for more detail about the forms, however, they changed tactics and forced him to comply.

Showaishi was then sent to a removal center in Tuzla and, he said, deported to Syria the same day. He sent me videos to show he was in Idlib, the last major enclave of armed resistance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the United Nations, the region contains 3 million people, half of them internally displaced, and faces a humanitarian disaster now that Russia and the Assad regime are stepping up an offensive to retake the territory.

The only way out leads back into Turkey, and, determined to prevent yet another influx of refugees, Ankara has buttressed its border.

Still, Hisham al-Steyf al-Mohammed saw no other option. The 21-year-old was deported from Turkey in mid-July despite possessing valid papers from the governorate of Istanbul, a photo of which I have seen. Desperate to return to his wife and two young children, he paid a smuggler to guide him back to Turkey, according to Mohammed Khedr Hammoud, another refugee who joined the perilous journey.

Shortly before sunset on August 4, Hammoud said, a group of 13 refugees set off from the village of Dirriyah, a mile from the border, pausing in the mountains for the opportune moment to cross into Turkey. While they waited, Mohammed knelt down to pray, but moments later, a cloud of sand jumped up next to him. Realizing it was a bullet, the smuggler called for the group to get moving, but Mohammed lay still. “I crawled up to him and put my ear on his heart,” Hammoud told me, “but it wasn’t beating.” For more than an hour, he said, the group was targeted by bullets from Turkish territory, and only at midnight was it able to carry Mohammed’s body away.

I obtained a photo of Mohammed’s death certificate issued by the Al-Rahma hospital in the Darkoush village in Idlib. The document, dated August 5, notes, “A bullet went through the patient’s right ear, and came out at the level of the left neck.”

The Turkish interior ministry sent me a statement that largely reiterated an article published in Foreign Policy last week, in which an Erdoğan spokesman said Mohammed was a terror suspect who voluntarily requested his return to Syria. He offered no details on the case, though.

Mohammed’s father, Mustafa, dismissed the spokesman’s argument, telling me in an interview in Istanbul, “If he really did something wrong, then why didn’t they send him to court?” Since Mohammed had been the household’s main breadwinner, Mustafa said he now struggled to feed his family, including Mohammed’s 3-month-old baby.

Yet he is not the only one struck by Mohammed’s death. In an interview in his friend’s apartment in Istanbul, where he has returned but is in hiding from the authorities, Ahmed had just finished detailing his week’s long detention in Turkey’s removal centers when his phone started to buzz—photos of Mohammed’s corpse were being shared on Facebook.

“I know him!” Ahmed screamed, clasping his friend’s arm. Mohammed, he said, had been with him in the removal center in Binkılıç. “He was so hopeful to be released, because he had a valid ID for Istanbul. But when he told me that he had been made to sign some forms, I knew it was already too late.”

“If I signed that piece of paper,” Ahmed said, “I could have been dead next to him.”

It is this thought that pushes Ahmed, and many young Syrians like him, to continue on to Europe. He and his friend showed me videos a smuggler had sent them of successful boat journeys, and told me they planned to leave soon.

“As long as we are in Turkey, the Europeans can pretend that they don’t see us,” Ahmed concluded. “But once I go there, once I stand in front of them, I am sure that they will care about me.”

Asmaa Al Omar contributed reporting for this story.

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