Turkey’s Istanbul Province has removed 2,600 unregistered Syrians, sending them to other provinces, according to the office of Ali Yerlikaya, the provincial governor. As governors are appointed by the president, rights groups are now accusing the national government of illegally deporting at least some refugees back to war-torn Syria.

Yerlikaya’s announcement, made on August 1, stated that 2,630 Syrians who had failed to register in any province had been taken to temporary identification centers between July 12 and July 31. The crackdown came as bombardments in northern Syria continued to escalate and the Assad regime captured two rebel-held villages.

Syrian Amjad Alsari told The Media Line that two of his uncles who lacked residence permits or temporary protection status went missing after police came to their homes in Istanbul and took them away.

“We’re stressed out, we’re anxious, we don’t know anything,” he said through an interpreter.

Alsari believes his uncles had their belongings, including their phones, taken away. He said he went to a police station in Istanbul, where he was told his uncles had been moved to another station. He could not find them and does not know what happened to them.

The Turkish government announced in July that migrants living in Istanbul illegally had until August 20 to return to the Turkish provinces where they were registered.

An NGO calling itself “We are All Refugees, No to Racism” held a press conference on Wednesday to raise concerns that Syrians were not just being sent to other Turkish provinces, but to Syria as well.

Ozan Tekin, a member of the NGO, told The Media Line he believed the crackdown was being conducted due to Turkey’s struggling economy.

“Now that the economic crisis is hitting Turkey, it’s easier for the government and the politicians to say the problem is the [migrants],” he said.

The Turkish government has asserted that it is only enforcing the law.

“This issue only concerns irregular and illegal migration,” Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said, according to Hurriyet Daily News. “It is out of the question and not acceptable for Syrian people who are under temporary protection, foreigners who are granted international protection status or people who have residence permits in our country, to be deported.”

The Reuters news agency said it spoke with five Syrians who claimed they had been deported in July to northern Syria. It said some claimed to have temporarily protection status in Turkey.

Tensions increased on Saturday when a protest against the removals called by various Turkish NGOs was disrupted by ultra-nationalists.

“We know the Syrians who live in Istanbul and other cities came to our country not for a vacation or seeking work, but rather to escape being massacred,” Ridvan Kaya, who helped to organize the protest, told The Media Line, adding he believed the crackdown came in response to refugees becoming politically unpopular.

“The government is under pressure…. Since the [mayoral] election, we see that the government is day by day changing its policy,” he said.

“We think the government and civil society and human rights organizations should act against this racist propaganda,” he continued, “and we don’t think that most [Turkish] people are against the refugees.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered his biggest defeat to date when his party lost the mayoral races for Istanbul and Ankara. Part of the blame is being directed toward his policies on migrants.

Turkey hosts 3.6 million displaced Syrians, more than any other country. The International Organization for Migration estimates there are between 600,000 and 900,000 Syrians living in Istanbul alone, where there is widespread resentment over a perceived increase in competition for jobs and housing.

The tension has at times led to violence. In February and June, police had to disperse mobs that attacked Syrian-run shops while shouting that Syrians needed to leave.

Omar Kadkoy, a policy analyst specializing in Syrian refugees at TEPAV, the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, stated that the country might be breaking the rules of non-refoulement, a principle in international law that states people should not be sent back to countries where they could face persecution or threats to their lives.

Nevertheless, Kadkoy wrote to The Media Line, “it is difficult to make a clear judgment without verifying the grounds on which Syrians sign the so-called voluntary return documents. This is usually done through the involvement of a third party, namely UNHCR,” the UN refugee agency.

Alsari, who continues to search for his uncles, says that regardless of what the paperwork might say, his relatives are still refugees.

“They didn’t tell us this was going to happen,” he told The Media Line. “At the end of the day, there is no safe place in Syria, no matter what.”

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