Trapped in a legal black hole, Palestinian refugees in Turkey dream of going home

Nasim Ahmed

Middle East Monitor  /  August 30, 2023

Istanbul has become home to thousands of Palestinian refugees who have fled from the war in Syria over the past decade. I spoke to refugees Mahmoud Mohammed Hamid, Fatima Yusuf, Jummah Farhan and many others in the popular city about their plight. As stateless Palestinians, they are part of a community that has endured multiple cycles of ethnic cleansing and expulsion over many decades.

The first cycle was in 1947/48, when more than half the Palestinian population was ethnically cleansed by Israel. This condemned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to countless waves of violence and insecurity affecting one generation after another. The testimonies of Palestinians in Turkey reveal a community grappling with marginalization on multiple fronts in the search for security, stability and, ultimately, the ability to exercise their basic human right to return to their home in Palestine.

Forgotten and unprotected, the number of Palestinian refugees in Turkey rose to nearly 5,000 when the ongoing conflict erupted in neighbouring Syria. Unofficially, the number of refugees is said to be as high as 10,000. Over the past decade, they have unwittingly exposed the deep protection gaps facing Palestinians who lack many basic rights afforded to other refugees. Palestinians arrived in Turkiye through what experts call “sequential forced displacement”. Originally exiled from their homeland in 1948, they first sought refuge in Syria. As civil war engulfed Syria in 2011, though, Palestinian refugee camps such as Yarmouk in Damascus were destroyed. Many of its residents escaped to Turkey.

However, unlike the 3.6 million Syrian refugees who were granted temporary protection status, Palestinian refugees from Syria remain in legal limbo. Under Turkey’s geographical limitation to its ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Palestinians are excluded from official refugee status. When signing the convention, Turkey invoked a geographical restriction only recognizing as refugees those fleeing events in Europe. Syrians and other refugees from countries to the south and east of Turkey’s borders are granted “temporary protection” rather than full refugee status.

The predicament of Palestinian refugees is complicated further by their lack of official statehood and citizenship rights. Being stateless without passports or formal refugee standing, Palestinians face major difficulties when trying to access basic protections. They are excluded from essential rights granted to recognised refugees, such as healthcare, lawful employment, schooling, food aid and civil paperwork. The absence of recognised legal status deprives Palestinians of critical services and entitlements available to refugees who fall under international protection conventions and mandates.

As a result, Palestinians in Turkey find themselves in a unique bind quite unlike the situation faced by other refugees. While non-Palestinian refugees in Turkey receive assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Palestinians fall under the separate mandate of the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA. However, UNRWA denies Palestinians in Turkey core support, because they live outside its designated areas of operation, which are the occupied Palestinian territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Caught between UNHCR and UNRWA yet excluded by both, and lacking legal protections in Turkey itself, Palestinians face a doubly precarious situation without access to fundamental refugee rights and services. The intersection of statelessness, legal ambiguity and aid regime gaps piles hardship upon hardship upon Palestinians in Turkey in a manner unmatched by other refugee groups.

In other words, as non-Syrian refugees, Palestinians fall between the cracks of the international refugee regime. Their unclear legal status outside UNHCR’s mandate leaves them deprived of basic services and rights. Neither the Turkish government nor UNRWA can adequately ensure their welfare and protection. Their situation is made worse by the fact that, economically, Palestinian and Syrian refugees alike endure dire poverty. Unemployment rates often exceed 60 per cent, more than three times the rate of Turkish citizens. Most refugees perform low-paid informal jobs in construction, manufacturing and agriculture; exploitation is rampant. Their impoverished existence is passed down the generations as young people forgo education to look for work.

Lujeen Farjaan is one of thousands of Palestinians trapped within this legal black hole. The mother of three young children, Farjaan is entirely dependent on the generosity of aid organizations. Khyar Ommah Association, a charity run jointly by Turkish philanthropists and Palestinians like Hamid, is trying to fill that gap despite its meagre resources. Hamid is a pillar of the Palestinian community in Istanbul. He oversees the aid programs to the Palestinian community, delivering basic healthcare where none exists.

The association also runs educational programs along with other initiatives delivering food and essential provisions. It is literally a lifesaver for Farjaan’s seven-year-old daughter, who suffers from a rare blood disease. Many hundreds of Palestinians are in the same bleak situation as Farjaan and her children. Just like the Palestinian refugees from Iraq before her who fled following the 2003 US invasion, stateless Palestinians always seem to find themselves at the sharp end of every cycle of conflict and violence in the region.

While learning about the aid operations that Hamid oversees, I spoke to him about the rise of anti-refugee sentiments in Turkey. Having lived in there for ten years, Hamid explained that the country’s policies were initially relatively welcoming towards Syrian refugees. However, he has seen public opinion shift as economic and political tensions have grown. Media reports of rising anti-refugee sentiment have surfaced, but he believes that this is based on exaggerated and isolated incidents. Overall, Hamid insists that the Turks still embrace Palestinian and Syrian refugees, citing examples of empty homes being furnished for newly-arrived refugees.

Hamid’s wife Fatima Yusuf echoed his view that racism against refugees is overblown. She recognizes that a recent security crackdown has stoked anti-refugee rhetoric, but broader hate, she maintains, is not the norm. She argues that any hostility stems from a fear of competition over scarce jobs and resources. On the street, she has only encountered warmth. Her own greatest fear is being deported back to war-torn Syria, given her precarious legal status in Turkey.

Yet Jummah Farhan, another Palestinian from Yarmouk, paints a less rosy picture. He hears reports of rampant racism from neighbours and friends. Having fled bombing and siege under the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, he lives with his wife and two children. His eldest, who was married, moved back to the family home after all of her in-laws, as well as her husband, were killed by Syrian regime forces. Suffering from chronic health issues, Farhan is also totally dependent on donations. Unlike Hamid, he expressed despair at the xenophobia taking root in his adopted homeland.

Academic research confirms that refugees in Turkey face rising antipathy and resentment. This, though, is not the experience of the people I interviewed, which I attribute to the fact that they live in an Istanbul neighbourhood with a large Arab refugee population. There are well-known reports of verbal and physical assaults against refugees, which have surged, as has vandalism of Arab-owned businesses. Refugees are harassed if heard speaking Arabic in public.

Farhan lamented his inability to find work or support from official institutions. Without citizenship and passports, he lacks the paperwork to access education, employment, healthcare and legal mobility. 

While refugees like Hamid maintain hope in Turkish solidarity, others like Farhan see their prospects shrinking. All agree, however, that Turkey is their only viable sanctuary despite rising tensions. With conflict still raging in Syria, deportation is basically a possible death sentence. Turkish officials may voice their wish for refugees to return, but realities on the ground prevent this.

The bleakness of their situation has not stopped Palestinian refugees in Turkey from dreaming about their future. While in the short term they seek only to rebuild their lives disrupted by the cruelty of war, the likes of Mahmoud Mohammed Hamid and Jummah Farhan, born in refugee camps, still dream that one day they will be able to exercise their legitimate right to return to Palestine.

Nasim Ahmed is a political analyst