Rights groups say that since 2016, the Turkish government has forced hundreds of Syrians into signing voluntary return documents and has sent them back to Syria. The practice is known as refoulement and is illegal under international law. Anas Al Mustafa is one of those returned. Here is his story.
Anas Al Mustafa, 41, fled his home in Aleppo in 2016. He went to the city of Konya in south-central Turkey, where he had relatives. He registered with the UN refugee agency UNHCR and received Turkish residency papers. He took Turkish lessons, found a job and got a Turkish drivers' license. Under difficult circumstances, he made a life for himself in his new home.
After initially working for an Internet company run by a Turkish friend, Anas joined IMPR Humanitarian, a Turkish NGO. When the government shut them down, Anas founded his own non-profit organization called 'A Friend in Need', and worked in partnership with NGOs in Italy and Romania. He received donations from people around the world, and several of those donors went to visit him to see his work for themselves.
By 2020 Anas had 175 families in his care, mostly headed by widows and comprising about 400 children who relied on the monthly food baskets he supplied them. Sometimes he helped them with their rent and their utility bills.
Jailed, along with other Syrians
But last May, a knock on his door changed everything. It was the police, asking him if he had received his Turkish citizenship. He was still waiting for an answer to his application, Anas replied. The police told them they had some questions regarding his application and asked him to accompany them to the police station.
"I was so happy in that moment, so I went with them," Anas said in a telephone call.
His delight soon dissipated. When he arrived at the station, the police took his watch, his wallet containing his identity documents, and his phone and locked him in a cell. "I was shocked," he said. "I asked them what happened, but they didn’t answer me."
Several other Syrians were already in the jail cell. "I asked them what their crime was, what they were doing here," Anas said. They, too, had been told they were there to answer questions for their citizenship applications.
'I never fought with anyone'
The police gave Anas a document to sign, telling him they were going to deport him. He asked why they wanted to deport him, and they refused to answer. He refused to sign. "I said, 'No, I will not go. I am not safe there. My home is destroyed.'"
Anas explained that his town is now controlled by the Syrian regime, and they would kill him because, before the war, he had a government job to which he didn’t return. "I didn’t want to go to my job because I knew the Syrian regime would take me to the military to kill people, and I didn't want to kill people," he said. "I never fought with anyone. I was a peaceful man. I was a humanitarian activist. I didn’t want to kill my people."
He asked to be allowed to call UNHCR. The police refused. He asked to be allowed to call his lawyer. The police refused that, too. "They said, 'You have only one choice.' I said, 'I will not sign if you will not tell me what my crime is,'" he said in the telephone interview.
Pressured to sign the papers
The police left him in jail for six days before they started to threaten him. They told him they would send him to a refugee camp in Syria, or to prison for six months or a year. "I begged them to tell me what my crime was. They said, 'Okay, don’t worry, we will select the easiest crime for you,'" Anas said. "During that time, I felt lonely. No one could hear me, no one could help me. They Syrians who were with me, they had children, wives. They were crying like kids."
Exhausted and afraid, Anas relented. He signed the paper.
Eight days after his arrest, Anas and the other men were bundled into an unmarked car at 5 a.m. and driven to the border. "I begged them, please just give me a photocopy of the deportation document and a medical report to prove that I was in the jail for eight days," he said. They did neither. They delivered him to an isolation center across the Syrian border and drove away. Anas spent a week there, then went to a friend’s house in Idlib. He hid in Idlib City for five months and 15 days, in fear.
"[Idlib] is full of gangs," he said. "If they knew I was managing a humanitarian organization, they would kidnap me." Anyone with access to Western currency is a potential target. Kidnappers took a friend of his and demanded $200,000 in ransom. They posted vidoes of him being tortured to YouTube, Anas said, adding that he has not heard from his friend since and doesn’t know what happened to him.
A long way back to Turkey
Eventually, desperate, Anas hired smugglers to help him get back to Turkey. He walked for 30 hours through the mountains, with no water and no food, to reach Antakia, and from there he traveled on to Konya.
He returned to his house, but one day while he was out, the police came knocking on his door looking for him. He has been in hiding in Konya for nearly three months now.
An Italian lawyer has been representing him pro bono. She asked for a hearing from the European Court of Human Rights, which said that they cannot take the case because Anas has not exhausted the appeals process in Turkey. Since there was no legal process leading to his deportation, there is nothing for him to appeal. He finds himself in a legal Catch-22.
His lawyer has exhausted all legal recourse. The team are now turning to the press to try to raise awareness for Anas’ case in the hope that someone will be able to help him.
In the meantime, Anas doesn’t feel safe going to his home, and continues to rely on the kindness of friends, who house him knowing that doing so could lead to their own deportation.
"Where shall I stay? I want the Turkish government to treat me like a human being. If they have anything against me, I am ready to go to a Turkish court," he said. "I am not a criminal. I am not dangerous. I am just a humanitarian helping Syrian families."