No way out: the second Nakba of Palestinian refugees from Syria escaping to Turkey

Palestinian and Syrian in a temporary classroom in Suruc refugee camp, Turkey. 25 March 2013 (source: Carl Court/Getty Images) Palestinian and Syrian in a temporary classroom in Suruc refugee camp, Turkey. 25 March 2013 (source: Carl Court/Getty Images)
The conflict in Syria has deeply affected all 15 Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and all 560,000 registered Palestinian refugees in the country. Because of the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons, attacks on civilian areas and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, more than 50% of registered Palestinian refugees of Syria have been displaced inside the country. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates that 95% of the 480,000 Palestinian refugees remaining in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The remaining 80,000 Palestinian refugees were forced to leave the country. 44,000 Palestinians from Syria live in Lebanon and are particularly vulnerable because of the irregular legal status and the extremely limited social protection services offered by this country.1Only 15,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria approached UNRWA for assistance in Jordan due to the fact that entering the country has become difficult since January 2013 when the Jordanian authorities announced the non-admission of Palestinians from Syria without a Jordanian national document.2 Around 4,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have been reported in Egypt, while the remaining 15,000 have found their way to Turkey and to Europe. This article highlights the conditions, the plight, the legal status and the challenges of the Palestinian refugees from Syria living in Turkey in light of the Syrian crisis that started as popular mass protests in March 2011.

Palestinian refugees in Turkey - Numbers and distributionWhen the crisis started in Syria, many Palestinian refugees living in the north of Syria – especially in the refugee camps of al-Neirab and Ein Al-Tal in Aleppo area – left the country and entered Turkey to seek refuge. There are no official or non-governmental organizations that issued statistics about the number of Palestinian refugees in Turkey, and this is due to some technical difficulties in the field such as the fact that many Palestinian refugees avoid identifying themselves as Palestinians since they might be legally pursued by the Turkish authorities.3 However, some researchers and activists managed to collect data about the number of Palestinian refugees in Turkey. Estimates show that since the beginning of the Syrian crisis around 10,000 Palestinians have entered Turkey. However, only 3,500 currently live in the country, since the rest left for Europe. This number is a fraction when compared to the 1.6 million Syrian refugees who live in Turkey.

According to the data of the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (latest update December 2014)4, 30% of the Palestinian refugees from Syria living in Turkey come from Aleppo area, while 27% of them are from al-Yarmouk refugee camp. They mainly live in the south of Turkey (42% in Gaziantep; 15% in Antioch). However, there is also a big Palestinian community in Istanbul (22%). Some Palestinian families live in the camps in the southern part of Turkey with the Syrian refugees without declaring the fact that they are Palestinians in order to receive equal treatment to the Syrians.

Turkish border policyIn April 2011, almost immediately after the first wave of Syrian refugees in Turkey, the Government of Turkey opened its borders and designated the Prime Minister's Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (Turkish acronym AFAD) as the lead agency responsible for Syrian refugees. Six months later, Turkey built six refugee camps in the south of the country to host the refugees fleeing from Syria. Today, there are 24 refugee camps for Syrian refugees in the south part of Turkey.

The Turkish policy towards refugees is formally characterized by three main elements: an open door policy; the principle of non-refoulement (no forced returns to Syria); unlimited duration of stay in Turkey5. However, four years after the beginning of the Syria crisis, Turkey has put in place strict measures at its borders. The most basic obligation of states towards refugees that underpins the international legal regime of refugee protection is the principle of non-refoulement6. Even if Turkey boasts of its open border policy towards Syrian refugees, in practice entering Turkey through its 900 km border with Syria has become extremely difficult and dangerous7. In the past two years. Turkey has closed most of the regular crossing points that were used by the refugees fleeing from Syria, particularly in the north-east part of Syria. Official border crossings have become accessible only to a small minority of refugees from Syria who hold valid passports and live within a safe travelling distance from these points. As a result of these closures, many refugees have been forced to use irregular border crossings to enter Turkey irregularly, and they have often been victims of abuse by Turkey's border guards.

In principle, Palestinian refugees from Syria are allowed to enter Turkey without a visa since the temporary protection regime specifically ensures that Palestinians from Syria are granted the same registration and protection envisaged for Syrian nationals. In practice, however, since Turkish authorities do not accept Palestinian documents, all Palestinian refugees from Syria have to cross the border illegally. Even if Palestinians have a valid passport, Turkish representatives ask them for visas, although they do not require visas for Syrian nationals.8

Many Palestinian refugees from Syria reported that the Turkish authorities assaulted them while they were trying to cross the border. A Palestinian refugee interviewed by the Action Group of Palestinians for Syria explained how a border guard beat him and a group of his friends and broke the hand of one of his friend preventing them from entering Turkey.9 Many Palestinians were as a result forced to cross the border walking during the night not to be seen by the Turkish authorities. Some reported that they had to pay the border guards to enter the country without any personal documents. Some others found ways through smugglers in Idlib countryside and Aleppo in a dangerous journey. Most of the Palestinians interviewed explained that they did not declare the fact that they were Palestinians because they were afraid they would be prevented from entering Turkey or that they would be detained by the Turkish border guards.10

Many Palestinian refugees are frightened by the journey they had to undertake to leave Syria. A Palestinian family that Focus on Syria, independent network of persons engaged on the Syrian crisis, met in Yayladagi, a small Turkish village closed to the Syrian border in the south-west part of the country.

I paid 300$ for a private car that would bring me and my family to the border from Aleppo. We could not live there anymore. There were bombings everyday. My children used to cry all the time, they could not sleep or relax psychologically. I could not remember how much time it took us to arrive to the border. I just remember that we crossed many checkpoints and eventually we got off the car. We waited until it was dark and then we started walking among the trees. The trench was opened and we entered Turkey illegally. It took us almost the whole night until we reach the village of Yayladagi where we are still living waiting for the war to stop. We want to go back to our homes. Here we do not have any right or document. We even have to hide our own identity, we do not tell anyone that we are Palestinians.11

The legal status of Palestinian refugees from Syria in TurkeyUnder domestic Turkish law, Syrians and Palestinians escaping from Syria are neither refugees nor asylum seekers. They are considered as 'guests' or 'temporary protection beneficiaries'. Although Turkey is party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees,12 it maintains a geographical limitation: with the standing reservation to the 1951 Convention, Turkey is not obliged to grant refugee status to asylum seekers coming from outside Europe.13 Thus, Syrian refugees do not have access to refugee status determination. According to some reports, UNHCR is allowed to conduct refugee status determination for Palestinian refugees coming from countries other than Syria, but Syrian and Palestinian refugees fleeing from Syria are not allowed to.14

Four years have passed since the beginning of the Syrian crisis and the status of Syrian refugees in Turkey remains unclear. In October 2011, the Government of Turkey granted the temporary protection status to all refugees from Syria. According to UNHCR,15 in March 2012, the temporary protection regime was set out in an unpublished directive of the Turkish Ministry of Interior that stated that Palestinians from Syria seeking refuge in Turkey had the same rights to temporary protection as Syrian citizens, so they did not need a visa to enter the country. However, the directive was not communicated to the refugees from Syria and to the civil organizations working with them and in some cases public officials seemed to be unaware of the directive as well. Since the directive is not published as actual law, the Temporary Protection regime is informal. This temporary status regime is distinct from temporary asylum since it does not allow UNHCR to perform a refugee status determination procedure. Syrians are considered as a temporary mass influx and this is why they are covered by the temporary protection regime.

At the beginning of 2014, thanks to the efforts of Palestinian officials and to the struggle of some Palestinian organizations, such as the Palestinian Return Centre, the Action Groups for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS) and the Turkish Assembly of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (Vidar), Palestinian refugees from Syria obtained some improvements of their status. On 19 February 2014, the Turkish Government, in coordination with the Palestinian Embassy in Ankara, agreed to grant the residency permits to Palestinians who fled Syria. However, in practice this resolution has never been applied. The first residency permits took seven months to be issued and many families were forced to pay more than $1,000 to get the residency. So far, no other residency permits have been issued.

In April 2014, Turkey put into force its first law that regulates asylum, namely the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (the 2013 Law) that gave better protection standards and more safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees. Since this law came into force, the Directorate General of Migration Management has become the sole institution responsible for asylum matters.16 What Turkey did was to incorporate Art.1 (D) of the 1951 Refugee Convention in the Art.64 (1) (a) of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, regarding the application of international protection to Palestinian refugees.

In October 2014, the Turkish Government passed the Temporary Protection Directive and applied it to all refugees from Syria. However, until now, this directive has not been fully implemented. If properly implemented, this regulation would provide a solid legal status for Syrian refugees in Turkey such as the right to remain in Turkey (art.25), the access to free healthcare (art.27), the principle of non-refoulement (art.6), the provision of an identity card to access state schools and to obtain work permits (art.22).17

Protection and services provided by TurkeyUNRWA does not operate in Turkey while UNHCR provides its services through the Turkish government. The registration of Syrian and Palestinian refugees inside Turkey and the distribution of the AFAD card are not performed in a uniform way. Inside the camps, AFAD is responsible for registering the Syrian refugees, while outside the camps there has not been yet a systematic way of collecting their data. UNHCR provides protection and assistance just to the registered refugees. This means that unregistered refugees have limited access to services and assistance and many of them are forced to live in desperate conditions.18UNHCR started to fill this gap by setting up mobile registration units for the government, however this operation needs time and it is extremely difficult since non-camp refugees are typically very mobile.

The AFAD card is considered mandatory for refugees who do not have any other valid residency in Turkey. It gives some benefits in terms of government services such as the free access to healthcare, school enrolment and the right to access to a work permit. According to the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, the Government of Turkey refused to issue AFAD cards to many Palestinian refugees from Syria holding Palestinian Syrian travel papers.19 Moreover, some refugees are reluctant to register at the UNHCR offices since they do not want to leave their personal details and their fingerprints. A Palestinian family living in Istanbul told Focus on Syria that they did not register because they could not find anything beneficial in doing it and because they were worried that, by leaving their fingerprints, they would have allowed Europe to return them to Turkey.20

HealthMany refugees arrive in Turkey with no personal possessions and they usually do not have any basic means to meet their needs. Turkey is characterized by a high cost of living compared to Syria. Moreover, the huge influx of refugees from Syria has led to a deep increase in rents and food prices. Even if many Palestinians suffer from the absence of aid from official bodies such as UNRWA and UNHCR, they can rely on Turkish and Syrian associations such as the Turkish Assembly of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (Vidar). Palestinians, like Syrian citizens, receive free access to healthcare in Turkish hospitals, and medical services are generally free. There are also some private hospitals that offer medical examinations and surgeries at low prices for refugees from Syria. The main problem they face is the fact that the medical staff speaks Turkish and that a translator is usually needed. Some associations reported that Palestinian refugees were denied access to free healthcare unless they did not show a personal document.

WorkPalestinian and Syrian refugees usually work illegally and they are paid very low wages. As a result, they are forced to live in small and crowded houses in poor neighborhoods. A four-member Palestinian family interviewed by Focus on Syria in December 2014 explained that they were forced to share their flat with two other Syrian families since they could not afford a flat on their own. Since they arrived in January 2014, the owner has increased the flat rent by 200%:

When we arrived we used to pay $300 per month. After six months he asked us $500. We did not have any other choice but to pay. The only other solution would have been to live in the street. I have two small children, I have to feed them. Now we pay $600 Turkish lira for the flat. Since we are three families we pay almost $200 each. I work as a waiter in a Turkish restaurant and I earn $350 per month. I do not have a contract. If they do not pay me at the end of the month, I cannot do anything. I have no rights at all.21

EducationSyrian and Palestinian refugees can enroll their children in Turkish public schools if they have the residency. In some provinces it is not necessary even. The most difficult challenge children face is the different language. This is why usually Syrian children are enrolled in Syrian schools. Some are free of charge, others are paid. While in the south of Turkey it is quite easy to find a free of charge school for Syrian children, it is quite more difficult in Istanbul. Many refugee children have not attended school for years since their parents could not afford to pay for the school fee. Schools are usually overcrowded and classes not well organized.

On the road to the European UnionAs the crisis in Syria exacerbated and its neighboring countries closed their border to Syrian refugees, Turkey became a desirable destination for many Syrians who wanted to leave for Europe. After accessing Turkey, there are several routes to reach Europe. Some refugees from Syria do not have any other choice rather than trying to reach Europe through land or sea. Since it is almost impossible to obtain a visa for the European Union from Syria's neighboring countries, the majority of Palestinian refugees who now live in European countries reached Europe through human traffickers.

Many Palestinian refugees from Syria managed to reach Europe by sea through boats from the Turkish city of Izmir. Some of them paid around $4,000 to human traffickers to reach Greece and from there they pay $4,000 more to reach Italy. In many cases, they were stuck in detention centers in Greece for months with the accusation of illegal immigration. In some other cases Greek coast guards return the boats to Turkey. The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria report that in December 2013, a Palestinian woman and her son drowned off the coast of Greece after Greek coastguards forced a boat carrying refugees to return back to Turkish regional waters.22 A new maritime route that has been used by human traffickers since the end of 2014 goes from the cities of Mersin and Izmir directly to Italy. This journey costs around $8,000 and is becoming increasingly popular among Syrian refugees.

The other way to reach Europe from Turkey is by land. A journey to Greece or to Bulgaria costs around $2,500 per person. Refugees usually are brought to the border by human traffickers and there they have to cross a river to get to Greece or to walk among forests and swamps until they reach Bulgaria. Many refugees pay a lot of money and face dangerous and unsafe journeys to reach Europe. In many cases, they are detained or returned back by border guards.

We are from al-Yarmouk refugee camp. We have two children, they are five and seven years old. We left Syria because our house was bombed and we could not find any other safe place where to live. We moved to Turkey three months ago. We managed to enter Turkey because we paid the Turkish border guards. We went directly to Istanbul and there we put our lives in the hands of a human trafficker that promised to bring us to Bulgaria. He took from us 10,000$, the savings of all our life. He told us to walk until the border and then he left. We walked for the whole night. My children were crying. The youngest one fell down and broke his leg. We kept walking in the dark in the forest until we reached the border. There the Bulgarian border guards prevented us from entering. We begged them for letting us enter but they did not even talk to us. We went back to Turkey. Now we do not have money and we do not have a place where to stay. We have slept in the park in the last two days. What can we do?23

The situation is unlikely to change unless the international community accepts its financial responsibility for refugees from Syria in order to enable Turkey to better fulfill the needs of the refugees who are now living in the country. One of the main problems that Palestinians have to face is that entering Turkey still remains difficult and dangerous and once they reach Turkey their legal status is not entirely secure. At the same time, the international community should expand the number of resettlement places and humanitarian admissions for refugees from Syria to protect them from dangerous journeys in the hands of human traffickers.


* Anna Clementi is a cultural-linguistic mediator in the System for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Venice and she is a member of the project Focus on Syria. She lived for some years in the Middle East working with local and international NGOs.

  1. UNRWA, Syria Regional Crisis Emergency Appeal 2015, 15.
  2. Ibid., 21.
  3. Palestinian Return Centre, Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, and Filistin Dayanışma Derneği (FİDDER), Report on the Conditions of Palestinian Refugees in Syria, 26.
  4. Action Group for Palestinians of Syria and Palestinian Return Centre, Palestinians of Syria. The Bleeding Wound.
  5. Akram et al., Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies, and Global Responsibility Sharing, 25.
  6. Art. 33 UN General Assembly, “Resolution 39/46 - Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”
  7. Amnesty International, Turkey: Struggling to Survive: Refugees from Syria in Turkey, 11.
  8. Ibid., 15.
  9. Action Group for Palestinians of Syria and Palestinian Return Centre, Palestinians of Syria. The Bleeding Wound, 75.
  10. Field interview made by Focus on Syria in Antioch.
  11. Field interview made by Focus on Syria in Yayladagi.
  12. UN General Assembly, “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.”
  13. Meltem Ineli-Ciger, “Implications of the New Turkish Law on Foreigners and International Protection and Regulation No. 29153 on Temporary Protection for Syrians Seeking Protection in Turkey.”
  14. Akram et al., Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies, and Global Responsibility Sharing, 27.
  15. UNHCR, “2015 UNHCR Country Operations Profile - Turkey.”
  16. Ibid.
  17.  “Geçici Koruma Yönetmeliği, 22 October 2014,”
  18.  Akram et al., Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies, and Global Responsibility Sharing, 27.
  19. Action Group for Palestinians of Syria and Palestinian Return Centre, Palestinians of Syria. The Bleeding Wound, 77.
  20. Field interview made by Focus on Syria in Istanbul.
  21. Ibid.
  22. “Action Group Report Death of 8 Palestinian Refugees Including Mother and Her Child.”
  23. Field interview made by Focus on Syria in Antioch.