EXCLUSIVE to The Media Line:
Fiction-like limbo has no apparent remedy; Court rules airports are not detention
ISTANBUL – A Syrian asylum-seeker has been kept in a small room in Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport for one year for allegedly entering on a fake passport.
“From the first day I came, I told them I want to be a refugee here. They said, no we have two million refugees in Turkey, we don’t need any more,” said Fadi Mansour, the 27-year-old former law student from Homs who’s been there since March 15 of last year.
Mansour, who fled Syria for Lebanon in 2012 to avoid joining the army, flew to Turkey and was admitted in 2014 after being kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang in Lebanon. After staying in Turkey for one month, he tried going to Malaysia, but was not admitted for allegedly having a fake passport, though he says it’s real.
Upon return to Istanbul, Mansour was detained in the airport’s ‘problematic passengers’ room, where he’s been for one year. He also tried flying to Lebanon, but was turned back for unclear reasons. Now he has nowhere to go.
Mansour’s lawyer Aysu Kapaklıkaya is trying to get him the temporary guest status that other Syrians in Turkey have. The court process is moving extremely slowly, with an uncertain outcome, Kapaklıkaya told The Media Line.
Every day about 30 – 40 other travellers are temporarily put into the small room with Mansour.
“There’s no windows, no fresh air. It’s very very difficult to stay here,” he told The Media Line over the phone. “There’s very inhumane conditions where I am. I need to leave this place any way I can.”
Mansour said he’s also been attacked by another traveller and had to be taken to a hospital.
“Anna Shea is a refugee lawyer and researcher with Amnesty International’s Refugee and Migrant Rights team working on Mansour’s case.”
“To me the most concerning thing is just the total absence of any kind of remedy for this situation,” she told The Media Line.
Shea says Mansour has no bed, no privacy, and no natural light. He’s given the same unhealthy airport food three times a day, and the lights are never turned off.
“These kinds of conditions are fine if you’re actually passing through for two hours, but when it comes up to this amount of time, in our opinion it reaches the level of inhumane treatment,” she said.
“Every day that goes by, it gets a little bit worse. His mental health is extremely fragile.”
Shea says that even if Mansour did enter Turkey on an invalid passport, the reasons for his detention appear to be invalid.
“For a detention to not be arbitrary, you have to be told first of all, the reasons for your detention, and second of all, these reasons have to be lawful,” she said.
But the reasons don’t appear to be lawful.
“Based on everything I know, I would say definitely not, under domestic or international law,” she said.
The government couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mansour’s brother, who didn’t want to give his name or location for fear of repercussions, is heartbroken over the situation.
“He just wanted to find a safe place where he can live as a human being,” he told The Media Line. “He was studying in his fourth year of university, about to graduate,” and just wants to finish his studies.
And Mansour isn’t the only Syrian refugee detained in an Istanbul airport.
Twenty-eight year-old engineer Mohamed, who declined to give his surname because he fears for his family, has been held in a similar room in Sabiha Gökçen Airport since November 9, also for allegedly having invalid travel documents.
“I told them I need a future in Turkey. They told me Turkey doesn’t accept you,” he said to The Media Line over the phone.
Mohamed is so desperate to leave the room he would even be willing to go back to a war zone.
“Send me anywhere,” he said. “Send me to Syria.”
Mohamed, who has no friends in Turkey and has a problem with his eyes because the lights are never turned out, sounded panic-stricken and extremely lonely.
“I need anyone to talk to, to give me a good feeling,” he said, holding back tears. “I’m very tired. I’m alone now. I’m totally alone.”
He seems to have lost any hope of leaving.
“I think I’ll stay here a long time. Maybe two years, maybe three years, maybe ten. Nobody can help me.”
Shea says a Turkish court decision made last June determined that being held in airport rooms doesn’t constitute detention. Mansour’s lawyer confirmed this.
“Then what exactly is it?” Shea asks. “According to the European Court of Human Rights, this is in fact detention.”
Shea says many refugees have to enter on invalid documents, and even if that’s the case, “the refugee convention is clear: you cannot punish someone for irregular entry.”
Last March, Turkey, which has been praised for taking in perhaps 2.75 million refugees, shut its last two land border crossings to almost all Syrian asylum seekers. On January 8 it implemented strict visa requirements for Syrians arriving by air or sea. Border security has been increased, and there are many reports of Syrians trying to cross being beaten, detained, kicked out and even shot.
A controversial deal was recently struck between Turkey and the European Union. The proposed agreement, which has been criticized by the United Nations, will be presented to EU leaders at a European Council meeting on March 17 and 18.