By Merve Pehlivan
WHEN Hamed*, a 21-year-old transgender person, left Syria with their family in 2014, there was a possibility they would return.
They fled from Aleppo to Gaziantep, a Turkish border city hosting more than 400,000 Syrian asylum seekers today. After a fallout with their family, Hamed moved to Istanbul in 2020.
Their UNHCR resettlement application has been pending for nearly three years with no prospects of approval in sight.
Non-European asylum seekers in Turkey are assigned to satellite cities. Hamed is not allowed to leave Gaziantep, their legal place of residence, without a formal request to the local migration authority.
Arkadaş, a social worker at Refugee Rights Program run by Kaos GL, suspects that refugees are considered more prone to criminality and that keeping them in a specific city helps track them better. A leisure trip to a neighbouring city is out of the question.
According to Arkadaş, an LGBTQ refugee from Denizli could not get permission to go to Istanbul to see their physically disabled mother. They were told that their mother should come and meet them in Denizli.
Hamed was able to make it out of Gaziantep only to find themselves obliged to go back.
Although Syrians are not a part of the satellite cities regime on paper, they face similar limitations in their mobility and access to public services.
Having tested positive for HIV, Hamed paid a friend who offers them a ride to Gaziantep every three months, receives treatment and comes back to Istanbul. They don’t travel by bus or train because they feel safer with their friend.
Leaving the city they are assigned to can have grave consequences for refugees. Muhanad*, a 44-year-old gay person, has been stopped twice by the police on the streets, told to go back to the city he was registered in, but he had no place to go.
In February, he was deported to Syria.
Deportations of asylum seekers due to their residency status are becoming commonplace across Turkey. The Minister of Interior recently announced a plan to “dilute” Syrians by banning all non-Turkish nationals from registering in 16 cities.
Unemployability, a major roadblock against LGBTQ refugees’ integration, pushes them towards precarious and exploitative labour. Even for legal non-Turkish residents in Turkey, work permits entail burdensome procedures and a hefty cost on employers.
Aws Jubair, an Iraqi refugee, is the founder of The Turkey-based Aman Project, which provides emergency assistance to LGBTQ refugees. “If an employer does hire a refugee, they are either paid less than the minimum wage or not paid at all.” Jubair tells Redaction Report.
According to a recent survey, 93 per cent of Syrians in Turkey do have a profession, but only 55.8 per cent of them declare employment, nearly all of which in the informal economy.
Jubair tells Redaction Report about a trans person who could pass as a cis-gendered woman but was outed by her ID card and lost her job prospects.
When she said she didn’t have her ID, she managed to get hired as a dish cleaner in a café. The employer, who made sexual advances on her, fired her as soon as he discovered that she was a trans woman.
When LGBTQ individuals face homophobia/transphobia at work, they cannot press charges because the workplace would be implicated, revealing their illegal employment status, Arkadaş says.
They face similar issues concerning housing. Nefertiti, a 22-year-old trans woman from Morocco, fled to Turkey to enjoy a relative degree of freedom and is waiting for her resettlement application to be approved by the UNHCR. She lives in a girl’s dormitory in Istanbul, like many refugees. Dormitories are usually three-bedroom flats housing about 10 people. “They’re living in a jungle,” Jubair says of the community members living in these flats.
“There’s no respect for their boundaries and for who they are. They are also harassed by fellow refugee flatmates who attack them even on suspicion of their queerness.”
Rents are rising to unaffordable levels across the country. Unable to cover the increased cost of his flat, Muhanad had to leave Istanbul to join his religious family in the east of Turkey, facing rejection by them.
The AMAN Project regularly holds psychosocial support meetings. Once a volunteer asked the community members what they wanted, expecting them to say a car, a house, a vacation. Their answer, almost in unison, was “safety and stability.”
With mostly unpenalised racism and homophobia/transphobia, and inflation rising to 54 per cent, it’s not hard to argue that LGBTQ refugees are the most vulnerable group in Turkey today.
This is the second and final installment of our series on LGBTQ refugees in Turkey.
Turkey: A Reluctant Home for LGBTQ Refugees
Merve Pehlivan is a writer, translator and interpreter based in Istanbul, Turkey. You can follow her on Instagram.
* The names of the individuals interviewed have been changed to protect their identities.
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