“Free to soldiers, 1 TL for Turks, 5 TL for Syrians,” reads the sign advertising poğaça, a traditional bread similar to focaccia, in the window of a bakery in İzmit, a city in the western Turkish province of Kocaeli. The sign, a photo of which was widely shared on Twitter, has come to encapsulate the discrimination that Syrian refugees experience in Turkey.
Around 3.7 million displaced Syrians currently live in Turkey, which along with Lebanon and Jordan hosts the majority of refugees who fled the civil war that began in 2011. Among the challenges they face in their new home is the fact that basic services like food, shelter and transport are offered to them at much higher prices than they are to locals.
Most Syrian refugees who enter Turkey do so across the latter’s southern border, passing through the towns of Şırnak, Mardin, Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep, Kilis and Hatay. Before 2018, when refugees could travel freely around Turkey, bus companies regularly charged them much higher prices to continue their journeys.
Azad Çetin, 28, works at a ticket office in the bus terminal in the western city of İzmir – a popular destination for many refugees, as it is on Turkey’s Aegean coast, a stopping point on the route to Europe.
“Tickets were sold for ridiculous prices at that time,” he said. “Syrians who wanted to go from eastern or southeastern Turkey to western towns like İzmir, İstanbul and Ankara were charged around 450 lira per ticket, when the average price was around 100.”
In late 2017, Turkish cities began to introduce a travel permit system for Syrian refugees, limiting their freedom of movement. Metin Güneri, who also works at the İzmir bus terminal, said that this hit some bus operators’ profits hard. Some have tried to make up for lost income by selling tickets to Syrians without permits.
“There are still some people who do this but not as many as there were,” Güneri said.
Travel permits are only issued in certain circumstances, such as when a refugee has an immediate relative in another city or has a confirmed job offer. They are slow to arrive, and people need separate permits for each city they want to visit. Since it is illegal to transport refugees without permits, only a few companies offer the service – and those that do charge as much as 700 or 800 lira per ticket.
Fares, 25, who fled to Turkey in 2015, and Zakaria, 24, who arrived the following year, are among those paying these inflated ticket prices. The two men – who gave only their first names – have legal protection as refugees, but were denied permits to travel to Istanbul on the grounds that the city wasn’t accepting any more registrations. When they spoke to Inside Turkey, they were waiting at the bus terminal in İzmir to find someone to take them to İstanbul.
“I know what I’m doing isn’t right but they’ve forced me to do it,” Zakaria said.
“I put in an application with the department of migration management two weeks ago,” added Fares. “When they asked why I wanted to travel, I told them I hadn’t seen my sister in one year and that I would visit her in Istanbul. They rejected my application. Now I have to spend half my [monthly] wage on a ticket.”
Fares said that he has travelled to Istanbul twice without a permit, paying 700 lira for his first trip and 850 for the second.
Güneri told Inside Turkey that the larger bus companies will not sell tickets to refugees without permits directly; instead this is done by individual drivers or attendants who hire runners to bring potential passengers straight to their buses.
“There, they split the money they take from the refugee,” Güneri said. If caught, they receive a large fine.
Housing is another area in which Syrian refugees are being exploited.
“With the arrival of refugees, there’s been a surge in demand for rented apartments,” said Hasan Keskin, an estate agent in İzmir. “I know that some places around Basmane [a poorer neighbourhood of the city] were rented out for 800 or 850 lira a month to Syrians, when they’re actually just worth 350 to 400 lira. There are even some who encourage Syrian tenants for this reason.”
The Association for Solidarity with Refugees, established in 2008, was Turkey’s first such NGO. Its coordinator, Pırıl Erçoban, told Inside Turkey that the association was working to prevent double standards from being applied to refugees and had warned the government that such travel permits had created a black market.
“People smuggling used to be [only] international, but because of work permits it now takes place between cities,” Erçoban said. “The people who transport refugees don’t consider themselves smugglers but they make immense amounts of illegal profit from the business.”
Price discrimination in many services has now become widespread.
“There’s a culture of non-punishment, which encourages discrimination.” Erçoban continued, calling on government agencies to take tougher action to stamp out the practice.
Representatives of Turkey’s department of migration management declined a request for comment.