It was only 10 o’clock on a Monday morning, but tempers were already rising. A scrum of men pushed forward towards the glass-paned desk, waving white papers and calling out names in the hope of grabbing the attention of one of the stressed-looking members of staff.
“It’s like this every day,” said a young man who had made it to the front and managed to stuff his application form into the hands of one of the officials before shouldering his way apologetically back out through the crowd. Away from the mayhem of the desk, a queue of people snaked out through the door and down the narrow stairs, all waiting for their turn to take part in the chaos. The paper sign written in Arabic pinned at the entrance warned that desk services would finish at 10:30 am. The young man said he had started queuing at 7.
Just a few years ago, relations between Syria and Turkey were the warmest they had been in decades, but Syria’s uprising has turned once-friendly neighbors into bitter adversaries. Turkey’s willingness to host Syria’s political opposition in Istanbul, its refusal to close border crossings captured by rebel forces, and the occasional military spats along the border⏼last month, Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter plane it claimed had entered its territory—have brought relations between the two countries to a dangerously strained point. It has now been over two years since the two countries closed their respective embassies in Ankara and Damascus.
Yet there is still one last outpost of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Turkey. The Istanbul elites who visit the Gucci boutique and the Porsche shop on Maçka Caddesi may not notice the two-starred Syrian flag that flutters from a third floor window above the street, but for the thousands of Syrians who have taken refuge in Turkey over the past three years this small, stuffy consulate office is the last remaining gateway to the sprawling and often baffling bureaucracy of the country they have left behind. Anyone who wants to renew a passport or register a marriage or birth must do it here.
On the badly lit stairwell outside the office, Khalil,* a young man from Idlib City, joined the queue. Like most of the others waiting there, he had come because his passport had expired. “My Turkish residency permit ran out in February, and I need a valid passport so that I can renew that,” he explained.
The Syrians who have sought refuge in Turkey are entitled to claim residency status on a year-to-year basis—provided they have documents to prove their identity. That has caused huge problems for those who fled their homes without their possessions or who did not have passports in the first place— they must stay in the camps run by the Turkish government or risk arrest. Syrians without papers who are stopped by the Turkish gendarme outside the camps can be sent back over the border into Syria. The Turkish government is currently trying to address the problem by issuing all Syrians, including those living in the camps, with tailor-made ID cards—but with an estimated 600,000 Syrian refugees in the country, it is likely to be a lengthy process.
In the meantime, Syrians living in Turkey must make sure their documents are all up to date, or live in a state of constant paranoia. Khalil has found a job with an international aid organization and has been offered a scholarship to study abroad—but both of these things depend on his Syrian passport being up to date. Like thousands of other young Syrian men who are living in Turkey, he has not completed his compulsory military service in his home country. That means that even when he renews his passport it will only be valid for another year, rather than the four-year renewal given to men who have completed military service.
“The last time I renewed it, I got it inside Syria and it was for two years,” he explained. “But now because I am meant to go for military service they will only give me one year—and it is going to take six months for the passport to arrive.”
Earlier this month the Syrian National Coalition—the body that represents the political opposition to Assad’s regime—formed an interim government in Istanbul. Its members will begin working out the technicalities of the state that will replace Assad’s regime when and if it falls. But the opposition has no power to issue documents for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians in exile. As long as Assad’s regime clings on in Damascus, it is still able to control the everyday lives of Syrians in Turkey.
In a region where identity—and being able to prove your identity—is everything, countless people fall between the cracks as a country crumbles. Reem,* a young woman from Damascus, came to Turkey soon after the start of the revolution and fell in love. She met a man and got married, and soon afterwards they had a baby.
Hers is the kind of happy story that shows how life goes on, even for people who have been forced to flee their country. But in their case, the issue of identity is casting a shadow over it. Reem’s husband is Iraqi-Palestinian, and although they both have residency status in Turkey, they have not yet been able to officially register their marriage. The only citizenship their daughter is entitled to is of a country she may never be allowed to see.
“Syrian women don’t give their nationality to their kids: only men can,” she explained. “And Palestinians don’t get citizenship in Iraq, even though my husband and his father were born there. His passport is a Palestinian Authority passport and it doesn’t allow him to go to Palestine. So now my daughter is just Palestinian.”
Reem said that registering the marriage was also proving tricky. “We both had to get documents from Syria and Iraq to prove that we are not married,” she explained, “and then we send those documents to the Palestinian and Syrian consulates in Istanbul to be validated. We had some problems because my husband’s passport was expired and he had to renew it, and then my document was expired and I had to get another one.”
The process has already taken a year so far. Reem’s documents are currently with the Syrian consulate, and after that they must be sent to the Turkish authorities so that they can also validate them. After that, they will finally be able to register their marriage in Turkey—but in Reem’s home country, it will still be unregistered. “I don’t care for registering in Syria at the moment,” she said. “Maybe after the revolution ends.”
With the crisis in Syria now entering its fourth year, the problem of documentation is growing. Syrians who have recently left regime-held areas of Syria to come to Turkey say that it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to obtain the necessary paperwork to escape the country. Once they have left, they know that it is only a matter of time before they will have to begin the lengthy bureaucratic process through the consulate in Istanbul to ensure that their documents are kept up to date.
But for the thousands of people who have been involved in the uprising against the regime, queuing at the consulate is not even an option. Their only choice is to pay a huge sum for a passport on the black market. Bilal* was doing his military service when the revolution began. Several months in, he defected and joined the Free Syrian Army in his home city. When he decided to leave the armed opposition and come to Turkey, he had no documents and knew that his name would be on regime blacklists.
In Turkey he quickly found a job with an international NGO, but without Syrian documents he could not apply for Turkish residency, and he knew that if he was stopped by the authorities he could be sent back into Syria. The only way he could stay in the country and keep his job was to pay 1,000 US dollars for a passport from Raqqa, a city in northern Syrian that was captured by the rebels in February 2013.
“When the FSA captured Raqqa they took over the place where passports are printed,” he explained. “I knew the guy who was in charge of the printing there, so he gave me a special deal. Normally it costs between 1,600 and 1,700 dollars.”
For any Syrian that is a huge amount of money, but Bilal believes it was worth it. Now he can work, reside legally in Turkey, and open a bank account. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “It’s solved all my problems.”
Meanwhile, back at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul, Khalil had to hand in his old passport before he could apply for a new one. The staff told him that he could get it back in a week’s time— but in the meantime, he was stranded in a strange city without an identity. “Without my passport I can’t even book into a hotel,” he said.
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the people who spoke to us for this story.