Every evening when Muhammad Hamdoun gets off work, he scans the street as he walks the few blocks to the bus station, trying to blend in with the Turkish people around him and avoid police who might identify him as a Syrian refugee.
To evade arrest for having a residency card registered in another province, Mr. Hamdoun has adopted precautions he first honed as an antigovernment activist in Syria. Like many of his compatriots in Istanbul, he takes detours to avoid checkpoints, dresses in a way that doesn’t stand out and is cautious when speaking on the phone or even at home, wary of who might be listening.
“We’re using the same tactics we learned in Syria,” said the 22-year-old photographer, who still bears scars on his arm and stomach from a mortar strike. “It seems our fate to always be hunted.”
For many Syrian refugees without proper documents in Turkey’s economic hub, life has become a cat-and-mouse trial to avoid a dire fate: deportation to Syria. That prospect has become increasingly real, as Turkey’s government pulls away the welcome mat it once extended to those fleeing the war next door.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after experiencing a drop in popularity attributed to the refugee issue, has vowed “to accelerate the return of Syrian refugees to their homes.” Last week, he said Turkey would send back a million of the nearly four million Syrians in the country.
Turkish officials last month began stepping up identity checks in Istanbul on Syrian refugees, who are required to carry temporary residency cards registered in specific provinces. Those found to be not registered here or to be among the estimated half-million Syrians lacking Turkish papers entirely have either been sent to another province or deported back to Syria.
More than 6,200 Syrians were deported back to northern Syria during last month’s crackdown, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Among those deported were people with valid residency cards who had been found guilty of code violations or crimes, according to the U.K.-based monitoring group.
What’s happening in Turkey is part of the broader political crosscurrents Syrian refugees now face in the Middle East and Europe. Some countries have grown tired of hosting displaced communities and in some cases have turned against them. Lebanon has deported more than 2,700 Syrians since May, according to Human Rights Watch, and many more have gone back because the country feels increasingly hostile to them.
But for most Syrians who fled their country’s conflict, returning is a chilling prospect. They fear being arrested by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have recaptured large parts of the country with Russian and Iranian help. Even when Syrians are returned to areas controlled by the country’s weakened opposition, they face insecurity and continuing attacks by government forces, such as the military campaign against rebels in the northwestern Idlib province.
Last year, Ward Mardini, her husband and their two young children were among thousands evacuated from an eastern suburb of Syria’s capital, Damascus, after surviving years of siege, bombardment and a chemical-weapons attack.
When the family arrived in Turkey a few months later, having been smuggled across the mountainous border, Ms. Mardini adopted the Turkish style of head scarf—wrapped high in the back and jutting out along the sides of the face. When Turkish officials began their crackdown, the practice allowed her to move around the city largely unnoticed.
But it didn’t help her when police knocked on the door of her family’s Istanbul apartment late one night and demanded to see their documents. Ms. Mardini feared her 4-year-old son would get scared upon seeing them, remembering being detained on the Turkish border last year when they crossed illegally.
The 26-year-old and her husband have residency cards registered in the city of Bursa, where there aren’t many jobs available. But just days before the police showed up, Ms. Mardini and her family had been granted a travel permit allowing them to travel freely inside Turkey. The permit expires in October. Ms. Mardini has applied for asylum in France, hoping they get accepted before the Turkish police come knocking again.
“I can’t return to a war zone,” she said, glancing at those around her at a street cafe to see if they were listening to her conversation. “If it was just me I could bear it but I have two kids and I have to secure for them a better life than I have lived.”
For many, movement within this city has become measured and calculated.
Early during the uprising against the Syrian regime, activists created WhatsApp message groups to send out warnings about army checkpoints or security raids. Now they send similar alerts about patrols in Istanbul and neighborhoods to avoid, said Abdulqader Laheeb, a Syrian journalist in Istanbul.
On a recent evening at a bus station, Mr. Hamdoun’s eyes darted back and forth through the crowds until he spotted a police officer in a bulletproof vest. The officer was walking away from him but even so, Mr. Hamdoun kept his eyes on him, fearing he would suddenly turn around.
Another Syrian man walked hurriedly behind Mr, Hamdoun, speaking into his phone headset to another person: “If the security finds you, it could be a big fine.”
Mr. Hamdoun smiled. “It’s the talk on everyone’s lips,” he said.
When he leaves his home—just to buy bread from a store down the street—Mr. Hamdoun brings his residency documents with him.
On his days off he mostly stays home, but if he does venture out he wears shorts above the knee—an item of clothing not many Syrians, who tend to be more conservative than Turks, would wear.
When Fares, a waiter at a restaurant, first spotted a police officer on the tram during his commute, he realized it was no longer safe. So he began taking taxis to work and back. That mode of transportation became expensive—and risky too. Taxi drivers began occasionally questioning Syrian passengers about where they were registered.
He has lived in Turkey for four years, and his residency card is registered in the southern province of Hatay, where he says there are no jobs.
On Aug. 19 he moved out of his apartment and into a spare room in the basement of the restaurant where he works. The room, shared with another Syrian refugee who also decided commuting was too dangerous, is across the hall from the noisy kitchen. They sleep there on sofa cushions taken from the restaurant and hang their clothes to dry on a rack.
“It was very hard at first, I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “But I was afraid they would deport me to Idlib; that’s a much bigger problem.”