How are Syrian Families in Turkey Affected by Legal Regimes?  Preliminary Insights from Fieldwork in Istanbul

By Susan Rottmann | Özyeğin University


Many studies have described the legal regulations governing Turkey’s Syrians, including RESPOND’s own WP 1 Country Report on the Legal and Policy Framework of Migration Governance in Turkey¹. The effect of these regulations on migrant families has received less attention, and yet during summer field work in 2018, respondents repeatedly highlighted the difficulties that they faced due to regulations preventing mobility.  For example, Noor, a 45-year woman and mother of two, has not seen her family in Syria in 3 years.  She fled to Turkey after a bomb destroyed her home, but her parents could not make the journey.  Now, her mother is expected to die in the coming days, and she wishes to see her one more time.  However, if she travels, even for a short visit, her Temporary Protection Status (the most common legal status for Turkey’s Syrians) will be cancelled, and she has no guarantee that she will be readmitted to Turkey.  

Unlike Noor, Ahmed does not wish to travel to Syria. Instead, he laments that he cannot bring his fiancé who is currently in Syria to Turkey.  He fled to Turkey so that he would not be conscripted to the military or forced to fight with another force, such as ISIS. He explained, “I cannot bring my fiancé to Turkey unless I marry her legally in Syria. But, I cannot return to Syria because I have not finished military service. I will try to bring her illegally, but I am afraid to do that because it is not safe.  Also, it costs $2500.” Since the Turkish-Syrian border is now closed, and Syrians need a visa to enter Turkey, the only possible way for Ahmed’s fiancé to travel is with the help of smugglers, a dangerous proposition, which is not guaranteed to be successful. Showing me a picture of a woman dressed in a white, lacey wedding gown and veil, he explained everything he has attempted to be with the woman he loves, including creating fake wedding photos to prove their marriage, trying to arrange travel for medical purposes, and creating a false paper showing that she is the wife of his brother who has already completed military service. If needed, Ahmed would leave the clothing business he started with his brother in Turkey to be with her in another county, but so far nothing has worked. 

Migrants also miss relatives in Europe.  Mona, a divorcee and mother of 4 sons, dearly longs to see her 3 eldest sons who traveled by boat to Greece from Turkey and finally to Germany two years earlier.  She would like to visit them there, but does not want to take the same travel risks that the older boys took, because she would have to travel with their brother, her 9 year-old son, Ehab.   She recently heard that the UN is sending people with disabilities for resettlement  in Europe², and explained, “Somebody told me go and bring a medical report to the UN, saying that I have a back problem or some type of disease.  But, I swear I will not go…I don’t want to lie.”  In fact, Mona does not want to move to Germany permanently at all.  She simply wants to see her sons again.  

What each of these stories have in common is the longing for a family member in another place. Almost every migrant had a story of traumatic loss due to war and a harrowing journey across the border into Turkey. But, their feelings of loss are magnified as they remain separated from family members. They are faced with difficult choices: not traveling and being unable to connect with their loved ones, traveling and risking the loss of any rights and protections they may have gained, or resorting to illegal means such as misleading officials or using smugglers.  Over and over again, migrants describe a feeling of being trapped, which is not to say that they do not want to be in Turkey. For the most part, they are quite happy in Turkey, where they say they find the culture, religion and family values to be similar to their own and are slowly finding their place in society.  However, they would like the access to mobility that many of us take for granted.  They want to simply visit and be visited by those they love.      

Photo by  Simon Rae  on  Unsplash

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

It is often assumed that asylum seekers reach their new destinations as intact families who may then start their new lives together, but this is not always possible.  Sadly, mobility opportunities are often reduced for older people, like Noor’s mother (Bolzman 2014: 412). Individuals may also be differently targeted by regimes, meaning that one person may be forced or able to flee, while others do not or cannot.  For example, many young men like Ahmed have been forced to flee Syria to escape military conscription, while family and friends have stayed behind³.  Finally, not all family members may be able or willing to use smugglers to reunite with family as in the case of Ahmed’s fiancé and Mona and her young son.  

Clearly, there is a serious humanitarian and moral dimension to this issue in terms of the trauma that migrants are experiencing.  More research is needed on the impact of family separations on parenting strategies, social integration and psychosocial health. Additionally, it is important that we ascertain whether or not policies are actually working as intended. Several reports have pointed out that family reunification is a right within the EU Asylum system, however, narrow definitions of family and discriminatory rules applied by Member States may often prevent family reunification from happening in practice (ECRE 2014; Nika 2017).⁴  Within Turkey, Syrian migrants may make a request for family reunification to the Directorate General of Migration Management, but family reunification is not considered a right. According to a recent AIDA report (2017), the granting of requests is according to officials’ discretion (126-127).  

One aim of policies that restrict migrant movements is to alleviate pressures on labor markets and the provision of social services. Yet, research has shown that when mobility is restricted, irregular movement becomes more common. Instead of maintaining a home-base in their country of origin or even planning a return, migrants tend to become more settled in their host communities (Czaika and de Haas 2014). They fear that if they leave, they will be unable to return or will lose the rights or legal status they have gained. Fostering settlement has long-term implications and consequences for labor markets as well as for integration into host communities. Increased border restrictions also lead to increased use of smugglers and, by extension, increased dangers for migrants (Amnesty International 2017; Costello 2016). While it seems unlikely that states will soon cease governing migration in a restrictive manner, insights about family experiences can hopefully lead to the development of more humane and effective policies and laws.  


  • AIDA 2017. Country Report Turkey.  European Council on Refugees and Exiles. Available here.

  • Amnesty International. 2017. A PERFECT STORM: THE FAILURE OF EUROPEAN POLICIES IN THE CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN. Amnesty International. Available here.

  • Bolzman, Claudio. 2014. “Older Refugees.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Edited by Elana Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al.  Oxford: Oxford Univerity Press, 409-419.

  • Costello, Cathryn.  2016. It need not be like this. Forced Migration Review 51. Available here.

  • Czaika, Mathias and Hein de Haas.  2014. The Effect of Visa Policies on International Migration Dynamics. DEMIG Working Paper 89.  Available here.

  • European Council on Refugees and Exiles. 2014. Disrupted Flight: The Realities of Separated Refugee Families in the EU, Available here.

  • Nika, Angeliki. 2017. DEAR FAMILY: How European migration policies are keeping families apart. Oxfam International.  DOI: 10.21201/2017.9989

  • Zentgraf, Kristine M. and Norma Stoltz Chinchilla. 2012. Transnational Family Separation: A Framework for Analysis. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 38(2): 345-366.

1: The report may be found here.

2: This was likely to have been a rumor, although disabled refugees may be prioritized for resettlement in some cases.  Resettlement to EU countries is based on criteria established by member states. This publication discusses the EU’s role.

3: For more information about UNHCR’s activities in Turkey, see this link and for specific information on how resettlement is organized in Turkey, see this link

3: For more information on military conscription within Syria, see this link.

4: Here is the EU directive on the right to family reunification and guidance.


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