A transgender refugee is in immediate danger of violence and unlawful deportation to Syria during an illegal police crackdown over Eid to purge Istanbul of refugees.
“Sofia”, 23, came to Turkey as a teenage refugee with her family in 2017, after suffering intense persecution in Syria because of her gender identity. She had been victimised since childhood for “not being masculine enough” and the abuse worsened living as a teenager when ISIS took control over the region in 2015. Sofia lived for weeks under fear of being reported to the militias for torture and execution because of her attraction to men and her feminine identity.
Sofia says, “ISIS would throw homosexuals from the top of buildings. Sometimes after they fell, they would stone them to make sure they were dead and do ugly things to their bodies. They printed and distributed flyers promising a financial reward to anyone that turned in homosexuals. They would kill them without checking if the information was true. When I saw these flyers, I started wetting my pants. It was out of my control. I was terrified that someone would tell on me.”
After suffering much trauma and displacement in Syria, Sofia escaped to Turkey with her family, but the abuse and harassment because of her gender identity continued. At the age of 21 she was thrown out by her brothers for being “too feminine” and registered with the UNHCR as a vulnerable refugee for resettlement. However there was no progress on her case, and Sofia suffered beatings both from other refugees in her male hostel, and also arbitrary harassment from police.
On the evening of Friday the 23rd July 2021, during the Eid celebration weekend, police staged a crackdown to rid Istanbul of refugees, illegally detaining Sofia, incarcerating her in a Turkish deportation centre and denying her access to a lawyer.
Now, Sofia and her supporters fear that in a legal sleight-of-hand she will be forced to sign “voluntary return papers” within days, and sent back to Syria where she will once again be in danger. Forced return to a war zone is against both Turkish and international law, but the police circumnavigate this in order to force “voluntary” returns by physical violence.
Sofia’s lawyer, Fatih, who has not yet been allowed to see her in person, says, “Turkey has developed a system to send Syrian refugees back to Syria. This system is completely illegal. Firstly, they take refugees to the police station for trivial reasons. Then they send these people to the provinces of Turkey close to the border. When they go to these provinces, they make them sign a letter stating that they want to return to Syria voluntarily. It is illegal to keep Sofia in detention. It is also illegal to send Sofia to the border.”
The Aman Project, an LGBTQI organisation supporting Sofia, says, “As a transgender or genderfluid person, Sofia is in constant danger of violence in a male prison, and even more so if she is deported back to Syria. In 2019 a trans refugee from our community was forced over the border, and fell into the hands of a militia group, and has not been heard of since.”
Tess Berry-Hart, of UK refugee group Calais Action, says, “The international community must act immediately to highlight Sofia’s case and prevent her from being illegally deported and harmed. Vulnerable LGBTQI refugees are in danger from many different sources and international NGOs must do more to protect them.”
Sofia is currently awaiting transfer to a Turkish border region this week. Speaking through a translator, she said that other detainees had reported that they had experienced physical intimidation until they signed the voluntary return papers. Sofia does not want to sign a voluntary return but she fears being beaten because of pre-existing facial injuries stemming from abuse in Syria.
Things you can do
- Advocate at home for accepting refugees seeking sanctuary from ‘safe third party countries’ like Turkey. These countries have grown increasingly hostile towards refugees as wealthier EU nations have left them to manage unsustainable numbers. You can do this by writing to your MP, tagging government officials online or becoming part of the Together With Refugees campaign: put an orange heart on your social media profiles to publicly show your support.
- Stand against inhumane deportation. The UK deports people to countries like Afghanistan where there is evidence of high mortality and disappearance rates for those being forcibly returned; we are also discussing offshore processing deals with Denmark, a nation that has begun covert deportations to Syria. This petition is close to its target 250,000 signatures, fighting deportation flights to Zimbabwe affecting people who have lived in the UK their whole lives. Follow Liberty or JCWI on Twitter for updates about coming flights.
- The Say It Loud Club – a refugee-run organisation for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers – has raised alarm over elements of the coming Nationality and Borders Bill that could disproportionately effect LGBTQ+ people (which several organisations have set up petitions to protest including Refugee Council, Safe Passage, Freedom From Torture and Choose Love). These include:
- Requiring all evidence to be submitted at the first point of asylum application (sexuality and gender identity are deeply personal subjects that many asylum seekers have had to suppress to survive)
- Fast-tracking the appeals process and limiting the right to challenge unfair decisions
- Forcing asylum seekers to stay in reception centres whilst their cases are pending – possibly in overseas locations
- Setting a “higher standard” for testing whether an individual has a “well-founded fear of persecution”
GOOD NEWS UPDATE! 09/08/21
Sofia was released late Friday night after mounting pressure following the breaking of her story. However she still faces years of oppression whilst waiting to be considered for resettlement via the UNHCR. If anyone would like to help please contact me or help share Sofia’s crowdfunding campaign HERE.