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Syrians seeking medical treatment in Turkey left in limbo over new permits

Hundreds of Syrians needing medical care have struggled to get treatment as officials issue conflicting information
Syrians wait at the Medical Coordination Office at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

Ismael al-Hassan was transferred to Reyhanli in Turkey on 2 August to remove a mass on his pituitary gland.

The 26-year-old, who is originally from the eastern countryside of Syria's Aleppo governorate, was just one of the thousands of displaced Syrians who have travelled to neighbouring Turkey to receive treatment following the near-collapse of Syria's healthcare system after a decade of war.

'When I arrived in Reyhanli, I was transferred to several hospitals, all of which would not admit me as a patient because of the new document'

- Ismael al-Hassan

“Before I went to Turkey, I tried to get the operation done in northern Syria, but doctors told me that the operation is very expensive, and the hospitals are not equipped for such operations,” Hassan told Middle East Eye.

However, administrative changes in the documents required for Syrian refugees to receive treatment left him - and many others - stranded in Turkey.

“When I arrived in Reyhanli city, I was transferred to several hospitals, all of which would not admit me as a patient because of the new document," he said. "Hospitals were telling me that they were not notified of the new document and therefore could not accept it."

Hassan stayed in the city of Reyhanli in a medical care home belonging to a Syrian NGO for 22 days, hoping he would be admitted to a hospital and receive help to alleviate the crippling headaches his condition has left him with - but to no avail.

“I can no longer bear the expense of staying in Turkey and I do not have enough money to get the surgery done in Turkish private hospitals, so I decided to return to Syria” he explained.

Confusion at hospitals

On 11 September the Medical Coordination Office at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey - which connects Idlib governorate and Hatay province - issued a statement saying that medical referrals to Turkish hospitals had been halted, pending the introduction of a new document.

Dozens of Syrian patients are transferred daily to Turkish hospitals through the Medical Coordination Office at Bab al-Hawa crossing to receive vital treatment.

“During this year, nearly 6,000 patients from northern Syria entered Turkey to receive treatment in hospitals, including 1,350 cancer patients,” said Basheer Ismael, director of the office.

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Originally, Turkey issued Syrians with a temporary protection document that gave patients permission to enter Turkey and be treated in hospitals for free.

However, this changed in early September when the document was replaced with another called a Medical-Tourism Permit, which has so far not been recognised by many Turkish hospitals.

Ismael told MEE the Medical Coordination Office was continuing to admit high-risk emergency cases to Turkish hospitals, such as those with war injuries, premature infants, and burn cases.

Those cases were received in Turkish hospitals in coordination with the Immigration Department when the patient remained in intensive care unit and needed long-term medical treatment.

But the transfer of non-emergency cases - categorised as cardiac, cancer, neurosurgeries, liver and kidney transplants patients - to Turkey has been stopped as hospitals are not recognising the Medical-Tourism Permit.

“The Turkish side was informed of the difficulties that Syrian patients are facing in Turkish hospitals because of the new document, and they promised [to resolve the problem], but nothing has changed," said Ismael.

New restrictions on Syrians

According to the Medical Coordination Office, 400 patients who were referred to Turkish hospitals are still waiting for treatment in Reyhanli.

In addition, 600 patients who are still in northern Syria are still waiting for hospitals in Turkey to accept the new documents so they can receive treatment in Turkish hospitals.

Turkish government officials have disputed the allegations made by Syrians in Idlib, however.

Syrians wait at the Medical Coordination Office at Bab al-Hawa with Turkey (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)
Syrians wait at the Medical Coordination Office at Bab al-Hawa on the border with Turkey (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

A source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, from Turkey’s Ministry of Interior Directorate General of Migration Management told MEE that “[the] Turkish interior ministry has not taken such a decision.

"On the contrary, we facilitate the arrival of patients who need treatment in Turkey due to insufficient conditions at hospitals in Syria. We also have a hospital in Azaz, co-run by Turkish and Syrian medics. They decide which patient needs to go to a hospital in Turkey.

"When patients come to a hospital in Turkish territory [they are] allowed to stay until the treatment ends.

"Subsequently, the patient goes back to [their] home in Syria. No fee is charged for these treatments.

"We provide them a number, beginning with 99. This number is their identity, allowing them to receive medical treatment freely.

"However, in exceptional cases, hospitals may request money for extremely difficult surgeries.”

'In exceptional cases, hospitals may request money for extremely difficult surgeries'

- Turkey’s Ministry of Interior Directorate General of Migration Management

The change has come as part of a raft of new restrictions on Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Around 3.6 million Syrians currently reside in Turkey, having fled the rampant violence that has engulfed the country since 2011.

Though the Turkish government has been praised for its efforts to accommodate the refugees, many Turks have become increasingly hostile towards Syrians, who they often blame for unemployment, undercutting pay and view as culturally different.

As such, there have been increasing efforts made by the government and local officials to encourage Syrians to return home, despite warnings from rights groups that they face

“About 120 patients returned from Turkey to northern Syria without receiving treatment this month," said Ismael.