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Turkey extends forced removal deadline for Syrian refugees in Istanbul

Unregistered Syrian refugees have until 30 October to leave city or face forced removal, Turkish interior minister says
Men walk in the Fatih neighbourhood of Istanbul, home to thousands of Syrian refugees, in July 2016 (AFP/File photo)

Turkey has extended to 30 October its deadline for unregistered Syrian refugees in Istanbul to leave the city or face forced removal, the country's interior ministry warned.

The extension comes after Istanbul's governor said last month that Syrians who had registered in other provinces of Turkey would be forced to return to them by 20 August. 

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Announcing the extension in a televised interview, Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu also said that those leaving Istanbul would be allowed to relocate and register in any other province. The only exception, he said, would be the southern province of Antalya, which was not admitting more Syrian refugees.

Students and their families, as well as those with official jobs in Istanbul, would be exempted from relocating, he said, according to AFP.

Syrian refugees in Istanbul say the forced relocations within Turkey threaten the new lives they have built in the country and can split families apart.

Since the relocation initiative was announced last month, more than 5,000 Syrian refugees have been detained, and rights groups say some have been deported to Idlib, Syria. Turkey has denied such allegations. 

On Tuesday, Soylu said Turkey has determined locations outside its borders to host a possible immigration wave from Syria's Idlib province, which has suffered under Syrian government bombardment for months.

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The number of Syrians in Istanbul, a city of some 15 million, has swelled, with over half a million living there.

Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians, the largest population of Syrians displaced by an eight-year civil war.

Soylu said a total of around 347,000 Syrians had returned to their country so far.

Unlike in many other countries, Syrian refugees were mostly free to choose where they wanted to live when they first arrived in Turkey.

After they picked a city to be registered in, official policy dictated that they should apply for authorisation in order to travel or live in another city. But in practice, many were allowed to move freely without inspection.

In the run-up to Istanbul's mayoral elections in March and June, both the ruling and opposition party candidates used rhetoric critical of the refugee community. 

In recent months, anti-Syrian refugee sentiment and tensions have been on the rise.