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Somali business owners in Ankara handed deportation orders in 'harassment campaign'

Local authorities target successful Somali businesses to erase their visibility in heart of Ankara, sources claim
Mohamed Isse Abdullahi outside the Somali cafe he co-owns in Ankara's Kizilay, on 20 October 2021 (MEE/Ragip Soylu)
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Ankara

Over the last few years, Kizilay Square in the heart of Ankara has experienced a unique kind of gentrification.

The Turkish capital’s growing Somali community has established restaurants, cafes, clothing stores and consultancy businesses for bilateral trade here, slowly turning the decaying area into a vibrant neighbourhood.

However, the prosperity of a Somali-dominant neighbourhood has become a target of abuse in Turkey, where anti-immigrant sentiments are on the rise.

In April, Sozcu daily, a rightwing Kemalist newspaper known for its anti-immigrant coverage, featured this area in a report and put it on the radar of the nation.

'We learned that all of us, who had residence permits and legally owned businesses here in Turkey, were going to be deported'

- Mohamed Isse Abdullahi,  Somali cafe owner 

Under the headline “Ankara’s hub became Somalia”, the report said businesspeople and asylum seekers from the East African country had completely transformed two streets in Kizilay “into their own country”.

Since then, police in plain clothes started to pay frequent visits to Somali-owned businesses here, making sporadic identification checks and harassing customers, locals told Middle East Eye.

In September, in an incident that shocked the neighbourhood, police detained and handed deportation orders to several Somali business owners in the area, forcing them to sell their enterprises or close them down altogether, MEE has learned.

'Harrassment campaign'

There is currently a rampant anti-refugee attitude within Turkey, which hosts nearly five million refugees, mainly from Syria.

In recent months, the Turkish opposition started to fuel a campaign against the government for failing to produce any meaningful refugee strategies other than an “open border policy”.

The main difference between the Somali community and many other immigrants in Turkey is that Somalis are mostly well-educated and have come to Turkey through legal means.

Almost all of them have residence permits, and they invest in money in properties and trade.

But things started to escalate for Somalis in the country after riots erupted in August in another part of Ankara, where Turkish citizens damaged businesses and houses owned by Syrian refugees after reports that a refugee had killed a teenager in a park.

From then on, sightings of police in uniforms became commonplace at Somali-owned businesses, despite them being legally established and operating venues.

“First, 15 police officers showed up and started to search everywhere on 8 September,” Mohamed Isse Abdullahi, a Somali cafe owner, told MEE.

“Then five days later police in plain clothes visited us again, taking some of us to the nearby police station. They warned us not to employ unauthorised workers.”

Abdullahi believed the police visits were part of a harassment campaign by the local authorities, because the employment of unauthorised workers would normally result in just monetary fines.

“It is primarily a municipal issue rather than police work,” added Onur Boran Duman, a lawyer specialising in labour disputes.

Local Turkish shop owners said that they were happy with the Somali presence, since they were bringing cash and jobs to the neighbourhood.

Furthermore, there had not been any criminal activity in the area that would warrant a police crackdown, one market owner told MEE.

Somali businesses Ankara
A number of Somalis in Ankara sold their businesses or closed them down after police handed them deportation orders in September 2021 (MEE/Ragip Soylu)

Fighting back

The following week, on 15 September, police once again visited the shops in Kizilay Square, detaining a group of Somali business owners, including Abdullahi.

The Somalis were first taken to a police station and then to the police force’s headquarters in Ankara, where they were held for two nights without any explanation, according to a lawsuit filed by their lawyer Tayyip Erken.

Erken said he tried to visit his clients but police prevented him from doing so, which he said was a violation of laws.

“We have prepared a memorandum with a representative from the Ankara Bar Association to record the incident,” he said.

Abdullahi told MEE that he and eight others, including two women, were taken to a deportation centre, where they learned that the Ankara immigration administration had decided to launch a deportation procedure against them.

“It was very bizarre and unbelievable,” said Abdullahi, who holds two bachelor’s degrees and one master’s degree from Turkish universities.

“We learned that all of us, who had residence permits and legally owned businesses here in Turkey, were going to be deported.”

Abdullahi described the first two nights in custody as “awful”, with everyone held in one room with nowhere to sit. One person in his group wasn’t even given his medicine, he added.

“These people were beneficial for the Turkish society, but they were mistreated at the hands of the police,” he said.

The incident propelled some Somali business owners to quickly sell off their properties, leading to a number of restaurants passing into the hands of Turkish citizens.

For those who fail to find buyers to take over their businesses amid a nationwide economic crisis, the only option was to shut down for good.

Others who hold citizenship in another country, such as Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, simply left Turkey without waiting for the one-month deadline for deportation that the police ordered.

Erken, the lawyer, has already filed a lawsuit to stop the deportations, but many Somalis have decided to leave the country without hesitation.

Abdullahi and one of his friends have decided to stay behind. “My wife is also studying here for her master’s degree,” he said. “I will do my best to stay.”

Fear of repercussions

MEE reached out to other Somalis who were arrested but they refused to talk out of fear that there could be repercussions for their cases.

MEE also asked for comments from Turkish immigration authorities, but they didn’t issue any statements regarding the incident.

However a source who is familiar with the police thinking told MEE that local authorities primarily don’t want Somalis and their businesses to be visible in the heart of Ankara.

“The xenophobia is soaring in Turkey and the police don't want Somalis in Kizilay,” the source said. “Because locals cannot easily differentiate other foreigners, yet they can spot Somalis because of their skin colour. They just want Somalis to be invisible in the heart of the city.”

The source added that the police didn’t harass other Somali venues in other parts of Ankara.

Abdullahi is heartbroken. He told MEE that once he even provided consultancy for a documentary on Africa filmed by the Turkish public broadcaster TRT.

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.