Three roommates (flatmates) of a gay Syrian refugee beheaded in a homophobic attack in Turkey last week fear they face a similar fate, after receiving death threats in the days since his murder.
Wisam Sankari, a hospital cleaner, went missing on 25 July after going to meet another gay man in Istanbul. His body was found two days later in a nearby area of Istanbul, his head severed and his battered body only identifiable to his friends by his clothing.
A week on, three of his flatmates say they fear being murdered in the same fashion after receiving warnings that the man Sankari met on 25 July wants to kill them too.
“There have been people in the street and people on the phone, who said: ‘He will get you next,’” said one of Sankari’s friends, a chef who, like his flatmates, asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons. “There was also a voice message on Facebook.”
In an interview with the Guardian in Sankari’s former room, a cramped lodging he shared with five other people, his friends said he had been in fear during the last months of his life after Turkish officials, UN diplomats and charity workers had proved unable to protect him following a series of homophobic attacks.
A Greek appeals board said in June that it considers Turkey safe enough for gay Syrians to be deported to as part of the controversial EU-Turkey migration deal. But Sankari’s friends say his experiences show how dangerous the country is for gay refugees, and unstable for refugees in general.
They alleged that in the months before his death, Sankari had:
*Been kidnapped and raped in two separate homophobic attacks.
*Been mocked and ignored by police officers after he reported one of the incidents.
*Eventually initiated legal proceedings against his unknown kidnappers after a local NGO helped him find a lawyer.
*Recorded a video in which he expressed fears that he might soon be killed in a homophobic attack.
*Briefly moved to another Turkish city in an unsuccessful attempt to find a safer place to live.
*Been fired from a factory job because of his sexuality.
“Do you call this safe?” summarised a second of Sankari’s flatmates, as they listened to their friend’s favourite song and watched a video made in his honour. “We don’t have an organisation to protect us. We want everyone in Europe to understand our situation here for Syrians, especially gays. We’re suffering.”
This was the third brutal attack Sankari had experienced, the flatmate continued. “Five months ago, he was attacked and his head was cut,” he said. “He went to the police, but they didn’t help him. [Another time] he was put in a car and he had to throw himself from it [to survive].” Then at 12.20am on 25 July, he got a call from a Syrian who had recently arrived in Istanbul. “He went to see him, and he never came back. Two days later we heard he was dead.”
Sankari’s murder was one of at least 20 homophobic attacks on Syrian refugees in the past six months, according to an activist who is documenting such incidents. “Turkey is not a safe place, it’s not a gay-friendly place,” said Hossam, a Syrian who organises a weekly support session for gay refugees in Istanbul, and who asked to be identified only by his first name. “And with the political situation in the country, it’s not getting better.”
More generally, Sankari’s friends said many of his other experiences showed how vulnerable life is for refugees of any sexuality in Turkey.
Despite recent legislative changes, the vast majority of the 2.7 million Syrians in Turkey have no realistic chance of accessing the legal labour market, forcing them to work illegally in exploitative conditions that contravene the UN refugee convention.
Sankari was one such case. His latest employers paid him about half the Turkish minimum wage (600 Turkish lira, or £150) for a hospital cleaning job that saw him work seven days a week. If he complained, he risked being fired; during previous employment as a waiter at a cafe, he was sacked for asking for time off to recover from illness.
“We’re working as animals,” said one of Sankari’s friends, a literature graduate who was a teacher in Syria but now works as a waiter in Turkey. “No one is working at what they studied for. We work here 12-13 hours a day. We don’t have a weekend. The Turks want us to work and work and work – without money or rights.”
Sankari’s battles with Turkish bureaucracy also highlight the basic logistical challenges Syrians face on a daily basis in Turkey. Sankari struggled to access support from aid groups and officials in Istanbul because he had first registered with the Turkish government in Hatay, a city near the country’s southern borders.
To apply for resettlement in the west, or to secure even basic support from government-affiliated NGOs, Sankari needed to return to Hatay. But he was scared to do so because of threats he had faced while briefly living there, said Hossam, who had met Sankari at his weekly drop-in session.
“He was desperately seeking help but he couldn’t reach anyone,” said Hossam.
It is a depressingly familiar situation, the activist added. “During my time with the group, I’ve witnessed a lot of serious threats, a lot of hate crimes, people who have experienced incidents that didn’t necessarily end their life, but [involved] beatings, rape and abuse,” said Hossam. “And those people couldn’t reach places where they felt safe and secure. They had to deal with this on their own.”
A senior government official said: “We are unable to independently verify the claim that the victim’s plea for assistance was ignored by law enforcement. Obviously, this barbaric attack doesn’t reflect the way Syrian refugees are treated in Turkey, which is the largest host of refugees in the world. We are investigating this incident and will take all necessary steps to bring perpetrators to justice.”
In a statement, the UN refugee agency said it was working to resettle LGBTI refugees currently living in Turkey, and expressed sadness about Sankari’s death. A spokesperson added: “We are very sorry and we would like to express our shock and sadness at this appalling crime. We are looking forward to seeing that investigation of the case by the officials concluded asap and perpetrators are brought to justice.
“Syrian refugees in Turkey are given temporary protection by the government of Turkey, which is primarily responsible for their protection in the country. UNHCR does not register or document Syrian refugees in Turkey.”
Patrick Kingsley in Istanbul