refugee report issue 3 cover

Refugee Report Vol. I, Issue III; “Turkey: the Hub for Middle Eastern Refugees”


About


© IISA, 2016 | All Rights Reserved

This report and sections thereof may be distributed and reproduced without formal permission for the purposes of non-commercial research, private study and news reporting  provided that the material is appropriately attributed to the author and the copyright holder.

The IISA Refugee Report is a project led by the IISA Refugee/Border Control Programme, with the aim of comprehensively covering and analysing all aspects of the refugee crisis. By tying together causative factors of migration, data on the humanitarian issues faced by refugees, and analysis of asylum policy, the Report intends to apply a holistic approach to create practical solutions to the refugee crisis. The Refugee Report aims to publish monthly papers to: analyse events and trends; predict and discuss potential outcomes; and consider potential policy proposals to address immediate, mid-term and long-term issues of the refugee crisis.

The Institute for Islamic Strategic Affairs (IISA) is a think tank and intellectual forum that addresses the current and future dynamics of the Islamic World in its totality, and its interaction with Western civilisation. Based in London, IISA aims to create a trans-Islamic and global reach with branches in major capitals across the Islamic and Western worlds. As a non-profit, independent and academic organization, IISA seeks to establish a platform where the Islamic World’s dynamics, trends, issues, problems and crises are analysed according to local models and realities, rather than through the lens of external standards and perceptions. IISA aspires to be the leading think tank on the Islamic World and its role in the contemporary global system. IISA is the only think tank initiative that goes beyond national and regional inclinations.

Written by IISA Refugee/Border Control Programme, Daniyal Shajar | Fizza Waqar | Carlos Girona

With contributions from Michael Kaplan

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Executive Summary


The Turkish response to the refugee crisis, particularly in regards to Syrian refugees, can be seen as a transition towards greater focus on long term humanitarian concerns; stimulated by massive influx of refugees and Turkey’s pursuit of political accession to the EU.

The implementation of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) in 2014, and subsequent establishment of the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) in 2015, indicated a transition away from emergency planning, and towards developing long term integration and protection of Syrian refugees.

While the evolution of Turkish refugee law is commendable, the transition to achieving adequate refugee protection is still incomplete, and the approaches of the LFIP and DGMM leave some issues unaddressed. Turkey must address the difficulties affecting the integration of large urban, peri-urban and rural population of refugees in the country, predominantly:

  • To allow and promote ALL refugees to work safely in the country;
  • To continue to lead the establishment of adequate international refugee law for the modern refugee crisis.

An example of a well-intentioned, but ineffective, Turkish policy implemented post-LFIP and DGMM can be seen in the attempt to provide work permits to refugees:

In January 2016, the DGMM (established by the LFIP legislation) introduced the Regulation on Work Permit of Refugees Under Temporary Protection (the “January Regulation”), which allowed Syrian refugees to apply for work permits.

Unfortunately, the January Regulation, while lauded for its potential for refugee integration into the workplace, has proven thus far to have been largely ineffective, with less than 0.1% of Syrian refugees in the country enabled to work as of late March 2016 … However, the January Regulation does serve to inform the Syrian refugee population that efforts are being made to better integrate them into the workplace and the country.

The attempted coup in Turkey on July 15th caused a surge of refugees to flee Turkey to Europe, despite the infamous, well-known humanitarian crises faced on their arrival to Greece. The instance of refugees fleeing to Europe, as a result of their fear of potential insecurity in Turkey following the attempted coup, cements the concept that refugees’ sentiment must be kept in mind to prevent their fleeing from Turkey and to promote refugee integration in the country.

To ease refugees’ sentiment of anxiety over the volatile EU-Turkey relationship, and its potential subsequent negative impact on Turkey abandoning its pro-refugee stance, Turkey must make key steps to enforce its commitment to refugee protection, and convince refugees they are not being used merely as political pawns for EU accession.

A possible solution to ease refugee fears would be for Turkish law to broaden the conditional refugee classification to include non-Syrian refugees. A broadening of the scope of refugee protection would convey a genuine pro-refugee attitude, and encourage refugees that the country is acting to improve conditions for refugees. To prevent the displacement  and subsequent influx of IDPs to Turkey, particularly from Iraq, the LFIP classification could require that non-Syrians must already be present in Turkey at the time of legislation for conditional refugee status to be conferred.

Turkey must, by continuing pro-refugee policy implementation, promote and encourage solidarity with all refugees in the country, including non-Syrian refugees, in order to prevent negative sentiment towards refugees. Turkish citizens should be allowed to celebrate Turkey’s development of pro-refugee law at a time when the pro-humanitarian EU has struggled to find any empathy.

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1. Outcome of the EU-Turkey Deal


The number of refugees traveling from Turkey to Greece has dropped dramatically since the EU-Turkey deal made in March 2016, from 200,000 arrivals a month from 2015 to near zero; however, this drop is not due to the effectiveness of the EU-Turkey ‘one for one’ deal. The drop in refugee arrivals to Greece is the result of the closing of the Western Balkans route, which has created a physical barrier on refugee movement and also had a deterring effect on refugees. The suffocation of refugee movement through Balkan borders caused a build up of refugees at Greek camps, such as at Idomeni and Lesbos, leading to deterioration of conditions at camps into serious humanitarian crises. The prospect of the conditions at Greek camps, along with the lack of ability to progress from the Balkan borders and the threat of deportation from the EU-Turkey deal, has clearly discouraged many refugees from making the expensive and dangerous crossing from Turkey.

FACTFILE:
The EU-Turkey ‘One-for-One’ Deal

Under the terms of agreement between the EU and Turkey, refugees and migrants arriving to Europe will be sent back across the Aegean Sea to Turkey if they arrive after 20th March. Under agreed terms of the Turkey-EU deal, Europe would take in one Syrian refugee from Turkish camps for every one migrant returned from Greece, up to a limit of 72,000. The deal puts Ankara on a fast track to attain $6.6 billion in aid in order to deal with refugees on its territory, including unprecedented visa concessions for Turks to visit Europe and a re-energizing of its EU membership bid.

From April to the end of July, only 468 refugees have been sent back from Turkey to Greece. The number of actual deportations from the registration centers on Aegean Island to Turkey is much lower than stated in the EU-Turkey deal in March. More than 9,300 refugees still remain at Greece’s hotspots with only 57,000 completing their preliminary registration for asylum since 20th March. In the first month after the EU-Turkey deal, Greek asylum authorities completed 588 applications, of which 410 were rejected and 178 were accepted.

However, refugees still continue to arrive in Greece, though significantly less than arrived during the same period in 2015. Since March, the number of refugees coming from Turkey to the northeast Aegean islands has exceeded 10,000; of which more than 1,200 refugees arrived by boat following the failed coup in Turkey on 15th July. Registration centers across the Greek islands only have room to house 7,450 people, with authorities struggling to cope with the rapid increase of arrivals since the failed coup. The influx of refugees comes as Erdogan disputed with EU leadership in regards to the aftermath of the coup, and discussion of Turkish reinforcement of the death penalty; refugees feared the insecurity a rift between the EU and Turkey may cause to Turkey’s EU-accession-led pro-refugee policy. 

While this lack of movement of refugees through the EU-Turkey deal may indicate the deal has stalled or been withdrawn, Turkey has repeatedly stated that the EU must fulfill its pledge to deliver €3 billion to assist Turkey in caring for refugees, of which only €1 million to €2 million has been paid thus far, and for the EU to also maintain its promise for visa exemptions for Turkish citizens; both agreements made under the deal.

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2. Turkey’s Response to the Syrian Crisis


The Turkish response to the refugee crisis, particularly in regards to Syrian refugees, can be seen as a transition towards greater focus on long term humanitarian concerns; stimulated by massive influx of refugees and Turkey’s pursuit of political accession to the EU. The implementation of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) in 2014, and subsequent establishment of the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) in 2015, indicated a transition away from emergency planning, and towards developing long term integration and protection of Syrian refugees. While the evolution of Turkish refugee law is commendable, the transition to achieving adequate refugee protection is still incomplete, and the approaches of the LFIP and DGMM leave some issues unaddressed.

Turkey must address the difficulties affecting the integration of large urban, peri-urban and rural population of refugees in the country, predominantly:

  • To allow and promote ALL refugees to work safely in the country;
  • To continue to lead the establishment of adequate international refugee law for the modern refugee crisis.

2.1 The Syrian Refugee Population in Turkey

The Syrian conflict and the subsequent refugee flows have put Turkey at the heart of the current Syrian refugee crisis, not only at a regional level but also in the international arena. Turkey currently hosts over 2.7 million Syrian refugees, which is more than half of the total Syrian refugee population in the Syrian Neighbouring Nation (SNN) region, and accounts for 3.5% of the total population in Turkey.

“Syrian Neighbouring Nations (SNNs) [refers] to the refugee host countries that surround Syria; namely Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.”

Demographics of the Syrian refugee population show that they are evenly distributed between sexes, and over 25% of the refugees are 17 years old or younger.

Full size image available at: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/syr_humsnap_a4l_june_2016_160703_en.pdf

In October 2011, Turkey implemented an unconditional “open door policy” and as such, Syrian civilians fleeing conflict were considered as ‘guests’, rather than purely as legal refugees. Under this policy, the Turkish government granted them “temporary protection” which ensured no forced return (non-refoulement principle) nor a time limit on the stay of Syrian refugees. 

In April 2014, as an extension to the Turkish approach to Syrian refugees, the LFIP was implemented which granted Syrian refugees the status of “conditional refugees”, meaning that temporary asylum was granted to all Syrians fleeing the war.

During this time period, between October 2011 and April 2014, an estimated total of 1,350,000 Syrian refugees fled to Turkey.

Testifying to Turkey’s open-border response to the refugee crisis, it is estimated that in April 2014, 30% of the refugee population in Turkey had been settled in camps, in comparison to only 13% in the other SNNs. The remaining refugees have instead settled in urban, peri-urban or rural areas. Most notably, cities like Ankara and Istanbul have seen a notable influx of Syrian refugees, while the rest have concentrated in southern regions of Turkey. The regional trend currently shows a potentially worrying situation as the refugee population in camps has stagnated, meaning that Turkish camps have at least reached maximum capacity, while the refugee population settled in other areas has continued to increase. As late as 16th June 2016, there were 9 refugees in urban or rural areas for every 1 refugee in a designated camp.

In other words, 490,000 refugees are living in camps in contrast with over 4 million refugees spread throughout region

refugees by turkish provinces

BROOKINGS

Not Likely to go Home – Syrian Refugees and the Challenges to Turkey and the International Community The Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings

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2.2 Turkish Policy

FACTFILE:
The Economic Cost of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Whereas the initial response by the Turkish government was self-reliant to a great extent, in mid-2012 Turkey asked the international community for financial assistance, which was met with half-hearted attempts: only $250 million of the $800 million pledged to Turkey has been effectively delivered (as of 10th June 2016), in comparison to the total of $4 billion spent by Turkish authorities between 2011 and 2014; a figure that has escalated up to $7 billions in the current year. Moreover, the rest of the international community has also failed to comply with refugees quotas as requested by the UN.

The refugee policy undertaken by Turkey, which at the same time must be looked at as part of it’s wider regional and international policies, has provided the country with both opportunities and challenges.

The LFIP is the most substantial development, with it shaping the current government structures to develop refugee and migration policy. Art.1 of the LFIP states the intention of the regulation to establish the DGMM, which ‘led by the Ministry of the Interior, is now responsible for “all the procedures regarding foreigners” and was handed over by the Turkish National Police with its Foreigners’ Departments of Provincial Directorates of Security. The GDMM is responsible for “visas“, “residence-permits”, “irregular migration”, “combating human trafficking” and “migration policies” in general. Furthermore it has its own research centre and manages the migration flows, and brings Turkey a step further in its transformation regarding policy toward foreigners: a consequence of the “on-going membership negotiation process with the European Union”[1]http://bordermonitoring.eu/analyse/2016/02/turkey-negotiating-the-harmonization/‘.

In January 2016, the DGMM introduced the Regulation on Work Permit of Refugees Under Temporary Protection (the “January Regulation”), which allowed Syrian refugees to apply for work permits. In order to do so they have to be registered as having stayed in Turkey for at least six months and they should apply in whichever province they were first registered. The UNHCR hailed this policy as it would allow Syrian refugees to enter the local labour market legally and earning at least the national minimum wage. If successful, the move intended to lessen the strains between the refugee and host communities as well as reducing the economic cost of the crisis.

However, even before work permits began to be issued to Syrian refugees, studies by the World Bank in recent years had already noted the negative effects of informal economies on the economy, but found that the average general trend was in fact positive for the Turkish economy.

While the large influx of informal refugee labour displaced low-educated female Turkish workers (primarily working informally in agricultural sectors), it also resulted in higher wages in the formal economy as well as higher school attendance for local women. Furthermore, although refugees continue to suffer the most from poverty, studies are also suggesting that poverty rates have been reduced for the host community at both the regional (southern Turkey) and national level between 2009 and 2013.

Unfortunately, the January Regulation, while lauded for its potential for refugee integration into the workplace, has proven thus far to have been largely ineffective, with less than 0.1% of Syrian refugees in the country enabled to work as of late March 2016. The reason for the ineffectiveness of the January Regulation rests mainly in the responsibilities placed upon employers to pay refugees the minimum wage, whereas the black market is already known to pay refugees less than the minimum wage (e.g. 1,200 lira for refugees compared to 2,200 lira for Turkish citizens). However, the January Regulation does serve to inform the Syrian refugee population that efforts are being made to better integrate them into the workplace and the country.

WORLD BANK

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2.2.1 Turkish Definition of “Refugee”

The LFIP also states the definitions of refugees eligible for the legislation,defining group classifications of: ‘refugees’, ‘conditional refugees’, ‘subsidiary protection’ and ‘exclusion from international protection’ under Part 3, Section 1, Arts. 61-64:

Refugees ARTICLE 61 – (1) A person who as a result of events occurring in European countries and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his citizenship and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it, shall be granted refugee status upon completion of the refugee status determination process.

Conditional refugees ARTICLE 62 – (1) A person who as a result of events occurring outside European countries and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it, shall be granted conditional refugee status upon completion of the refugee status determination process. Conditional refugees shall be allowed to reside in Turkey temporarily until they are resettled to a third country.

Subsidiary Protection ARTICLE 63 – (1) A foreigner or a stateless person, who neither could be qualified as a refugee nor as a conditional refugee, shall nevertheless be granted subsidiary protection upon the status determination because if returned to the country of origin or country of [former] habitual residence would:
a) be sentenced to death or face the execution of the death penalty;
b) face torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
c) face serious threat to himself or herself by reason of indiscriminate violence in situations of international or nationwide armed conflict; and therefore is unable or for the reason of such threat is unwilling, to avail himself or herself of the protection of his country of origin or country of [former] habitual residence.

Exclusion from international protection ARTICLE 64 – (1) The applicant shall be excluded from international protection if:
(a) receiving protection or assistance from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees;
(b) recognised by the authorities of the country of [former] residence as having the rights and obligations which are attached to the nationals of that country;
(c) there is strong evidence to believe that they are guilty of offences specified in paragraph one of Article 1 of the Convention.
(2) When protection or assistance for a person who falls within the scope of sub-paragraph (a) of the first paragraph is no longer available for any reason whatsoever, such person may benefit from protection provided for by this Law, unless a final solution to is reached on their status on the basis of UN General Assembly resolutions.
(3) In cases where there is evidence to believe that the applicant, prior to international protection claim, have committed inhuman acts for any reason whatsoever outside of Turkey, the assessment shall be done pursuant to subparagraph (c) of the first paragraph.
(4) Applicants that instigate or otherwise participate in committing the crimes or acts mentioned in subparagraph (c) of the first paragraph or third paragraph shall be excluded from international protection.
(5) In addition to circumstances mentioned in subparagraph (c) of the first paragraph and in third and fourth paragraphs, a foreigner or a stateless persons in respect of whom there are serious indications of posing a public order or public security threat, as well as a foreigner or a stateless person outside the scope of subparagraph (c) of the first paragraph who has previously committed a serious crime for which imprisonment would have been ordered if committed in Turkey, and have left his/her country of origin solely to avoid punishment for that crime, shall be excluded from subsidiary protection.
(6) Exclusion of the applicant from international protection shall not require the exclusion of their family members provided that none of the reasons for exclusion applies to other family members.

–  Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP), Law No. 6458, art. 1(1), Apr. 4, 2013 (Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Interior, Directorate General of Migration Management, Apr. 2014), http://www.goc.gov.tr/ files/files/eng_minikanun_5_son.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/9VPV-GWYZ (unofficial English translation).

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2.3 Turkish-Syrian Border

The early “open door” policy adopted by Turkey has provided Syrian and other refugees with a quick and relatively safe route for displaced populations, particularly those that fled from conflict in the northern regions of Syria. This policy was not implemented out of pure humanitarian concern, but it was inspired by Erdogan’s anti-Assad stance and initial belief, like many in the international community, that the Syrian conflict would be short-lived.

It was only after a series of ISIS-linked bombings in mid-2015 that Turkey began implementing firmer border controls and became more active in the anti-ISIS military coalition – even granting the US access to the Incirlik and Diyarbakır air bases in July 2015.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, ECFR
On the contrary, the security situation in Turkey has deteriorated quickly over the last two years. Undoubtedly the Syrian war has had a tremendous spillover effect on SNNs even beyond refugee flows. Attacks on Turkish soil have continued, including a bomb attack in Ankara in October 2015 which killed 102 people and the latest attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport which killed 45 and wounded over 200 people. Although Turkish and Western officials point the finger at the Islamic State, the group has yet to claim the latest attack in Turkey. Furthermore the protracted Syrian conflict has affected the Turkish negotiations with the the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the breakdown of the talks has fueled  instability, internal displacement and casualties in the south-eastern regions of Turkey. Turkish policy towards Syria also caused friction with Russia, which intervened militarily in late 2015, and said friction reached unprecedented levels when Turkish forces downed a Russian military jet which allegedly entered Turkish airspace without authorisation.

All of these events, together with the initial policy of “open borders” which could have also been exploited by so-called foreign fighters, have damaged Turkey’s stance in the international community and strained it’s relations with allies from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

 

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3. Conclusions & Recommendations


From the full extent of the refugee crisis witnessed in 2015 and early 2016, it has become unarguably clear that mass refugee movement is heavily dependent on refugees’ sentiment of insecurity and instability in their current location. Once displaced from their home and country of origin, it is clear to ascertain that refugees will continue to migrate until they have found adequate refuge, and no longer fear for their lives or well-being. While the EU-Turkey deal and severe closure of the Western Balkan refugee route had brought refugee arrivals to Greece to almost zero after March 2016, the attempted coup in Turkey on July 15th caused a surge of refugees to flee Turkey to Europe, despite the infamous, well-known humanitarian crises faced on their arrival to Greece. The instance of refugees fleeing to Europe as a result of their fear of potential insecurity in Turkey following the attempted coup cements the concept that refugees’ sentiment must be kept in mind to prevent their fleeing from Turkey and to promote refugee integration in the country.

Turkey has led the international community in its evolution of domestic refugee law, and acknowledging shortcomings in both the 1951 Refugee Convention and its own geographical distinctions of refugee classification, and has introduced legislation in an attempt to address these issues. However, to ease refugees’ sentiment of anxiety over the EU-Turkey deal and its potential negative impact on Turkey abandoning its pro-refugee stance, Turkey must make key steps to enforce its commitment to refugee protection, and convince refugees they are not being used as political pawns for EU accession.

A possible solution to ease refugee fears would be for Turkish law to also extend protection to non-Syrian refugees. A broadening of the scope of refugee protection would convey a genuine pro-refugee attitude, and encourage refugees that the country is acting to improve conditions for refugees.

Addressing the non-Syrian refugee population is a significant issue, as it is worth noting that up to 50% of refugees entering the EU in 2015 and early 2016 were non-Syrian, and a large proportion of those returned to Turkey through the EU-Turkey deal are non-Syrian. Though the non-Syrian refugee population in Turkey is currently relatively small, the conferral of true legal protection to non-Syrian refugees may stimulate influx of current IDPs (internally displaced persons), particularly Iraqis, into Turkey, which could overburden the country. However, conferring protection only to non-Syrian refugees already present in Turkey would express a pro-refugee sentiment without stimulating Iraqi IDPs to enter Turkey, thus averting humanitarian crises of Turkey becoming unable to manage a second large influx of refugees.

non-sryian refugee population

Further, although the Turkish government has taken decisive steps to welcome and host refugee communities, surveys published in 2015 already showed signs of exhaustion within the host community.

Perception surveys show mixed attitudes—Turkish  families recognize the humanitarian imperative to respond to SuTPs [Syrians under Temporary Protection] and show much generosity toward them; yet they are also deeply concerned about the social consequences of the presence of SuTPs in their communities.

World Bank report
Turkey must, by continuing pro-refugee policy implementation, promote and encourage solidarity with all refugees in the country, including non-Syrian refugees, in order to prevent negative sentiment towards refugees. Turkish citizens should be allowed to celebrate Turkey’s development of pro-refugee law at a time when the pro-humanitarian EU has struggled to find any empathy.

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Insight: The Situation of Syrian Refugees


When refugees from Syria first began trickling across Turkey’s southern border, the Turkish government constructed some of the world’s most orderly and well-funded refugee camps. They maintained an open-border policy, allowing Syrians into Turkey for medical treatment and safety, and in return, received widespread praise by the international community for their hospitality.

Five years on, however, the country is struggling to cope with a refugee population that has exceeded initial expectations, and, by just about any estimate, has little chance of returning home soon. Many of the some 3 million refugees now fill Istanbul’s most popular districts, while hundreds of thousands of others remain in towns and cities along the border, dreaming of their return home. On any given day, Syrian children can be seen peddling small tissue packs or prayer beads on the streets, while men often collect recyclables in hopes of making a few liras.

As a bleak situation has only further deteriorated, it has become ever-more clear that poor foresight on the part of Turkish authorities in the early stages of the war has exacerbated the crisis. Outside the camps where just about 265,000 Syrians live, Turkey invested minimally in resources and infrastructure, while the international community contributed even less. As those limited resources continue to be strained by a growing and needy population, many refugees have warned that the situation seems to have hit its brink.

Today, hospitals are overcrowded, social services for refugees are inadequate and Syrians frequently find themselves on the receiving end of workplace exploitation. Most refugees are living in overcrowded, squalid housing conditions, with some living in parks or the ruins of dilapidated homes, several studies have found. The dire conditions have pushed children into an exploitative labor force, leaving a young generation of war-traumatized Syrians largely without an education.

Turkey only officially offers full refugee status to European refugees. Given the unprecedented displacement caused by the war in neighboring Syria, however, the government has offered “temporary protection” to Syrians. While that shady legal status may have sufficed for Syrians who were simply looking for safety early on in the war, it has forced many Syrians to now begin rethinking their future in the country.

Turkey does not readily offer work permits to Syrians, leaving many susceptible to exploitation and abuse in the work place, as well as delayed or withheld payment. Although it was reported that Turkey was granting the right to work earlier this year, the new regulations stipulate strict provisions that have made it all but impossible for a vast majority of Syrians to gain that right.

“I’m grateful for what Turkey has done for us, but I cannot stay in a limbo all my life,” one refugee told me for a report late last year. “If I could get on a plane to Germany right now, I would. That’s not to disparage Turkey, but Turkey’s taken 2 million of us, and fatigue is starting to set in.”

While Turkey undoubtedly deserves praise, at least for its open-border policy and welcoming speech early on in the war, some refugees said poor planning contributed to a worsening situation. In dozens of interviews, refugees complained that Turkey’s nascent registration system is dysfunctional, leaving them in legal limbo and without proper protections, thus making it near-impossible to lay down fresh roots in the country.

Hassan, a 28-year-old English teacher from Damascus, left Syria in 2013 as fighting intensified; at least one member of his family was killed. Given that traveling directly to Turkey required passing through a number of checkpoints, including some held by extremist groups like the al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, Hassan went first to Lebanon, just a two hour trip from his home-city, with a plane ticket for Istanbul in hand.

When he made it to Turkey, Hassan said he was unaware of the proper legal procedure for settling in Turkey. When he started thinking longer-term and wished to apply for his kimlik, a Syrian identification card, Hassan ran into a problem: because he had traveled first through Lebanon, he was told that he was ineligible for the protection status. He was advised to instead apply for residency, as any non-Syrian foreigner would. In order to do that, he would have to first leave the country and return because his original visa expired before he had begun the process. The problem with that, he says, is that Turkey no longer easily allows Syrians entry into the country, so he’s afraid if he leaves, he won’t be allowed back. For now, he’s stuck.

It’s an issue that, to Hassan, seemed rather arbitrary and should have been easily-solvable. How could a better solution not already be in place, given how many other refugees have taken similar journeys or are missing their documents? But it’s had serious implications: because of his tenuous status, he was turned down a strong job opportunity (his employer wanted someone who’s legality in the country was certain) and was also unable to legally marry a Turkish woman. In the event that he is in need of hospital services, he is likely to be denied. And there’s lingering paranoia — one repeated by other refugees — that some day, the Turkish government may decide to forcibly relocate those who have not secured legal status in the country, either to detention centers, refugee camps or a future, envisioned buffer zone in northern Syria.

Hassan says his visa issue might seem like a mere technical complication, but it reflects similar predicaments that many of the young men he knows have also found themselves in. Another Syrian, for example, told me that he was concerned because he, like many Syrians, was not sure he had all his legal documents; now that his wife is nearly ready to give birth, he’s worried as to whether his residency, needed for the hospital, will come through. Another Syrian left the country briefly last year, and while at the airport, was not given a receipt after paying his original 3-month visa overstay; officials at the visa office have been at a loss as to how to handle it, so for now, he’s here illegally.

For Hassan, the legal challenge is an issue that has brought into question his plans to stay in the country.

“It’s difficult to improve [your life] without these legal things. You work for people, they control you, they give you the salary they want, so it’s not good,” he said. “Most Syrians — and I’m one of them — we don’t know what to do, to stay in Turkey, or to go to Europe.”

While Hassan is, at least for now, just contemplating the journey, more than a million people, including Afghans, Iraqis and others in addition to Syrians, did opt for the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea last year. Some 3,771 migrants died while trying to reach Europe in 2015 according to IOM statistics, and a deal struck between the European Union and Turkey has helped stem that route. As part of the agreement, Turkey will accept “irregular migrants” from Europe in exchange for accelerated talks for EU accession and billions of dollars in support.

But the prospect of sending back asylum-seekers to Turkey has unleashed a fierce debate over conditions for refugees in the country. While the deal tacitly entails Turkey is considered a safe third country to which asylum-seekers can be returned for the EU, human rights groups say the lack of social support, the flawed registration system and the abysmal living conditions are all cause for alarm. In addition, Amnesty International documented cases earlier this year of forced returns to Syria, speculating that thousands may have been sent back to a war-zone — a claim that the Turkish government has flatly denied. Such issues with Turkey’s policies toward refugees, critics of the deal say, reflect that refugees have simply become pawns in the negotiations.

“The EU-Turkey deal is reckless and illegal, Amnesty International’s findings expose as a fiction the idea that Turkey is able to respect the rights and meet the needs of over three million asylum-seekers and refugees.”

John Dalhuisen, Director for Europe and Central Asia, Amnesty International

It seems as though, in the wake of the deal, the route from Turkey to Greece has been suspended. Various organizations have documented a sharp drop in arrivals to Greece, as well as falling deaths in the Aegean Sea. But speak to the young, disillusioned Syrians here, and after a list of grievances with Turkey, many share their plans to ultimately reach Europe — whether by legal or illegal, safe or unsafe means. For now, they’re just trying to figure out how.

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Insight: Non-Syrian Refugees in Turkey


Peter sat on a doorstep, surrounded by five men with knives who were threatening to kill him if he did not offer up $13,000 by 3 p.m. He was already injured after one of them, who accused him of having stolen from them, stabbed him in the leg. They handed him his cell phone, allowing him to make a few calls to gather the ransom. Instead, frightened for his life, he used the calls to tell several friends of his predicament and hinted to them to call the police (his captors did not speak English).

When the police arrived, Peter realized it likely marked an end to his stay in Turkey. A 24-year-old migrant from Cameroon who had come seeking job opportunities, his visa expired nearly a year earlier. Although he had not previously been in such significant physical danger, Peter had grown hardened to the troubles that tagged along with everyday life in Turkey: during his time here, he found a number of jobs, but none of them paid the promised amount, and many were abusive. With no legal status, he opted to dodge the police.

Ultimately, it was Peter who was thrown behind bars and the men who held him that were let loose. Days later, Peter was being held temporarily in a detention center overcrowded with Afghans, Syrians, Uzbeks, Pakistanis and others, all set for detention or deportation. From there, Peter was sent back home.

“At least I am safe, that’s what’s important,” he told me after his arrest.

As the Turkish economy has boomed over the last decade, the country has become a magnet for migrants and refugees hoping to forge better lives. While the world’s spotlight has shone on the nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, Turkey also hosts large populations of Afghans, Iraqis and Palestinians, as well as smaller communities of Somalis, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Iranians and others. But in a country with already strained resources, many migrants and refugees learn quickly that Istanbul is not the land of opportunity of which they had dreamed.

Although many Syrians face untenable problems in Turkey, it’s often those migrants and refugees under the radar — particularly from places like Afghanistan and countries in Africa — who are in the most desperate of situations. Unlike Syrians, they have no legal status in the country, and lack larger networks of compatriots. Focused primarily on Syrians, few aid agencies cater toward these populations, and their darker skin complexion often makes them the target of racism. Several African women told me that they have frequently been victim to sexual assault, something which they saw as being tied to their darker skin.

Only Europeans are eligible for refugee status in Turkey. Amid the fueling war in neighboring Syria, which has sent millions of desperate refugees fleeing across Turkey’s border of the last five years, the government has allowed Syrians to obtain “temporary protection.” But others fleeing desperate circumstances are denied that status. Amnesty International documented around 30 cases of asylum-seekers being forcibly returned to Afghanistan. And without recognition, individuals are unable to work legally or access public hospitals.

In a rundown neighborhood in Istanbul, more than a dozen young men sat closely together for warmth when I visited them in their shack in the winter. They come from Afghanistan, and live in a heavily-overcrowded space with moist air and damp carpets lining the floor. The men collect recyclables to earn a few liras each day, in hopes of sending enough money to eventually make it to Europe.

One of the men, 22-years-old, said he came to Turkey after the Taliban started threatening his family. His brother was a translator for the U.S. military, so he was able to launch a successful asylum claim in the U.S. The 22-year-old, however, ended up making his way for Turkey. It was anything but what he expected, with its dismal living conditions.

“I cannot stay in Turkey, it’s a very bad life,” he said.

Whereas many Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians come by land, those from further away, like Peter, came by air. Obtaining a temporary 3 month visa is simple, but applying for a year-long residency permit is pricey, so most simply overstay their tourist visas. While some do ultimately find steady work, many find it difficult to make a living, let alone send money back home — the reason for which many came to Turkey in the first place. To help make ends meet, they often sell small goods on the street or juggle a few small business connections.

Something to the extent of, “It’s difficult,” is the common explanation I’ve heard of life in Turkey from those who sought the better life here.

While many accept that they have violated the law by overstaying their visa, their cases are often more complicated. Peter, for instance, initially traveled to Turkey under the misguided belief that he would have a work visa and job waiting for him, having paid a fixer back home, who actually turned out to be a scammer. Such scams are reportedly common, particularly since Turkish Airlines has expanded their flight options with Africa. Many also traveled to Turkey with misinformation about legal procedures for residency.

While Turkey is already struggling to cope with millions of refugees, its leaders should consider finding a long-term solution to a crisis that appears to be growing. Integrating migrants and other refugee groups into a young, albeit deeply troubled, registration system already in place for Syrians could be a place to start. For now, the Turkish government seems uninterested in a crackdown, but it also seems uninterested in acknowledging a growing problem.

Both Turkey and the migrants would be better served by a system that allows a pathway for legal residency, thereby pulling desperate foreigners out of the shadows and protecting their basic human rights.

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