Despite official claims, Turkey cannot be considered a safe country – neither for migrants nor for its own citizens, writes Hakan Ataman.
Hakan Ataman is Psychosocial Support Project Coordinator for Refugees at the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Turkey. This article is part of the “Migration & Transformation” series supported by the German Bertelsmann Foundation.
Following the deal struck between the European Union and Turkey, Greece began deporting refugees and migrants to Turkey on April 4, 2016. A second group was expelled a few days later. Although Greece has postponed the next batch of deportations until an unknown date, Turkey has already taken a number of measures in anticipation of deportations from EU countries, including the preparation of three harbors for readmissions in Kusadası (Aydın), Gulluk (Muğla) and Dikili (İzmir), in the Aegean region.
In accordance with the EU-Turkey agreement, Turkey changed its Temporary Protection Regulation. Prior to this amendment, any Syrian under the temporary protection regime, who left Turkey after registration, would not be entitled to re-apply for this status. Now, temporary protection is granted to all Syrian refugees who are returned to Turkey from Greece. This provision does not cover non-Europeans and non-Syrians, including Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians.
However, the refugees deported from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios thus far were primarily of Pakistani and Afghan origin. Others were from Bangladesh, Iraq, Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Congo, Somalia and the Ivory Coast. Only a small number were Syrians. Following a simple health examination, the Turkish government sent them to the deportation center in Kırklareli, in the Thrace district, on the same day.
EU-Turkey deal undermines international protection of refugees
The EU and Turkey claim that the new agreement aims to provide “safe”, “legal” and “regular” migration for refugees and migrants. However, the deal has attracted heavy criticism from NGOs and activists, who believe that the process undermines the international protection of refugees, not just in Europe, but also around the world.
Most critics are concerned about the lack of protection and practical difficulties encountered by refugees living or arriving in Turkey. The central question is whether Turkey can be considered a safe country.
In fact, it cannot be considered as such – neither for refugees and migrants nor for its own citizens. The latest edition of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, BTI 2016, is very clear about this: Turkey “has left its path of democratization under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. … Recently regarded as a positive example of transformation in part due to its prospects of EU membership, the tendency in recent years toward the concentration of ever-greater powers in government hands, to the detriment of regime-critical media and civil society, has threatened freedom and democracy.”
Refugees in Turkey face particular challenges in urban areas
Refugees and migrants face particular challenges regarding basic rights and livelihood support in Turkey. As of the beginning of April 2016, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey was around 3.5 million. The majority of them live in urban areas, including cities without refugee camps, such as Istanbul, Izmir and Bursa.
Turkey’s efforts to ensure the rights of refugees living in urban area are particularly inadequate. There, refugees do not fully exercise their right to access health, education, housing and the job market. Furthermore, urban areas are affected by a range of problems concerning security conditions and specific needs and risks such as child protection and Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).
To begin with, unregistered refugees and irregular migrants – both Syrians and non-Syrians – are not entitled to access any public services in Turkey except emergency health services provided by public hospitals.
Access to adequate housing is another big problem in metropolitan cities. The high rents charged there mean that many refugees are faced with eviction when their savings run out, or forced to live in poor conditions without privacy or hygiene.
When it comes to employment, the legal situation of refugees is improving but the actual situation is slow to follow suit. The Turkish government recently adopted a new regulation on work permits for refugees, with the result that there are now fewer legal restrictions stopping refugees from accessing the labor market. However, the process of obtaining work permits is very slow and difficult due to many bureaucratic obstacles and fees. Permits are also limited by quotas and restricted to certain industries. Therefore, most refugees are in irregular employment or work in the informal sector.
Child labor remains another huge problem. Human Rights Watch and UNICEF have reported that over 400,000 Syrian refugee children living in Turkey do not attend school.
International protection system for refugees must be revised
To sum up, there are no adequate national structures for the provision of services to refugees in Turkey. Local social programs and community-based organizations lack the capacity to meet refugees’ needs, while the support provided by United Nations agencies, other development and humanitarian partners and the private sector is also limited.
On several occasions, the European Court of Human Rights has found that the conditions in Turkish deportation and detention centers for migrants and refugees amount to degrading treatment in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment.
There is no future for most refugees in Turkey. Without effective rights-based policies, issuing laws, regulations and agreements about refugees is of no practical consequence for refugees living in the country. While the international community must provide Turkey with financial assistance in this process, financial assistance alone will not solve the problem.
The international community must call upon Turkey to seek solutions based on human rights. However, to suggest or expect this might well be naive or even irrelevant given that the international protection system for refugees is collapsing on a global scale.
The Syria crisis – the worst crisis of its kind since Rwanda – is an important opportunity for the international community to begin reflecting on and taking the necessary steps to change its protection system.