The promised land – refugees in Turkey

Turkey is trying to bring its laws on refugees into line with Europe’s. In the meantime, refugees and asylum seekers who reach safety in Turkey live in a legal and social wasteland.

(published December 2009)

Several Turkish newspapers called it a disgrace last spring, when in Didim, a town on Turkey’s west coast, 65 people were forced to camp in the garden of a government building. These people were refugees from Palestine, Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq. And the pictures didn’t lie: there were children among them. And even though the authorities gave blankets and mattresses, the children were cold at night, wrote the papers with chocolate-thick letters. And, they added, the fact that the government didn’t offer these people a roof over their heads was a disgrace.
As if this was an exception to the rule. The Turkish authorities never provide shelter for refugees, and showed their humanitarian side only by handing out blankets and mattresses. The really exceptional aspect of the situation in Didim was that the deplorable situation of refugees in Turkey hardly ever becomes so visible. Usually refugees stay in a hovel in a dilapidated part of Istanbul, or with whole families in old, dark and smelly buildings in remote Anatolian cities.

Sometimes, they make it into the papers because they are found dead, for example in the sea between Turkey and Greece, (the refugees in Didim were also on the way to Greece when their boat broke down). Or in a field somewhere, dumped by a truck driver who discovered he was no longer transporting living people but dead ones. Or in the mountainous area between Iran and Turkey – where they are sometimes found frozen to death by shepherds reaching meadows high in the mountains where the snow has just melted.

The next procedure

It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true: according to Turkish law, asylum seekers are Europeans who need protection. Anyone coming from a non-European country to seek asylum doesn’t have chance. That’s the amazing consequence of the so-called ‘geographical limitation’ that Turkey has used since 1967 under the Geneva Convention of 1951. At the time, numerous other countries decided to limit the regions from where they would admit asylum seekers, but only Monaco and Turkey still maintain that policy.
As a result, asylum seekers go through the whole procedure at UN refugee organisation UNHCR, which has several offices in Turkey. For the months (or years) that the procedure takes, they have no rights. No right to income, no right to a roof over their heads, no right to health care. But they do need to obtain a residence permit every half a year for every family member, costing 300 lira (about € 150,-) per person. If they are recognised as refugees, then the next procedure starts: resettlement in a ‘third country’, usually Canada, the United States or Australia. Staying in Turkey is impossible, because of the geographical limitation. The problem is that if a third country is willing to accept the refugee, then Turkey only lets him or her go when the residence permits for the whole stay are paid for. For a family, this can reach thousands of lira. Until they are paid, the refugee has to stay in Turkey – and the cost of the residence permits keeps mounting up.

Open air prison

‘Turkey should take more responsibility when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees,’  says Metin Çorabatir, spokesman for UNHCR headquarters in Turkey’s capital, Ankara. ‘A geographical limitation isn’t fitting for a country that is such an active member of the international community and at the moment even has a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.’
The situation now is ‘messy’, says Çorabatir. Just a minute ago, he got a phone call from a man from Iraq. He was recognised as a refugee by the UNHCR and was now waiting for resettlement in a third country. ‘The people he shares a house with are also from Iraq and they are about to leave for Canada. He also put in a request for Canada, but now it turns out that Canada has already reached its annual quota for ‘invited refugees’, so this Iraqi can’t get away from Turkey this year. Another year without rights, another year without a chance to build a new life. Turkey is effectively like an open air prison for asylum seekers and refugees.’

Since 2005 Turkey has had a ‘national action plan’ for refugees. A group of civil servants at the Ministry of Internal Affairs is busy adapting refugee laws to European standards. Quite an operation, because besides a law, a whole ‘refugee infrastructure’ is needed: refugee centres, centres where the first application can be made, training personnel and civil servants, educating the public. Inevitably the last move will be to abolish the geographical limitation.

Turkish fears

Originally, lifting the geographical limitation was planned for 2012, but it has been delayed indefinitely. Fear is the problem, says Professor of Migration Studies, Ahmet Içduygu of the Koç University in Istanbul: ‘Turkey is scared that enormous numbers of refugees will come knocking at its door once it becomes a settlement country. And this fear is not without reason, as Turkey borders Iraq and Iran, and Afghan refugees also enter Turkey through Iran. These are the very countries from which many refugees have been fleeing for decades.’ The number of asylum seekers registering at the UNHCR in Turkey is rising: in 2008 there were about 13,000, up from 4,550 in 2006. By comparison, in the Netherlands in 2008 about 15,000 people applied for asylum.

A deeper Turkish fear arises from the troublesome relationship with the EU. Negotiations were opened in 2005 with the set aim of Turkey entering the EU, but since then a lot has changed. Influential countries like France and Germany don’t support Turkish membership any more, the European people have shown in the last elections that they are not looking forward to further expansion of the EU and also the Turks are no longer as enthusiastic as before. In other words, what if Turkey lifts the geographical limitation and after that does not become an EU member? Then the EU borders a country where asylum seekers can be kept outside Europe with a clear conscience. That’s exactly why Turkey has decided to lift the geographical limitation only when the accession date to the EU is set firmly. ‘The EU’, says Içduygu, ‘doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge Turkish fears. You can not on the one hand demand that Turkey lift the limitation and at the same time keep the country at a distance when it comes to EU membership.’

Many small roads

From Van, a city in the east of Turkey with half a million inhabitants, it’s less than 100 kilometers to the Iranian border. In the city many signs point the way to ‘Iran’, but all lead to the only road that goes direct to the neighbouring country. The many small roads in this inhospitable area, covered under a thick layer of snow from autumn until spring, are full of gendarmes.  Anyone with no business here – and that includes journalists with an official press accreditation – is ordered to return to the city right away. And asylum seekers who choose these roads to leave Iran are sometimes literally picked up and deposited back across the border. This is a breach of the deal the Turkish authorities have with the UNHCR: anybody who seems to want to apply for asylum has to be told of the opportunity to register at one of the UNHCR offices in Turkey.

Glittering jewellery

Van has such an office. That’s why asylum seekers from Iran and Afghanistan who manage to get past the gendarmes settle down here. They add colour to the city, especially the Iranian women: where Turkish women with a headscarf in this part of the country choose grey modesty, the Iranians draw attention with scarves in bright colours that only cover the hair half-way, and with make up and glittering jewellery.

This is in sharp contrast to their houses. In a street in the city centre, a steel door unexpectedly gives access to a big building intended to house small businesses. Now asylum seekers are crammed into it. The walls of the former offices, nine to twelve square meters in size, were once painted pink, but are dirty now. There is just enough space for a bed, a small carpet, a hat stand, a few boxes for storing things. A hole in the back wall leads to another few square meters, and only a curtain screens off the toilet and a tiny cooking area. No windows, no fresh air. If you see children running around on the landings of the first and second floors, you hold your breath: the balustrade is not really close-meshed and a child could easily fall through. The steep rickety iron stairs appear life-threatening even for adults.

Nasrin Hasannahah (36), her husband Ismail (37) and their toddler daughter Niyoşa might be forced to move here soon. At the moment, the family has a place of their own, but they haven’t been able to pay the rent of fifty lira a month (about 23 euros) for six months now. Nasrin shows their little house and seems to be a bit ashamed. On entering, a big hole in the ceiling draws attention; underneath it on the carpet are pieces of reeds that keep falling down from the hole. The walls and the ceiling of the living room are partly black from moisture, and she really doesn’t want to show the kitchen. ‘There, around the corner’, she points. Around the corner a dark space, on the floor one gas bottle to cook on, no kitchen sink unit but a small tap with a bucket underneath. ‘In Iran we were not poor. We had a spacious apartment, with washing machine, and dishwasher, we were short of nothing. And now look at this.’

Pay the rent or buy diapers

Nasrin and Ismail have been living in Van for two years now. Nasrin learned Turkish rather quickly and earns part of the family income by translating for Iranians and Afghans who ask for help at the women’s centre in Van. Ismail takes any job he can get, like carrying things and painting, but it doesn’t earn much. Recently they were recognised as refugees by the UNHCR and are waiting for resettlement in a third country.
In the meantime, the landlord is getting impatient. ‘He is kind and takes our situation into consideration’, says Nasrin, ‘but of course, he can’t rent his house to us for free, I understand that. But we have to choose: pay the rent or buy food and diapers.’ The rent in the former office building is higher – but where will they ever find something cheaper than 50 lira per month? ‘Maybe we will have to share a room with others’, she says.

For a few years now asylum seekers in Turkey have been allowed to work. But the conditions for a legal job are absurd: it’s only possible if the potential employer applies for a work permit, and that is only granted if there is no Turk available to do the job. It leaves asylum seekers no other choice than to work illegally. To a certain extent the Iranians and Afghans in Van are lucky. Van is the biggest city in the region and offers some possibilities for work, and the civil servants in charge are not the strictest: they are rather well-informed about the situation asylum seekers are in, know most of the faces and are willing to turn a blind eye to illegal work.

A stamp every other day

The situation of many other asylum seekers is quite different. After they have registered with both the UNHCR and local police, the Turkish authorities send them to one of the thirty so-called ‘satellite cities’, provincial towns that are designated as living places for asylum seekers who are proceeding through UNHCR channels. Ibrahim Kavlak, head of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) in Ankara: ‘Tokat, in the north of central Anatolia, is one of the satellite cities. I know a young asylum seeker who lived in Istanbul for some time. He was good with computers and in Istanbul he could earn a reasonable income with that. Then he was forced to move to Tokat. But even Turks leave Tokat because there is no work there. So what’s an asylum seeker going to do there? Overnight the guy was left without any income.’

The police in each satellite city define how often asylum seekers have to come to get a stamp to prove they actually stay in the city. ‘In some cities, this stamping has to be done daily’, says Kavlak, ‘in others once or twice a week. If you have to go get a stamp every day or every other day before five o ‘clock, you can’t combine that with a job. The working days in Turkey are long, and of course illegal work is insecure. What asylum seeker would ask his boss to leave work early that often, what boss would agree to it? This way, asylum seekers are not given the opportunity to earn an income.’


And little or no income means sleeping in a barn or in a hovel, or sharing a space with too many people. In some satellite cities there are charities that rent houses for the use of asylum seekers. The women’s organisation in Van, for example, has a building where about 25 women can stay temporarily. The UNHCR in Van regularly sends single Afghan or Iranian women to the shelter. But usually they don’t stay there long: they prefer to find a place to live together, for example in the few bigger rooms that the former office building has available. In such rooms, women come and go, visitors are offered a beer – strict Muslims seem absent here – and children run and crawl around freely.

In Istanbul, a metropolis of 16 million inhabitants, the foreigners don’t form a group in a building, but populate whole neighbourhoods. Katip Kasim is such a neighbourhood. If you walk westwards along the waterfront from Aya Sophia and Topkapi Palace, you will certainly come across the first signs of asylum seekers and economic refugees: Africans who try to earn a living selling fake watches and perfumes in the parks alongside the Marmara Sea. Katip Kasim is old, poor and dilapidated, and the houses in the worst condition are where the immigrants live, most of them from countries like Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan. A few of them took the effort to apply for asylum at UNHCR, but the majority prefer to map out their route to the west by themselves.

Sleeping in shifts

Staying in Istanbul is not an option for these Africans. Whoever you speak with, nobody has been in Istanbul longer than about eleven or twelve months. In other words, the African community renews itself all the time. And unlike the UNHCR- recognised refugees, they don’t leave for ‘third countries’, but for Europe. Ali, who is in his twenties and from Mali, has been in Turkey now for six months. He says: ‘In Turkey you don’t have any rights and Turks speak only Turkish. In Europe, you can get a lawyer and there is more work.’ Makiyo (25) from Somalia: ‘I’ve been in Istanbul now for 29 days. I have family in Western countries, they send me money. I try to save that as much as possible, so I can leave here after not too long.’ Bashir (18), also from Somalia: ‘I paid a lot of money to come to Greece, but ended up in Istanbul instead. So now I have to try to get some money again, so I can still go to Greece.’

They seem to put up with the awful living conditions. In a room with four bunk beds 32 men are living: they sleep in shifts of six hours. On the upper floor of the house there are rooms for women and children. The women don’t sit up straight on the beds, because there is not enough space on the lower part of the bunks. Children – with carefully braided hair – stick to the dirty floor with their hands and feet every time they make a move, and now and then stumble over broken electrical wires and multiple sockets that are lying everywhere. Don’t lean against the walls here: they are only thin, made of cardboard.
Of course it’s this group that especially worries the European Union. As soon as they have enough money, they book an illegal trip to Greece and off they go. From several places on the Turkish west coast, it’s only ten or twenty kilometers to a European country. The discussions between Europe and Greece are often heated: in 2002 the countries agreed that Turkey would take back asylum seekers who obviously came through Turkey to get to Greece, but of 25,000 cases Turkey took back only 1,600, according to a Greek migration institute.

Turkish passport

There is something peculiar about Iranian Nasrin and her husband Ismail. They say they are waiting for resettlement in a European country. They turned down an offer from the United States, (Nasrin: ‘My ex husband lives there with many members of his family and I’m terrified of them’) and they also declined offers from Australia and Canada. Just why, remains totally unclear, or it must be that they simply want to go to Europe. But Europe doesn’t accept UNHCR-recognised refugees from Turkey. Does she know that this means that they will have to stay in Turkey, without rights? ‘Well, if it has to be that way, we have to accept it’, says Nasrin. ‘Niyoşa was born in Turkey and can get a Turkish passport later on, so for her everything will be okay.’

You could see it as an early sign of the change that will be inevitable in the long run. The geographical limitation will not exist much longer, and if everybody keeps promises made earlier, Turkey will become an EU member. By then Turkey will surely have developed into a country where life is good, in terms of both material prosperity and human rights. Then Turkey will no longer be a springboard to the West, but will itself be part of the West. And Turkey will have become a country where refugees will want to stay.

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