Last night, (an advisor of) president Gül said the Syrian refugees in Turkey are not refugees, but guests in Turkey, and that they can come and go as they please. I just couldn’t believe my ears. The last thing Turkey does to refugees coming in, is treating them as guests. Yes, for now, Turkey is building the Syrians a (plastic) roof over their heads, feeding them and providing medical care, but be very sure that’s a very temporary thing. Not because Syria will soon be on some democratic path and the refugees can safely return to their homes, but because the word ‘refugee’ just doesn’t exist in Turkish law books. Soon Turkey will leave the ‘guests’ totally to their faith again, like they do with every person that comes in to escape a brutal regime.
Turkey is a partner in the Geneva convention which, among other things, arranges the treatment of refugees. But since 1967, Turkey uses a so-called ‘geographical limitation’, which means the number of countries Turkey accepts refugees from, is limited. The amazing consequence is that Turkey can only recognize people as refugees if they come from a country in Europe. Not the weirdest thing when you look at it from a Cold War perspective, but in nowadays international realities it’s plainly ridiculous.
Turkey feels no obligation whatsoever to take care of people who come to Turkey because their lives are in danger. What Turkey gives the Syrian refugees now, can be considered a cloth against the bleeding highly visible to the outside world. But what does a refugee from Iran get, who is in trouble with his or her government? A refugee from Pakistan, from Afghanistan? From Somalia, the Palestine Territories, Egypt or from any other country in the (wider) region where oppressive regimes brutalize human rights day in day out? Nothing. No tent, no food, no medicine. No work, no education, no insurance.
The only option refugees in Turkey have, is to go to the UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees, to apply for refugee status. If it’s granted, they can apply to be transferred to a ‘third country’, usually the United States, Canada or Australia. When they leave Turkey, the Turkish state presents them a bill in exchange for nothing: hundreds of dollars for residence permits for the time the applicant stayed in Turkey. That’s not an easy bill to pay when you have no right to work and have been struggling in illegal jobs to stay alive.
I understand Turkey doesn’t open its legal borders for refugees just like that. The country is bordering several countries that ‘produce’ a whole lot of refugees. As soon as Turkey has a proper refugee law, there is a risk that Europe feels they can dump their refugees in Turkey with a clean conscious. With the EU accession process in trouble and membership years ahead, that’s naturally not a tempting prospect for Turkey.
But now who are the victims of these broader political backgrounds? The very people that Prime Minister Erdogan says he cares for so much when he calls on undemocratic leaders in the region to show more respect for democracy and humanity. Now that the eyes of the world are on Turkey and the Syrian refugees, he has to provide them with some essentials, but as soon as the worlds interest is faiding, the tents will be folded again and the refugees kicked out. Over the border, or to the UNHCR, or into years of anonymous and poor living in Turkey.
If Turkey really sees a role for itself in the international arena and present itself as a full democracy standing up for humanity, they better start developing a refugee policy that does rights of the people who cross their borders in danger of their lives. It’s not even necessary to treat them as guests. As human beings would be enough.