The situation of refugees in Turkey

This is the English translation of an article I wrote in Dutch for the Foundation Max van de Stoel, which can be found here:

Two years after the ‘refugee crisis’

After the implementation of the Turkey-EU deal (2016) it seemed that the refugee crisis was finished. The news was no longer dominated by the images of overcrowded rubber boats full of people who tried to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands. However, the source of the refugee crisis has not been solved. The war in Syria is continuing. Besides, the direct motivation for those who wanted to cross European borders were the bad living conditions in Turkey. In 2018, Turkey has about 4 million refugees. The majority are from Syria, but there are also people from Afghanistan, Irak, Iran, Pakistan, and a number of other nationalities, including several African countries. The insecurity and precarity of life in Turkey were for very many people the reason to go on a dangerous and costly journey to ‘Fortress Europe’. Has anything changed in the situation of refugees in Turkey, two years after the Turkey-EU deal?

Rights are not observed

There are a couple of important improvements, especially regarding the access to education and health care. In general, however, the situation of refugees in Turkey is not up to the standards of international human rights and the specific rights of refugees. On paper those rights do exist, but in practice refugees in Turkey experience many problems. Syrian refugees especially are the topic of many political debates in Turkey, in which the interests of the refugees themselves do not receive priority. Regarding the non-Syrian refugees: they are not seen as the responsibility of the Turkish state and are under the so-called ‘international protection’ of the UNHCR, the refugee organisation of the United Nations. In practice this means that these refugees barely receive any support.

Insufficient protection

On the one hand the Turkish government emphasises the importance of hosting foreign ‘guests’ (misafir), as refugees are often called, but on the other hand it becomes clear that there is an expiration date to this hospitality. In public debates it is increasingly said that it is time for Syrians to return to their own country. Syrians in Turkey have no legal status as refugees, but are under ‘temporary protection’. This uncertain situation contributes to the difficult integration and the many problems that Syrians experience in their living circumstances in Turkey. The proliferation of discrimination, abuse and unequal treatment result in exploitation and limited access to social services for Syrians. Only 10% of the Syrians in Turkey live in refugee camps, especially alongside the Syrian-Turkish borders. The majority have to make a living for themselves in urban areas throughout Turkey. Syrians generally do not receive an official residence permit, but only get an identity card (kimlik), which determines which area they are allowed to live in. There is almost no support from the Turkish state to integrate and learn the language. Intolerance to Syrian refugees has increased dramatically, especially since the Turkish economy is deteriorating. Syrians are accused of taking the jobs of Turks, because they work for lower wages. However, it is almost impossible for Syrians to obtain a working permit, which makes it unavoidable to take on illegal, dangerous and low-paid jobs. Moreover, 45% of the Syrian children in Turkey are not going to school. Instead, many minors are made to work to supplement the family income. It is also very hard to find affordable housing. Syrians get asked to pay higher rent prices, leading many to live in bad circumstances. There is a continuous risk for evictions and abuse of the precarious position of refugees, who are barely protected by the law. There are even rumours of forced deportations to Syria, as has been reported by human rights organisations.

No safe country for refugees

The protection of refugees in Turkey needs much improvement. The Turkey-EU deal included a plan for financial aid to the Turkish government, but it is unclear where this money has gone. On paper, Turkey is regarded as a safe country for refugees, which is used as an argument to legitimise the forced deportations of so-called ‘illegal migrants’ from the European Union to Turkey. The practice shows, however, that refugees in Turkey are far from safe. There is little political willpower in European countries to change anything about this situation. Hosting refugees ‘in the region’ is seen as an ideal, but something needs to be done to actually support this reception and improve the situation of the millions of refugees in Turkey.


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