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Turkey is doing the dirty work of Europe’s immigration control

The EU mini-summit held in Brussels on the November 29 agreed a deal to keep more refugees in Turkey and out of the EU. What does this mean for those already in Turkey, now excluded from the EU's protection?

Migration Management Removal Centre in Kumkapı, Istanbul. Photo supplied by author.The summit in November was organised, at Turkey’s insistence, to encourage closer cooperation between the EU and Turkey, to control migration westwards and to ‘re-energise’ the process towards Turkey’s accession to the EU.

The EU and Turkey agreed three main points: to prevent refugees leaving Turkey for the EU; to operate ‘bilateral readmission provisions’, i.e. accept migrants expelled from the EU and to send migrants deemed not in need of international protection ‘swiftly’ back to countries of origin.

For these services Turkey will receive an additional €3 billion of European aid and the promise of reduced visa restrictions. Announcing the deal, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu unsurprisingly ignored the punitive elements of the agreement and humbly stated that payment was not for Turkey but to improve the living standards of Syrians living in Turkey’s refugee camps.

Turkey takes a singular approach to refugee protection and despite being one of the early adopters of the 1951 Geneva Convention it has never removed the so-called ‘geographical limitation’ lifted by most signatories through the Bellagio Protocol of 1967. 

This means that Turkey only grants full refugee status to claimants seeking asylum from European countries effectively denying international protection to the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and the many others from Africa and Asia now seeking safety in Turkey. Turkish asylum law is changing - but slowly - and the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (Yabancılar ve Uluslararası Koruma Kanunu) implemented in April 2014, allows some refugees to claim a temporary form of protection short of full international recognition as Convention refugees.

The Law creates three categories of people deserving of protection: refugees (seeking asylum from European countries), conditional refugees (to be resettled in a third country), and individuals under subsidiary protection.

Thus vanishingly few people can qualify as refugees and while many of Turkey’s estimated 1.9 million ‘people of concern’ may become eligible for resettlement in third countries, the pressure on these programmes means that few will be accepted. Through the third category, temporary or subsidiary protection, Turkey acknowledges the threats many face in their countries of origin and the Directorate General of Migration Management (Göç İdaresi Genel Müdürlüğü), supported by the UNHCR, grants temporary protection to Syrians and others from certain refugee producing countries.

We argue, however, that in practice this ‘protection’ falls far short of international best practice and that the protection they are offered fails to either keep them safe or allow them to rebuild their lives in exile. Our research with migrants granted temporary protection shows how the restrictions and limitations of Turkey’s refugee regime makes normal life impossible and forces migrants to work illegally just to support themselves.

Temporary protection does not grant refugees permission to work and to qualify for temporary protection, all refugees must live in ‘satellite towns’ outside the main, cosmopolitan cities such as Istanbul. They must submit to controls and conditions and report once a week to the satellite cities they are allocated to. They do not receive any state support for accommodation or daily expenses so, without independent means, refugees are pushed towards living and working illegally. 

Detainees can be seen at the windows of the Kumkapı removal centre. Photo supplied by author.The situation of refugees granted temporary protection shows the contradictions and inadequacies of the Turkish system. Applicants must find the resources to travel to the UNHCR Ankara Office and stay in the city while their case is processed, but if awarded temporary protection, they must stay in their satellite town without any support beyond a bus ticket – if they are lucky.

Unable to find work and accommodation, many travel instead to Istanbul as much as 10-16 hours away their official hometown. Last month a Ugandan woman, Sandra (28), was sent to Konya city to register and settle as a refugee after being detained in a southern city for 7 months. She travelled from Istanbul to Konya for 11 hours. She spent 250 TRL (£57) on travel but was refused documents as she needed proof of address to register.

She had nowhere to stay, nor did she know anyone in Konya but unless she does register in 15 days, her application will be cancelled. Sandra’s story shows how moving away means that not only are they risking "illegal" work but also risking fines and the loss of their temporary protection status if they fail to report weekly, or every two weeks to the Police in the satellite cities.

Many women refugees in Istanbul have multiple vulnerabilities. Accepted as refugees by the UNHCR, they have escaped persecution and survived violence in their countries of origin. Their lack of a work permit or any State support, forces them into dangerous and demeaning forms of unregulated/unsecure work and the restrictions their status imposes on them undermines their capacity to support themselves.

The UNHCR in Turkey holds substantial numbers of ‘closed’ files which have been abandoned by refugees who cannot meet the State’s conditions. Some women do not even try to seek asylum as they do not trust a system that fails to offer real protection. Coskun’s research (2015 Kim kaçak, kim mülteci? [Who is illegal who is refugee?]. Müdahil Dergi. Vol.1.) with Ugandan women refugees shows how it is only when they are detained that women apply for asylum – or attempt to reopen files that have been closed. Temporary Protection grants few privileges but at least it stands between refugees and forced return to the countries they have fled from and detention as a precursor to forced return is exactly what the new EU agreement aims to promote.

Turkey is in the process of expanding its immigration detention estate and migrants and unregistered refugees know that if they are detained and found to be living illegally in the country they face deportation. Temporary protection then, for all its faults, is worth having.

New immigration detention centres, with the capacity for thousands, are being built in Turkey supported by EU aid and from 2014-15 new centres with capacity for thousands have been built in Erzurum, Gaziantep, Van, Kayseri, İzmir, and Kırklareli and refugees found to have broken the law, through petty crime, illegal working as well a serious offences are being deported will little chance for appeal or concern for the dangers they may face in countries of origin.

The detention centre in Istanbul - the so-called Foreigners Guest House in Kumkapı - holds refugees and migrants and can release or deport them with little warning. Women, including women who may have been forced into prostitution or even been trafficked, are held on the third floor and the detainees can be seen at the windows. Friends call up to the detainees from the road as visits are not permitted.

In December 2015 men detained in the Guest House set fire to bedding in protest at their conditions and their indefinite detention. The fire resulted in some releases including women held for 'illegal' working and prostitution but as they are obliged to continue working in the neighbourhood of the Removal Centre they may be picked up again at any time.  

No-one died in the December fire but in January 2016 Dilo Derviş, a 20 year old refugee from Rojova, a Kurdish part of Syria, was found dead in his cell in Erzurum Aşkale Removal Centre. The police announced that he killed himself but his family are challenging the official statement and will seek justice.

This news came just after a press announcement, signed by eleven NGOs, raising concerns about human rights violations in the Erzurum Aşkale Removal Centre. Their statement emphasised that refugees cannot access legal representation in the Centre nor communicate with friends, family or advocates. News of thedeportation of Syrians, by tricking them into agreeing to voluntary return, have been circulating since November.  

Turkey’s detention estate is growing apace but lacks judicial oversight, independent inspection regimes or space for civil society organisations to monitor what goes on inside. It maybe unreasonable to expect the Turkish state to put such safeguards in place when they are lacking across the criminal justice system as a whole but in the case of the detention and deportation of refugees, injustice is supported financially and practically by EU money and by European states who are happy to let Turkey do the migration dirty work on their behalf.

The agreement with the EU will not improve the situation of Syrian or non-Syrian refugees, rather it will restrict their options for self-determination and make search for safety all the harder. Declaring Turkey a safe place for refugees increases the likelihood of those who do make it to the EU being returned to their already illegalised lives in Turkey and thence perhaps to the countries they have fled from. Protecting refugees on even a temporary basis must include providing them with livelihoods either through state support or through allowing them to work. Genuine humanitarian protection must include education and health care for all according to need not nationality.

In Turkey, Syrian refugees outnumber all other refugees combined and international support to protect them is clearly needed. But Syrians are not the only refugees in Turkey. Turkey is a transit zone where East meets West and where refugees from the world’s danger spots mix with migrants from the former Soviet states and elsewhere seeking to raise their standards of living.

By using Turkey as purely a convenient bulwark against a unwanted refugees, the EU is cynically playing into the Turkish governments internal politics which keep migrants disenfranchised and controlled. As elsewhere, migrants in Turkey are useful as vulnerable scapegoats who provide the state with a cheap work force but who have no call on state resources. The EU’s policy in relation to Turkey is short-sighted and cynical and surely motivated more by a desire to find an ally to hold back the human product of global insecurity than by finding a humanitarian solution to human needs.

About the author

Dr Lucy Williams is a freelance researcher and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Kent. She has been involved in community work and research with refugees and asylum seekers since 1998. Her current focus is on detention, destitution and deportation.


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