Turkey, the EU and Syria: reprioritising refugees’ rights and needs

Turkey, historically a laggard on taking in refugees, is showing the EU in a poor light on accepting Syrian asylum-seekers.

Juliette Tolay
18 February 2014

Last year was important for asylum in Turkey and the EU. Turkey passed a Law on Foreigners and International Protection, while the European Parliament finally endorsed the Common European Asylum System. These processes happened to conclude while a massive humanitarian drama unfolded in Syria and the region. Inevitably, refugees will see some doors opening and some closing. As these new policies are put in place, the authorities should not fall into the trap of focusing on the immediate security concerns raised by the refugee crisis but instead understand the value of a long-term asylum policy based on humanitarian considerations.

Turkey might be on the right path. It has been praised for a law which should substantially upgrade the protection it offers to refugees and for the welcome it has extended since June 2011 to more than 600,000 Syrian refugees. The EU, on the other hand, has faced criticism over the slow pace of standardising asylum policies across member states, the inadequacy of protection in the new system and the response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

This is surprising, given that Turkey has long been seen as having a relatively poor asylum policy, in comparison with the higher standards of the EU (as repeatedly highlighted in the yearly progress report issued by the European Commission). Turkey has had scope to catch up on European standards, while the EU’s complex institutional arrangements have retarded progress. Beyond that, however, Turkey is turning towards a more humanitarian approach, while the EU is paralysed by the security approach privileged by member states.

Striking contrast

The contrast is even more striking in the policies implemented towards Syrian refugees, of whom the United Nations high commissioner for refugees recorded 2.3 million as of mid-December 2013. More than 600,000 have found refuge in Turkey, while only 55,000 have gone to Europe. The EU response so far has been mainly financial, with over €1.6 billion delivered to Syrians in need inside and outside the country, with resettlement disappointingly low. At the same time, several member states, such as Greece, have reinforced border controls, effectively depriving Syrian refugees from access to the European asylum system.

In contrast to the EU’s de facto closure to many Syrian refugees, Turkey has taken in those seeking refuge at its southern border. In October 2011, Turkey extended “temporary protection” to Syrians, in practice granting them facilitated access to Turkish territory, as well as guarantees against “refoulement” (even if smuggled into the country) and access to basic humanitarian services—including, since January 2013, healthcare. Even if a lot more could be done to accommodate the refugees’ needs, the international community has praised the Turkish authorities for the financial and human resources invested.

So Turkey has demonstrated that, even facing massive inflows, it is possible to uphold a humanitarian approach and enact policies that prioritise the needs of refugees, rather than treat them as a threat to state security. This is not easy, and there are some dark spots in Turkey’s practices, but it illustrates how a change of mindset can be translated into different practices.

New perspective

This experience should prompt EU members to adopt a new perspective on asylum that could assist the EU as a whole to be more efficient and protective—which, in turn, could aid Turkey in providing more effectively for refugees. EU members should overcome their division between protective states isolated from major inflows and restrictive states addressing the immediate consequences of large numbers of refugees. Europe’s capability could be greatly improved by better distributing asylum applications among member states (suspending some provisions of the Dublin III regulation) and granting “temporary protection” to Syrian refugees (committing to give rights on EU territory until a political solution is found, as envisioned in the 2001 directive). The EU could also improve the design of assistance in the region to deliver on promises and be more inclusive and focused on medium- and long-term solutions for refugees.

More co-operation with and investment in Turkey’s capabilities could also be a great lever for the EU, as Turkey has more potential to receive refugees in the medium-term than other neighbouring countries. This could also create the basis for EU-Turkey co-operation on matters of asylum beyond Syria, where a reliable partnership would benefit both parties—as well as refugees.

All this would favour a more protective, rather than merely more orderly, system of asylum.

A longer version of this article has appeared in the Global Turkey in Europe series in the context of the Istituto Affari Internazionali-Istanbul Policy Center-Mercator Foundation project "Turkey, Europe and the World".

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