Turkey and refugee rights: the missing link

Europe's deal with Turkey to solve its refugee crisis has little regard for the status of families like those of Hassan Ayo, a human rights activist from the Syrian border town of Ras-al-Ain, near Kobani.

Heaven Crawley
16 December 2015

Sozdar. Credit: With permission from the family.On 29 November 2015, the European Union announced that a deal had finally been done to give Turkey €3 billion (£2.1 billion) and political concessions to solve Europe’s refugee problem by clamping down on its borders and preventing people leaving the country. In the usual protocol. the two leaders - the presidential host, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the visiting chancellor, Germany's Angela Merkel - posed for formal photographs.

But within hours, and away from the cameras, the Turkish authorities had rounded up some 1,300 Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees who had been waiting in the countryside near Ayvacık, a Turkish town just a few kilometers across the Aegean Sea from Greece, for an opportunity to take a small flimsy dinghy to Lesvos in search of protection and a better life.

The right to claim asylum is enshrined in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Yet Amnesty International has documented a number of recent cases of refugees being forcibly returned to Syria and Iraq after being intercepted by Turkish border-guards while trying to reach the EU. The Ayvacık incident is part of this pattern.

Two days later I shared a train journey to London with Hassan Ayo, a Syrian human-rights activist who arrived in Coventry with his family earlier this year as part of the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement (VPR) programme. Hassan and family were resettled from Turkey following the death of his 14-year-old daughter Sozdar, who died when she was unable to get access to the heart treatment that could have saved her.

His story raises serious questions about the assumptions upon which Europe’s response to the refugee crisis is based and whether the deal with Turkey will even work.

In search of protection


Sozdar. Credit: With permission from the family.When Hassan Ayo, his wife Fatma and three children left their home in the small northern Syrian border town of Ras-al-Ain near Kobani in December 2012 they had no idea what lay ahead of them.

Kobani first hit the headlines in September 2014 when it was overrun by Islamic State (ISIS) militants, forcing almost all of its civilians to flee across the border into Turkey. A year later the town was again a focus of media attention when Abdullah Kurdi returned to the ruins of the city to bury his son Aylan whose body, washed up on a Turkish beach days earlier,had  finally forced the world to take notice of what was going on.

But the destruction of Kobani and the other border towns, including Ras-Al-Ain, is part of the much longer story of conflict in Syria which began with anti-government protests in March 2011 and has subsequently escalated into a full-scale war involving a myriad of different groups and a growing number of international forces.  By July 2012, there was fighting between different factions in Ras-Al-Ain including the Free Syrian Army and People's Defence Units, and the town was repeatedly subjected to airstrikes by Bashar al-Assad's regime. For Hassan and his family the situation became intolerable. They had no option but to join the thousands of people crossing the border into Turkey looking for safety and a better life.


Over the last few months many voices in the media and among the public have asked why refugees from Syria don’t stay in Turkey rather than making the difficult and dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea, where nearly 700 men, women and children have drowned during 2015. If these were "genuine" refugees in need of protection rather than people seeking economic betterment, surely they would make a new life for themselves and their families in Turkey rather than paying smugglers thousands of dollars for a journey that might also cost them their lives?

The truth is that Turkey does not offer those fleeing conflict and human-rights abuse a future for themselves and their children.


Because Turkey has maintained a geographical limitation on the refugee convention of 1951 which means that refugees from outside Europe are not entitled to full protection under international refugee law and have limited rights of access to employment, education and healthcare. They are there as "guests", granted "temporary protection", exploited by the labour market, and often living in terrible conditions.

And there is nothing in the new deal that changes that.

The life of a refugee in Turkey

The scale of displacement in the region, and the wholly inadequate political and humanitarian response to the crisis by the countries of Europe, makes it somewhat uncomfortable to be critical of Turkey’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

In 2014, the country was host to the largest number of refugees in the world, some 1.6 million. Since then the numbers have increased still further. There are currently estimated to be around 2.2 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey but this figure only includes those Syrians who came to Turkey legally. As of September 2015, Turkey had spent nearly $8 billion of its budget on providing support and assistance for Syrian refugees. Europe by contrast has received around 1 million refugees since the beginning of 2015, the vast majority of whom have been hosted by Germany.

But despite the Turkish authorities' efforts to deal with the crisis, conditions for Syrian refugees living in Turkey are dire. And this stems in no small part from the fact that Syrians are not granted rights consistent with international obligations under the 1951 convention.

A report published by Amnesty International in 2014, entitled Struggling to Survive: Refugees from Syria in Turkey, found that the vast majority of Syrian refugees have to fend for themselves because the government-run camps, which provide at least basic services, are operating at full capacity. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are destitute or living on the edges of destitution, with inadequate access to housing, education and healthcare. The Turkish government has refused to issue work permits to Syrian refugees due to concerns about the impact on Turkish workers in a country with a stubborn unemployment rate of almost 10% and a slowing economy. Syrians do work of course, they have no other choice, but they are routinely exploited and often not paid at all.

The situation regarding access to education is no better. Prior to the conflict, the primary-school enrolment rate in Syria was 99% and lower secondary school enrolment was 82%, with high gender parity. Today, an estimated 400,000 Syrian children living in Turkey are not in school.

Without access to employment and education, and with no prospect of an end to the war in Syria, many refugees see no future in Turkey.

Too little, too late


Sozdar and Hassan. Credit: With permission from the family.When they arrived in Turkey, Hassan and his family registered as refugees and rented a flat in the city of Şanlıurfa (Urfa) just over the border from Syria. Like many Syrian refugees living in Turkey, life was very tough. But it was the lack of access to healthcare that destroyed their already broken lives.

Although Turkey has granted all registered refugees from Syria the right to free healthcare, research has found that Syrians who live outside of camps experience serious difficulties accessing hospitals and health services. And whilst refugees are entitled to free consultation and free hospitalisation at public hospitals across the country, they are not covered for chronic diseases or illnesses requiring continuous treatment.

Soon after Hassan’s son Zaradasht was diagnosed with diabetes, his daughter Sozdar fell ill. Sozdar underwent a successful operation for appendicitis but was subsequently diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Doctors informed the family that she would not survive without a transplant, a treatment to which she was not entitled. They fitted her with a pacemaker but warned that the procedure would only last six months. Sozdar would then need to go abroad for treatment.

Refugees from Syria are fortunate in many ways. Those from other countries face even greater difficulties in accessing protection and securing a livelihood in Turkey. Yezidi refugees fleeing ISIS in Iraq have been asked to wait for more than five years just to register as asylum-seekers in Turkey. And there are also increasing opportunities for Syrian refugees to be resettled elsewhere. Non-Syrians find themselves at the back of the resettlement queue.

Hassan was one of the lucky ones. His application to the United Nations for the family to be resettled because of his daughter’s urgent medical condition was accepted.

But there the luck ran out.

The process took six months to complete. Hassan tried desperately to speed up the process but no one, it seemed, was in a hurry. By the time the British embassy contacted the hospital to ask whether Sozdar was ready to travel, it was already too late.

She died two days later.

Refugee rights in Turkey: the quid pro quo?


Sozdar's grave. Credit: With permission from the family.In the absence of a political solution to the crisis in Europe, there can be little doubt that the deal with Turkey was motivated by a desperate desire on the part of its leaders to slow the flow of refugees arriving on the shores of the EU.

For the moment at least Turkey appears to be the clear winner.

In return for preventing travel to the EU, applying established bilateral readmission provisions and swiftly returning "irregular migrants" to their countries of origin, Turkey will be given an additional €3 billion to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrians granted temporary protection. But this deal is not just about money. It’s also about political power and free movement in Europe.

Erdogan was able to secure both.

Europe’s leaders have agreed to re-energise Turkey's accession process to the European Union. And visa requirements will be lifted for Turkish citizens travelling in the Schengen zone by October 2016.

Given that the provision of rights, more than any other factor, is likely to reduce the desire of refugees to make the hazardous journey to Europe, it might be concluded that the lifting of Turkey’s geographical limitation on the 1951 refugee convention would be an obvious quid pro quo.

Apparently not.

During the course of our research into the Mediterranean migration crisis (funded by the ESRC and DfID), my colleagues and I have interviewed nearly 450 refugees, together with more than 100 stakeholders across four countries – Italy, Greece, Malta and Turkey.

It is clear from discussions with Syrian refugees in both Turkey and Greece that their onward journeys into Europe are motivated, in significant part, by a lack of opportunities for protection and a new life in Turkey. But I have yet to speak to a single policymaker or politician who has mentioned this issue. Nor have European leaders called for Turkey to remove the geographical restriction.

Refugee rights, it seems, are simply not on Europe’s agenda.

Hope for the future

So where does the deal with Turkey leave European refugee policy?

Like everything else that has happened over the course of 2015, it’s difficult to know what will happen next.

Although the number of refugees arriving in the Greek islands is lower in the period before the deal was done, the flows continue. During the first two weeks of December around 45,000 refugees crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece. The figure for the same period last year was just 2,000. This is despite of the deal with Turkey, the onset of winter and the closure of the Macedonian border to all but Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis.


Turkish accession to the EU – if and when it takes place - will at least bring with it a requirement to remove the restrictions on access to status and resources for refugees. In the meantime the EU should be looking at ways in which it can offer safe and legal routes to refugees to reach Europe. The deal fails to offer any substantive assurances on boosting resettlement places for the neediest refugees in Turkey. Delays in the process can be fatal.

And what of the Ayo family?

Shortly after the death of Sozdar, Hassan’s wife Fatma was diagnosed with cancer. The family was resettled to Coventry in February 2015 where Fatma is currently undergoing treatment. For Hassan it is time to rebuild a life, to pick up the pieces of a shattered past with the remaining members of his family and tell his story in the hope that others do not suffer the same fate. The journey has been full of difficulties, contradiction and tragedies but he is happy to be in the UK and remains hopeful for the future. This hope – and his memories of Sozdar – are what keep him going.

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