Cablegate: No Easy Way Out for Many Asylum Seekers in Turkey

Published: Wed 6 Aug 2008 09:06 AM
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1. Summary: In meetings with asylum seekers and
Istanbul-based refugee officials, we confirmed the GOT does
not recognize "political migrants" from non-European
countries as "refugees" under the Geneva Convention on
Refugee Status. Rather, it assigns them temporary "asylum
seeker" status, denying them the option of permanent
integration into Turkey. While non-European migrants
typically arrive in Turkey intending to continue on (legally
or illegally) to other countries, Turkey's requirements for
obtaining and maintaining legal asylum seeker status can
delay migrants indefinitely in Turkey, encouraging illegal
passage instead. End Summary.
GOT's Political Migrant Policy
2. UNHCR representative Eduardo Yrezebel told us, pursuant to
a 1951 General Assembly decision, a UN Conference of
Plenipotentiaries drafted a convention regulating the legal
status of refugees, defined in the Convention as persons
seeking to emigrate from their home countries for fear of
persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political
opinion or social group membership. The resulting 1951
Geneva Convention on Refugee Status, as well as its 1967
Protocol, charges its signatories to protect refugees and
mandates UNCHR with the task of supervising the Convention
and other international conventions providing for the
protection of refugees, Yrezebel explained. While UNHCR makes
its own determination as to an applicant's entitlement to
refugee status, and may file complaints with the European
Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for violations of the
Convention, signatories have the final say as to whether they
will accept an applicant as a refugee.
3. According to International Catholic Migration Commission
(ICMC) officers Bora Ozbek and Damir Thaqi, the ICMC is the
State Department's overseas processing entity handling cases
in Turkey and the Middle East and South Asia regions after
UNCHR makes its refugee status determination (RSD).
Signatories to the Convention can agree to one of three
options for the processing of UNHCR-recognized refugees:
resettlement to resettlement countries; integration into the
local population; or voluntary repatriation. Ozbek and Thaqi
explained that when signing the Convention in 1951, Turkey
acceded to an optional geographic limitation provided for in
Article 1B.
4. Yrezebal told us Turkish and UNHCR refugee processing
personnel utilize three terms to describe persons potentially
covered by the Convention. "Political migrant" describes any
individual present in Turkey (legally or illegally) seeking
protection under the Convention. If UNHCR determines the
individual is entitled to protection, the person is a
"refugee," whatever the home country might be. The GOT, by
contrast, reserves the term "refugee" for political migrants
from European countries who are legally present in Turkey and
thus entitled to resettlement in Turkey. GOT refers to
qualifying non-European political migrants as "asylum
5. If asylum status is not granted, the migrant is detained
until deported, Ozbek said. If asylum status is granted, GOT
allows the migrant to remain in Turkey (seemingly
indefinitely, although Turkish law is unclear) until what
Ozbek terms a "durable solution" is found -- resettlement to
a third country or voluntary repatriation. Since few
countries will resettle Asian and African asylum seekers
located in Turkey, they must remain in Turkey for an extended
time, with few options available. The "Turkish National
Action Plan for Adoption of the EU Acquis in the Field of
Asylum and Migration" foresees local integration once the
geographical limitation to the 1951 Convention is lifted,
Ozbek said, noting the GOT intends to lift the limitation by
2012 in order to receive assistance from the European
Commission for asylum seeker assistance projects. Until
then, a great incentive to pass illegally through Turkey to
the West remains. Tragedies like boating mishaps off the
Turkish coast and the July 30 suffocation
deaths of 13 migrants transiting Turkey result from the
prohibitive process for attaining and maintaining legal
status in Turkey, Ozbek stated.
6. The 1951 Convention and Turkey's 1994 Asylum Regulation
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include a non-refoulement agreement for European refugees and
non-European asylum seekers (REF) to prevent the deportation
of migrants to their country of origin -- or other countries
-- prior to the completion of UNHCR's refugee status
determination (RSD) procedure, Yrezebal told us.
Nonetheless, UNHCR had 21 cases of refoulement from Turkey in
2007, including the refoulement of one Iraqi and seventeen
Iranian asylum-seekers to Iraq, and two Iranians and one
Afghan to their countries of origin. In two separate cases he
notes that UNHCR filed complaints with the ECHR because the
GOT prevented Iranian refugees from leaving Turkey for third
countries where they had been accepted for resettlement. The
Ministry of Interior granted exit visas on learning
complaints had been filed. Ozbek contends that refoulement
now occurs rarely and is "less systematic" than when he first
began working with the issue in 2000.
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UNHCR Judgments Ignored and Access Limited
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7. Ozbek explained that the Department of Foreigners,
Borders, and Asylum of the Ministry of Interior's General
Directorate for Security registers asylum-seekers. In the
past, the Department typically relied on RSD made by UNHCR to
determine Turkish asylum seeker status. However, both
Yrezebal and Ozbek report that since 2007 the Department has
started to adjudicate cases with less reference to the UNHCR
adjudication, and sometimes in a manner contrary to the UNHCR
determination in cases where the applicants are considered a
threat to the GOT.
8. In addition to interviewing and registering political
migrants after they have been accepted into the Turkish
asylum process, Yrezebal explained that UNHCR also attempts
to monitor applicants' initial access to the asylum process
at land borders or airports, to liaise with the Ministry of
Interior, and to provide limited social service and monetary
assistance to political migrants. UNCHR reports that
authorities hinder UNHCR efforts to monitor the asylum
process by denying UNHCR access to asylum applicants who
appear at legal entry points.
Obstacles Faced By Asylum Seekers
9. Ozbek and Thaqi noted that asylum seekers must first
register with the Foreigners' Police upon arrival, but often
mistakenly go to UNHCR first, where they are then directed
back to the police and then to the Department. The Department
assigns all asylum seekers to one of 30 "satellite cities"
scattered across Anatolia (no asylum seekers are assigned to
Istanbul or Ankara). An asylum seeker wishing to depart
Turkey (either to resettle or to repatriate) must remain in
the assigned satellite city, report weekly or sometimes daily
(depending on the city-specific police strictures) to the
Foreigner's Police, and pay a semiannual resident permit fee
of $296, according to Yrezebal. Internal Department confusion
often results in a much higher fee, however, and
interlocutors at the Interior Ministry reportedly do not know
the actual rate. The fee is beyond the means of many, since
they are not permitted to work; asylum seekers who do not pay
the fee are denied exit permits when they try to leave Turkey
for their r
esettlement destinations. The fee can be waived for
"humanitarian reasons" under Turkish law; however, in
practice the waiver cannot be applied because the Ministry of
Finance's computer system does not include this option.
Yrezebal related that without valid permits, asylum seekers
also cannot obtain access to State social services, medical
services, or schools, and risk being detained as illegal
migrants if they are caught.
10. Because the government provides no housing and does not
issue work permits to asylum seekers, Ozbek and Thaqi
stressed they often move away from their assigned locations -
usually to Istanbul -- in search of work. Although employed
foreigners with a six month residence permit can apply
through their employer to the Ministry of Labor for a work
permit, Yrezebal, Ozbek, and Thaqi are not aware of many
refugees who have managed to do so. Ozbek and Thaqi described
situations in which families of five were required to pay
more than $15,000 to depart because they had illegally moved
from their satellite city to Istanbul in search of work
several years before a durable solution was found. Over the
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last three years, the waiting time for Iraqis has shortened
significantly to less than a year, Ozbek noted. Seeing "a
clear light at the end of the tunnel," Ozbek said fewer Iraqi
families are leaving their satellite cities.
11. Foreigners who claim asylum only after being detained by
the security forces when trying to leave Turkey are housed in
a "Foreigners' Guesthouse," Yrezebel commented. Guesthouses
are in fact detention facilities with cement walls and
floors. Yrezebal related complaints pertaining to shortage of
food, medical attention, and crowded conditions. He
explained that the Ministry of Interior does not always
release a Guesthouse detainee, even when recognized by UNHCR
as a refugee, and the Ministry does not always grant UNHCR
access to asylum seekers.
Sri Lankan Migrants at Christ Church Hostel
12. We also met with three of six Sri Lankan asylum seekers
between the ages of 20 and 35 living in Christ Church Hostel
(CCH), the former crypt of Christ Anglican Church in
Istanbul. Rector Ian Sherwood estimates over 1000 migrants of
various non-European nationalities have come through CCH
since he arrived in 1991. They do not pay rent but
contribute to the Church's upkeep. An additional three Sri
Lankan families with children share apartments in the
vicinity of the church while they wait for their UNHCR and
GOT marching orders, which in one case has taken over six
years. The Sri Lankans complain that the police have
threatened them with detention and ill treatment and are not
at all sensitive to their plight.
13. Two of the Sri Lankans we met with are 23-year-old
cousins who grew up in a family of Christian Tamil seamen. In
2007, both decided to emigrate (illegally) to Italy via
Turkey because they had heard that Turkey was one of the
easiest entry points into the European Union. After obtaining
Turkish visas in Malaysia (supposedly, an easier process than
using the Turkish embassy in Sri Lanka), they arrived in
Turkey in November 2007, declaring themselves asylum seekers,
registering with UNHCR, and moving to their assigned
satellite city of Gaziantep. After nine days in Gaziantep,
they moved to Istanbul to find work and seek free housing at
the hostel. UNHCR has scheduled interviews for them in
Ankara on November 28, but they do not plan to remain in
Turkey much longer, having learned that the (illegal) migrant
boat ride to Italy is both dangerous and expensive (over
$5000 per person). While they plan to return to Sri Lanka
soon, they fear they will be unable to pay the expensive exit
fee incurred for living ou
tside of their satellite city.
14. We also spoke with a 20-year old Hindu Tamil living in
CCH for over two years after arriving from Bangkok, another
easy location for obtaining a visa. He told us he had a UNHCR
interview scheduled for July 1 in Ankara, but was informed
only days beforehand that UNHCR had no Tamil interpreter
available and that his interview would be postponed to an
undetermined date. "All I can do is wait and waste my life
without a job here in Turkey," he lamented
15. Comment: While Turkey's concern that offering greater
benefits to asylum seekers will increase the flow of migrants
into an already taxed economy is understandable, the
requirements for remaining in and departing Turkey legally
appear counterproductive. Easing those requirements to meet
EU standards could make legal departure a reasonable option
for impoverished political migrants. End Comment.
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