By Kemal Kirisci
As is well known, Turkey has for several years hosted large numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. According to the latest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Global Trends report—released earlier this week—Turkey continued to host the most Syrian refugees in the world: 2.9 million at the end of 2016. That number is staggering, especially when compared to the 2.3 million refugees currently in all of Europe. This number has since edged over 3 million, according to some Turkish sources, with Istanbul alone hosting more than half a million. In the town of Kilis, on the border with Syria, Syrians outnumber the local population.
Not surprisingly, the enormous task of addressing their needs is attracting considerable local, national, and international attention. As the prospects of their return to Syria remains, by and large, slim, there is growing attention around their integration into Turkish society. Even though it has been six years since these refugees began to arrive in mass numbers, however, access to the formal labor market and housing—as well as to the national education system for the roughly one million school-aged children—remain a major challenge.
National and local efforts have emerged to address this: Although they’re inadequate on their own, there is a growing degree of burden sharing at the international level (through the U.N. Refugee and Resilience Program, bilateral governmental agreements, several international NGO projects, as well as the 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal). Unfortunately, the Turkish leadership—complaining in recent months that the international community has not been doing enough—has at the same time been banning experienced international NGOs from continuing their work in support of displaced Syrians. This is an unfortunate development that neither serves the interests of refugees nor the spirit of burden sharing.
Some of These Are Not Like the Others
In the meantime, there is a big story that risks being overlooked, and it’s about non-Syrians: In 2016, Turkey was the fourth-largest recipient of individual asylum seekers—following Germany, the United States, and Italy—receiving 78,000 asylum applications. (According to UNHCR, the number peaked at 133,000 in 2015.) Turkey’s asylum system underwent some systematic reforms in 2013, but they were based on the country’s experience prior to 2011, when the average was 6,000-7,000 asylum applications per year. Since 2011, Turkey has received a total of 387,020 individual asylum applications (according to UNHCR statistics) from mostly Afghan, Iraqi, and Iranian nationals (compare that to the 77,000 asylum applications it received between 1995 and 2010, according to Turkish statistics).
These skyrocketing numbers have put serious strains on Turkey’s relatively new asylum system. The system is getting clogged fast, as it takes several years for the authorities to determine whether an applicant can receive refugee status. After that, there is another, long waiting period before the refugees are resettled by UNHCR.
Turkey was among the drafters of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, and accepted it with a geographical limitation: Turkey’s government expected asylum seekers, once recognized as refugees, to be resettled outside of Turkey. According to Turkish government statistics, out of nearly 39,000 asylum-seekers that eventually received a refugee status between 1995 and 2010, nearly all were resettled outside Turkey, and overwhelmingly to Canada and the United States.
However, the rate of resettlement from Turkey has decreased significantly in recent years, given the massive increase in the number of asylum seekers and refugees coming into the country. Since 2011, the UNHCR has put forward almost 88,000 submissions, out of which just under 50,000 were realized, including close to 10,000 Syrians. These figures are not very promising in terms of addressing the resettlement needs, given the ever-growing number of asylum applications. The decision by the new U.S. administration to impose a ban on refugee resettlement and suspend the resettlement program for Syrian refugees will bring an added strain to the system and draw out waiting times.
Pressure and Desperation
Because the system is clogged—both by increasing numbers of non-Syrian asylum seekers and Syrian refugees—tension is building. This poses challenges to municipalities and leads asylum seekers to make risky decisions.
The Turkish government assigns asylum seekers and those awaiting resettlement to “satellite cities” across the country, away from major metropolitan areas. In these cities, employment possibilities are extremely limited, access to decent and affordable housing is often a challenge, and some of the cities are notoriously conservative, especially for single women and LGBT people. Although asylum seekers and refugees enjoy access to public services such as health and schooling for their children, language often constitutes an invisible barrier that complicates an already difficult life.
Faced with these challenges, and not knowing when their waiting will finally be over, some asylum seekers succumb to the temptation to leave their assigned city and move to Istanbul or other larger cities. This, however, puts them in conflict with the authorities and undermines their access to public services. There are also those who seek the services of human smugglers in an effort to make it to Europe. Younger asylum seekers and refugees also run the risk of falling prey to criminal networks and extremist recruitment networks.
What Can Be Done?
It’s in everyone’s interests—the United States, Turkey, the international community, and the refugees and asylum seekers themselves—to do everything possible to ensure that non-Syrian asylum seekers are treated fairly and receive the protection and assistance they deserve. This has been widely recognized in the case of Syrian refugees, but attention must also be paid to non-Syrians, who often don’t feature as prominently in international discussions.
Protecting refugees is an important pillar of the rules-based international order, and includes the principle of burden sharing. It will be important for the Trump administration to reconsider its position on the resettlement of refugees and consider engaging Turkey in a constructive dialogue. This would also serve U.S. security interests by making sure that refugees are well-vetted and that irregular migration is discouraged.
Turkish leaders should double down on their effort to adopt a more constructive and diplomatic approach to dialoguing with their counterparts in the international community, in order to improve the situation of both Syrian and non-Syrian asylum seekers. Finding common solutions would be beneficial to all. Furthermore, the Turkish government should explore ways of assisting and strengthening the capacity of local authorities and civil society to address some of the challenges that non-Syrian asylum seekers and refugees encounter in Turkey. Lastly, it may be high time for Turkey to consider relaxing the application of the geographical limitation to the Geneva Convention by allowing for at least some refugees to stay on in Turkey, especially on humanitarian and other grounds.