Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Syrian asylum seekers who have been sold out

Taner Kılıç
Association of Solidarity with Refugees

Finally, this, too, has happened; a black page has been annexed to the history of Turkey.
As reported by the mass media, Col. Hussein Mustafa Harmush and Cpt. Mustafa Kassum, who escaped from Syria to Turkey to seek refuge and were subsequently stationed in the camps in Hatay, were handed over to the Syrian administration by a team of mafia members and the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Hatay branch director in return for $100,000 in August 2011. The two military officers “confessed” that they were deceived on Syria’s state-run TV stations, and according to the Syrian Human Rights Union they were subsequently executed. Six months after the incident, an operation was launched into the team that handed over the asylum seekers based on intelligence provided by MİT. The suspects were apprehended -- along with the monies they received in return for the extradition -- and a warrant for their arrests was issued by the courts. Frankly, this is a humiliating situation for Turkey, whose discourse asking for sensitivity on the Syrian issue has been lauded.

People who found refuge in Turkey after the events in Syria have attracted a great deal of attention from the Turkish public and people around the world. Naturally, mass escapes from such upheavals to other countries are important and people become concerned about whether the needs of these people, including their security, have been fulfilled properly. This time, Turkey did not do what it had done to the Kurds escaping Halabja during the first Gulf crisis; it opened its doors and did not stop attempts to cross the border. Turkey set up five separate camps for refugees that offer reasonable physical conditions compared to others in the world operating under similar circumstances, although the inclement weather conditions have reduced the quality of life in these camps. In addition, state officials gave assurances to refugees that they would not be forced to go back to their countries unless they wanted to. But according to human rights organizations specializing in refugee affairs, Turkey committed two errors with respect to the people who sought refuge in Turkey: their legal status and the current state of isolation.

Defining Syrians as guests

Turkey decided to define the people who escaped violence in Syria as guests, as it did with the Chechens who escaped Russia. Despite media references to these people as asylum seekers and refugees, the administration remained insistent on its position. However, there is no such legal status in Turkish legislation; “guest” is a fabricated term. Their current situation conforms with the legislation applicable to refugees under international legal mechanisms that Turkey is also party to. It would be proper to consider temporary protection for these people without recourse to individual refugee status identification procedures, considering that they arrived en masse. Likewise, the case should be evaluated with reference to the regulations in Section 4 of the directive in Turkish law pertaining to the transactions, processes and measures applicable to refugees and asylum seekers in the case of them entering the country. But for some reason Turkey seems to have forgotten its obligations under these regulations and insists on the said definition. If this attitude is not caused by a lack of terminological knowledge, Turkey’s stance points to deliberate manipulation.

The second fundamental issue is the policy of isolation and solitude that Turkey pursued vis-à-vis the Syrian asylum seekers. Turkey banned these people from giving interviews to the international and national press and talking to all human rights and civil society organizations, including humanitarian relief groups. It is of course understandable for a country to take measures to ensure asylum seekers are not publicized in the media because of their vulnerable situation; to this end, so is taking measures to ensure that not everyone is allowed to have access to the camps even if they claim they are members of humanitarian relief organizations. This is what should be done considering that they are also facing a threat by the infamous Syrian intelligence service. But still, the complete isolation and solitude of the camps from the press and civil society organizations cannot be justified. For this, a mechanism could be set up and operated and reliable media members and representatives of civil society organizations could be allowed to have access to the camps. However, no eagerness or initiative has been observed in this respect. Instead, attention has been focused on keeping these people in isolation and solitude. The state of isolation was so severe that Neil Sammonds from Amnesty International, despite the fact that he waited around the camp for a week and that he has held talks with relevant state authorities, had to return to London empty-handed. Naturally, various rumors and allegations were made with respect to the camps that were subjected to complete isolation.

Denial of access to camps

To this end, a delegation of four parliamentarians -- from Sweden, the UK, Italy and the Netherlands -- representing the committee on migration, refuge and population of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) wanted to pay a visit to the camps during their stay in Hatay on July 26; however, they were denied access to the camps, which raised anger among the delegates. In a statement, the delegation announced their worries and concerns when they were informed that domestic civil society organizations and the UN Refugee Agency were not allowed access to the camps.

Although we have expressed our demands to visit these camps and other groups of Syrian refugees to various Turkish authorities both verbally and in writing, we have been denied permission. This official stance did not change even when we, as the Coordination for Refugee Rights (CRR), consisting of seven human rights organizations, paid a visit to the Hatay Governor’s Office in early August. None of the representatives were provided with an opportunity to enter the camps and meet with the refugees living there. The legal discussion we had with the deputy governor concerning the matter was productive due to an Ankara-centered attitude. Likewise, a delegation that visited Hatay in late August on behalf of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) faced a similar attitude, resulting in them failing to meet with the refugees or to discuss their legal statuses. The policy of isolating refugee camps is still in place and we have been unable to obtain any information about whether access to the camps is allowed.

This applies to the Turkey office of the UNHCR as far as we can see and learn. After Angelina Jolie’s visit, the UNHCR has been unable to enter these camps or conduct any monitoring or other work inside the camps. We also do not know if the UNHCR is attempting to enter these camps or conduct any work inside. Yet, it is apparent that the overall policy of isolating the camps is shared by the UNHCR as well. As far as we know, the UNHCR has not voiced any complaint or criticism concerning the official and de facto policy Turkey has adopted. On the other hand, we, as refugee rights organizations, criticize the fact that the UNHCR has suspended all individual asylum applications from Syrians until the end of the incidents in Syria and considers all such applications as falling into the category of the temporary asylum procedures which it claims are being implemented by Turkey -- but which Turkey has not confirmed -- and therefore expects such people to go to the camps in Hatay. This indefinite waiting period will certainly create problems for Syrian refugees who file individual applications.

The latest piece of news from the isolated Syrian refugee camps is important and shockingly disgraceful: The people who sought refuge in Turkey were not provided with the security they deserve, and, what’s worse, they were subsequently sold back to the countries from which they fled by a group of people that included security officials who were supposed to protect them. This naturally led to the question of whether other refugees in these camps are really safe. Given the scope of this scandal and the identities of the people involved, people justly entertain doubts that the scandal may not be restricted to this incident alone. Therefore, a comprehensive administrative and judicial investigation is needed. We, as the associations that make up the CRR, have recently sent letters to the president, prime minister, interior minister and foreign minister, explaining our concerns.

This tragic incident has indicated once again, but dramatically, that the securities enshrined by the refugee law are extremely vital and that the UNHCR and rights organizations working on refugee issues should distance themselves from this procedure. Until this most recent incident, the Foreign Ministry consistently denied claims on this matter as well as reports about Harmush, opting to denounce them as “disinformation.” Likewise, although no official statement had been made, the parliamentary Human Rights Commission’s report was leaked to the press, claiming that there are no problems with the camps. However, after the recent scandal, we have the right to be suspicious about any report that portrays a rosy picture of these camps.


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