16,000 and counting …Since the Syrian conflict began over one year ago, the Government of Turkey has kept its borders open to individuals who have fled the turmoil. According to latest official figures, over 22,000 Syrians entered the camps erected in Turkey’s Hatay province near the border with Syria, and approximately 16,000 Syrians currently remain in the camps. News reports over the last two weeks have cited a dramatic increase in arrival numbers. To date, the Syrians arriving in Turkey have been Sunni Arabs exclusively, mainly from towns near the Turkish border.
While Turkey shares 900km of land borders with Syria, stretching across six southern provinces, the refugee arrivals from Syria have so far been almost exclusively concentrated in the border province of Hatay. Very quickly following the first arrivals at the end of March 2011, the Turkish Red Crescent set up camps in Hatay to accommodate increasing numbers of refugees. According to information available to the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) about the camps and reports by several international visiting delegations,[i] the camps appear to be well-equipped in terms of providing for the basic needs of the displaced Syrians.
While refugees from Syria are allowed to cross the border and enter Turkey, the nature of the protection regime the Government of Turkey has put in place for the Syrians and their legal status according to national and international law remain uncertain.
‘Temporary protection’In the beginning, the group was referred to as ‘guests’ by the Government (similar to what has been reported about Jordan) — a position which was heavily criticised by Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Refugee Advocacy and Support Program (HCA-RASP) and other asylum advocates in Turkey. In November 2011, the Government officially revised its position and declared at a UNHCR conference in Geneva that the Syrians are beneficiaries of a ‘temporary protection’ regime, loosely inspired by the EU Directive regulating response to situations of mass influx of refugees.
According to UNHCR Turkey’s interpretation,[ii] this policy entails unobstructed admission to Turkish territories for all Syrian nationals without any travel or ID document requirement, no forcible returns to Syria, and accommodation and coverage of basic needs in the Turkish Red Crescent camps in Hatay. As a prerequisite to benefiting from ‘temporary protection,’ all newly arriving Syrians are required to report to the authorities in Hatay, register with the Foreigners’ Police in the province and go into the camps. Living outside the camps by their own means is not an option, nor are they given the option of living in any location other than Hatay.
Once across the border, the newly arrived Syrians are escorted to one of the six camps in Hatay. In the beginning, freedom of movement in and out of the camps was severely restricted. However, in recent months it has been reported that residents of the camps can leave the premises during daylight hours with permission.
While the principles of this policy seem to be in broad compliance with minimum international standards, there is no basis in Turkish domestic law basis for such a ‘temporary protection’ arrangement, clearly defining the legal status and rights of beneficiaries. As such, Turkey’s accommodation of Syrian refugee arrivals continues to be rooted entirely in political discretion and devoid of proper legal safeguards.
Suspension of RSD for newly arrived Syrians & UNHCR’s roleThe legal uncertainties about Turkey’s ‘temporary protection’ policy notwithstanding, UNHCR expresses strong support for the Government’s policy of keeping the borders open. In the fall of last year, UNHCR adopted a policy of suspending individual refugee status determination for any Syrians who have arrived since the Government’s ‘temporary protection’ scheme has been in place. UNHCR considers that all Syrians in Turkey in need of international protection can benefit from the Government’s ‘temporary protection’ regime. Therefore, UNHCR does not register the newly arrived Syrians and essentially ‘froze’ the processing of previously registered Syrian asylum seekers — in much the same way UNHCR dealt with Iraqi asylum seekers in the 2003–2006 period following the fall of the Saddam regime. Thus, no resettlement opportunities exist for the recently displaced Syrians.[iii]
Transparency and oversight, role of Turkey’s NGO watchdogsA compounding problem concerns the Government’s continued reluctance to involve nongovernmental stakeholders and international organisations, and the related issues of transparency and oversight regarding the practices and procedures in the border areas and the camps. From the onset the Government has entrusted the management of the camps exclusively to the Turkish Red Crescent, a semi-governmental agency, and turned down offers from NGOs to participate and contribute. Neither UNHCR nor IOM were involved in the registration and processing of the arrivals and administration of the camps. Up until February 2012, UNHCR Turkey did not have any permanent presence in Hatay. Instead they relied on sporadic mission visits to the region and gave advice from the Government’s corner. Since February, UNHCR has deployed a small team to Hatay for the purpose of assisting the Government authorities in an ‘advisory’ capacity.
The absence of NGOs and international agencies in the camps raises concerns, particularly with regards to oversight of the reportedly thousands of ‘voluntary returns’ to Syria since the beginning of the influx in March of last year. Recently a number of news outlets made troubling allegations concerning the apparentrefoulement of two high profile Syrian dissidents and the maintenance of a separate, secret camp for ‘problematic’ Syrians, which has allegedly been used for the forcible yet ostensibly ‘voluntary’ returns. While the latter allegations are yet to be investigated, the problem remains that without any independent agencies watching over the practices in the camps, there is the troubling possibility that violations of this kind take place regularly and with impunity.
In the face of such allegations, HCA-RASP and its NGO partners under the TurkeyRefugee Rights Coordination (TRRC) reiterate their plea for transparency and access. NGO monitoring could play a critical role in verifying such stories, and maintaining adherence to national and international standards. Not terribly surprisingly, throughout the process, the Government has largely ignored recommendations and critical voices from Turkey’s civil society. Despite the Government’s repeated refusals in response to requests to have access to the camps, the TRRC has made a number of visits to the Hatay region. The TRRC has also released a number of press statementsand sent out letters to key Government agencies and UNHCR registering continued concerns regarding the legal uncertainties about the Government’s ‘temporary protection’ policy, and the associated problems of access and transparency.
Syrians outside the camps in HatayIn addition to the roughly 16,000 Syrians accommodated in the camps in Hatay, a smaller number of Syrians who entered Turkey legally through other routes (and there are many who took advantage of Turkey’s visa exemption policy for Syrian nationals) continue to find their own accommodation and stay outside the camps, under the radar. But once the three-month visa exemption period runs out their only options are either to return to Syria or to go into the camps and regularise their status in Turkey as beneficiaries of ‘temporary protection.’ There are also smaller numbers of Syrians who enter Turkey irregularly and somehow avoid being spotted by Turkey’s border guards and taken to the camps in Hatay. Some of these individuals go underground to wait because they do not want to go into the camps. Others try to cross to Greece in order to seek refuge in EU territories. In HCA-RASP’s observation, it appears that such irregularly present Syrian nationals who are apprehended by Turkish authorities during an attempt to transit to Europe are not deported to Syria and are eventually released with instructions to go to Hatay and register in the camps.
Prospects for the futureWhile there are no indications that the Government of Turkey’s policy of keeping the borders open will change any time soon, a dramatic increase in arrival numbers might bring about a change in Turkey’s position. Since the early months of the Syrian refugee arrivals, high-level Government representatives, including Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, have expressed on a number of occasions the possibility of creating a UN Security Council-authorised buffer zone inside Syria if the conflict deteriorates further. The inspiration for this idea is the safe haven that was imposed in the North of Iraq in the 1991–2003 period, which was established by a UN Security Council Resolution and consequently enforced by NATO.
With the turmoil and violence in Syria getting worse daily, refugee flows toward Turkey have the potential of reaching massive proportions. Although there have been media reports of a concerted effort on the part of Syrian security forces to block escape routes to Turkey, including by means of landmines the past few weeks have seen a renewed increase in arrivals. HCA-RASP and Turkey’s other asylum advocates continue to do their best to brace for more challenging times, monitor developments in the border region, and keep the pressure on the Government and UNHCR.
[i] See for example CoE Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, ‘Syrian Refugees on the Turkish Border: Report on the Visit to Antakya’, 26 July 2011.[ii] UNHCR Turkey Information Notice regarding Syrian Nationals Seeking International Protection, UNHCR BO Ankara, 23 November 2011. [iii] For background information on Turkey’s asylum system centred around a resettlement scheme mediated by UNHCR, follow this link.