The Situation in Turkey With Respect to the Refugees from Syria

Nejat Taştan

Almost two and a half years have passed since the start of the conflicts in Syria that resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives, countless injuries and millions of displaced people. Taking a start in March, 2011, the conflicts continue to deliver humanitarian consequences affecting mainly the neighboring countries of Syria, and more and more also the entire Middle East. The main objective of this paper is to assess the situation of the refugees from Syria in Turkey from a humanitarian point of view. Although the paper does not aim to make a political analysis of the conflict in Syria, we still have to keep in mind and emphasize that the conflict which initially began between government forces and the opposition, in time, also converted into a conflict between different ethnical and religious groups in Syria. This is a situation which has direct impact on the refugees leaving their country, the humanitarian policies of the receiving countries and the consequences of these policies. It will also facilitate our understanding of the situation in Turkey.

With the start of the conflict in Syria, governments of Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey announced their plans to apply an “open gate” policy for humanitarian purposes. Open gates soon turned into open borders, which made it impossible to keep records of the refugees crossing the borders. In the meantime, with the rapid increase in the number of refugees, some countries started to take measures to make the border crossings difficult. The government of Turkey, confronted with the rapid increase in the number of people seeking refuge in Turkey, the spread of conflict into the north of Syria as well as the bombing that took place in Reyhanlı (March 2013), has partially abandoned its open gates policy, especially in the last six-month period, and has tended to take the Syrian border under control again.

ollowing this change in her policies, Turkey has become a partner to the works on establishing camp sites on the Syrian side of the border and delivering humanitarian aid into Syria.

Turkey became party to the Geneva Convention related to the Status of the Refugees and the New York Protocol on the Status of the Refugees but with reservations. According to these reservations, Turkey only gives asylum to people arriving from Europe. For those who arrive from outside of Europe, Turkey grants refugee only until their departure to third countries.

Turkey, therefore, does not give a refugee status to the refugees from Syria, however, provides temporary protection which includes open gates, no forced refoulement, no limitations for their duration of stay in Turkey and humanitarian aid inside the camps.

The government of Turkey has assigned AFAD, the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Department, as the institution in charge of the coordination of the works related to the refugees from Syria. The Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, Health, National Education, Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Transportation as well as Finance; the General Staff, the Presidency of Religious Affairs, the Undersecretary of Customs and Red Crescent Organization collaborate under AFAD’s coordination. The Prime Ministry also assigned a governor, on 21 September 2012, to coordinate the activities in the region.

AFAD has established shelters for the refugees especially in the provinces and districts along the border. As of September 2013, there are 21 shelters including 15 tent camps and 6 container camps in the provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis, Şanlıurfa, Kahramanmaraş, Osmaniye, Adana, Adıyaman, Mardin and Malatya. It is known that better conditions are provided to the refugees in the camps in Turkey compared to other countries. In the camps, health, education, food and communication related needs of the refugees are fulfilled by the state.

The exact number of refugees in Turkey is not clearly known. According to an official declaration made by AFAD on 26 September 2013, so far 381.274 refugees have entered Turkey. Out of these, 181.240 have returned to Syria and remaining 200.034 live in the aforementioned shelter camps. These official figures represent the number of refugees who have registered to camps. They do not disclose data on the refugees who live in Turkey without being registered to camps. The number of the non-registered refugees is not clearly known. Various sources indicated the number of refugees in Turkey to be 600 to 800 thousand1. This figure is rising every day. Most optimistically, 400 thousand non-registered refugees are trying to survive in large cities such as İstanbul, İzmir, Mersin, Ankara as well as in Kurdish cities such as Şanlıurfa, Mardin, Diyarbakır and Batman. We have knowledge of around 100 thousand refugees that live in Istanbul, w. However, the lack of a registry mechanism for those who do not reside in camps makes it impossible to determine their number and needs. Efforts by UNHCR2 in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and North Africa to keep the records of the refugees are not made in Turkey.

The government of Turkey, for 1.5 years following the beginning of the refugee movement, has not shown a will to co-operate with the international aid organizations and non-governmental organizations. For instance, the relationship with WFP3 was only established one year ago. There is still no co-operation with the civil society organizations which want to conduct activities in the camps.

According to the field studies, the refugees express the following reasons for not entering the camps:

Desire to find a job and work: Some of the refugees believe that they will be more free and better off if they work in big cities rather than live in camps.

Physical conditions and security: In some camps, more than one family has to stay in the same tent or container due to lack of financial means. Camps close to the border bear security risks and are located in regions close to the conflict areas.

Isolation and restrictions on the freedom of movement: The entrances to and exits from the camps are tracked; the communication between those who take shelter in the camps and outside is under supervision and the camps are closed to international civil society organizations or CSOs from Turkey.

Risk of discrimination based on ethnical or religious identity: Refugees with different ethnical or religious identities (Christians, Alawites, Kurds, Romans, Circassians, etc) do not enter the camps with the fear of being discriminated as the camps are under the control of the people with Arab/Sunni background.

Sexual discrimination and violence: The fact that the camps are open to the risk for women and girls of being sexually harassed, assaulted, exposed to violence and raped, deter especially alone women and female refugees with children from living in the camps.

Reservations related to the impartiality of the camps: Many families are concerned that their children will be pressured and influenced by the political groups in the camps and will be forced to take a political side.

There are no policies developed by the government related to those refugees who do not enter the camps due to the reasons mentioned above. These refugees try to pursue a living with their limited opportunities and non-regular, individual humanitarian assistance. Such as no state aid is extended to the refugees living outside the camps, no civil assistance organization is available either to work for these people. In fact, it is now almost impossible to determine the needs of the unrecorded refugees who are now spread over different cities of Turkey.

The majority of the refugees cannot speak Turkish and does not know where to apply in case of an adverse situation. Although the challenges facing the refugees vary according to the provinces and districts they live in, they also share common problems such as the lack of adequate housing, health and nutrition facilities, problems originating from cultural differences, and children not being able to continue their education and facing social exclusion4.

In September 2013, the government extended the free health care in hospitals to the entire country. Before September, it was free healthcare in hospitals was only provided in the 9 provinces where the camps are located. This is quite a recent and positive decision, but it is yet unclear how this decision will be implemented.

Until this decision, the refugees had been receiving healthcare services for a fee. Those who were unable to pay the fee were either left without any treatment or had to quit in the middle of their treatment. There are patients with illnesses that require continuous treatment, pregnant women, disabled people, small children and elderly people among the refugees5. The accommodation and hygiene conditions as well as malnutrition are factors that increase the risk of catching a disease. Moreover, any disease can spread rapidly where many people stay in the same house.

A part of the refugees try to live in parks or shanty tent settlements, or share a room or an apartment with several other families. The apartments rented by the refugees generally do not meet hygiene and health conditions but still have high rental prices. Refugees are exposed to social exclusion and, from time to time, discrimination in their neighborhoods. The local people exclude refugees for several reasons including increasing rent prices after their arrival, children continuously being on the street and asking for assistance and, problems caused by cultural differences. In some cases, the apartments on the market for rent are not rented out to refugees.

Those who do not have any chance to rent an apartment try to survive in parks, bus stops and under bridges. In the last three months, news related to this issue in Istanbul started to appear in newspapers and on television. The situation is not any different in the other provinces and the approaching winter requires immediate measures to be taken for the refugees.

Winter conditions, already arrived in Turkey, will make the lives of the refugees, especially of the homeless ones, much more difficult. Winter conditions will also call for new measures for the arising needs in the tent camps. It is not hard to estimate that alongside the basic needs such as heating and winter clothes, it will also be difficult to establish necessary hygiene conditions in crowded camps. It is expected that under such circumstances diseases, influenza in particular, will spread easily.

Refugees looking for a job do not hold work permits to work in Turkey. Most of them do not even have the necessary papers to get the permit. The only available jobs for them are therefore the low-paid ones with heavy conditions. Those who accept to work despite these conditions are made to work for at least 10 hours a day and sometimes laid off without being paid6. They have no other option but to accept this situation as they work informally and have no awareness of their rights.

Women are employed in daily cleaning jobs to make one fifth of what a woman from Turkey earns by doing the same job, or work from their homes for contract manufacturing, again with low wages.
In Istanbul, a high number of children from asylum seeking families are made to work under heavy conditions and with low wages.

Moreover, in those families that are not able to earn enough money for their living, children and women try to work or collect money on the streets to make a living for the family and to pay for the rent7. These women and children are under so much risk on the streets. There is not any protection mechanism for them. Most of the school-age children are unable to maintain their education.

The press in Turkey, on the one hand covers the problems of the refugees that live outside the camps and on the other hand, make news which lead to their marginalization. Such news, generally about the women and children asking for assistance on the streets, use names like beggars to describe the refugees.

According to the results of a field survey on the refugees living in Istanbul, the majority of these people state their will to return to their country as soon as the war is over. There are, however, those who want to settle for good in Turkey or to set off for third countries.

The necessity to assess Turkey’s refugee policies has become very clear when we consider the current situation. The decision of Turkey to open its gates to the people fleeing Syria after the start of the conflicts was a necessary and rightful one. However, a series of mistakes have been made since the first refugees set foot in Turkey:

  • Since the beginning, Turkey has perceived the refugees as a homogenous group and ignored the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity in Syria as well as the relationship between these groups. The camps as well as the services provided there have been designed for the Arab/Sunni group, which led to the avoidance of the camps by many other ethnic and religious groups. Turkey has ignored the tendencies of the groups to avoid the camps.
  • The relationship between the ethnic and religious groups in Syria with those in Turkey has not been analyzed.
  • A registration system to track the refugees crossing the border has not been created and hereby the possible contribution from international organizations, particularly UNHCR, as well as related NGOs is being ignored.
  • The shelters have been established too close to the Syrian border and the conflict regions. They are completely isolated from the outer world. This situation also led to claims that the camps are used as logistic centers for the conflicts.
  • In the provinces where the shelters are established, the local population has not been informed in an open and sufficient way. Just like in the case of Hatay, the social and cultural structure of the region has not been taken into consideration while choosing the location of the camps.
  • No sustainable humanitarian aid program has been created which takes into account the possibility of prolongation of the conflicts in Syria.
  • Turkey often takes a side in the conflicts between ethnic/religious groups in Syria.
  • Turkey disregards the principles of transparency in the organization and distribution of the humanitarian aid and sends the humanitarian aid to Syria mainly to specific regions.
  • The refugees outside the camps have been neglected for a long time and excluded from official statistics. Necessary regulations in the area of health and employment have arrived late.
  • There are no registry mechanisms or social support centers within the Provincial Governor Offices for the refugees who are unwilling to live in the camps. Local resources are not deployed timely.
  • Due to rejection of the co-operation possibilities with international and local civil organizations, the humanitarian aid policy which is in place seems to have caused a humanitarian tragedy risk for at least some of the refugees.

Turkey must, very rapidly, establish a long-term, sustainable humanitarian aid policy for the refugees, which is open to international and civil co-operation.
Nejat Taştan, ESHİD (Equal Rights Watch Association)

  1. “There are 22 camps in 10 provinces which officially accommodate 200 thousand people. There are, however, 600 thousand, maybe even 800 thousand asylum seekers in the camps.” An interview with the coordinator governor Veysel Dalmaz, İHD Border Report, September 2013
  2. The UN Refugee Agency
  3. World Food Program
  4. “We are not welcome here, they come and throw things inside from the window, they ask why we came here.” (Eminönü, 56 year-old woman), Istanbul Research, September 2013
  5. “We are 7 in total with 4 children; one girl, 3 boys. The girl is very ill, she has severe cold. One of the boys has brain tumor. We arrived in Turkey two months ago.”, Gözardı Edilenler İstanbul’da Yaşayan Suriyeli Sığınmacılar (The Neglected Ones, Syrian Refugees in Istanbul), March 2013
  6. “His 2 working sons first took a job somewhere else, but they were mistreated, laid off and not paid at all.” Istanbul Research, September 2013
  7. “The family came to Istanbul 15 days ago. They live in a construction with too few belongings. The 11 month-old baby suffers from liver problems. The hospital they went to for treatment told them that the baby needs blood transfusion to survive. Family paid the examination fee of 36 TRY however could not take the baby back to the hospital as the main treatment costs 4000 TRY.” Istanbul Research, September 2013


Nejat Taştan

Born in Adıyaman in 1964, Taştan has been involved in the human rights movement since 1986. He took part in the preparation of the Independent Election Platform’s Observation Report on the Parliamentary General Elections on 12 June 2011 (author), the Education and Employment Status of the Handicapped in Turkey, Report on the Watch over Racial and Ethnicity-based Discrimination in Turkey and the Report on the Discrimination and Rights Violations against the Handicapped in Turkey (joint publication with ESHİD Publishing). He is a member of İHD, TİHV, and ESHİD.