Is Turkey Refusing to Register New Syrian Refugees? #SyriaWar
In April 2011, Turkey’s Cilvegozu crossing on its border with Syria suddenly became inundated with throngs of people massing there, trying to escape the one-month-old Syrian civil war.
More than 250 Syrians were in the first group to be given refuge in Turkey, marking the beginning of Turkey’s involvement in the war.
Those first immigrants were soon followed by myriad others who grew into a community of almost 4 million people. These immigrants have become a major concern for Turkey over the past seven years.
Now, a statement from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) is heightening the rest of the world’s awareness. HRW claims Turkey has stopped registering new Syrian refugees in Istanbul and in nine provinces bordering Syria, though Turkish officials deny it.
Before going public with its accusation July 16, HRW interviewed 32 Syrians who had applied for temporary protection in Hatay, Istanbul and Gaziantep. In the interviews in Hatay, Syrians said Turkish police have been deporting Syrians in groups of 20 because the refugees don’t have temporary protection documents. The people also said that even if they were allowed to stay they couldn’t access medical, educational or similar services without those papers.
This is how HRW explains in its statement the importance of a temporary identification permit: “A permit protects Syrians from arrest and the risk of deportation. It also entitles them to get health care and education, to work, and to seek social assistance, including the EU-funded Emergency Social Safety Net for the most vulnerable Syrians.”
According to HRW, the Hatay governorate on Oct. 30 announced that it was discouraging smugglers from helping Syrians trying to enter Turkey and that no more Syrians would be registered. The Ministry of Interior in February 2018 followed by announcing it would no longer register Syrians in Istanbul.
But when HRW shared those findings earlier this year with officials of the Immigration Administration in Ankara, they responded June 13 saying registrations haven’t been halted in any of the country’s 81 provinces.
Although Turkey recently completed construction of a 564-kilometer (350-mile) wall on its border with Syria, illegal Syrian crossings can’t be prevented. Citing the example of Hatay province, HRW says Syrians enter illegally mainly via gaps in the wall. Syrians living illegally in Hatay are now trying to reach other parts of Turkey.
As of June 28, Turkey had registered 3.56 million Syrians. Those who haven’t been registered face the worst situation. “These are people who can’t go back, stay in Turkey or go to Europe,” Gerry Simpson, deputy director of HRW’s Refugee Rights Program, told Al-Monitor.
He noted that the locations where registration allegedly has been suspended have especially high concentrations of Syrians. “I think the administrators of those provinces may be reacting to that heavy presence. They might [be trying] to compel other provinces to take in more Syrians,” he said.
“In the EU, there is the Dublin Regulation, which requires immigrants to remain in their first place of entry to the EU. That creates massive pressure on Italy and Greece. Turkish administrators may be thinking along the same lines. There’s also a question of whether Ankara has the authority to influence the refugee registration policies of provinces. … Is this a dispute between Ankara and the provinces? We don’t know the answer to that important question,” he added.
“Three years ago, Turkey signed an accord with the EU to block its northern and western borders with the EU. If I were Turkey, I would close all my borders,” he said. (Turkey is bounded by eight countries.) “If nobody is going to Europe, then they should not come to Turkey also. Logically, Turkey halting registering those who cross the border has created the impression that the real European concern is to prevent the immigrants and refugees from accessing Europe. One way to stop that is to erect a wall or force them to go back, or if they cross the border, refuse to register them.”
Nowadays, all attention is on Idlib, where jihadist groups are assembling. If there is an attack against this area by Russia or the Syrian regime, where will the civilians go? Turkey is worried about a new wave and is calling for European assistance.
Will Turkey open its gates to these civilians or tell them to stay in Idlib? To deny civilians access would place Turkey under international scrutiny.
“Of course we understand Turkey’s concern about accepting more Syrians. That is why we are calling on Europeans to receive more Syrians. If another 300,000 to 500,000 Syrians come to Turkey’s gates, that country will have to spend enormous amounts” of money, Simpson added.
HRW has shared its research findings with EU officials and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It also called on EU officials to take steps to change Turkey’s attitude.
What does Turkey have to say to these criticisms? Al-Monitor first approached the Department of Disasters and Emergencies (AFAD), which handles Syrian affairs in Turkey. AFAD officials said they know nothing. Another relevant body is the Immigration Administration Directorate of the Ministry of Interior. One of its officials who didn’t want to be identified said HRW’s charges are baseless. So far, Turkey has not responded at all to the HRW statement of July 16.
It is often said that Turkey uses Syrians as bargaining chips against Europe after accepting more than 3.5 million refugees on its territory. Could Turkey now be saying, “Help me or I won’t take in any more?”