The Situation of Refugees and Migrants in Turkey

The Situation of Refugees and Migrants in Turkey


Turkey hosts one of the world’s largest refugee populations, with over 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees alone (June 2018 figures). 94% of refugees live outside camps in urban and peri-urban areas and 70% are women and children. The other 6% live in 21 camps (the so-called “temporary shelter centers”) spread across 10 provinces (Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, Kilis, Kahramanmaras, Mardin, Hatay, Adana, Adiyaman, Osmaniye, Malatya). The biggest camps in terms of population are Saricam (a container camp in the province of Adana, with over 27,000 people), Akcakale and Suruc (tent camps in the province of Sanliurfa, respectively with almost 24,000 and 23,000 people).

On March 2018 the Turkish government announced that they are working to set up new camps near the Syrian city of Idlib and the areas of the Euphrates Shield Operation. These additional camps should host 170,000 people.

Not all refugees hosted in Turkey are from Syrian: there is an increasing number of people of other nationalities, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia, among others. However, the Turkish asylum system treats those people differently. Syrian nationals, as well as stateless persons and refugees from Syria are provided with temporary protection (TP) by the Government of Turkey, that is acquired on a prima facie, group-basis. On the other hand, asylum seeker from other countries of origin are expected to apply for an individual international protection status. Those procedures for the determination of their status are not always fair and efficient.

In general, despite new initiatives to improve the situation of refugees, many face insufficient access to livelihoods, housing, health care, and education for their children and there has been reports of forced returns of refugees and asylum-seekers, including to Syria. In addition, hostility from locals has risen recently, with an increase number of incidents reported. During the campaigns for the June 2018 elections, opposition parties threatened refugees with deportation.

Adana, Turkey

Adana, Turkey. Photo by Hulisi Kayacı on Unsplash

The EU-Turkey refugee agreement

On 18th March 2016 Turkey and EU signed a refugee agreement, to limit the mass influx of irregular migrants entering the European Union through Turkey. Wanted by EU, who has actively sought to prevent asylum-seekers and refugees from accessing its territory, the EU-Turkey deal commits Turkey to accept the return of any irregular migrant who is found to have entered the EU through Turkey without having already undergone a formal asylum application process. In exchange for Turkey’s willingness to secure its borders and host irregular migrants, the EU agreed on the 1-to-1 principle: for each Syrian returned to Turkey, a Syrian migrant who had qualified for asylum will be resettled in the EU. In addition, the deal sets a 6 billion euros payment to the Turkish government, to spend in projects (Facility for Refugees in Turkey – FRiT) aiming to improve refugees’ condition, and in particular on humanitarian assistance, education, migration management, health, municipal infrastructure, and socio-economic support projects.

The EU further incentivized Turkey to agree to the deal with a promise of lessening visa restrictions for Turkish citizens.

From the EU point of view, the agreement has been a success, contributed to a significant drop in the number of arrivals on the Greek island. However, the deal has been the target of numerous criticism, in particular that it forced migrants to start using other and potentially more dangerous routes, such as the journey between North Africa and Italy, and that in general the agreement has set a dangerous precedent by putting at risk the very principle of the right to seek refuge. In addition, long asylum procedures and a huge backlog have stranded thousands of asylum seekers on Greek islands, double the capacity, in squalid conditions.

Balat Mahallesi, Turkey

Balat Mahallesi, Turkey. Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

The Turkish asylum system

As mentioned above, the Turkish asylum system has a dual structure. Syrian nationals, as well as stateless persons and refugees from Syria are provided with “Temporary Protection” (TP) by the Government of Turkey. The Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) is the responsible governmental authority for the registration and status decisions within the scope of the temporary protection regime. The TP grants beneficiaries right to legal stay as well as some level of access to basic rights and services and they are under normal circumstances not sent back to Syria unless they themselves request to do so.

On the other hand, asylum seekers from other countries are expected to apply for an individual “International Protection” status and are subject to a status determination procedure conducted by DGMM. There are three individual “International Protection” statuses from DGMM: 1) “refugees,” who are fleeing from events in Europe, and who are permitted long-term integration in Turkey; 2) “conditional refugees,” who are fleeing from events outside Europe, and who must await resettlement to a third country; and 3) “subsidiary protection” beneficiaries, who do not qualify as refugees or conditional refugees but who require protection because they face the death penalty, torture, or generalized violence amounting from armed conflict in their country of origin.

For all International Protection applicants, Turkey has what is called a “satellite city policy” which requires them to live in a designated province (which excludes the largest cities of Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir). Turkey has also recently required Syrian refugees under Temporary Protection to remain in the province in which they first registered.

UNHCR has still a key role in Turkey. In theory, DGMM is the sole decision-maker on asylum matters but in practice, however, UNHCR continues to undertake registration for non-Syrians and refugee status determination for a limited number of individuals whom they identify as being particularly vulnerable – based on UNHCR’s own mandate, not Turkish law – as well as the processing for resettlement of particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Children playing soccer in one of the old streets of istanbul.

Children playing soccer in one of the old streets of istanbul. Photo by Ozan Safak on Unsplash

Information for asylum seekers and access to NGOs and UNHCR

The DGMM also operates a hotline service called Foreigners Communication Centre (Yabanci Iletisim Merkezi, YİMER). It is possible to reach the centres which serves in Turkish, English, Russian and Arabic at any time of day.

UNHCR has set up a platform (“Help”) which provides information in English, Turkish, Arabic and Farsi. Another useful resource about Turkish asylum procedure is provided by Aida here. Also, many NGOs provide assistance and counselling. It is important to know that international protection applicants and status holders are free to seek counselling services provided by NGOs.

Here a not-exhaustive list of NGOs:

  • SGDD-ASAM is the largest NGO and implementing partner of UNHCR in Turkey, upon registration in Ankara. It has offices in more than 70 cities in Turkey, including all satellite cities, and operates a helpline in different languages.
  • Refugee Rights Turkeyin Istanbul and Mülteci-Der in Izmir have helplines and can be accessed by phone.
  • IKGVhas 7 offices in Turkey and provides information and psycho-social support to approximately 200 people per week.
  • Support to Lifeand YUVA are also mainstream organisations that are very active in the field, the former having presence in eight cities.
  • KADAVis providing help for women in Istanbul.
  • KaosGLbased in Ankara assists LGBTI people living in cities such as Denizli, Eskişehir and Yalova.


Anna Silvestri

*first image: Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Damla Özkan on Unsplash

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