Poor transparency shadows Turkey’s Syria refugee policy

Poor transparency shadows Turkey’s Syria refugee policy

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Poor transparency shadows Turkey’s Syria refugee policy

‘There are said to be 450,000 Syrian refugees, half of whom are in camps, and actually the number could be much higher’ says Taner Kılıç (R), the head of the Association for Solidarity with Refugees. DAILY NEWS photo / Emrah GÜREL

Turkey should be proud of its open-door policy and the physical conditions of the camps it has established for Syrian refugees, said the head of an NGO, while warning that its lack of transparency could cast doubt over the positive aspects of its treatment of Syrian refugees.

Turkey needs to improve its policies by embarking upon a better model of governance, said Taner Kılıç, the head of the Association for Solidarity with Refugees (Mülteci-Der), adding that the recent return of refugees back to Syria indicates that problems exist with the current approach.

What is your assessment of Turkey’s policy about the influx of Syrian refugees?

From the first day, Turkey has followed an open-door policy. This should be appreciated. But when the influx started in April 2011, the Syrians were called guests instead of refugees. Turkey signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees but with a geographical limitation. Those coming from the east are not recognized as refugees.

What’s wrong with calling them guests?

With the recognition of refugee status, that person becomes entitled to certain rights, and the state is bound to certain commitments. To give you an example; according to U.N. criteria, camps for refugees need to be established 50 kilometers away from the border. When this was said to the head of a camp in Turkey that was right at the border, that person said, “That is the criteria for refugees; these are guests, we can locate them wherever we want.”

So there is the risk of arbitrary treatment; but can you say that Syrian refugees have been mistreated in Turkey?

When compared to other camps, the physical conditions are very good. We do appreciate that. In November 2011, Turkey started saying it was implementing a temporary protection regime – a concept created after the Kosovo War. But under the temporary protection regime, refugees are granted the right to personally apply for asylum; in Turkey, Syrian refugees are denied that right. In addition, the regime can be valid for two years whereas in Turkey, it’s been more than two years since the first arrivals. So not much has changed in practice.

Interestingly, when Turkey faced the first influx of mass refugees from Iraq in the Gulf crisis in 1992, it was discovered that there was nothing in Turkey’s legislation about refugees.

So Turkey just signed the convention and did nothing afterwards.

There is no constitutional or legal protection; the issue was left in the hands of the police department dealing with foreign nationals and a few civil servants. The legislative, executive and judiciary remained completely uninterested in the issue. We have hundreds of laws about rent law but nothing about an issue that is so critical about human life. The bylaw dating from 1994 is still valid and that will change next year. In March 2012, the government issued a circular on the treatment of the Syrian refugees but it was kept a secret. There is said to be 450,000 Syrian refugees, half of whom are in camps, and actually the number could be much higher; there is a circular about them and we can’t read it. Amnesty International’s Turkey office has requested to see it; even parliamentarians’ request to see it was denied. This is not understandable from the perspective of a country where there should be rule of law.

Syrians are coming from a war zone; aren’t the security concerns of the government legitimate?

But we are talking about what to do to the Syrian refugees within Turkey’s borders. In fact, I read that circular which was sent to me by an official who asked me not to show it to anybody. Interestingly, there is nothing that should be objected to by human rights activists; there is nothing serious to criticize. This approach is wrong. Turkey has an open-door policy; it has camps that it should be proud of. But these camps were kept closed to foreign NGOs or to the press until recently. Amnesty International’s Syria coordinator could not enter the camp to talk to the refugees. Is this logical? He was just going to talk to them about what happened to them.

Why do you think there is such a policy?

I see it as Cold War security paranoia. But the lack of transparency overshadows all the positive things Turkey is doing. In addition, Turkey puts those camps under suspicion by its own hand; this approach casts doubt on its own policy. Turkey has nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of, but once you say you cannot enter these camps, questions are raised as to whether terrorists are being trained there.

Look, there is a serious governance problem here. You cannot manage this by directives given from Ankara. This is an issue with very serious social dimensions. Even if you take 30,000 people from Kütahya and relocate them to Balıkesir, there will be very serious problems. We are talking about 400,000 people with a foreign culture. You need to have all the relevant actors, psychologists, sociologists, social service experts, representatives from professional chambers, universities and NGOs working together.

If there is nothing to be ashamed of; then why would the government need to change its policy?

We need to talk about recent events in the camps. The heads of the camps are chosen from the local authorities, some are provincial heads of health, some are chosen from among school directors or imams. Management of a refugee camp requires expertise that Turkey does not have. Turkey could have made use of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) expertise in this field.

Turkish officials argue that the UNHCR is active in countries that are unable to cope with the problem, whereas Turkey has the means to manage it.

Turkey wants to give the message that it is a strong state. But while it refused at the beginning to receive any assistance from the outside world, the UNHCR nearly begged at the beginning to help; a year later, the government made a U-turn. But currently it says, “Write a check and don’t bother with the rest.” This is not rational.

In the Süleymanşah camp, 600 Syrians were sent back following incidents after two children died in a fire. Even if these Syrians made a mistake or committed a crime, they should not have been sent back to Syria. This is unacceptable as far as the non-refoulement principle is concerned. According to our sources, Turkish officials told the Free Syrian army that these 600 people were [President Bashar] al-Assad’s spies.

The open-door policy is no longer totally valid, for the doors are not completely open. Thousands are being made to wait in the border region with the argument that the new camps are not ready. Only passport holders can enter Turkey, but the regime in Syria no longer issues passports. Human trafficking has started at the border – those who pay 100 liras are smuggled into Turkey.

Do you think we are heading toward a crisis?

There could be some very dramatic outcomes. The camps established by Turkey inside Syria are an open target; they constitute a big danger for both the refugees and also for those Turkish officials working there. The Bab al-Hawa camp across from Reyhanlı was bombed recently by the Syrian regime.

Do you think the seeds of hostility are being laid between Turks and Syrians?

There is such a risk. We have seen it after the bombing in Reyhanlı. Actually this was the city where Syrian refugees are most welcome. [Following attacks on Syrian refugees], between 5,000 and 7,000 Syrians have gone back, according to press reports. This is very humiliating. If refugees do not feel secure and decide to go back to uncertainty, this tells us that there are serious problems with the policy.

Who is Taner Kılıç ?

Born in 1969, Taner Kılıç graduated from the law faculty of 9 Eylül University in İzmir.

Since 1993, he has worked as a lawyer. After serving on the board of Mazlum-Der’s İzmir branch, a human rights association, he became one of the founders of Amnesty International’s Turkey branch.

Following training from Amnesty International’s branch in Switzerland, he became the first refugee coordinator of Amnesty’s Turkey Branch, holding the position for five years.

He also worked as deputy director and ombudsman of Amnesty International’s Turkey branch.
In 2008 he founded the Association for Solidarity with Refugees (Mülteci-Der) in İzmir and remains the head of the organization today.