Turkey needs policy tailored for longer stay of Syrians: UNHCR representative
‘It is a great tribute to the humanitarian spirit, not only of the Turkish government but also of the Turkish people,’ says Carol Batchelor from the UNHCR, talking about Turkey’s policies regarding the influx of Syrian refugees. HÜRRİYET photos, Emre YUNUSOĞLUNews of tension between local communities and Syrians who have fled their war-torn country has seen a dramatic increase recently, indicating new challenges for Turkey, according to Carol Batchelor from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
“In recent months we have seen a shift; because the numbers are so great, the pressures are mounting on host communities, creating a different kind of challenge,” Batchelor told the Hürriyet Daily News.
She said the Turkish government is already discussing policies to address some of the long-term social issues but it needs to act quickly.
Let’s start with your general assessment on how you see Turkey’s handling of Syrian refugees.
This is, sadly, three-and-a-half years into the crisis. It has turned into a protracted refugee situation. [From the beginning of the Arab Spring] we were very pleased with Turkey’s position, with its doors open. It is a great tribute to the humanitarian spirit, not only of the Turkish government but of the Turkish people. Because it would be difficult for a government to make such a commitment without the support of its population.
Now, three-and-a-half years down the road, we see that Turkey is doing its utmost to carry forward that commitment. We are again very grateful and the Syrian people are also very grateful. I’ve been visiting for three years now and - almost invariably - one of the first things many Syrians mention is the support, hospitality, protection and safety they have received in Turkey. This speaks volumes about what Turkey has done on the humanitarian front.
As the situation drags on, the refugee population increases. The current estimate is 1.3 million, of which around 830,000 are formally registered. These are massive numbers. It’s not just that these are people are from another country, speak a different language and have a different culture. These are people who are desperate; psychologically, they are in a very tough situation. For any country to receive such a high number of people, for this length of time, in such dramatic circumstances, is an enormous challenge.
In view of the growing burden, is Turkey still maintaining an open door policy?
This is one of the reasons why the UNHCR prioritizes registration. This is a war. There are many armed opposition groups. There are many actors now, particularly on the other side of the border, and we have seen this spill-over into Iraq.
It is very important that the open door policy is not understood to be “anyone can come, for any reason, without scrutiny.” The Refugee Convention, of which Turkey is a signatory, stipulates that international protection is available to those who face a fear of persecution, who are civilians. In the early days, Turkey set up a separate area for non-civilian actors and people who are of a different profile. The civilian character of asylum is paramount. The reality is that throughout the region 70-80 percent of the people who have fled are children and women.
Anyone who is facing this situation - who needs to flee to save the life of their children, for their family, even for the survival of their identity - these people need to have access [to asylum]. Our understanding from Turkey is that such people will be given access. Of course, [refugees] are also responsible for abiding by the law of the country. They have rights and responsibilities, and they must abide by the host country’s legislation.
So you say that the open door policy is still valid, but for security reasons it is more restricted?
It means that any state, whether in a bad situation or otherwise, manages its border. There is no exception to this. There are more pressures on [war time] borders than peace time borders. It is important that the border is managed, and that within this management all those who are in need should have access to that territory.
Let’s make a small deviation to Iraq. There has been a wave of criticism that Turkey hasn’t been willing to receive refugees from Iraq. What are your thoughts about this?
Iraqis can approach us and ask for registration and recognition as refugees. Since the recent eruption, after major developments in June, the numbers approaching our office increased, with over 50,000 people approaching us in Ankara. So people are clearly crossing the border.
Having said that, it’s something we are discussing with authorities. We are looking at the root causes. The root of the problem is what’s happening in Iraq and Syria. We were very pleased because in June the Foreign Ministry and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority [AFAD] were actively involved, saying “What can we do inside Iraq to help people who are fleeing?” Even before people were forced to approach the border, they are internally displaced. So there are parts of Iraq where the UNHCR has large operations, to which many refugees have fled.
We have a good relationship with the Turkish authorities on how to help inside Iraq.
There are criticisms that Turkey has been less sensitive to fleeing Yezidis?
There are some refugee camps in Turkey for Syrians that have open spaces and I think 3000 Yezidis were brought there. Of course there are some challenges. We heard that in some cases it is very easy to cross the border if you have documents and it can be challenging if you don’t. We are discussing the details with Turkish officials. We know that many Iraqis have made their way to Turkey and we are discussing the response.
How do you assess the working style of the government with international organizations? To what degree is there transparency that gives you enough input to make a healthy assessment of the situation?
The UNHCR is the agency mandated with the authority to help states cope with refugee placement and problems arising from this placement. If a state is willing to step up to the plate and say, “You are welcome. Our territory is open to you,” and if they acknowledge the needs and provide protection then we are extremely grateful. This is what we ask of all states in the world, our high commissioner has appealed to all states [about this]. In the Syrian emergency, the vast majority of the refugees have fled to countries neighboring Syria. So we have appealed to all states in the world to relax their visa regimes for Syrians. In 2011, Turkey said “We can manage it,” but as the situation goes on it becomes more and more challenging. The initial policy was to set up camps, but after two or three years the numbers became uncontrollable because people couldn’t cope with the psychological problems of living in a camp.
In terms of access, the UNHCR has access to the camps. When Syrians want to return, we are invited to observe whether it is a voluntary return, for example. So there is no issue with access to the camps or observation of the camps.
But in recent months we have seen a shift. Because the numbers are so great the pressures are mounting on the host communities, creating a different kind of challenge. This is normal for a situation of this length, with these numbers and this inability to address the root causes of the displacement. It needs tailored policies, and policies looking to address some of the long-term social issues are now being discussed.
Have Turks and the state come to a point of exhaustion?
We are not talking about some foreigners coming to study university, or coming for a business meeting, for example. These refugees are people who have lost absolutely everything they had. There is also another challenge in Turkey that we don’t see with other countries - the language. What can you do, even as a well-equipped country, with 500,000-700,000 children who need to go to school but don’t know the language?
So Turkey needs to realize that the refugees will not return in the short term, and they are here to stay?
I wouldn’t say “here to stay.” What I find is so extraordinary in speaking to Syrians themselves is that other refugee populations look for some alternative to returning back to their countries, while the vast majority of Syrians want to return home. There is a very strong sense of purpose and attachment for them in going back.
So how should a tailored policy for a longer stay be formulated?
Many Turkish ministries are dealing with this issue. In fact, another issue that the UNHCR is extremely impressed with is that in April 2013, amid all these crises, Turkey adopted a law on foreigners and international protection. It reinforces the sense of humanitarianism that must be running deep in the Turkish culture, psyche and society. A legal framework was outlined and introduced some new concepts. The General Directorate for Migration Management opened its doors in April this year and it is actively looking at this question. There is a strong sense of purpose and vision on behalf of the Turkish government about what these policies could be.
How is the new law that you talked about coming along?
Under the legislation adopted in 2013, the next step is implementing the regulations. We feel that it’s quite important to move forward. One of the reasons why things have been so peaceful is that Turkey has managed the emergency phase professionally. Now we are moving to the protracted phase. Acting quickly at the start serves all parties better.
Turkey has been criticizing the international community’s lack of support.
I have to say that I’m disappointed. I have to acknowledge that there has been a substantial response from the international community [to our request of assistance for Jordan and Lebanon]. In the case of Turkey I think there was some confusion. Many partners thought “Well, Turkey will manage it,” because it has resources of its own and it has a capacity to undertake such actions.
What would you suggest Turkey should do in order to garner more support?
We are discussing with Turkey how to remove any impression that because it is a wealthier country it should receive less support.
Do you think the problem is only limited to that? There were also claims that Turkey does not want monitoring of donations, it just wants countries to donate money.
The rumors that non-civilian actors were using the camps were not helpful either. We are discussing what we can do; the UNHCR is gathering partners within the U.N. system but also within the civil society. Three years ago very few people would have imagined that it would have come to this point, but right now everybody is needed.
But NGOs were not allowed initially. And the UNHCR is criticized for sometimes being too gentle with host governments. Perhaps you should have told the Turks from the beginning to be open to NGOs.
Who said we did not? You can see the results. At the beginning the NGOs were not accredited but now we have around 30 accredited NGOs [working on the issue].
Our job is not to criticize. Our job is to provide refugee protection. And in the last three-and-a-half years I would challenge anyone to find any other state in the world that has received as many refugees as Turkey
Any news on the resettlement issue?
Last year, at our executive committee meeting, we raised the issue of resettlement. We asked states around the world for their commitment. We have over 17 million refugees worldwide. In any given year, only around 100,000 are resettled, so the odds are very small. We asked states to look at the increasing crisis and asked them to relax everything possible to allow access to their state. We had positive results with our traditional resettlement partners, but we also had positive responses from countries that had never participated in the program before. It was a good response, but we need more. That’s why the registration system in Turkey is important. In order to make referrals for resettlement, we need very robust systems in Turkey. It is important that we are able to identify the right persons. With the case of Turkey, we already had one of the largest resettlement operations in the world. Last year we settled over 10,000 people in Turkey.
Do you think the fact that Europeans have been complaining about European jihadists using Turkey as a path to Syria had any effects on refugee policies?
Well, I can’t speak too much about that. It goes into the layers of security and these aren’t refugee issues. Now, of course, the armed opposition includes many foreign fighters. So it’s important that states have good cooperation, in order to know and understand the difference between someone moving because they have faced circumstances that no human being should ever be put in, and someone who is there to cause those circumstances.
Who is Carol Batchelor
Carol Batchelor has served as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Representative to Turkey since June 2010.
Previously, Batchelor was the first director of the UNHCR Ethics Office, which she opened in 2008. Prior to this, she served as the Chief of Mission for UNHCR operations covering India and the Maldives. She also served as Senior Legal Officer in the Department of International Protection at UNHCR headquarters, spearheading the expansion of the international legal framework and UNHCR’s mandate on statelessness during the 1990s.
Prior to working at the UNHCR, Batchelor worked in the private sector, including as director of operations at the U.S. firm Media Marketing, as consultant to Japan-based Terrada Investment, and as law associate in the Los Angeles and London offices of Mayer, Brown and Platt.