Closed Doors, Open Secrets: How the World Abandoned Millions of Syrian Refugees in Turkey
“The house is expensive. The water is expensive. The electricity is expensive. The bread is expensive.”
Nuwal is 30 years old and she speaks slowly and deliberately as she tells me about her family’s problems since they fled Syria four years ago.
Most Syrian adults are not able to work in Turkey. Most of their kids are not able to go to school. They receive the promise of medical aid from the government, but few are able to access doctors because the hospitals are overrun. As a condition of their protection in Turkey, refugees are forbidden from applying for formal asylum or legal “refugee” status. Each year, they register with the government as “temporary” and pray that this status won’t be revoked.
Life in Turkey is difficult, but they’re stuck, Nuwal’s friend Ali explains.
He says that most Syrian refugees would like to leave Turkey, “But trying to go to Europe would cost at least $2,000.” He says there are no jobs in Turkey to raise those funds.
Even if they had the money, which they don’t, going to Europe is almost impossible now. Refugees who go by foot find closed gates and fences along the way. NATO has set up ships in the Aegean Sea. Last year, 489,000 Syrian refugees went from Turkey to Greece through the Aegean. At least 239 refugees died along the way.
Despite how desperately Syrians want to leave Turkey, they are sentenced to stay there. This month, hundreds of refugees who fled Turkey were actually shipped back. In a deal with the European Union, Turkey agreed to take back thousands of refugees in Greece in exchange for $6.7 billion from the European Union. It’s not clear who will receive this funding, the Turkish government or aid groups.
But Nuwal, for one, is unlikely to see the money.
I. Turkish Government Tactics Lead to Secrecy
THE SITUATION ON THE GROUND
Turkey is now host to 2.7 million Syrian refugees, more refugees than any country in the world. For Europe, Turkey’s “open door” policy has been a godsend. But for Syrians, like Nuwal, prospects in Turkey are bleak, and getting worse.
The Turkish government says it has spent $10 billion on the refugee problem since the war in Syria began. But it’s hard to tell just where the money went because the government hasn’t told anyone. For now, the world can only guess.
Processing and paperwork for 2.7 million new residents is expensive. Increased security is certainly also an expense. The refugee camps are most expensive of all. Nearly 300,000 people live in camps in Turkey, which offer healthcare, food and school for Syrian children. It’s possible that those items alone, over the course of five years, cost $10 billion.
Putting aside the startling figure of $10 billion, it’s easy to see that most refugees in Turkey have received no aid. None at all.
The vast majority – 85 to 90% – of refugees in Turkey are like Nuwal; they don’t live in camps. More than 2 million people are dispersed in cities and towns, in shanties and empty rooms, rented for a hundred dollars a month. Refugee children work illegally in factories for slave wages and beg in the streets. They are hungry and desperate.
To figure this out, all a person has to do is ask and look around a little. And in other humanitarian situations, that’s what people would do. International aid groups would send out surveyors with clipboards and calculators. Journalists would investigate and hold the government to account.
Basic questions in humanitarian disasters include: Who needs aid? What kind of aid? How much do they need? Why aren’t they getting it? Has the government failed? No one has asked these questions in Turkey, in part, because asking them can get you arrested.
JOURNALISTS IN DANGER
In 2012, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists published a report, “Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis,” which identified Turkey as more dangerous to journalists than China, Iran or Eritrea. Following publication of the report, freedom of expression in Turkey has only gotten worse.
Between 2014 and 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan filed charges of “insulting the president” more than 1,800 times against his critics. Turkey arrested more journalists than any other country in the world in 2015.
In August, two British journalists from VICE were arrested in Turkey and charged with “terrorism.” In November, the editor of the major independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet, and its bureau chief of the nation’s capital Ankara were arrested and charged with espionage and aiding a terrorist group. They published a story that accused the government of sending weapons to Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid.
In January, dozens of academicians were rounded up and sent to jail after signing a petition that called for an end to violence against Kurdish civilians. In early March, the government raided and took over the most widely circulated Turkish newspaper, Zaman, and its English-language partner, Today’s Zaman. Thousands of protesters in Istanbul were met with teargas and rubber bullets.
Overt censorship has led to self-censorship and critical reporting from Turkey has almost disappeared. Sevgi Akarcesme is the Editor of Today’s Zaman, and she refuses to resign her position despite the government’s actions against the paper. At an event in Brussels, she warned that the strangling of press freedom is a bellwether.
“Turkey is hell for journalists,” she said. “It should be hell for people soon.”
AID ORGANIZATIONS ON A TIGHTROPE
International aid organizations face similar limits in Turkey. Aid groups have intervened successfully in Lebanon and Jordan, but in Turkey reports indicate the government is blocking their access to refugees who aren’t in camps. Even though this fact is well-known among humanitarians, aid groups are not drawing attention to it.
Aid groups who criticize the President or his government could face expulsion, or worse. Currently only 16 foreign aid organizations are legally approved by the government to provide direct aid to Turkey. That aid is mostly limited to the 272,000 people in camps along the country’s border.
Because many groups are not allowed to operate in Turkey, they are forced to hide their activities. On the United Nations website for Financial Tracking, international organizations operating in Turkey are obscured. Minutes from humanitarian coordination meetings, which would typically include the names of people present, are anonymous.
Although private “partners” spent $38 million in Turkey last year, the United Nations lists their projects only as “Various.” On the website of AmeriCares, for example, the organization states that they spent more than $1 million on direct medical aid in Turkey and Jordan. But the organization is not approved by the government to operate in Turkey. Their contribution to Syrian refugees in Turkey is not individually identifiable in the primary humanitarian tracking system.
Job postings for international organizations reveal that many organizations are operating secretly in Turkey. Handicap International makes no mention of their operations in Turkey on their website. But last month their US office advertised six job postings that are based in Istanbul or Gaziantep. The postings stated the organization “is already active in Turkey” and even conducted a needs assessment in the country in 2015. Handicap International declined to provide the needs assessment to Aid.Works. A spokesperson for Handicap International was unable to comment.
Adam Smith International, a consulting firm, is one of the biggest quasi-aid operations in Turkey. They are working on a rule of law project in Syria, among others. The organization, based in the UK, currently advertises four positions based in Istanbul to establish “a very large multi-donor trust fund” with activities in Turkey. But they are not listed by the Turkish government as an approved civil society organization, and on their website, it appears they do not work in Turkey.
Lack of transparency in accounting is normal in humanitarian responses, but this level of obfuscation is extremely uncommon. Aid workers, speaking on the condition of anonymity because their jobs would be threatened, say that international organizations have various tactics to avoid the oppressive legal environment in Turkey. They are doing so in order to keep their operations alive – both in Turkey and Syria.
Some organizations operate only via local partner organizations, sending money to local groups while retaining international staff to oversee those groups. Meanwhile, their international staff works in the country on tourist visas. Other organizations operate as tax-paying companies. To pay local partner groups, they either bring in undeclared cash by hand, or use hawalas, a largely unregulated cash-based remittance system.
Because Turkey is not considered a failed state or under siege in any way, humanitarian protocol is that the sovereignty of the country must be respected. In the case of Syria, the war itself has made the country immune to these finer legal points. Numerous aid organizations are open about their humanitarian activities in Syria. There are some notable exceptions, however. Aid groups tend not to talk about government funded activities, even when they make up the majority of international aid. For example, the US Department of State has budgeted $238 million on foreign aid to Syria this year. This figure includes $175 million of “Economic Support Funds.”
Economic Support Funding primarily provides cash to “friendly” Syrian civil society groups, with the hope that our aid will bypass President Assad and support democracy. Identifying which Syrian groups are friendly and which groups are actually just a cover for terrorists is very time-consuming and expensive. The programs to identify such groups and find ways to send them money are run by American non-government organizations, many operating out of Turkey.
Whereas organizations are open about aid like schools, water or food, pro-democracy aid is rarely mentioned. On their websites, groups obscure information about programs linked to Economic Support Funding. Like the UN financial tracking system, most of these contracts are listed in US foreign aid budgets with a generic “various” designation.
Organizations combine private and public funding in complex ways that understandably lead to both private and public programming, and private and public messaging. In the Syrian refugee response, organizations seem led by secret goals. They are motivated by hidden outcomes. There are named partners and unnamed partners. Donors really don’t know where their money is going. But the people who suffer most in this political puzzle are the people in need.
II. Needs of Non-Camp Refugees are Vast, Unknown
CHALLENGES IN ACCOUNTABILITY
As aid groups scramble for access to Syria via Turkey, they are mysteriously silent on the millions of refugees in need at their doorstep. For those who are doing discreet work inside Turkey for the benefit of refugees, it is impossible to see how money is being spent. It’s clear that very little aid is going anywhere outside of the camps. At the same time, no one knows what the needs of refugees in Turkey really are.
The Turkish government has blocked international organizations’ access to data. A major report from the United Nations and other partners, including the International Organization for Migration, says there are “no reliable estimates” on the number of people in need inside Turkey. International aid groups do not have the authority, they say, to conduct needs assessments and if the Turkish government has conducted them, they are not sharing.
Registration of refugees is controlled by the Turkish government. Except in rare cases, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is forbidden from registering refugees, and they do not have access to the government’s registry. Only broad statistical data is publicly available. As a result, the names, needs and location of refugees are unknown to the international community. In an annual progress report, the UN admitted they are in the dark and unable to measure accountability of aid in Turkey:
“In the absence of access to population registration information and varying levels of permission to conduct assessments and surveys, the challenge remains for … partners to establish a concrete accountability framework to monitor and evaluate the impact of the interventions.”
AID OUTSIDE OF CAMPS
Over the past five years, only one small study on refugee needs was made public. In 2014, the Turkish government surveyed 1,200 families who live outside of camps. The survey indicated that 97% of female Syrians in Turkey could not find jobs. They were also hungry. The report noted that “78 percent of the respondents indicated not having a sufficient amount of food for the next seven days, nor having money to purchase it.”
Food aid, which is typically one of the least controversial types of assistance, has barely reached the urban or non-camp refugees. In an annual progress report, the World Food Program and other non-named “actors” say they reached only 150,000 people outside of camps in 2015. Based on common reporting limitations, it’s not clear for how many months or days those people were helped. In terms of food aid, the noted 150,000 people number is very small.
This year, the World Food Program hopes to provide food aid to 585,000 non-camp refugees in Turkey. Zoie Jones, a spokesperson for the World Food Program, told a reporter that they believe 2.3 million people are in need. But the aid is contingent on funding. Last year, WFP only received 67% of the funding they requested for Turkey. As a result, WFP had to cut off food aid to nine refugee camps. The Turkish government stepped in and provided the aid, Jones says.
When funding is limited, humanitarian aid goes to camps first, and often, last. The camps continue to receive aid while urban refugees will not. The non-camp refugees, like Nuwal and Ali, have no formal relationship with aid groups, so they have no one to ask for help. To distribute food outside of the camps, Jones says, “We work very closely with the Government to identify areas and/or families to be visited.”
NON-CAMP SETTINGS – A BEST PRACTICE?
According to the current thinking in humanitarian aid, what’s happening in Turkey now is actually a best practice. For decades, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has been trying to nail down a policy on how to deal with refugees in non-camp settings. Their policy statements typically set precedent for the aid community as a whole. Prior to the Syrian refugee crisis, UNHCR’s goal was for refugees to never be in a camp unless absolutely necessary.
The position has some merit. Camps can become prisons, where people are relegated to wait for help and can’t achieve the dignity of a real life. Camps are also dangerous. In the African continent, especially, history has shown that rebel groups and criminals can and will use camps to hide predators or find new prey. Governments, too, may abuse the camp system, and when political winds shift, they can swiftly turn them into detention centers.
But where camps have a strict advantage is in the distribution of aid. The logistics are easy and the people in need are at hand. In urban or dispersed settings, like the one in Turkey, it is much harder to reach refugees and identify them for the purpose of aid distribution. So far, no one has solved that problem.
Jeff Crisp is a research fellow at the Refugee Study Center in Oxford. He previously worked for UNHCR and he helped write the UNHCR Policy on Alternatives to Camps.
“Since the policy was introduced,” he says, “UNHCR’s been doing a number of things to try and improve its outreach to refugees in urban areas, such as, you know, telephone help, hotlines, information campaigns, mobile kind of registration teams that move around to try and contact people.”
In Turkey, hotlines and information campaigns are pretty pointless since the agency is not allowed to help in most cases. The government-dictated role of UNHCR is to “provide technical advice” to the Turkish government. And while the agency says it has mobile teams roving the country, striving for “understanding” of the situation of refugees, they haven’t published anything so far about what they found. Reaching urban refugees was already a huge, intransigent problem. Reaching them while in the context of an opaque government, like Turkey’s, makes the task impossible.
CHILDREN WORK WHILE PARENTS CANNOT
Complex needs assessments aren’t really necessary. Walk through the streets of any town in Turkey, and it’s clear that the government, and the world, has failed these urban refugees. In Eastern Turkey especially, Syrian children shuffle through the streets most mornings, no backpacks, no books. They are on their way to work in factories where many earn less than $1 an hour.
Groups which usually take up the issue of child labor, like the International Labor Organization, have been silent on the problem in Turkey. But in Lebanon, where they are allowed to conduct studies, the ILO found that 78% of Syrian refugee children were sent to work. In Jordan, more than half of children were working.
UNICEF, along with the US-based organization, Save the Children, issued a report on child labor in the region, “Small Hands, Heavy Burden.” The report cites data from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, but none from Turkey. The report hardly mentions Turkey at all, even though most Syrian refugee children live in Turkey.
As noted earlier, few Syrian children are able to go to school in Turkey, despite their legal right to do so. The Turkish government has registered approximately 929,000 school-age children from Syria. Seventy thousand of these children have access to schools in refugee camps. Outside of camps, the vast majority of Syrian children do not go to school. According to data from Human Rights Watch, from 2014 to 2015, public schools in Turkey registered only 36,655 Syrian children.
With children not attending schools, their parents are more likely to send them to work. Syrian children are working because their parents can’t. Adult Syrian refugees are legally permitted to work in Turkey, but to date the government has only issued about 7,351 work permits, that’s less than 0.3% of adult refugees. The employment rules are complex, limiting Syrians by quotas and to certain industries.
Nuwal’s children are too little to work in factories. Instead, her five-year-old daughter, Marya, begs on the street near their home. Every day she walks up and down the block, past an old Armenian church, hustling for change.
Once in a while, her mom says, the cops bring her home and reprimand her. Marya always goes back out. She is relentless. She frowns, she pouts, she pulls at the edge of a man’s coat.
“Please,” she implores in Turkish, “my mom is dead.”
Not true at all. But she knows that’s what people want to hear. Marya earns about $1.70 a day by begging.
III. EU, Greece Unwilling and Unable to Cope
DEAL PENNED IN CHAOTIC ENVIRONMENT
Despite a lack of transparency in Turkey and the negative environment, foreign governments are eager for the country to take in even more refugees so that they don’t have to do so themselves. From the shores of Greece to the snowy fields of Norway, Syrians fleeing the war find themselves unwelcome and unwanted.
Around the world, the news on any given day shows the chaos surrounding the refugee issue. Hungary fires tear gas, water cannon at refugees. Refugees drown in a swollen river. Refugees drown off Turkey’s coast. In Macedonia, refugees break through a border fence using a “home-made battering ram.” In France, their refugee camp is demolished.
In 2013, Europe and the Balkan states registered 52,755 Syrians. In 2014, they registered 127,890. Last year, they registered 383,740 and the doors slammed shut.
Turkey is the only country to border both Syria and the European Union, which gives them enormous power to decide the fate of refugees. Turkish President Erdogan has made it clear that they can and will “wave through” refugees passing to Europe, if they want.
“We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria any time and we can put the refugees on buses,” Erdogan has reportedly said.
In lieu of buses, the refugees are paying human traffickers to take boats. Daniel Szabo is a Communications Officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). His office collects data to track missing and dead migrants, who often risk their lives to reach Europe. “They are driven by a desire for a better life,” he says.
The Missing Migrants Project has recorded the historic increases in traffic to Greece and Italy through the Eastern Mediterranean route, via Turkey.
“Last year it was a different route,” Szabo says, “the Central Mediterranean. We saw a shift this year to the Eastern Med, which is shorter, and yet with the amount of people coming through there, it’s turning out to be deadly in its own right.”
IOM estimates 3,770 people died in the Mediterranean in 2015. The numbers are probably much higher, since many refugees are never recovered.
THE SITUATION ON KASELLORIZO, A GREEK ISLAND
The tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo is more than 300 miles from mainland Greece. But it is only one mile from Turkey. It’s so close that in warm weather, some Syrian refugees just risk it and swim the distance.
When volunteer Shellie Corman arrived on Kastellorizo in February, she found that it wasn’t exactly the way she remembered. Corman has lived in Turkey for many years and decided to travel to the Greek island to help out with the refugees. Secluded, pristine beaches that were once an oasis for tourists are now “stacked with life jackets and plastic debris.”
On her first day there, she was briefed by a few members of Medicin Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders). Her goal was simply to meet the boats of people arriving and give them dry clothes, if they needed it. The aid workers cautioned her that patience on the island among locals is running thin.
“I really can empathize with the local population,” Corman said in an interview via Skype. “I know this island. I’ve been here before as a tourist.”
She said, “[Ordinarily] it’s a very clean island. It’s not clean right now, when people have nowhere to sleep and nowhere to [go to the bathroom]…”
Sanitation is just one of the challenges faced by small communities who are the front edge of the European Union. Kastellorizo has a permanent population of only 200 people. At times, as many as 900 Syrian refugees have been stranded there.
From Kastellorizo, refugees hope to take ferries to mainland Greece. They don’t always have the money to continue on. Sometimes they think they’re already in mainland Greece. For many reasons, refugees often get stuck here too.
CLOTHING THOSE ARRIVING BY BOAT
Shortly after Corman came to Kastellorizo, a boat of 150 refugees arrived in the middle of the night. Working with a “ragtag group of volunteers” in a former schoolhouse, she helped the refugees get into dry clothes. The refugees were soaking wet from the boat trip and stunned.
In an online journal on Facebook, she wrote to friends about her experience: “We spent 2 hours giving clothes … to a very poor group. Two women and a total of 13 kids ranging in age from 12 to a few months old. At one point at least nine of them were HOWLING in unison, and it took great fortitude to keep on trying different jackets and shoes. We managed it and all drank a few glasses of wine as a reward to ourselves for managing to get them ready for their journey.”
The volunteers distributed clothing donated from Greece and Turkey. They had organized the items by size, to make it easier to tend to the children.
“They looked like they were in pretty bad shape,” Corman says. “Unwashed for a month or two, not healthy. Sores on their face, no shoes. Little tiny babies, completely filthy.”
The schoolhouse distribution center was the last remaining vestige of organized aid on the island. On one refugee family’s first night stuck on Kastellorizo, a local Albanian man brought them a dinner of spaghetti. The next night, two Australian-Greek entrepreneurs opened the doors of their restaurant to give the family dinner. But as the doctors had warned her, the spirit of generosity was “waning.”
“They have closed the hall that was being used for sleeping,” she wrote. “And generally [the islanders] feel that the more they provide for refugees, the more they will encourage new arrivals.”
HUGE SETBACK / LOCAL RESISTANCE
When Corman woke the next night to a great commotion at 3:30 a.m., she assumed another boat of refugees had arrived. Instead, the volunteers were told their clothing distribution center was on fire.
“We all ran to see what was happening, although from the window of our room we could see the flames,” she wrote. “When we arrived, there was a small group of refugees and locals standing in front of the building watching the fire, which had by then completely burned out the center, the large palm trees behind had caught fire, and there were a few people with a small hose and a few buckets. A futile effort to quell the flames.
“This appears to be a clear message by some of the locals, to let all of us and the refugees know that we are not welcome.”
Local police sent an arson investigator to the site, but days of rain following the fire made it impossible for them to find any evidence. If it was arson, it’s likely that locals know the culprit. On an island of 200 people, it’s hard to keep secrets.
“I didn’t expect something like that on a small island like this,” Corman told me. “The place was totally gutted because, I mean, it was packed with things. It was full – full – of jeans and jackets and shoes and slippers and hats and gloves and underwear and clothes for babies.
“The place must’ve been burning for at least half an hour,” she said. “The fire was so strong, it seemed like it was doused with gasoline. People are in shock.”
There is very little data about the frequency of arson attacks on refugee centers in Europe.
But a recent investigation by ZEIT ONLINE and DIE ZEIT found that in Germany alone in 2015, there were 93 arson attacks against refugee centers with people still inside. In Sweden, dozens of shelters were set on fire in 2015. In Greece, just last month, two former military barracks, which were slated to house refugees, were set on fire.
The European Union has been desperate, given the unpopularity of opening the borders, to quell the influx of Syrians via Turkey. Recognizing this, Turkey began negotiating a deal with the European Union to tighten the borders in exchange for financial support. The deal fell apart in late 2015. As President Erdogan had promised, the floodgates opened even further.
Minutes of a meeting from November were recently released:
“So how will you deal with refugees if you don’t get a deal?” Erdogan asked the European delegates. “Kill the refugees?”
Initially, the EU promised about $3 billion in exchange for Turkey monitoring its borders. After the deal faltered, an additional 144,899 people entered Greece. A new deal for $6.7 billion was struck this month.
“We do not have the word ‘idiot’ written on our foreheads,” Erdogan has said.
Heading into negotiations in March, the Prime Minister of Belgium said Turkey’s tactics “at times resembles a form of blackmail.”
Last week, when it appeared that the promised funds were still not forthcoming, President Erdogan falsely claimed that 3 million refugees are “being fed on our budget.”
“We have received lots of thanks for our action on the refugees and in the fight against terrorism. But we are not doing this for thanks,” he added.
AN OPEN TURKEY AMONGST THE BACKLASH
The backlash against refugees has extended everywhere, it seems. Australia is offshoring refugees on remote islands. In the United States, where relatively few Syrians end up, more than half of all state governors are refusing to allow them in. So far, the US federal government hasn’t challenged those states.
Andreas Needham is a Communications Officer for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. The organization helps refugees find permanent placement when they flee their home country. This differs from temporary placement or irregular migration, in which refugees’ futures are less known.
Via email, Needham says UNHCR resettled 15,800 Syrian refugees between 2013 and 2015.
“However it is likely,” Needham writes, “that the actual number of departures of Syrians from neighboring countries is far higher – as not all data is shared by States with UNHCR – and that approximately one-third of the 170,000 Syrian refugees for which places were pledged actually departed.”
Some refugees may have been placed without the knowledge of UNHCR and the organization says they are working on better data collection. But given these numbers, in a best case scenario, only 55,000 Syrian refugees out of 4.8 million who need homes have found one – anywhere in the world. Countries have “pledged” 170,000 places for Syrians and, by and large, are not making good on those pledges.
UNHCR resettled 15,800 Syrian refugees between 2013 and 2015.
It is curious that Turkey was willing to take so many. Initially, they may not have had a choice. When thousands of people walk into your country, what can you do? Turkey also had a political agenda. For the past decade, since the EU rebuffed Turkey’s efforts to join Europe, President Erdogan has been formulating a plan to solidify his power base among Arab states in the region. Millions of grateful refugees means more loyal followers.
The primary reason Turkey took so many refugees is that it cost them little to do so. Turkey offered them almost nothing. And to ensure they don’t ever have to offer them anything, they refuse to call them “refugees.” At first, they were called “guests” and now they are “temporary” foreigners. “Refugees” have clear rights, in terms of international law. Turkey has managed to sidestep these laws.
IV. Turkey and the 1951 Convention on the Rights of Refugees
INTERNATIONAL POLICIES RELATIVELY NEW
Although international human rights law now forms a theoretical framework to protect people fleeing violence, this wasn’t always the case. Susan Martin is Professor of International Migration in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the author of the book, International Migration: Evolving Trends from the Early 20th Century to the Present.
“The concept of a refugee is very old,” she says. “But the idea of there being international responsibility to assist and protect refugees is really a twentieth century concept that didn’t really exist before.”
It’s really only after the Holocaust that the system begins to take hold.
International bodies like the League of Nations and the High Commissioner for Refugees (now known as UNHCR) existed in the 1920s, but they were not very active. They helped during the Greece and Turkey population exchanges following World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, for example. Then in the 1930s, those humanitarian efforts ground to a halt.
“Governments did nothing to save the refugees from Nazi Germany or to help more people to get out and become refugees,” Martin explains. “So it’s really only after the Holocaust that the system begins to take hold.”
In the shadow of the Holocaust, members of the newly formed United Nations wrote and signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention was designed to protect people displaced by World War II, but over the years it has continued to serve as the “key legal document” of international refugee law.
1951 CONVENTION PRINCIPLES
The 1951 convention establishes some of the core rights of refugees, including “non-refoulement,” which says it is forbidden to forcibly return someone to a place where their life is threatened. Once a refugee arrives in a safe country, the 1951 Convention says they cannot be sent back if they have a “well-founded” fear of persecution.
Other basic principles of the convention say that refugees should not be discriminated against based on where they are from and should not be penalized for being a refugee. For example, refugees fleeing to another country should not be arrested for doing so. They should also be allowed to earn money to care for themselves and be given some form of identification.
Over the years, more than 145 countries signed on to the 1951 Convention, though many have not, including the United States. Most Asian countries are not signatories, nor are many countries in the Middle East. Lebanon and Jordan are not signatories.
Since the law was written primarily for World War II victims, it was later updated to apply to any refugee. The 1967 update to the Convention changed the language of the agreement and specified that a “refugee” can be from anywhere and will still be protected. In a twist that has thrown human rights organizations on their heads, Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Convention – but in the 1967 update, they maintain a “geographical exception” to the law.
As a result, in Turkey, “refugees” are only defined as people from Europe. In the modern era, few refugees are actually from Europe; most are from the area known as the “global South.” But should thousands of Norwegians suddenly flee Norway, rest assured they would be called “refugees” in Turkey. Following this designation, Norwegian refugees would be allowed to register with UNHCR for resettlement. Each Norwegian would be interviewed individually to see if they should be allowed asylum as refugees. Syrians are not.
HISTORY, AS A GUIDE, IN TURKEY?
Despite centuries of migration to Turkey, the country has a troubled history with non-citizens. Turkey was founded on the notion of a particular “Turkish” ethnic and cultural identity. It has been a problematic position for the country, since it is situated in a region with dozens of different ethnicities, religions and linguistic traditions. Over the years, many minority groups, most notably the Armenians and Kurdish people, faced expulsion in Turkey.
Kurdish people make up an estimated 15 to 20% of Turkey’s population. Kurds live throughout the region in northern Syria and Iraq, and also Iran. Until 1983, it was illegal in Turkey for a person to speak the Kurdish language in the street. Until 2012, it was illegal to learn Kurdish in a Turkish school. Their political rights remain highly restricted.
Turkey faces an ongoing battle with Kurdish terrorist groups, eager for independence. In January, the Turkish town of Cizre was under siege for six weeks as troops moved in to battle suspected Kurdish militants. More than 100,000 people were forced to flee. In retaliation, a Kurdish terrorist group known as the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK) carried out two bombings in Ankara in February and March. The suicide attacks killed 65 people. In the midst of this highly politicized terrorist threat, innocent Kurdish people remain vulnerable to mistreatment in Turkey.
The “Kurdish problem,” as it’s known in the region, isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Complicating matters further, the US government, in defiance of Turkish objections, has been funding and training Kurdish militias in Syria with the aim to bring down Assad. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how many Syrian refugees identify as Kurdish. Do you speak Kurdish? is likely one of the questions that UNHCR would ask refugees, were they allowed to register them in Turkey.
COMPLEXITIES OF TURKEY’S PRACTICES
Initially, when Syrians fled the war to neighboring Turkey, they were called “guests” through an informal policy that didn’t really amount to a law. In 2014, under pressure from the European Union, the country implemented its first-ever comprehensive law related to migration. It also created, for the first time, a government agency which directs these policies, the General Directorate for Migration Management (GDMM).
Writing any law at all was a step in the right direction. But the legal protections under the law are weakened because of Turkey’s “geographic exception” to the 1951 Convention. It’s the new Turkish law that says the Syrian people fleeing the war may apply for “temporary protection.” Essentially, they are allowed to live in Turkey, but not forever.
The new law states that Syrians under “temporary protection” have the right to education, basic healthcare and work under limited conditions. But on the ground, resources are under pressure and their access is limited.
Andrew Schoenholtz, a Professor from Practice and Director of Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute. He is an expert on the 1951 Convention. He notes that Turkey’s refugee policies have been a topic of contention among human rights lawyers for many years.
“Years ago I had heard critiques of the system,” he says, “because [Turkey] used to require asylum seekers to apply within seven days. Then they liberalized and made it fourteen days. It was always a problematic asylum system, particularly because they weren’t ever recognizing non-Europeans as refugees.”
Turkey now has a law that applies some rights to Syrians. Unfortunately, the passage of a law alone doesn’t determine whether Turkey can or will live up to its standards. Refugees are driven by the reality on the ground, not promises.
“At the end of the day,” Schoenholtz says, “if you think about why people have moved on [from Turkey], my guess is that a number of people gave up hope that things would change in Syria. And there’s no reason to believe, at this point, that they’re wrong about that, unfortunately. And how long will people put up with what is essentially an inhospitable country to stay in?”
V. The “1 for 1” Deal
REMOVING SYRIAN REFUGEES FROM GREECE
Like a Syrian family of 13 who Shellie Corman fitted with dry clothes, more than 57,000 refugees are now stranded in Greece. Countries north of Greece have tightened their borders and are no longer allowing refugees to enter. Europeans know that the Syrians don’t want to stay in Greece, and if they could find a way out, they would certainly keep walking to friendlier, richer Central European countries.
As a result of this continental freezing of borders, many of the 57,000 Syrians in Greece right now are trapped in camps. Whereas a few weeks ago, they were just staying in the camps on their way somewhere else, they are now unable to go anywhere. Aid groups say this is equivalent to being “arbitrarily detained,” which is in violation of the 1951 Convention on refugees.
For some refugees in Greece, the situation is even worse. According to the new EU deal with Turkey, any refugee who arrives to a Greek island after March 20 will be sent back to Turkey. The deal states that for every refugee Turkey takes back from Greece, the EU will take a refugee from a camp on the Syrian border.
It is being called the “1 for 1” deal. Of course, to sweeten it, Turkey will receive $6.7 billion. They also negotiated an agreement that will allow Turkish citizens to travel in the EU without a visa, which was previously prohibited. Swapping refugees around like baseball cards is drawing criticism from aid groups and experts.
Medicin Sans Frontiers / Doctors without Borders has withdrawn from a few of these Greek camps, stating on their website:
European leaders have completely lost track of reality and the deal [between] the EU and Turkey is one of the clearest examples of their cynicism. For each refugee that will risk his life at sea and will be summarily sent back to Turkey, another one may have the chance to reach Europe from Turkey under a proposed resettlement scheme. This crude calculation reduces people to mere numbers, denying them humane treatment and discarding their right to seek protection.
IS TURKEY A SAFE COUNTRY?
The UN refugee agency has repeatedly said they are not party to the EU/Turkey deal. But their mandated role to look after the welfare of refugees does require that they be involved in some aspects of it. In Greece, UNHCR will continue to monitor the situation, but they are no longer taking refugees to certain camps, since they “have now become detention facilities.”
In regards to the broader EU/Turkey deal, returning Syrians to Turkey, the agency is more circumspect. Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, recently addressed the Chamber of the European Parliament. “As a first reaction,” he said. “I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law.”
On March 23, UNHCR issued legal guidance on the EU/ Turkey deal. They noted that EU law requires that when refugees are sent to a “safe third country,” their human rights must be protected just like they would be in the original country. In other words, Turkey must be as safe for refugees as Greece is. The EU law mentions “adequate standards of living, work rights, health care and education.” Refugees must be protected from persecution based on religious ideas or social identity.
None of these rights is a given in Turkey, which is why numerous organizations came out against the deal. The core right of refugees — to be protected from “refoulement” — is even in question in Turkey. On April 1, Amnesty International released a report that indicated Turkey is returning refugees to Syria. Over the past few months, thousands may have been returned, including women and children. Amnesty says their research confirms “a practice that is an open secret in the region.”
REFUGEE NEED SHOULDN’T BE SURPRISING
As the world struggles to find homes for refugees, the war in Syria has brought the country to its knees. The estimated death toll is 470,000. Much of Syria’s industry and infrastructure has been destroyed. In 2015, the Center for Strategic and International Studies conducted an analysis of Syria’s post-war future. It found that “Syria will require a massive construction effort for every aspect of governance, its economy, and its social and physical infrastructure.”
The country is unable to export oil. Many regions are controlled by ISIS. Air and ground assaults have devastated major cities. Each day it becomes increasingly unlikely that refugees will want to go back, even when the war ends.
Guy Goodwin-Gill is a European lawyer and Emeritus Professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford. He is one of Europe’s most outspoken advocates for a more humane, collective approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. While international agencies and governments are scrambling to solve these problems, he contends that “none of this should’ve come as a surprise to anyone.
“One of the sad things is that people have always been surprised,” he says, “ever since 1921 when they first got together internationally and decided to do something about refugees. They assumed that refugees would be a temporary phenomenon, a blip in the relations between states, and they set up one temporary agency after another.”
None of this should’ve come as a surprise to anyone.
Until 2003, UNHCR was on five-year renewable mandates. But even after changing this status, the agency has been unable to reliably fund its services.
“UNHCR still has to act as if it’s a temporary agency,” he says, “running around every year to raise money, instead of being entitled to budget on the basis of a regular income, with the necessary allowance being made for emergencies.”
Refugee crises like this one have happened time and again. “But sadly,” Goodwin-Gill says, “states tend to go in for a great deal of wishful thinking. They like to think that every refugee exodus is short term; that the war will soon be over. Everyone will go back. Well, experience ought to tell us otherwise, but they do not seem to be particularly able to learn from experience.”
MIGRANTS… THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Since the war sped up in Syria about a year ago, and the numbers of refugees increased, many articles and experts have pointed out that the world hasn’t seen a refugee crisis like this since World War II. The statement is only true if the terms are carefully defined. While “refugee” crises may be rare in Europe, “migrants” are not.
“The elephant in the room is the migration issue,” says Guy Goodwin-Gill, “because that’s something which states, and the US is no exception here, are not prepared … to work cooperatively on.”
The term “migrant” usually refers to someone fleeing economic problems. While it is considered illegal to send someone back to a war, sending them back to a terrible, poor country isn’t. In the case of a formerly, or intermittently, war-torn country the difference between an economic migrant and a conflict-fleeing refugee is especially unclear.
Since January, 475,902 Syrians have fled to Greece. Many of these refugees are now stranded in various camps. But with them, on boats and in buses, are the victims of older wars. More than 205,000 Afghans fled to Greece in 2016. Almost 90,000 Iraqis have also made the journey. Most moved on to other European countries.
Around the world, Iraqis and Afghans face stricter policies and definitions that leave them out of asylum schemes. The UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, faced a backlash from human rights advocates when he called the refugees in the French camp in Calais a “bunch of migrants,” then compared them to criminals trying to rob his country.
“They are economic migrants,” he said, “and they want to enter Britain illegally and the British people and I want to make sure our borders are secure and you can’t break into Britain without permission.”
An appeals court in the UK recently ruled that Afghanistan is “safe enough” for refugees in the UK to return home. Though parts of Afghanistan are still controlled by terrorists, the courts ruled that the country’s capital is safe. They are now deporting Afghans via special charter flights to Kabul.
Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are now grouped together in European camps. It could be said that all of them are fleeing war or violence. But determining who has a legitimate claim to protection under international law is time-consuming and countries sometimes enlist specialized experts to interview each person individually. The process is subject to interpretation.
The 1951 Convention requires a “well-founded fear of persecution.” In his work on the subject, Georgetown law professor Andrew Schoenholtz describes how the US and Canada sometimes give protection to people from Central America. Sometimes they don’t. Drug-funded gangs use death threats, rape, torture and forced recruitment to terrorize entire cities and states in Central America. Gangs can co-opt governments and police forces, making justice inaccessible.
“US military analysts characterize this as ‘asymmetrical warfare,’” he writes, “or ‘insurgency’ used to establish political control and domination.”
In one immigration case in the US, the applicant received asylum because his gang-related tattoos proved he was affiliated with a targeted group. In another case, a journalist from Mexico was granted protection in Canada because of articles he’d written about organized crime.
People in Mexico undoubtedly have trouble finding honest work in cities controlled by drug cartels. But unless they are fleeing the cartel itself, they are considered an “economic migrant.” Without money to feed their families, and no legal route to US residency, many take their chances in the Sonoran Desert.
Of the 200 or so people “returned” to Turkey from Greece this month, most were not Syrians. Because of this, their fate in Turkey is totally unknown. The country has grudgingly passed laws to protect Syrians, but people fleeing older wars in the region remain unprotected. When the war in Syria ends, Syrians will also be vulnerable to deportation.
WALLS VS. HUMAN NATURE
Human rights distinctions can be easily avoided in one fell swoop. If the fleeing individual never actually sets foot in your country, then the problem lands in a legal gray zone. In the US, presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed building a fence along the southern border with Mexico and, in a truly eccentric political flurry, he suggested Mexico should pay for it.
Since the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis, new fences have popped up in France, Macedonia, Hungary and Turkey. Fences make refugees other people’s problem, or in this case, other countries’ problem. Although fences aren’t necessarily illegal, blocking refugees does run counter to the 1951 Convention, which recommends “that Governments continue to receive refugees in their territories and that they act in concert in a true spirit of international cooperation.”
When a refugee meets a closed door and knocks, they are probably asking for protection. Particularly if a war rages on behind them. But if everyone pretends not to hear them knock, then they can avoid the whole mess. The burden is on the refugee to find a way in, which is why human traffickers continue to make money in spite of police efforts to shut down these criminal enterprises.
Guy Goodwin-Gill says like-minded countries need to rally together because “the future is not in building fences and walls.
“Quite frankly, if you’re desperate, if you’re a migrant indeed, or if you’re a refugee and you see a wall, you’re not suddenly gonna say, ‘Oh dear. Better go home and die, there’s a wall over there.’ Um, no,” he states. “If you’re desperate, you’re going to look around for a way to get under it or over it or through it. That’s human nature. And that’s one of the things that states tend not to recognize: what it is that drives people.”
VI. Syria’s Past, Turkey’s Future
“REFORMER” BECOMES OPPRESSOR
Nothing drives people quite like war. The war in Syria is entering its sixth year, with few signs of abating. It’s been so long and become so muddled, that people forget how the war began. The conflict started in the Syrian city of Daraa when 15 school children were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti on a city wall. “The people want the regime to fall,” their graffiti read.
It was the time of the Arab Spring and the kids were inspired by revolutions in other autocratic nations in the region, including in Tunisia, where the self-immolation of a street vendor became a symbol of righteous anger among the impoverished. In Syria, the arrested schoolkids ranged in age from 10 to 15. While in police custody, they were tortured, and thousands took to the streets in their defense.
Within the region, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad was always considered a dictatorial leader. Trained as an ophthalmologist, he took over the job of president in 2000 from his father, who ruled Syria for 30 years. When he took the job from his father, elections were held, but no one was allowed to run against him. The regime occupied democratic Lebanon until 2005, when that country’s “Cedar Revolution” pushed out Syrian troops.
Despite his disdain for basic democratic principles, many western leaders believed Assad, the son, would be a reformer. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Syria in 2007 and said, “We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace.” Then-Senator John Kerry also believed Assad might break from his father’s totalitarian traditions. “Syria will move,” he said, “Syria will change as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States.”
That didn’t happen.
ASSAD’S VISIONS OF CONSPIRACIES
When Syrian protesters came out to defend the 15 tortured children in March 2011, the government responded with live fire and at least four protesters were killed. A few weeks later, Assad addressed the Syrian Parliament. “Today, there is a new fashion which they call ‘revolutions,’” he said. This particular uprising was not a revolution, he contended, but a well-planned “conspiracy.”
He accused foreign and domestic elements of conspiring to create a misinformation campaign, and that campaign turned the Syrian people against one another. “They used the satellite TV stations and the Internet but did not achieve anything,” he said. “And then, using sedition, started to produce fake information, voices, images, etc.; they forged everything.
“Then they used weapons,” he said. “They started killing people at random; because they knew when there is blood, it becomes more difficult to solve the problem.” To fight conspirators and interlopers, Assad said, the people of Daraa, “share the responsibility of putting an end to sedition.
“Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty; and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it. The Holy Quran says, ‘Sedition is worse than killing,’ so all those involved intentionally or unintentionally in it contribute to destroying their country. So there is no compromise or middle way in this. What is at stake is the homeland and there is a huge conspiracy.”
Reforms, he acknowledged, would’ve helped quell the people’s concerns but were taking longer than planned. “There are no obstacles [to reform],” he said. “There are simply delays.”
ERDOGAN’S “PARALLEL STATE”
The themes and accusations in Assad’s speech sound eerily familiar. The trial began this month in Turkey for Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, the journalists from Cumhuriyet accused of trying to topple the government with a story that showed weapons being sent to Syria under the pretense of humanitarian aid. The courts have ruled that the trial will happen behind closed doors and the president himself may be one of the official complainants.
President Erdogan acknowledged that the trucks Gul and Dundar wrote about belonged to the Turkish intelligence agency. And that they did contain weapons, being sent to Turkmen rebel fighters in Syria. Gul and Dundar weren’t arrested because they were wrong. They were arrested because they were right. The story was a set-up, Erdogan says, to discredit him.
Erdogan contends that the article was part of a huge foreign and domestic conspiracy that he calls the “parallel state,” whose aim is sedition and terrorism and which he has been fighting for a number of years. He believes “the parallel state” is being run by a Turkish religious leader, Fethullah Gulen, who currently lives in rural Pennsylvania. Once allies, Gulen and Erdogan ultimately became bitter competitors.
Speaking in 2014, Erdogan said, “I want my dear nation to know that we are not just faced with a simple network, but one which is a pawn of national and international evil forces.”
Journalists Gul and Dundar face life in prison. A few foreign delegates made a small show of protest by attending the opening of the trial, and President Erdogan retaliated against them. His world view, like Assad’s, is spirited by spies and provocateurs. “The consul-generals in Istanbul attended the trial,” he commented to a group of business leaders. “‘Who are you? What business do you have there?’
“Diplomacy has a certain propriety and manners. This is not your country. This is Turkey,” he said. “You can move inside the Consulate building and within the boundaries of the Consulate. But elsewhere is subject to permission.”
DOUBLING DOWN ON TURKEY
Even as President Erdogan makes it clear that democratic influences are unwelcome, Europe is doubling down on its commitment to Turkey. Against numerous legal, ethical and moral objections, the EU is now deporting refugees from Greece back to Turkey. It’s a very bad time to be forced to live in Erdogan’s world. But to appease objectors, the EU made a commitment to give $6.7 billion to improve the lives of refugees there.
When the money for refugees in Turkey is finally dispersed, it will be the most well-funded humanitarian emergency in the world, second only to Syria itself. Initial reports indicate much of the humanitarian funds will be dispersed through a multi-donor trust fund, the “Madad Fund,” managed by Europeans with cooperation from the Turkish government. Some money has already been dispersed, with a focus on food and education in the camps.
Whether or not the funds will actually improve the lives of refugees is debatable. Post-disaster trust funds typically distribute money according to a broad strategic plan based on a national needs assessment. The strategic plan for the Madad Fund is especially broad, since no one conducted any assessments. The plan leans on the usual vagaries of modern aid, including a lot of funding to support “stability” and “resilience,” “leveraging … capacities and knowledge,” and “maximizing coherence and synergies.”
Most Syrian refugees live in Turkey, but they don’t live in camps and Erdogan is too paranoid to let foreign aid groups go around knocking on doors. It’s been five years since the war began and no one has surveyed the people most in need. No one has even said they are in need. If aid groups have unofficial assessments in their hands, they are as secretive about them as the Turkish government.
AID FUNDING SYSTEM ENCOURAGES SECRECY
Covert aid has ramifications and the most obvious one is silence. Sometimes secrecy within the aid world is a side-effect of complex bureaucracies. But not in the case of Turkey. Secrecy has become the standard operating procedure. It may help aid groups stay in Turkey in the short term, but the long term impact is that no one can be held accountable for the conditions of the urban refugees.
Aid groups have no incentive to advocate against Erdogan’s policies because right now they can raise money for the “Syrian crisis” and avoid mentioning Turkey at all. Individual donors don’t understand the geography. Institutional donors facilitate the practice. Government and UN-led funding schemes build in opportunities for organizations to obscure their roles in Turkey.
The Madad Fund, like other multi-donor trust funds, favors complexity. Committees who make project decisions for trust funds don’t want to evaluate lots of small proposals, so they tend to award big contracts with big goals, run by multiple organizations in collaboration. The application process for the Madad Fund is not public and the FAQ for the fund is revealing.
Is there a funding ceiling? “There are no fixed ceilings,” the fund replies. Is there a recommended timeline? The EU Commission suggests, “Project duration should be between 24 and 54 months.” In other words, bigger is better. Organizations are encouraged to “maximize synergies” by applying with partners.
The scale and complexity of the grants will make it hard for any outsiders to track the aid. But the Madad Fund goes one step further and actually tells organizations how to apply for money even when they aren’t allowed to operate in the country.
As [an] International NGO, do we need to be registered in the country/ countries where we want to implement our programs? No, the fund says. If your organization isn’t registered, they recommend finding a partner who is. “Co-applicants can be entities which do not have legal personality under the applicable national law,” they write, “provided that their representatives have the capacity to take on legal obligations on their behalf.”
LIES OF OMISSION BECOME GLOBAL POLICY
The European Commission is facilitating funding to international aid groups who use local aid groups as their “representatives.” Letting local groups take the fall if something goes wrong seems especially dangerous in Turkey, where the government is inclined to arrest people on a whim. This practice underlies the international community’s entire approach to the refugee crisis in Turkey.
The approach favors private gain over societal benefits. If aid organizations were to openly acknowledge the condition for refugees in Turkey, the risk for those organizations would be very high. Just like it is for journalists. They might be kicked out of the country, their employees may get arrested and they wouldn’t be able to receive any funding at all. The financial consequences would be enormous. They would be opting out of one of the biggest disaster marketplaces in recent history.
Governments, particularly within the European Union, are reticent to blow the whistle on Turkey because they don’t want any more refugees. The UN hasn’t blown the whistle because they are funded and run by those very same governments. Because the people in need are “urban refugees,” the true situation for Syrians in Turkey is not known. Because their needs are not known, it has become easy not to address them.
And this is how bad countries become truly terrible. This is how a crisis becomes a disaster – when the people and organizations with the power to make change instead take up a shield of silence to protect themselves. Silence isn’t a shield, it’s a sword. Secrecy is the tradecraft of tyrants. It may work for a while, but when Erdogan becomes the next Assad, where will the refugees go then?
For two years, Marya has pulled at the pockets of people who walk past her, begging for money so she can eat. Marya says her mom is dead, but actually, her mother is alive, capable and bright. She escaped a war and managed to help her children escape. She opted out of a dictatorship. That ought to count for something.
The fact of this family living at all is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. But Marya’s mom is struggling so much in Turkey that her survival now feels like a liability. Fleeing the war is not an error she made and needs to be punished for. Her life, her living, ought to lift her up. It ought to lift us all up. It is an opportunity – for the whole world – to do more.