Readmission of asylum seekers to Turkey: What that means for human rights and integration possibilities?

By: Vicki McKenna

UNHCR branded tarps are seen covering  tents and plastic containers during an evening in December 2016.

Recent research into the readmission of asylum seekers to Turkey under the EU-Turkey Statement has shed light on key concerns, such as discrimination on the grounds of nationality and barriers to effective human rights monitoring. Likewise, implementation of the Statement was found to prioritise returns, rather than people’s access to asylum.

This Statement which came into force in March 2016 was put forward as a solution to the refugee crisis as it aimed “to end the flow of irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and replace it with organised, safe and legal channels to Europe.” It further aimed to fast-track asylum procedures and, in the case of negative decisions, facilitated returns to Turkey. In exchange, EU member states agreed to take one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian readmitted from Greece to Turkey.

However, a recent policy brief produced by the Utrecht University, “Human Rights Violations by Design,” points to serious flaws underpinning this Statement. In particular, it points to the inherent problems in “defining returns as a political priority” in terms of creating barriers to asylum, undermining human rights principles and forcing asylum seekers to accept returns for lack of viable alternatives.

While asylum seekers were free to travel to the Greek mainland to lodge their asylum claims before this Statement, the brief counters that people are now obliged to apply for asylum in separate ‘border procedures’ in so-called hotspots. “People are only allowed to travel to the mainland to access standard asylum procedures if they are recognised as being vulnerable. Reception conditions and access to legal assistance is slightly less poor on the Greek mainland. As a result, people’s access to protection has become partially dependent on being classified as vulnerable,” the brief explained.

April 2017 – Refugees and Migrants blocked off the entrances/exits for the Port in Mytilene to protest the geographical restrictions placed on them denying them the ability and access to travel to the Greek mainland.

One of the leading researchers, Doctor Jill Alpes points to the implications of this vulnerability classification. In particular, she notes that those who are not recognised as vulnerable are handled in fast-track border procedures, put into place after the Statement.  People in this fast-track procedure also face important obstacles in accessing protection, while human rights monitoring mechanisms do not currently suffice to guarantee that people with protection claims are not returned to Turkey.

“It would be extremely important for the Greek Asylum service (GAS) to register asylum recognition rates separately for the islands and for the mainland. Through that we would be able to create transparency to show how the border procedures on the islands are lowering people’s access to asylum,” noted Ms Alpes.

Only 1,360 people were returned from Greece to Turkey up until October 2017.  However, the Statement’s focus on returns can be seen to have changed the “organisational logic of asylum applications” for all 37,000 people who arrived on the Greek islands since April 2016.

Source: UNHCR June 2017

Amongst key findings, the brief stressed that this drive for returns had encouraged “discrimination on grounds of nationality for asylum seekers in Greece.” With the aim of increasing return rates, the Greek police on Lesbos has systematically detained individuals from nationality groups with low asylum recognition rates immediately upon arrival in pre-removal centre, the brief notes.

Source: UNHCR 21 June 2017

Another policy brief prepared by Utrecht University: “Post-deportation risks under the EU-Turkey Statement: What happens after readmission to Turkey?” found that Turkey does not respect procedural safeguards and the principle of nonrefoulement. Consequently, it recommends that Greece should not return asylum-seekers back to Turkey as provided under the EU-Turkey Statement. Rather, it notes that Greek authorities should deport appeal rights exhausted asylum seekers straight back to their countries of origin.

This policy brief is based on 26 asylum seeker interviews, which concerned 43 individuals readmitted from Greece to Turkey (10 Syrians and 33 non-Syrians). The research was completed over six months between December 2016 to March 2017, with additional research carried out between June to August 2017, then published in November.

The research found that returned Syrians experienced obstacles accessing the foreigners ID, which in turn had implications for accessing healthcare. Likewise, none of the Syrians interviewed were found to have had access to a work permit. The difficulties faced by Pakistani asylum seekers following readmission to Turkey was further emphasised. Referring to it as “a double deportation”, Aid worker and photojournalist Saima Hassan Hassan explains how they are first deported to Turkey and then to Pakistan. Specific problems mentioned by interviewees included insufficient food, lack of access to health care, as well as the difficulty accessing legal aid.

Dr. Jill Alpes, questions the practice of prioritising returns over access to asylum, as she drew attention to the implications of discriminatory asylum practices.  “I think it’s very important that there are recommendations that the police stop the discriminatory practice of detaining individuals from certain nationalities, because discrimination creates self-fulfilling prophecies. If you detain individuals from certain nationality groups then they have less access to legal aid and information, then they have a lower asylum recognition rate.”

Emphasising the timeliness of this research, Ms. Hassan said: “None of the other organisations, which are operating in migration response have tracked the people that were actually sent back. With this research, we were actually able to talk to people who were in Turkey, who had been re-deported from Turkey to their country of origin. We haven’t found any other research or NGO which has tracked them or followed up on them, particularly if, for instance, the NGO itself operated in Turkey or operated in the country of origin, they didn’t follow the deportees.”

In response to the challenges posed by the EU-Turkey deal, Ms Alpes proposed a more “sustainable response” specifically calling for ‘responsibility-sharing.’ “A sustainable approach to protection responsibilities requires a global perspective. Protection responsibilities need to be shared according to countries’ economy and population size. Despite its economically privileged position in the world, EU member states currently host a bare minimum of the world’s 0,3% world population who are refugees. Already prior to the deal, Turkey figured in the top three refugee-hosting countries both in absolute numbers and in relation to its population size. South Soudan, Chad, Uganda, Lebanon and Burundi host the highest number of refugees globally in relation to their economy size. Responsibility sharing is hence both necessary and feasible.”

People seeking asylum can obtain one of Turkey’s various protection statuses. The refugee status is only available to persons seeking asylum from European countries, as Turkey maintains its geographical reservation to the Geneva Convention. People seeking asylum from other countries will receive the conditional refugee status. Significantly “conditional refugee” status holders are not offered the prospect of long-term legal integration in Turkey and are further excluded from “family unification” rights. Moreover, Turkey introduced the category of temporary protection for people arriving during a period of mass influx as a response to the large number of arrivals due to the conflict in Syria.

Asylum seekers face a number of problems following their readmission to Turkey, not least of which pertains to limited freedom of movement and lack of integration possibilities. Turkey so far hasn’t developed an answer to integration, where no integration scheme is open to either people under temporary protection in Turkey or people in the process of international protection, said Metin Çorabatır, President of the Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (IGAM), an Ankara-based think tank.

“Syrians at the beginning had freedom of movement inside Turkey, but since the European crisis started, the government through this agreement between EU and Turkey restricted their movements by tying the access to the basic services in the city that they registered. It has become more difficult for them to move to another city to seek new job opportunities.”

On the one hand, Turkey has taken important steps over the past ten years to bring its asylum and migration policies closer to the international standards. However, a recent report produced by Migration Policy Group (MPG) and the Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (IGAM) entitled “Comparison between Turkey and EU Countries: Harmonisation is the Way to Protection,” argues that the Turkish asylum regime is still in the process of transformation and faced with many dilemmas.

According to the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), Turkey offers unfavourable opportunities for integration, the least favourable of all OECD countries. In particular, Turkey’s asylum policies have been limited by its geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention, restricting its protection to nationals of Council of Europe member states.  This restriction meant that Turkey did not prepare for local integration as a “durable solution” for large numbers of refugees who are citizens of non-European countries.

Education facilitates children’s personal development, enhancing social mobility, and creates better employment prospects, the report underlined. At the same time, attention was drawn to the fact that no children from any protection group are systematically supported to make it through the mainstream Turkish education system. Although, “children from all protection groups have the right to education, they do not have an explicit legal right to equal treatment in education,” the report added.

Another key finding underlined that Turkey had gradually started to include Syrian children in the mainstream Turkish education system. At the same time, however, the large majority are seen to still follow an outdated Syrian curriculum in temporary education centres, keeping children in formal education but limiting their future prospects in Turkey.

“There are many discriminatory education policies. At the local level, the Turkish people do not want a lot of Syrians or other refugees in the same classrooms, some teachers have prejudices, so in practice a lot of things happen, the dynamics are different,” Mr. Çorabatır said.

MIPEX has further found that Turkey sets unfavourable conditions for labour market integration, far below international and EU standards. Furthermore, under the ordinary rules for foreigners, they cannot take up many jobs and occupations and must ask for special permission to work in the health and education sectors.

“If you consider the Turkish economy, there is high unemployment. Employers prefer to employ in an unregistered way and many people try to survive with these kind of jobs, without any guarantees. Everything is linked to the geographical limitation, so there is no status for all of them. The refugee status is not given to them, they don’t have rights to access labour, so this is the main obstacle,” Mr. Çorabatır explained.

Monitoring and evaluation remains limited without a clearly coordinated integration or harmonisation strategy as it is termed in Turkey. Although, attempts to mainstream harmonisation at national level have emerged in practice, they are only at an infant stage and without a clear overall strategy, the report added. In this respect, it underlined that “the concept of harmonisation is still new in Turkey and currently working as a largely voluntary and spontaneous process.”

In a series of key recommendations, the MPG and IGAM report underlined the need for a secure residence status “as a durable solution for beneficiaries of international protection.” Secure residence can in turn have a practical and psychological impact on refugees. In particular, this long-term perspective encourages employers to devote time and money to removing barriers that hinder the integration process. This incentive also makes refugees more active and secure in many areas of public life, from employment and vocational training to decent housing and social protection.

One can further observe the specific difficulties related to the vulnerable situation in the Turkish housing market. Housing is to a large extent insecure given the fact that rents are often arranged without a legal contract. No protection groups receive “systematic targeted support” from the Turkish state to find and make their new home in Turkey. Likewise, the report describes the mainstream housing support system in Turkey, as “limited” “discretionary” and “ad hoc”.

“Housing is a most ignored area and it is also linked to all other rights. Three or four families share one apartment for example and the apartments are in very poor condition. Without addressing this, how can you expect the success of the kids if there is no atmosphere for them to work? “I believe that people should have their basic rights and Turkey should offer them a dignified life as under the rights systems. The main obstacle is the legal system, the Turkish asylum system is not fully part of the international system. For the system to work, integration should be an option. Turkey should leave the geographical limitation and apply the Convention to everyone equally. Without doing that, all efforts in different sectors are like a patchwork instead, independent, some issues are improved, the others are not, there are no linkages,” Mr. Çorabatır concluded.