Turkey Must Not Ignore Non-Syrian Refugees

As Turkey takes sole responsibility from UNHCR for processing the asylum claims of Afghans and other non-Syrians, it must register them and allow them to access their basic rights, say Refugees International’s Izza Leghtas and Jessica Thea.

Written by Izza Leghtas, Jessica Thea Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
An unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan.AP/Alastair Grant

On a cold day in the Turkish city of Kayseri last November, we sat in the living room of two young men, Mustafa, aged 18, and Hafiz, 23, as they told us about their life since they arrived in Turkey. For single Afghan men such as these, seeking refuge in Turkey has always been a challenging affair. But in recent months, it has become all but impossible. Dozens of Afghan men and boys described to us how the Turkish authorities now refuse to register them as asylum seekers. Nor will the authorities issue them a kimlik – the Turkish identity card that gives refugees access to healthcare, education and work permits.

Of the four Afghan men living in the apartment, only Mustafa had a kimlik, and he obtained it only after he was badly injured in a road accident. At the hospital, he said, “For two hours I was just lying there … Because I didn’t have a kimlik, they didn’t give me proper treatment, just a temporary fix.” He bled through his stitches almost immediately and, after leaving the hospital, approached the authorities, covered in blood. Seeing his condition, an official issued his kimlik the same day.

“Sometimes we joke, ‘if you want a kimlik, you should have an accident,’” Hafiz said.

Turkey currently hosts the largest population of refugees in the world – nearly 4 million, including 170,000 Afghans who fled either violence in Afghanistan or the lack of opportunities and protection for Afghans in Iran.

In September, the sole responsibility for registering and processing the asylum claims of Afghans and other non-Syrians was transferred from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to the Turkish government. It came amid a surge in new Afghan arrivals in 2018. Under the new system, many Afghans, especially single men, have been unable to access even the most basic rights because of the obstacles they face in obtaining identity cards.

Afghans in Turkey have endured difficulties for a long time. They have suffered from a lack of freedom of movement, extremely limited access to legal work and a humanitarian response that focuses mostly on Syrians. But the new system has been a new bureaucratic nightmare. In Istanbul, Kayseri and Erzurum, dozens of men told us that when they approached the Turkish authorities in charge of registering new asylum applicants, the response they received was, “We don’t register single men.”

During this initial stage of implementing its new responsibilities, the Turkish government has an important opportunity to introduce adjustments that will make a world of difference for these Afghans. Registering all asylum seekers, whether they are single or with a family, and issuing them with identity cards will help unlock their potential and ensure their access to their most basic rights.

The European Union has a responsibility here, too. Because it agreed to give Turkey 6 billion euros ($6.9 billion) to implement the E.U.-Turkey “Statement” – a deal forged in 2016 to deter irregular movements by sea to Greece and improve services for refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey – the E.U. must ensure its funds are reaching Afghans and other non-Syrians. And even if UNHCR is not in charge anymore, it must still carry out its mandate by being accessible to refugees in the cities where they live and providing protection to those who need it.

Afghan families and single men told us that a kimlik is also essential for housing in Turkey, as landlords will not accept tenants without one. Mustafa told us that the difficulties of renting a home as a foreigner, and as a single man, are multiplied for those without kimliks. It was only when he obtained his that he was able to rent the apartment for him and his three friends under his name.

Education is a major priority for many of the Afghans we met. While in theory children can be admitted to schools even if they haven’t completed the registration process, families and young men and boys we met told us that Turkish schools did not accept those without kimliks. For Hafiz, his inability to continue his studies was one of the biggest struggles since his arrival in Turkey. “I graduated from high school, one of the top students in my class,” he told us as his eyes filled with tears. “Here I have nothing, I’m doing nothing. I am completely depressed. I tried in Iran [to study], but it was not possible. And here, I have no kimlik, no papers … I see no future.”

This refusal to register Afghans leaves them particularly vulnerable to deportation. Last spring, the Turkish government detained and returned about 17,000 Afghans to Afghanistan. While the Turkish authorities claimed they were voluntary, Refugees International and others have reported that returnees were in fact misled or coerced into signing forms. We heard story after story of friends or cousins who had been forcefully sent back to Afghanistan. Hafiz and Mustafa told us of a friend who was arrested and deported from Erzurum just one month earlier. They hadn’t heard from him since. In this context, the fear of being arrested and deported was palpable, and many people we spoke to were too scared to meet us in public places in the city center.

The challenges Turkey faces in hosting close to 4 million refugees are undeniable, and the pressure on Turkey’s infrastructure and social systems is very real. However, the new system for Afghans and other non-Syrian refugees is simply not sustainable.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This commentary was adapted from the December 2018 Refugees International report, “You Cannot Exist in This Place:” Lack of Registration Denies Afghan Refugees Protection in Turkey.

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