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Turkey’s role as refugee host under pressure as requests for asylum increase

Commentary: UN and Western nations are pressed to collaborate in relocating refugees from Syria and other countries.
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A Syrian refugee woman walks among tents at Karkamis' refugee camp on January 16, 2014 near the town of Gaziantep, south of Turkey. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Turkey is host to an increasing number of refugees from Syria, fast approaching one million. By the end of this year, their numbers are expected to approach 1.5 million.

But although world attention has focused on the vast numbers of Syrians seeking protection in Turkey, Syrians are not the only refugees in the country, and its other refugees deserve protection too.

Turkey has a long history as a country of asylum and was among the original drafters and signatories of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to Status of Refugees.

During the Cold War, large numbers of asylum seekers from the Soviet Bloc found refuge in Turkey and were subsequently resettled in the West, particularly in the United States. Recently, a majority of asylum seekers have come from Iraq and Iran and, in lesser numbers, from countries as diverse as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.

Since 1995, when the Turkish government began to keep statistics, it has worked to process more than 118,000 applications. The applications were assessed by the government in close cooperation with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More than a third received refugee status and almost all were resettled.

Today, close to 72,000 cases are still being processed; with more asylum seekers entering Turkey every day, the system is under increasing strain. It can now take years to complete the process of status determination, leaving many asylum seekers and their families in limbo.

Turkey has seen a rapid increase in the numbers of asylum applications and in 2012 was the 10th largest recipient of asylum seekers among 44 industrialized countries, according to the UNHCR Asylum Trends 2012 report.

This surge is taking place as the government also is trying to manage the influx of Syrians and implement the new Foreigners and International Protection Law that was passed last April. It is designed to overhaul and reform Turkey’s asylum system. The Directorate General for Migration Management, a newly formed administrative organization, is responsible for implementing the new law.

The legislation was developed in 2008 after publication of a report from Human Rights Watch entitled Stuck in a Revolving Door. The report criticized Turkey’s poor treatment of migrants and serious difficulties asylum seekers face in accessing a system that determines their refugee status.

Additionally, cases against Turkey, pressed by asylum seekers at the European Court of Human Rights, resulted in judgments ordering Turkey to pay reparations to asylum seekers for violating their human rights. These judgments emphasized the need for reform.

The law itself emerged from an unusually transparent consultation process that involved input from Turkish civil society as well as various European and United Nations stakeholders. In July 2011, Antonio Guterres became the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees to pay an official visit to Turkey. This was seen as recognition of Turkey’s efforts to adapt the law.

The law promises to improve the protection of asylum seekers in Turkey. Support from the international community is critical, moreover, since opinion surveys reveal the Turkish public is not particularly receptive to hosting refugees and migrants.

The international community could help by ensuring funding for critical partners such as UNHCR and International Organization for Migration (IOM.) The funds would enable them to expand their activities in cooperation with Turkish authorities and civil society.

The UNHCR and IOM have played an active role in preparing to implement the new law and are assisting Turkey with the Syrian refugee crisis. The ability of these two organizations to continue to operate in Turkey is critical to the success of the law and effective establishment of the new migration organization.

The protection of asylum seekers and refugees is an international responsibility. Resettlement is an important aspect of burden sharing in implementing this responsibility.

The United States, Canada, Australia and several Nordic countries have been generous in resettling close to 48,000 refugees from Turkey between 1995 and 2013. These resettlement programs must continue. Emerging countries such as Brazil, India and Malaysia must also step up in resettling refugees and the EU should recognize that a working asylum system in Turkey is ultimately in their interest as well.

International solidarity and burden sharing will give advocates of the Foreigners and International Protection Law and the leadership of the Directorate General for Migration Management the prospect of receiving economic and political support needed to develop a truly modern and reformed asylum system in Turkey.

This system would produce a win-win outcome for all. Asylum seekers and refugees would be guaranteed better protection. There would be fewer asylum seekers trapped in Turkey trying to enter the EU illegally. Stakeholders in Turkey's neighborhood would see the positive results of effective treatment of asylum seekers.

Kemal Kirişci is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, in Washington, DC.

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