Refugees in Turkey: Unsafe Harbor

August 23, 2011

This year is the Sixtieth Anniversary of one of the landmarks of human rights, the 1951 Refugees Convention.  In 1967, a protocol amended the convention, removing both time and geographic restrictions to the convention.  Taken as a whole, this document serves as one of the most important safeguards to the rights of refugees within international law.  It is an anniversary well worth celebrating.

Turkey’s status within the convention, however, is something of an oddity.  Although it ratified both the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, it did so with an important reservation: it did not accept the erasure of regional exceptions in the 1967, ratifying the protocol with “an exception” that it would continue to only accept refugees from the Council of Europe.

The result is that Turkey, a country of over seventy million people and a major destination for refugees and migrants, accepts, according to Amnesty International – Turkey, only a small handful of refugees. Refugees from outside Europe – from Sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Iran, and elsewhere – can only hope to achieve temporary residence while the UNHCR works to find them permanent sanctuary elsewhere.

In practice, this system works poorly.  Refugees are often caught in a bureaucratic no-man’s land as they work first to acquire UNHCR recognition and then are held in legal limbo for weeks, months, or years.  Horror stories abound, with LGBT refugees being particularly at riskTurkish police often make it impossible for applicants to reach the UNHCR, which is a necessary step to gaining refugee status.  Refugees are often treated roughly by security services, are unlawfully detained, and deported.

Turkey can and must do better.  In this, the Sixtieth Anniversary of the UN Refugees Convention, the Turkish government can take an important first step in shouldering its responsibilities by lifting the geographical restrictions and directly addressing the needs of refugees seeking sanctuary within its borders.