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Filling in the Gaps: Migration Reform in Turkey

By Lara Pham

Turkey is transforming from a country of emigrants to immigrants. Over the last 20 years, Turkey has become a destination for regional migrants seeking economic opportunities and political and humanitarian asylum. Subsequently, the government has recently taken legislative action to reform relevant migration policies. Its new liberalizing policies are certainly a relief to many refugees and asylum seekers, but when it comes to long-term integration, has Turkey set the necessary foundation for this vulnerable group?

In April 2014, the Turkish government implemented the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (Law No. 6458), which parliament adopted last year. The law aims to help the country better address both documented and undocumented migration, especially pertaining to humanitarian concerns, in a comprehensive manner. Notably, the law attempts to establish a transparent, explicit procedure for those entering on a humanitarian basis complete with identification paperwork. With violence and conflict throughout the Middle East, especially in Syria, Turkey’s relative stability is a natural attraction for refugees and asylum seekers.

The Law on Foreigners and International Protection is the first piece of Turkish legislation to address asylum issues and divides qualifying foreigners into three key categories: (1) refugees, (2) conditional refugees, and (3) individuals under subsidiary protection. The third category allows asylum seekers who do not fit in the first two categories to find a safe haven in Turkey, away from their home country’s risky situations. This new designation is significant because, as Rebecca Kilberg of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) points out, it is a shift away from previous policy that classified those who did not qualify for refugee status as merely “guests.”

This policy change is key for asylum seekers from places like Syria. The initial waves of fleeing Syrians could only acquire “guest” status, which prevented them from receiving key protections afforded to those classified as refugees. Under the new law, the government strictly reserves administrative detention as a last resort, and, among other things, includes non-refoulement provisions, preventing Turkey from sending asylum seekers back to countries where their lives may be at risk.

Most importantly, the new status and accompanying reforms allow asylum seekers access to a handful of social services. These benefits include “access to primary and secondary education, access to public health, and temporary work permits,” says Kathleen Newland, director of migrants, migration, and development program who leads the MPI’s humanitarian work. These are significant moves for Turkey, a country that has over 808,000 Syrian refugees and is expected to take on more.

Turkey is no stranger to the migratory process and has had a history of receiving skilled and unskilled labor, students, and asylum seekers. The Cold War brought thousands of asylum seekers from the Communist Bloc. Then by the late 1980s, Turkey saw a mass influx of asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq. Finally and for the first time, the number of migrants to Turkey exceeded those leaving Turkey in 2010.

A recent report by the UNHCR shows Turkey as the largest refugee-hosting country in Europe. Turkey is now considered one of the top five asylum-receiver countries, along with Germany, the U.S., France, and Sweden. These migratory patterns have generated enough pressure on the Turkish government for reform that culminated in Turkey’s most recent Law on Foreigners and International Protection.

Turkey’s Law on Foreigners and International Protection has received international praise. UNHCR Spokesperson Melissa Fleming said in a press briefing in Geneva that it “considers this [the law] an important advancement for international protection….[especially since] the new law incorporates key elements of international humanitarian and human rights law.”

While this new law appears to be more all-encompassing of different types of refugees and asylum seekers, there are still gaps. The law helps facilitate migration but does not adequately address integration.

Newland notes that, although eligible asylum seekers have “access to primary and secondary education, the language of instruction is Turkish and not Arabic,” leaving out many Syrian refugees from participating. There are also between 600,000 and 700,000 Syrian refugees living in Turkish cities, says Newland, outside of the already-full camps. Since they are located in the urban setting—outside the scope of international monitoring—their food and shelter needs are not always clear.

It is also easy to exploit the labor of these non-camp refugees. According to Kemal Kirsci and Raj Salooja, “Syrians have already become an exploited underground labor force, as evidenced by rapidly falling wages for workers in industries such as construction, textile manufacturing, heavy industry, and agriculture.” This dynamic can fuel resentment between refugee groups and citizens, making integration more difficult.

Moreover, the category of individuals under “subsidiary protection” was established as a temporary protection. That is, those (including many Syrians) who fall under this category are expected to return home or resettle elsewhere. However, “temporary” could extend into much longer periods and even lifetimes, especially for Syrians and the ongoing civil war. Those treated as temporary refugees or asylum seekers instead of immigrants would not be able to obtain Turkish citizenship. Keeping this significant population in limbo—between non-citizen and citizen—has consequences in the long run. This classification method effectively establishes a large group of people as second-class, which have long-term socio-political implications.

The government will likely need to revisit its immigration policies and the integration process as Syrian and other refugees begin to develop new homes in Turkey. Newland suggests, for example, that Turkey undertake an “orderly effort to enable the beneficiaries to be self-sufficient.” That is, Turkey should allow international organizations and expertise to “develop programs that increase labor mobility for refugees.” This practice will help ensure that refugees are integrated into the labor market alongside current citizens. Newland offers but one manageable solution that the government could initiate.

Turkey has been generous to refugees and especially Syrian refugees thus far. However, more must be done with to ensure sustainable humanitarian assistance. 

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Lara Pham is a master’s candidate in international affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.  

[Photo courtesy of Yann Renoult]

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