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Turkey’s New Migration Policy: Control Through Bureaucratization

[An afternoon in the Kumkapı neighborhood of Istanbul, traditionally home to Armenians and now populated by many of Turkey’s more recent migrants—Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, and various nationalities from Africa. Kumkapı—along with bordering neighborhoods Laleli, Aksaray, and Yenikapı—all attract migrants because of the relatively cheap rent and the promise of day jobs in the informal economy. (Image by Kelsey P. Norman)] [An afternoon in the Kumkapı neighborhood of Istanbul, traditionally home to Armenians and now populated by many of Turkey’s more recent migrants—Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, and various nationalities from Africa. Kumkapı—along with bordering neighborhoods Laleli, Aksaray, and Yenikapı—all attract migrants because of the relatively cheap rent and the promise of day jobs in the informal economy. (Image by Kelsey P. Norman)]

Images of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from IS across the Turkish border last week thrust the issue of migration to Turkey into the international spotlight. But the influx of refugees to Turkey is only one aspect of the country’s complex migration situation. While characterizations of Turkey as “between East and West” are overstated, this description in terms of Turkey’s migration dynamics is actually quite apt. Turkey is inching closer to becoming part of Europe through its adherence to European Union accession obligations that require Turkey to harmonize its migration and asylum policy with EU standards. Yet at the same time, Turkey’s migrant situation more closely resembles that of other MENA states—a hosting ground for mass numbers of refugees from surrounding countries and a major destination for irregular migrants. With the promulgation of a new Law on Foreigners in 2013 and with the influx of more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees over the last three years, migration is currently one of the most pressing issues facing the Turkish state.

Who Comes to Turkey?

In the academic and policy literature, Turkey is most often characterized as a country of emigration. Turkey has indeed sent large portions of its population to Europe, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s through guestworker programs and family reunification processes. However, Turkey also has a long history as a receiver of migrants, though this fact has been overshadowed in recent years by its emigration narrative. As Ahmet İçduygu and Kemal Kirişçi explain in their edited volume, Land of Diverse Migrations, Turkey’s founding fathers sought to encourage the migration of Muslim Turks from surrounding countries in the 1920s following the abolition of the Ottoman Empire and as part of the state’s nationalization project. Migration continued throughout the twentieth century, though since the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, Turkey has witnessed new forms of migration involving refugees from neighboring states, EU nationals, and irregular and transit migrants.

Turkey’s proximity to Europe has made it a frequent last stop for migrants attempting to enter the EU. Turkey also allows nationals of Iran, the former Soviet Union, and the Balkans to enter the country either without visas or with visas that can easily be obtained at airports and other entry points, making Turkey fairly accessible for certain groups of foreigners. Many migrants come as tourists or students and then overstay their visas, finding work in the informal economy to support their continued stay in Turkey. While some migrants come intending to pass into Europe (“transit” migrants), others come with Turkey as their intended destination.

One West African migrant I interviewed in Istanbul (I will call him Ibrahim) came to Turkey because he understood Istanbul to be a large, cosmopolitan city with ample work opportunities, and because Turkish visas are relatively easy to obtain for nationals of his country. Now though, one year later, work opportunities have proved to be sparse, and Ibrahim is considering moving on to Europe. When asked whether he would rather go home instead of remaining in Istanbul or attempting to travel to Europe, Ibrahim replied that he is not able to go home until he has made at least some return on his investment in the migration process. “When I go back,” he explains matter-of-factly, “...people will expect money and gifts.” His family and friends helped him to come to Turkey by providing him with funds and assisting in the visa process, so he cannot return empty-handed. “This is the ‘African’ way,” he smiles. “Your family helps you to leave, but then they expect something when you return.”

Ibrahim believes that he would probably qualify for refugee status given the continued unrest in parts of his country, but he has heard from friends in Istanbul that some refugees have to wait up to five years to be resettled to a third country. He does not want to wait that long, and prefers instead to retain more control over his situation by continuing to work in the informal economy while waiting for his chance to move on to Europe.

Ibrahim’s dilemma over whether or not to apply for refugee status reflects an important debate underway in the policy and academic world of migration. Since the 1990s, some migration scholars and international migration bodies have begun advocating for the term “mixed migration,” meaning a recognition that the categories of “refugee” and “migrant” do not always reflect the reality of individuals’ situations. This is because a) the “root causes” of migration, such as conflict and poverty, are interrelated; and b) it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between forced and economic migrants in certain movements. Some individuals will also “jump” categories in order to obtain work or as they acquire new information concerning legal categories, and both refugees and other migrants may use similar networks and smugglers to facilitate transit. Turkey illustrates this overlap well, and Ibrahim’s situation is not unique.

The Refugee System

The refugee system in Turkey, on the other hand, is unique. Individuals that would be recognized as refugees in other countries are not considered as such in Turkey because of the geographical limitations that Turkey maintains in regards to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. Only European refugees are considered full refugees in Turkey that will one day be able to obtain residency permits and apply for Turkish citizenship. Practically speaking, this means only those refugees coming from the Caucuses. All other refugees from anywhere outside Europe that arrive in Turkey and successfully undergo refugee status determination (RSD) procedures are considered “conditional” refugees by the Turkish government.

Another feature of the refugee system in Turkey is that refugees wanting to apply for RSD must effectively pass through two systems—one run by Turkish authorities and another run by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—before receiving their status. Refugees must first register with an NGO in Ankara called the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), which then passes along their information to the UNHCR. While refugees await an interview with the UNHCR that will determine their status, they must also register with Turkish authorities, who will then assign them to one of the approximately thirty “satellite cities” that have been appointed by the Turkish government as temporary residences for refugees.

Refugees are given access to health care and schools while they reside in satellite cities, as well as a modest stipend from the government. Yet because this stipend is not usually enough to cover the cost of living in the satellite cities and because there are few work opportunities, many refugees decide to leave their assigned satellite city in search of work in Istanbul or one of Turkey’s other metropolises. While up until now refugees found residing outside their assigned location have generally been detained and then returned to their respective satellite city, refugees will face stricter conditions under the new 2013 Law on Foreigners. According to an individual at the ASAM, refugees can now be deported if they are found by Turkish authorities to be residing illegally outside of their assigned residence, since leaving the satellite city without authorization is “considered a withdrawal of the refugee’s application, because then the refugee is not fulfilling their obligations to the Turkish authorities.”

Status by Nationality

Unlike other refugees, Syrians residing in Turkey have what is called “temporary protection,” which allots them certain rights in addition to those granted under conditional refugee status. Temporary protection is a category created under the new 2013 law, and can be applied by the government to any group entering Turkey in mass numbers. While twenty-five percent of the approximately 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey live in camps managed and funded by the Turkish government, seventy-five percent live outside of the camps in either metropolises or satellite cities. For those residing outside the camps, one benefit of temporary protection, as opposed to conditional status, is that Syrian refugees can more easily apply for work. For a company to hire a non-Syrian refugee, it must have at least five Turkish nationals already employed: a five-to-one ratio for every foreigner. Additionally, the company must be able to prove that no Turkish national is equally eligible for the job, and the refugee must possess certain skills or training that makes him or her more qualified than any Turk for that position. But for Syrians, because of their temporary protection status, these requirements are waived, and a Turkish company can more easily apply for a work permit on the refugee’s behalf. 

These differing statuses raise an important question: Does the use of temporary protection for Syrians provoke resentment on behalf of other refugee groups who have been residing longer in Turkey? The answers I received to this question from refugees of various backgrounds were mixed. However, frustration on the part of Afghan refugees is evident, as the UNHCR has suspended the processing of their claims as of April 2014. Following this suspension, Afghan refugees held a protest in front of the UNHCR offices in Ankara, with some migrants going on hunger strikes and sewing their lips shut, in response to perceived discrimination in the handling of their resettlement cases. According to the UNHCR in Turkey, the suspension is a temporary decision that will be reviewed and reassessed in conjunction with the Turkish government within the next month. Further, the UNHCR emphasizes that Afghans are still able to register for conditional refugee status with the UNHCR and also with Turkish authorities. The stated reason for temporarily suspending the processing of Afghan claims is the increasing number of Afghans arriving in Turkey, many of whom transit through Iran on their way there. Because the UNHCR operates a first-country-of-asylum policy, refugees from Afghanistan must register with the UNHCR in Iran, and are not eligible for resettlement by the time they reach Turkey. Yet an Afghan refugee I spoke with in Istanbul says that the Afghans he knows in Turkey are aware of the first-country-of-asylum policy, but did not feel secure remaining in Iran. Thus, they took the risk of continuing onto Turkey, though with the current RSD suspension they have no hope of resettlement while remaining there.

The New Law

Turkey’s new Law on Foreigners, adopted in 2013, was several years in the making. Negotiations began in 2006 in response to three factors: the sheer number of migrants and refugees present in Turkey at the time; advocacy on behalf of international and domestic organizations for improvements to existing practices; and pressure for legal harmonization with European states as part of Turkey’s ongoing negations to join the EU. The new law covers policy toward all foreigners residing in Turkey, including refugees and irregular migrants as well as European nationals (“ex-pats”) who come to work or buy property in Turkey. This results in a highly bifurcated law, with half addressing foreigners that the Turkish government deems desirable, and the other half addressing policies toward refugees and punitive measures toward irregular migrants. Importantly, the new law establishes a separate ministry—the Directorate General on Migration Management—that will have an office in each governorate of the country staffed with specialists trained in handling migrant affairs, thereby reallocating responsibility from Turkish authorities to a civil body.

Is this law an improvement on the legal framework that existed previously? The migrant-focused organizations and academic experts I spoke with all agreed that despite several important shortcomings, the new law is a major step toward an improved system. Prior to the new law, authorities were unofficially allotted highly discretionary powers that often led to the abuse of migrants. According to Bertan Tokuzlu, a Turkish migration legal expert, the Turkish judiciary also continually ruled in favor of the authorities in regards to policing and the administration of detention centers. The new law will therefore be beneficial for migrants in that it removes some of this discretion, though it still leaves a great deal of ambiguity around the issue of deportation. A representative of the Migrant Solidarity Network, a group operating in Istanbul, predicts: “The new law will make things better for refugees, but worse for irregular migrants.” For example, prior to the new law, “refugees in the satellite cities were being charged four times the regular health rate because they were foreigners,” while under the new law refugees are automatically included in the national health plan. For irregular migrants, though, the Migrant Solidarity Network believes that the situation will become increasingly difficult as Turkey’s migration system becomes more and more institutionalized. According to the Migrant Solidarity Network representative, “The Turkish government will start more deportations once they’ve established the system that they want to establish. Once they have it, it will be much easier for them to deport.”

Overall, according to Tokuzlu, the new law is quite liberal, considering migration-related precedents in the Turkish legal system. He believes that had the law been written even a year later, once Syrians began arriving in Turkey in large numbers, it would not have been passed successfully due to the generous (and fiscally costly) protections that it promises to groups arriving en mass.

Turkey at a Critical Juncture

Until recently, the issue of refugees residing in Turkey had not been a highly divisive or politicized issue among the Turkish public. However, with the approximately five billion Turkish lira in public funding spent on protection for Syrian refugees over the last three years, the Turkish host population is no longer as receptive as it once was to serving as a refugee hosting ground. Violent incidents between host population members and Syrian refugees have helped fueled this growing sentiment. Furthermore, in December 2013, Turkey signed a readmission agreement with the EU that was ratified in June 2014. As part of this agreement, Turkish nationals will eventually be able to travel in the EU visa-free, but in exchange Turkey has agreed to accept migrants deported from the EU who transited through Turkey (though this aspect of the agreement will not come into effect until three years after the ratification date). The EU has compelled other neighboring states in Eastern Europe and North Africa to sign readmission agreements, which are effectively a mechanism for shifting responsibility for protection of migrants and refugees onto “safe” third countries.

Whether the Turkish state will still be willing to accept the terms of the readmission agreement in several years time will likely depend on what happens with the flows of Syrian refugees, in addition to growing numbers of Iraqi refugees fleeing into Turkey. As Kemal Kirişçi asks in a Brookings policy briefing:

Will Turkey be able to cope with this influx [of Syrians] at a time when the EU has pretty much closed its doors to asylum-seekers, let alone to Syrians fleeing the civil war? What if Syrians in urban centers begin to try to make their way to EU member countries? How would that development impact on the implementation of the readmission agreement?

With the promulgation of the new law, ongoing EU negotiations, and the capacity-building work necessary for the creation of numerous DGMM offices, as well as the issue of refugees and irregular migrants already residing in the country, Turkey is indeed at a crossroads, both physically between East and West and in its role as a receiver of migrants.

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