Migration has long been a securitized issue in Turkey, but with the upcoming parliamentary election on 7 June 2015, this might indeed be the first time that immigration into Turkey has been politicized to such an extent.
For a brief moment in 2008, Turkey appeared to be moving away from its security-focused approach to immigration. A representative from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), who asked to remain unnamed, says that this is why Turkey was able to pass Law No. 6458 on Foreigners and International Protection, revamping Turkey’s entire migration and asylum system.
While the original incentive for Turkey’s migration overhaul were the ongoing EU accession negotiations of the mid-2000s and concern over Turkish emigration into Europe, the law was pursued even after the negotiations stalled. Metin Corabatir, who now runs the a migration-focused research group called IGAM, attributes Turkey’s continued efforts to high-level meetings held between Turkish government members and EU officials. During these meetings, Turkish officials were quietly told they needed to deal with the country’s immigration issues. While immigration to Turkey constituted a very low-priority topic at the time, the government officials nonetheless responded to this request and tasked two inspectors from the Ministry of the Interior with conducting a needs assessment in 2008. The two inspectors began by reaching out to Turkey’s migration and refugee protection community, both to local NGOs and international migration bodies like the IOM and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to Corabatir, who was a spokesperson for the UNHCR at the time, “We suddenly got a call from these two Interior Ministry inspectors asking us for a consultation meeting. We wanted to roll a red carpet out for them.”
Oktay Durukan from the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, a migrant and refugee advocacy organization based in Istanbul, recounts a similar story. Prior to 2008, the group’s relations with the Ministry of the Interior and police had been strained due to a report the organization published on the state of Turkish migrant detention centers. Durukan and his colleagues were consequently shocked to receive a phone call from the inspectors. "The switch in mentality was night and day," Durukan explains.
Following the needs assessment the new migration law was developed over five years and finally adopted on 4 April 2013, passed unanimously by parliament. An IOM representative involved with the drafting process attributes the law’s success to the leadership and diplomacy of the two investigators, particularly Atilla Toros who has now been named head of the new directorate created by the law. This new civil body, the Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM), will have an office in each governorate of the country staffed with specialists trained in handling migrant affairs. The official transfer of responsibility from the police to the DGMM occurred two weeks ago on 18 May 2015.
Some organizations remain skeptical of the new law, objecting in particular to the geographical limitation that Turkey maintains in regards to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. With this reservation in place, 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. Asylum-seeking groups that arrive in mass can also be given temporary protection and are officially considered “guests” in Turkey.
According to a key informant who was involved with the drafting process, lifting the geographical limitation was never up for debate. The drafting committee was fearful that addressing this controversial issue would jeopardize the success of the entire law. Despite this critical shortcoming, the new law has generally been hailed as a major accomplishment for Turkey, especially considering that the last cohesive migration law adopted by the country dates back to 1950.
But in the midst of the drafting process, a situation developed: the crisis in Syria. When the new law was passed in 2013, Syrians had already been arriving in Turkey for two years. Even then, the number of Syrians in the country at that time was estimated to be 400,000, a number that pales in comparison to the estimated 1.7 million Syrians in Turkey today. In October 2011, the government declared that all Syrians were entitled to Temporary Protection status, ensuring that Syrians would not be subject to refoulement, or forced return to Syria. This status continued under the new law, though the government had no way of anticipating that the number of refugees would rise by 1.3 million in three years, in addition to the approximately 130,000 Afghans, Iraqis, and other nationalities also currently in the country.
During the last year Turkey’s hospitality toward Syrians has started to wear thin. Echoing the objections usually heard from right-wing parties in Europe and the United States, Turkish nationals have begun to resent the presence of Syrian refugees, accusing them of taking Turkish jobs, increasing local rents, and being able to access universities without having to sit for the same examinations as Turkish students. Tensions between Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees exploded last summer in Gaziantep, a city near the Syrian border that hosts approximately 200,000 Syrian refugees. And then of course there is the 5.5 billion USD in public funds that has been allotted by the government toward maintaining Syrian refugee camps and providing basic services.
These sentiments were capitalized on during last summer’s presidential elections, though Erdoğan nonetheless won with a majority of the vote. The government’s financial support of Syrian refugees has once again become a major point of contention in the lead up to this month’s parliamentary election taking place on 7 June 2015. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has gone so far as to propose sending refugees back to Syria if the party manages to come to power. As a result of this type of criticism, the current government has taken measures to limit the gathering of data related to Syrian refugees, both by United Nations (UN) bodies and humanitarian NGOs, and also by academics affiliated with universities and research centers. As an unnamed UN official attested, providing services and assistance is particularly challenging when little is known about the demographic in need.
Regardless of whether Turkey’s refugee-hosting fatigue is demonstrated by voters in the upcoming election, the Syrian situation is not going to disappear. Resettlement to third countries is happening at very low rates; in 2013, 5,000 Syrians were resettled, and the UNHCR is still working on filling the resettlement spots that opened in 2014. And with Turkey’s new migration law firmly in place, the country is obligated to continue hosting Syrians already in Turkey. The question will be: what to do in the long term?
International organizations are still waiting for the secondary legislation associated with the 2013 law to be handed down. At least a part of this forthcoming legislation is expected to address measures for integration, or “harmonization.” According to the new law, a harmonization policy—potentially entailing language and cultural classes, social policies, labor training, etc.—will apply to both foreigners immigrating to Turkey from Europe as well as those foreigners receiving conditional or temporary protection. While the population most in need of such a policy at present is the 1.7 million Syrians residing in Turkey, organizations fear the recent effects of politicization on the migration issue. If the forthcoming bylaw takes a security-focused, regressive approach, returning Turkey to its pre-2008 migration path, there may be little to offer in the way of real integration for Turkey’s “guests.”