Why don't they just stay in Turkey?

The situation for the many refugees in Turkey is not sustainable, and the Danish government is making things worse

Families are separated for years

The Danish government has proposed a list of new restrictions which include extended waiting periods for family reunifications for up to three years that not only risk to keep families apart for an even longer time, but that might also lead to brisker business for people smugglers as many, especially women and children, will be forced to take perilous sea routes to reach their loved ones in Denmark. 

Many of the refugees who arrive in the country have spent time, sometimes many years, in Turkey, where life proved increasingly difficult for them. Not only are the costs of living relatively high for refugees who do not have the right to work legally in Turkey, but several human rights groups have also warned that the European Union, including Denmark, risk being complicit in severe human rights violations as Turkey starts to imprison and deport refugees and asylum seekers.

Turkey pushes back refugees illegally

Following a highly controversial deal struck at a summit in Brussels in November last year, under which the European Union pledged €3bn (22.4bn DKK) and political concessions to Turkey in exchange for increased border patrols, Turkish authorities have started to crack down on refugees trying to cross to Greece in order to claim asylum in the EU. In the week following the summit, Turkish police detained over 3,000 people in the western province of Çanakkale alone.

Registered Syrian refugees are often released soon after they have been picked up by the police. However, according to an alarming report published by Amnesty International in December 2015, Turkey increasingly incarcerates and even deports refugees and asylum seekers in violation of domestic and international law.

According to research conducted by Amnesty, Turkey has been detaining refugees and asylum-seekers who tried to cross into the EU irregularly since September last year, and a significant number was sent back to their home countries where they are often at risk of serious human rights abuses. The group warned that these expulsions were a serious violation of the non-refoulement principle of international law, which bans countries from returning refugees to conflict zones where their lives are in danger.

In addition to that, many of those who were detained since September told Amnesty that they were held in extended detention without access to lawyers or their families, and faced ill-treatment from the police. 

Lawyers and activists in Turkey are worried that the recent deal between Turkey and the EU will lead to an investment in draconian security measures in disregard of refugees’ safety and lives.

“We are worried that the money Turkey will receive from the EU will fund more detention centres and pay for heightened security, while the money should instead be used to build a sustainable infrastructure to offer refugees in Turkey a more viable future,” said Eda Bekçi, a lawyer who volunteers at the Izmir-based refugee aid organisation Mülteci-Der. “With this deal, Turkey became Europe’s border guard, which is problematic for many reasons. Cracking down on people smugglers will not make the problem go away. Smugglers will always find the proverbial ‘hole in the fence’. The smuggling trade will get pushed deeper underground. What will instead happen is that the trafficking trade will get more brutal, more dangerous for refugees.”

The system is already overstretched

What is more is that security forces are often overstretched. Police officers in the upscale coastal town of Çeşme say they lack both the facilities and the manpower to deal with the arriving refugees. Mohammed Nour, a 35-year-old Afghan national who worked as a translator for German troops in a NATO base in Kunduz for over five years, said that the police put him and other fellow travellers into taxis after apprehending them on a beach outside the small coastal town, which then whisked them off to the local bus station, from they walked back to the place where they were arrested.

Viable solutions are lacking. While the recent crackdowns along the western Turkish coast suggest that Turkey will implement stricter border controls and heighten security measures to keep people from entering the EU, many refugees desperate to leave find themselves increasingly stuck in a horrible limbo, due to a lack of perspectives in Turkey.

“They took our boat twice,” said Mushtaq, 27, who served two years in the Afghan army before death threats by the Taliban forced him to flee. Now he is stuck in an abandoned holiday village in Çiftlik, a few kilometres outside of Çeşme. “I have no money left. The police took our boats twice, but didn’t arrest us, didn’t give us food. They also told us we could not make a fire on the beach. Maybe they should just shoot us.”

Turkey currently hosts 2.2 million registered refugees from Syria, the largest such population in the world, in addition to almost a quarter million more asylum seekers from other countries, such as Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Only one in ten lives in the camps

Only 10% of all Syrian refugees live in one of the refugee camps run by the Turkish government and that are currently at full capacity. Without access to the regular job market and any forms of government subsistence, the remaining two million living in Turkey struggle to make ends meet, in many cases solely with the help of locals and volunteer charity organisations.

Prof Dr Cem Terzi, a surgeon and head of the Association of Bridging Peoples, a volunteer group that provides medical care, charity and home visits for refugees in Izmir, underlined that Turkish authorities largely left refugees outside the camps to fend for themselves.

“The government doesn’t provide sustainable care to refugees here,” he said. “This deal will make matters much worse if this continues. It turns Turkey into an open air prison. The West has betrayed all its values, Europe should stop this ugly trade-off in human lives.”

In a report published in 2014, Amnesty International found that Syrians who live outside the government-run refugee camps struggle to secure a minimum of social and economic rights, such as education, housing and healthcare. Many families live in abject poverty, often in unsanitary, even dangerous, housing conditions. In Jordan and Lebanon, the situation is equally dire. According to a new joint report by the World Bank and the UNHCR, 90% of the 1.7 million Syrian refugees registered in both countries live in poverty and with little or no access to legal rights and public services.

Child labour and poverty

Child labour is rampant. According to a recent report by the Turkish Confederation of Employer Associations (TISK), 400,000 Syrians, over 50% of them children, work unregistered in Turkey, without insurance and often for salaries below the already meagre minimum wage. Human Rights Watch has said that 400,000 Syrian children are currently not attending school in Turkey. 

Ali, 28, a lecturer of English from the Syrian city of Idlib who is now waiting for his asylum claim to be processed in Germany, said that it had been impossible to find a job in his profession in Turkey.

“I wrote to so many schools here, I tried everything,” he said. “I was teaching in university in Syria, but in Turkey I could not even find a job in a primary school.” He took on unskilled jobs in textile factories where he worked at 600 Turkish Lira a month (1,410 DKK), sometimes less, often more than twelve hours a day. “I felt exploited. I didn’t have a future in Turkey, even though I really liked it there. But I had no other choice but to leave.”

Caught between increasingly difficult living conditions in Turkey and the lack of access to legal ways to claim asylum in the EU, more and more refugees and asylum seekers are forced to attempt the perilous sea crossing to reach safety in Greece. Furthermore, many fear that Turkey might seal its borders once and for all as requested by the EU-Turkey deal, prompting them to depart despite a significant drop in temperature and dangerously rough seas. According to numbers published by the UNHCR, 55,203 asylum seekers made their way from Turkey to Greece in the first two weeks of December 2015, more than 25 times as many as in all of December last year. Of at least 35 people who drowned in the Aegean this month alone, 15 were children.

A dirty deal

Amnesty International has harshly criticised the EU-Turkey migration deal for lacking “any credible safe and legal routes for people to access EU territory for the purpose of seeking asylum”. The human rights group warned that instead it would likely “result in more people risking their lives in attempts at longer and still more dangerous sea routes. As such the migration deal is the continuation of a failed EU policy which has seen the land routes from Turkey to Bulgaria and Greece effectively closed.”

Ali, the English lecturer from Idlib, agreed.  “This deal is against us, it’s against refugees who suffer so much already. If you want to stop the refugee crisis, you must stop the root cause of the crisis, not those that are its victims.” Referring to the EU promise to allow visa-free travel to Schengen countries for Turkish citizens as part of the controversial border security deal, he adds: “This is a dirty, an inhumane trade-off. Turks will go to Europe at our expense.”