Iranian refugees in peril: Turkish government regulation violates refugee rights
- Posted by Maryam Namazie
- On May 19, 1997
- 0 Comments
On November 30, 1994, the Turkish government adopted Decision Number 94/6169 (the Regulation). Among other provisions, the Regulation requires non-Europeans, namely Iranians and Iraqis, to apply for asylum with the Turkish police within five days of entry. The undocumented must apply at the dangerous border area where a war rages between the government and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Despite the Regulation, many are either unable or unwilling to meet the stringent and perilous requirements and are therefore being deemed “illegal.” The refugees’ justified non-compliance is giving the Turkish government a free hand in abusing and refouling (forcibly returning) those with a well-founded fear of persecution back to Iran and Iraq under the guise of “legalities.” The discriminatory Regulation, however, violates internationally recognized refugee rights and prevents refugees from enjoying their basic right to asylum, protection and non-refoulement.
Maryam Namazie, responsible for the International Federation of Iranian Refugees and Immigrants Councils’ (IFIRIC) – [now called the IFIR – International Federation of Iranian Refugees] Turkey branches and its International Relations, as well as a Steering Committee Member of the Committee for Humanitarian Assistance to Iranian Refugees (CHAIR) spent five weeks in Turkey during October and November 1996. Her visit was facilitated by the IFIRIC-branch members in Turkey and the Women’s Committee-Turkey branch. During her visit, Namazie spoke about the situation of Iranian refugees in Turkey with numerous refugees; IFIRIC-branches and Women’s Committee members; Turkish organizations, including the Progressive Lawyers organization, the Turkish Human Rights Association, and the Teachers’ and Doctors’ Syndicate; the United States, Canadian and Australian embassies; the International Catholic Migration Conference (ICMC); the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
3. INTRODUCTION: THE NOVEMBER 1994 REGULATION
The Iranian government’s record of gross and systematic abuses, its abhorrent political, social and economic structures and its maintenance of power through terror and cruelty are public knowledge. Since its establishment in 1979, refugees have been an inseparable component of the rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran with millions fleeing due to persecution on account of political opinion, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality. Many have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey.
Turkey is a party to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, yet it has limited its international obligations by maintaining a geographical reservation thereby eliminating any responsibility to non-European refugees. Given this geographical reservation, prior to the Fall of 1994, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would determine refugee status and facilitate third-country resettlement with the understanding that refugees would not remain in Turkey permanently.
On November 30, 1994, however, the Turkish government adopted Decision Number 94/6169 “The Regulation on the Procedures and Principles Related to Mass Influx and the Foreigners Arriving in Turkey either as Individuals or in Groups Wishing to Seek Asylum either from Turkey or Requesting Residence Permits with the Intention of Seeking Asylum from a Third Country” (hereafter called the Regulation). The Regulation formalized the Turkish government’s practice since July 1994 of processing the asylum claims of non-Europeans. It was prepared by the Ministry of Interior (MOI), which is part of the Directorate of General Security and primarily concerned with “security” issues, in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). There were no consultations with the UNHCR or legal experts.
Consequently, the Regulation has been criticized on both technical and substantive grounds by legal experts.
According to the Regulation, the Turkish government must determine whether an Iranian is an asylum seeker before s/he may present her/his claim to the UNHCR. After this determination, the UNHCR makes its own separate assessment as before, submitting for resettlement only those it has recognized. As before, Iranians cannot remain permanently in Turkey and must be resettled in a third country.
The Regulation requires Iranians to file their asylum claims within five days after entry at a local governate. Those arriving without passports must file their asylum claims at the governate nearest where they entered the country. Once an asylum seeker is interviewed by the police, the information is forwarded to the Ministry of Interior (MOI). The MOI reaches a decision on the claim after taking into consideration the “opinions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other relevant ministries and national agencies” (Article 6 of the Regulation). The Regulation makes no mention of soliciting the UNHCR’s opinion.
If an asylum seeker receives a positive decision, s/he is given a temporary residence permit to allow her/him to remain in Turkey temporarily so that s/he can be resettled in a third country by the UNHCR. If an asylum seeker receives a negative decision by the MOI, s/he will receive a deportation order which can be appealed within 15 days. If the appeal is denied or if there is no appeal made, the asylum seeker is deported. Those who have not applied to the government for various reasons, including having missed the five-day deadline, are immediately refouled without any assessment of their claim by the Turkish authorities.
4. THE REGULATION’S EFFECT
In order to better assess the Regulation’s effect on Iranian refugees, fifty-two self-selected Iranian refugees and refugee claimants were surveyed in six towns: Ankara, Cankiri, Corum, Kaysari, Kostamonu and Nevsehir. Of the 52 Iranian refugees and refugee claimants surveyed, 79% were Kurds. 54% were 19-30 years of age; 36% were 31-40; and 10% were over 40 years of age. 66% were unskilled or skilled workers; 21% were homemakers and 13% were students when in Iran. 65% were male and 35% were female. 58% were married; 36% were single and 6% comprised women-headed households. 85% of those surveyed fled Iran due to persecution based on political opinion and 15% fled due to gender-based persecution. 8% of those surveyed had been in Turkey for less than three months; 50% for 3-9 months; 13% for 9-23 months and 29% for 1 year to four years.
Findings of the quantitative survey as well as first hand information collected by IFIRIC activists in Turkey provide ample evidence that the Regulation prevents refugees from enjoying their basic right to asylum. Many refugees are either unable to meet the stringent requirements of the Regulation or are unwilling to place themselves at peril. 63% of those surveyed had not applied for asylum with the Turkish authorities even though the Regulation requires that they do so. The reasons given for not applying for asylum were: they had missed the five-day limit; they did not want to go to the dangerous Iranian- or Iraqi -Turkish border; and they feared the police and deportation. They also stated that they believed the asylum interviews by the police were an attempt to collect information for the Iranian government.
One reason given by refugees for not applying for asylum with the Turkish authorities was that they had missed the five-day limit. The government’s strict adherence to that deadline has ruled many asylum seekers ineligible and liable to immediate deportation. According to
Amnesty International, “failure to comply with procedural requirements such as the five-day rule does not justify the expulsion or forcible return of an asylum seeker or refugee who may be at risk of serious human rights violations in the country to which he or she is forcibly returned. Conclusion No. 15 of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR states that: `While asylum seekers may be required to submit their asylum request within a certain time limit, failure to do so, or the non-fulfillment of other formal requirements, should not lead to an asylum request being excluded from consideration.'”
Another reason given by undocumented refugees for not applying for asylum is their refusal to return to the perilous border areas. After reaching the UNHCR in Ankara, undocumented Iranians are told to return to southeastern Turkey (Agri, Hakkari, Silopi, or Van) – a trip that can take up to two days – to apply for asylum with local police officials. Southeastern Turkey is an area where a twelve-year war rages on between the government and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Examples of the perils are innumerable. On October 14, 1996, 28-30 Iraqi asylum seekers (Kurds and Christians) were massacred by Turkish para-military forces. The BBC reported that 28 bodies were found by Iranian border guards. The Turkish government denied responsibility but two survivors verified Turkey’s culpability. Refugees report that Silopi is similar to a military encampment. Tanks, soldiers and police are everywhere. There is a curfew in place. In March 1997, refugees were unable to leave their houses for several days because of fighting between the government and the PKK. The situation has worsened when in May 1997, the Turkish government attacked PKK encampments in Iraq with a 5,000 military force.
The insecurity at the border area is not limited to fighting between the Turkish government and the PKK. In early May 1997, two Iranians recognized by the UNHCR were caught in a crossfire in Van and seriously wounded.
The majority of refugees surveyed, 73%, entered Turkey without passports. Though they were required by the Regulation to apply for asylum at the border, an overwhelming majority, 63%, refused to do so. Despite the fact that those fleeing persecution by the Islamic regime cannot obtain documentation from that government, Turkey penalizes those who enter illegally, thereby making them liable to prosecution and deportation.
Another reason given by refugees for not applying for asylum with the Turkish authorities is their fear of the police. IFIRIC has received countless reports of beatings, physical and mental torture and coercive measures. Refugees are often interrogated by armed members of the security police in which they are taken alone to deserted areas and threatened with deportation if they do not respond. IFIRIC has also received reports of bribing occurring at the border and in other towns in Turkey. Detention, beatings, slaps and other forms of humiliation by the police are commonplace. In January 1997, one refugee’s wrist was broken as a result of police brutality. Refugees’ homes are often raided, creating an environment of terror.
Fear of deportation was another reason given by Iranians for not applying for asylum to the Turkish authorities. Of those surveyed, 81% had heard of deportations occurring in their town. 96% did not feel secure in Turkey.
IFIRIC has received reports that refugees applying for asylum at the border have been deported in violation of the Regulation despite having applied within the five-day limit. A well-known example of this was the case of 21 Iranian asylum seekers (20 of whom were Baha’is) who went to Agri (a town bordering Iran) in early August 1996 to apply for asylum with the police after registering with the UNHCR in Ankara. They were deported even though they were well within the five-day limit. One eyewitness stated that his “attention was drawn to the incident as the women and children were crying, screaming and begging officers not to deport them.” According to Turkish press reports broadcast on August 9, the deportations were ordered as a gesture of goodwill to Iran on the eve of the visit to Tehran of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan. This incident is a clear example of the arbitrary practices of the Turkish police even toward those who do observe the Regulation.
The international standard of non-refoulement – a prohibition of expulsion or return – states that “no contracting state shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his [her] life or freedom would be threatened…” The concept of non-refoulement is explicitly protected in Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; Article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Punishment; and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Turkish government is party to all three conventions. More importantly, non-refoulement is considered customary international law, making it binding on all states, in all cases, irrespective of whether that state is a party to any international instrument. Nonetheless, hundreds of Iranian refugees have been refouled every year to Iran and Iraq. In March 1997 alone, subsequent to a Turkish government order that all “illegal” refugees be rounded up and deported, the police made sweeping house searches in Nevsehir and Kaysari, towns with the largest refugee populations. Nearly 80 refugees, most of whom were recognized by the UNHCR and many of whom were awaiting travel to a safe country (the United States, Finland, and Australia), including some with visas in hand, were refouled to Zakho, Iraq. One of them was Shuresh, a twelve-year-old boy who was deported unaccompanied to Iraq, after being held hostage for several days in an effort to force his father’s surrender. Many others barely escaped from refoulement by jumping out of windows when the police came for them or by going into hiding.
IFIRIC believes the refoulement of these Iranians to Iraq is clearly an attempt by the Turkish government to escape international scrutiny by not deporting refugees directly back to Iran while still fulfilling its end of the agreement with the Iranian government to exchange their respective political opponents. Deportations of Iranians to Iraq, however, are nonetheless in violation of international refugee standards and demand as serious scrutiny and condemnation than if the refugees were forcibly returned to Iran.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that most refugees are not given the opportunity to object to their refoulement nor given any notice, and that deportations are involuntary, the Turkish Embassy states:
“Those individuals who are found non-eligible or those who act against the provisions of the Regulation are asked, via a written notification, to leave Turkey within 15 days. This is not a forcible deportation; they are asked to leave on their own accord…. Those individuals who fail to leave the country after 15 days and who have exhausted their options are considered illegal aliens in Turkey. Nonetheless, these people are never forcibly returned to their home countries. Instead during the process of departing Turkey, Turkish authorities extend every assistance to them to make sure that they do not face personal harm or jeopardy in their home countries.”
According to Article 29 of the Regulation, even those considered asylum seekers, and therefore “legal,” by the Turkish government can be refouled under certain circumstances. Furthermore, Article 28 of the Regulation states that the temporary residence permit issued only to those recognized will not be extended “if after given reasonable time the foreigners are still not able to go to a third country.” Since Turkey will not allow Iranians to remain permanently, recognition as an asylum seeker only means receiving temporary residence, and not permanent settlement or protection from refoulement – although by such a recognition, the government concedes that the person has a well-founded fear of persecution. The Regulation, therefore, makes its possible for the Turkish government to deport those who have been rejected, have failed to comply with the Regulation and even those who have been recognized as asylum seekers by the government. Contrary to the belief that Article 29 is an “unequivocal acceptance of the applicability of the principle of non-refoulement,” IFIRIC asserts that the provision is in fact an affront to the very concept.
Another reason given by refugees for non-compliance with the Regulation is that during asylum interviews, Iranians must give reasons for their flight to the Turkish police. Having fled government-instigated persecution in Iran, refugees fear and distrust government figures, especially the Turkish police, who have been responsible for beatings, intimidations, and deportations. Even when some Iranians do present themselves to the Turkish police, it is highly unlikely that they will be confident that their claims will be treated confidentially and fairly. Many Iranians surveyed expressed the belief that the purpose of the asylum interview was to collect information which will be divulged to the Iranian authorities upon deportation, making the asylum interview synonymous with the admission of “guilt.” During asylum interviews, many refugees report that the police often link Iranians Kurds with the PKK, and threaten claimants with deportation or tell them to return to Iran. IFIRIC has also received reports from refugees who state that the Turkish police have forcibly taken them to the Iranian embassy in Ankara where they have been interrogated and threatened.
The asylum interviews do not meet basic international standards for asylum status determination. According to the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, an application should be “examined within the framework of specially established procedures by qualified personnel having the necessary knowledge and experience, and an understanding of the applicant’s particular difficulties and needs.” The police do not have adequate training in international and refugee laws nor on the situation in Iran. During the asylum interviews, applicants do not have legal advice and representation or professional translators. Of the 36% who had introduced themselves to the police, 31% did not have a translator during the interview. Many times, the translator is another refugee – breaching the applicant’s right to confidentiality. According to the UNHCR, “the applicant should be given the necessary facilities, including the services of a competent interpreter.”
Given the existing situation, refugees are overwhelmingly justified in their non-compliance with the Regulation, especially in light of the many pledges between the Iranian and Turkish governments to exchange members of each other’s opposition. Ongoing meetings between the two countries’ officials, especially most recently, point to a new phase of “understanding” between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamicist government of Turkey. Over a dozen assassinations by Iranian government agents in Turkey since the mid-80s add to the refugees’ insecurity.
According to Payman Mohammadi, an IFIRIC refugee activist in Turkey: “Refugees reject the Turkish government’s claim that they have failed to respect Turkish laws. Iranian refugees fleeing the fascist government of Iran have not come to Turkey to ignore that country’s laws. It is the inhumane and intolerable violations refugees face upon arrival that force their non-compliance. The refusal to acquiesce will continue until Turkish laws guarantee the lives and security of refugees and respect international standards.”
The situation has created a two-tier system in which many have applied only to the UNHCR and not to the Turkish government despite the Regulation. Of those surveyed, 12% had not applied for refugee status even to the UNHCR. An obvious consequence of the deteriorating situation is the astoundingly growing number of Iranians and Iraqis attempting to bypass the refugee determination procedure altogether and find refuge in a safer country. In March 1997, 18 Iranian and Iraqi refugees drowned while attempting to cross into Greece from Turkey. In early May, the bodies of another 15 to 20 drowned Iraqi refugees who had also attempted to find refuge in Greece, were found by the Turkish coast guard.
Iran is a principle source of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. Despite the fact that Turkey is most accessible to them, the negligible numbers actually registering as asylum seekers confirm that Turkish government practices and policies of deterrence, abuse and bias discourage Iranians from enjoying their right to asylum.
It has been stated that the Regulation is “an effort on the part of Turkish authorities to replace the previous practice, which they have come to consider as too liberal and threatening to Turkish security, with one that they believe will enhance their control over asylum in Turkey.” It has been further stated that the authorities issued the Regulation because they “became particularly disturbed by the growing number of individual asylum seekers entering the country illegally, remaining inside the country illegally and often trying to leave the country illegally. For the Turkish authorities, a very disturbing aspect of these uncontrolled movements was that they often discovered the existence of UNHCR-recognized refugees in Turkey only when they arrived at Ankara and Istanbul international airports to depart to their respective countries of resettlement.”
In fact, prior to the issuance of the Regulation, all Iranian refugees who introduced themselves to the UNHCR were referred by that office to the Turkish police. Only after proof of registration with the police were they given a refugee status determination interview with the UNHCR. As a result, all refugees who had applied to the UNHCR were known to the police and would sign in at police stations in Ankara or their towns of residence on a regular basis (sometimes twice daily). Only those who had been in Turkey for a long period, whose cases were closed with the UNHCR and who had received deportation writs were generally living “illegally.” Prior to the issuance of the Regulation, therefore, most Iranian refugees were “legal” and known to the authorities. Given that most UNHCR-recognized refugees are now “illegal” and unknown to the authorities, the Regulation has had the opposite of its intended result – that is, if the Turkish government’s real intent is as it states – to “control” asylum seekers. In practice, the Regulation has increased insecurity for asylum seekers and facilitated refoulement under the guise of [il]legalities.
5. CONCLUSION AND DEMANDS
The Turkish government states that it has the “duty and obligation to monitor the flow of foreigners.” Nonetheless, no government has the right to abuse internationally recognized refugee rights under the guise of sovereignty. As a member of the international community and a signatory to several international conventions, Turkey is bound to respect basic refugee rights, regardless of whether its “Regulation contains far more flexible provisions than similar regulations in other European countries.”
Unless immediate and specific improvements are made in the November 1994 Regulation and its implementation, mass deportations to Iran and Iraq as well as tragic deaths of people seeking refuge in safer countries, will become recurring occurrences.
The following specific measures are essential if non-European refugee rights are to be minimally safeguarded in Turkey. Those surveyed have stated that the government of Turkey should:
Cease refoulement immediately;
Make immediate, interim, administrative changes to improve the Regulation, including:
– abolishing the five-day limit,
– lifting the rule requiring the undocumented to apply for asylum with the police station nearest their point of entry and allow them to apply in their town of residence;
– transferring the asylum determination process from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice;
– ensuring that those interviewing the refugees are impartial and trained in refugee and international laws; and
– hiring professional translators.
Provide temporary residence to all asylum seekers;
Issue exit visas to all refugees accepted for third-country resettlement;
Monitor police conduct; and,
Allow the UNHCR to carry out its mandate and defer to UNHCR when that body recognizes a person as a refugee.
6. APPENDIX: NEEDS ASSESSMENT RESULTS
October to November 1996
52 self-selected refugees were surveyed by the Committee for Humanitarian Assistance to Iranian Refugees (CHAIR) and the International Federation of Iranian Refugees and Immigrants Councils (IFIRIC)-Turkey branch in several towns, including Kaysari, Nevsehir, Cankiri, Ankara, Kostomanu and Corum. The following is the results of the survey:
Average survey time: 1 hour
What is your primary language:
Kurdish Persian Azeri
79% 13% 8%
What is your gender:
How old are you:
19-30 31-40 Over 40 years
54% 36% 10%
What is your marital status:
Married Single Women Headed Households
58% 36% 6%
How many children do you have, if any (32/52 had children):
1-2 children 3-4 children 5-6 children
56% 28% 16%
Of those with children, 66% had one to five children of school age.
What was your occupation in Iran:
Skilled/Unskilled Workers Homemakers Students
66% 21% 13%
How many people are living in your house:
4-5 people 6-7 people 2-3 people 8-9 people
51% 23% 15% 11%
What are the reasons for your flight from Iran:
Political Membership in a Social Group
Did you have difficulties during your flight from Iran:
The 56% who faced difficulties during their flight to Turkey mentioned the following:
Security Fear Financial Bad Conditions enroute
72% 62% 41% 38%
How did you enter Turkey:
Legal Without Documents
Are your the principal applicant (P/A) of your UNHCR case:
P/A Spouse of P/A Not Introduced to UNHCR
62% 26% 12%
How long have you been a refugee in Turkey:
> 3 months 3-9 months 9-23 months over 2 years
8% 50% 13% 29%
Did you have information on the Turkish Government Regulation before your entry:
No Yes Some
87% 2% 10%
Did you have information on your rights before your entry:
No Yes Some
86% 10% 4%
What is your legal status in Turkey:
With the UNHCR:
Approved Rejected Pending Not Introduced
50% 17% 21% 12%
With the Government of Turkey (GOT):
Residency GOT Residency Expired Deportation Order Received GOT Pending Not Introduced to GOT
15% 12% 6% 4% 63%
Why have you not applied for asylum with the Turkish government:
Refugees did not want to go to the border; they had missed the five-day limit; they feared the police and deportation; the were concerned about security agreements between Iran and Turkey under which political opponents are exchanged and they did not believe that the UNHCR could protect them if a problem arose.
Were you satisfied with the translator:
Yes No Without Translator
53% 16% 31%
– other refugees are used as translators
How long did your asylum interview take:
15-30 min. 1+ hour 2+ hour 4+ hour
26% 33% 26% 15%
What questions were you asked by the police in the asylum interviews:
Biographical information, case/political opinion, route, money and passport
How is the police’s conduct towards you:
Good Regular Bad No Dealings
10% 11% 23% 56%
– Refugees stay as far away from police as possible, including running away when police sighted
– Refugees told to return to Iran
– Police behavior is barbaric, insulting, humiliating
– Police often coerce bribes
– Police link refugees with the PKK
– Police threaten refugees with deportation
Do you feel secure in Turkey:
– Fear of deportation
– Not having temporary residence
– Iranian government agents in Turkey
– Close relations between Turkey and Iran
– Fear of the police
– Not having UNHCR acceptance or protection
Have deportations occurred in your town:
Yes No Don’t know
81% 17% 2%
Where do you prefer to apply for asylum:
What body do you prefer to determine your refugee status:
Only UNHCR Only GOT Both
87% 0% 13%
What other problems do you have with the Turkish government’s Regulation:
15 days to produce proof of identity for the undocumented is insufficient
Another ministry should take over the asylum determinations from the Ministry of Interior which is preoccupied with security issues
Interviewers must be impartial and properly trained
Police conduct should be monitored
The Turkish government should provide temporary residence for all asylum seekers
The government should provide exit visas for all those accepted for third country resettlement
What recommendations do you have for the Turkish government:
– Stop deporting Iranians and sacrificing them for relations with Iran
– Respect refugee rights according to international law
– Provide exit visas
– Issue temporary residency for all refugees
– Prevent brutal police conduct
– Stop interference in UNHCR’s activities