New Turkey Refugee Laws Keep Syrian Refugees in Limbo

Umit Bektas/Reuters
Umit Bektas/Reuters

New refugee laws in Turkey appear to give Syrians more rights, but they stop short of granting them full refugee status. Despite approval from the UN, Syrian refugees fleeing Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) still cannot find work or receive full residency in the NATO country.

Turkey has become the second home of millions of Syrians since 2011, when the civil war broke out. The old law stated that refugees not from Europe are treated as guests. The new law provides the Syrians with “legal status instead of just temporary protection.” Antonio Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, applauded the new law and praised Turkey for accepting Syrians.

“We estimate more than 2 million refugees are in Turkey today. Turkey very generously opened its borders to such a large number of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans,” he announced after he made it known Turkey accepted 11% of all refugees. “That has a special meaning in a world where so many borders are closed or restricted and new walls are built.”

Nonetheless, a closer look at the law shows something completely different. The law denies the Syrians official refugee status, “meaning that they are not entitled to various benefits such as housing, public relief, and other social services.” Kathleen Newland, an expert on Turkey’s refugee laws, said the law allows Syrians to work, but many complain the law is not implemented or explained to the refugees upon arrival.

“The government is just registering people, but only people who go to a police office and know (how) to do it,” she explained. “A lot of people don’t register or have to go to the camps to figure out what to do.”

They only know where to go if other refugees supply them information.

“They have more rights than Syrians in a lot of the other countries,” she continued. “For example, they can get a work permit or a card that says they are a resident.”

But it does not always work out. Marwin Ali received a card mainly for medical care for his daughter and pregnant wife. While they received the care, he told The New York Times he applied for asylum in Europe.

“Life is hard here,” he claimed. “You make less than $200 a month. It’s hard to survive with a family.”

The ID cards also open the Syrians up to “exploitation and abuse.” In Antalya, local workers attacked Syrians with stones, leaving many injured. The governor of the province demanded the removal of 1,500 refugees, alleging they harm tourism. In May, Turkish authorities in the Muğla province expelled 40 Syrians after business owners and tourism companies complained about the massive hordes of people in the park. Businesses began to suffer as patrons stopped visiting, complaining of the Syrians camped out in the popular district.

“The Syrians may have been victims of some ill-intentioned people,” said Bülent Şenol, the owner of Küba Bar, a popular nightclub. “But I do not want to see them in front of my place right next to the Bodrum Port. I would like to see tourists there. The tourism industry was already in trouble here. If necessary measures are not taken, we will face serious problems.”

Authorities offered the Syrians money to leave the park. They eventually sent the refugees to the Söke district in Aydın province. However, work is the main issue for the refugees.

“We are still assessing what kind of access people will have,” concluded Newland. “But there is a widespread expectation that these people need to be integrated into Turkish society.”