The Plight of Northern Iraqi Refugees in Turkey
By Behzad Pilehvar
As a government assisted refugee who has spent eighteen months of hard life in Turkey, I would like to share my concerns about the life and protection of Kurdish asylum seekers in Turkey.
There are thousands of asylum seekers living in a very difficult situation in Turkey. They have escaped to Turkey from many countries like Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Some are living in Turkey legally and others have to live an underground life. The focus of this article is on the plight of those refugees who live in Turkey legally and have been accepted by the UNHCR branch office there.
In early 2001, a group of Kurdish political activists (mainly Iranians) entered Turkey from Northern Iraq. They could not continue staying in Iraq due to lack of status and the fear of religious and political persecution by the ruling parties there. The kidnapping and assassination of Iranian opponents in Northern Iraq added to their well-founded fears. Despite the acceptance of a majority of these people as bonafide refugees by UHNCR, they have not yet been resettled in a safe third country.
In March 2003, before the outbreak of the war in Iraq, the UNHCR designated this group of refugees under the category of “People in Irregular Move” (See Agreement 1989, number 58 XL). The UNHCR branch in Turkey initially refused to accept them as bonafide refugees. It was a carte blanche for the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs to send these people to Iran, Iraq and Syria. There was great reluctance to provide these refugees with medical and psychiatric care, many of them needed greatly. After years of international lobbying and pressure from human and refugee rights groups, the UNHCR and the government of Turkey agreed in 2003 to let these people stay as foreigners in Turkey. This was with the condition that they pay ‘staying’ fees to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The fee was $250 per person for a period of 6 months.
On July the 2nd of 2003, Turkish security forces attacked a peaceful sit-in strike of a group of Iranian refugees and Turkish students in front of the office of the UNHCR. I was arrested along with two other asylum seekers and we faced the risk of deportation. It was not without effective pressure from human rights supporters and the Turkish media that the police released us. On August 20th 2003, the Turkish police arrested 20 asylum seekers, among them were 8 children. They were taken by the police to the border and abandoned in bad weather conditions. After fighting for their lives for three days, local people rescued them and they returned to the border city of Van. In November of that same year, the police in front of the UNHCR office arrested 53 refugees. The police decided to deport them from Turkey. However, they were released due to the intervention of human rights agencies.
In December 2003, the UNHCR branch office in turkey accepted these people as bonafide refugees from Northern Iraq. This came after they had been living in limbo for two years. In April 2004, Turkish police transferred these refugees to different cities. They were advised by the police to procure residence permits from the cities of their destination. The refugees faced lots of problems from local authorities in their bid to get the residence permits. The local authorities asked them for considerably high fees, in return for the permits. In June of 2004, the Turkish police gave the refugees a deadline to pay the fees by the end of the month. However, many refugees could not afford it. Therefore, on July the 8th, 54 refugees were arrested and forced to sign letters of removal from Turkey. They were given 15 days to leave Turkey voluntarily, to avoid being removed forcefully. In October 2005, Amnesty International asked the UNHCR to resettle these refugees in a safe third country.
The number of these refugees, according to UNHCR statistics of July 2005, is as follows: 1181 refugees (516 cases); This includes 62% men, 38% women, 277 children under the age of 18, 100 children under the age of 5 and two hundred single people. The average number of each family is estimated at 3.
There was a meeting between refugees and UNHCR officials in Turkey in September 2006. Unfortunately, the meeting did nothing to improve the safety of refugees in Turkey. In early December 2006, the Ministry of Home Affairs sent a communiqué to the refugees informing them that those with close relatives abroad and those who suffer from serious diseases (diseases such as cancer and diabetes), who were approximately 96 in number, can be resettled in a third country. Unfortunately, on the 15th of December following a meeting between the UNHCR and the Ministry of Home Affairs, this decision was cancelled.
It has been more than five years since the arrival of these refugees in Turkey. So far, there has been no attempt to resettle them in another country. These refugees suffer in Silence, as they are not permitted to work in Turkey. This is because, according to Turkish law, those employers who hire them, will be finding and criminally prosecuted. Also, their children are practically deprived of studying in Turkey due to the language barrier as well as the heavy cost of education there. At present, 277 children under 18 who have come from Northern Iraq do not have access to education.
According to one of the Iranian interpreters, in a two-year period from the time of the arrival of refugees from Northern Iraq till the end of 2003 there has been more than 50 beatings and wounding of asylum seekers by the agents of the Turkish government. I have witnessed two of these events.
Who is responsible for not resettling these refugees? The UNHCR authorities in Turkey have always rejected any kind of negligence with respect to their involvement with refugees from Northern Iraq. They have blamed the government of Turkey for not providing exit visas to these people. On the other hand, the Ministry of Home Affairs in Turkey blames the UNHCR for not finding a safe third country for the resettlement of these vulnerable refugees. Following a deep analysis of the cases of these refugees, one can easily conclude that both sides are responsible. From the practice of both sides one might infer that the UNHCR and the Turkish government use refugees as scapegoats.
Finally, I request all individuals and human rights agencies as well as those who cherish the hope of a better future for humanity, to take action and help these highly vulnerable refugees in Turkey.
Behzad Pilehvar entered Turkey in April 2003. He resettled in Canada in December 2004.