By Dr Gill Gillespie, UK Director
As the overall number of Syrian refugees is estimated to reach 700,000 by the end of 2012, there are growing concerns about the pressures on the UNHCR’s asylum system, and this Iranian Refugees Action Network article focuses on Turkey, to where many of these refugees flee.
Most of the refugees are housed in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The UNHCR have said that between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees continue to flee the violence into neighbouring countries every day.
“Many refugees are arriving with only the clothes on their backs,” said Panos Moumtzis, the agency’s regional co-ordinator for Syrian refugees.
“Some have been displaced many times before leaving Syria. They need humanitarian assistance from day one.”
The UN say it is urgently trying to prepare for winter, warning that many of the refugees were still living in tents in the countries to which they have fled.
The UNHCR is responsible for assessing asylum applications in Turkey, and the system has been struggling for a while, even without the recent influx of Syrian refugees. Resettlement times are increasing as countries are accepting fewer and fewer incoming refugees, despite the fact that their refugee cases have been approved by the UNHCR. The Iranian Refugees Action Network has noted, for example, that processing through the US Government approved ICMC organisation is now taking up to 18 months for refugees, whereas only a year ago, such applications were being processed within four or five months.
It is thought by many, including an article by Susanne Gusten in the New York Times on 26 September 2012, that the UNHCR system may be headed for a breakdown.
Nearly 29,000 incoming refugees registered with the United Nations in Turkey by 31 August 2012, according to figures provided by the agency. That figure does not include an estimated 125,000 Syrian refugees sheltering in camps and private accommodation in the southern border area. It also excludes thousands of unregistered refugees, who struggle to understand where and how they can apply to have their cases heard.
Resettlement quotas are down from about 6,500 places last year to fewer than 6,000 this year, according to the UN, with the United States accepting about 4,000 refugees in 2012 and Canada offering 900 places. Australia is taking 630 refugees, with Norway and Finland offering 150 places each and Germany taking 100 refugees. Some countries, such as the UK, arguably provide such poor conditions that refugees feel extremely unwelcome, and even, as previous articles by I.R.A.N. explain, place asylum seekers in detention centres in prison-like conditions which, to the refugees, are comparable to the abuse they originally fled from.
It is claimed by Taner Kilic, the Chairman of Multeci-Der, a private group supporting refugee rights, that “A refugee entering Turkey today will wait for a year and a half just to register with the UNHCR and another year for his first interview with them,” Mr. Kilic said. “That’s a two-and-a-half-year wait, just for your first chance to plead your case.” With follow-up interviews and appeals, the average wait for a decision is four to five years, he added, with some refugees waiting seven to eight years before they even become eligible for resettlement.
Iranian Refugees Action Network concurs with this analysis. Some of our refugees have spent years in Turkey before even being made aware of the legal process they have to engage in to start an asylum claim. Language barriers are a difficulty, as is the fact that many are traumatised and fear the UNHCR will not listen to them or authorities will force them back to the countries which have persecuted them.
In addition, even after having being approved by the UNHCR and ‘medical’ and ‘security’ checks successfully carried out, delays are so sever that many are having to wait so long that they have to go through them again a year later because there has been no progress on their resettlement case to get them to a country of safety.
Third countries then choose what they consider to be the most ‘eligible’ refugees according to criteria like education, language skills and nation of origin. “Afghans, for example, currently have virtually zero chance of being resettled,” Mr. Kilic said, citing cases of recognized refugees who have been waiting 10 years in what are often miserable conditions.
I.R.A.N. believes it is a great shame that those, for example, who have opposed the Iranian regime, the second worst human rights violator in the world, can sometimes be refused acceptance into countries such as the US, simply because of their membership, or their family’s membership, of an opposition group, or because the persecution they are subject to is the very reason why their education has been restricted.
While Turkey does grant temporary protection to registered refugees while their applications are being considered by the UNHCR, it requires them to sit out the wait in one of 53 provincial towns to which they are assigned by the Interior Ministry. “But no one tells them how to get there or what to do when they arrive, no one asks where they will sleep, what they will eat and how they will survive,” Mr. Kilic said. They are not allowed to work (officially) and I.R.A.N. is aware of many refugees who simply have no means to pay for food, heating, accommodation or other basic needs during this time.
Although this is where charities such as ourselves do our best to try to help, it is clear that it is in everyone’s interests to have a faster, more efficient, effective and humanitarian process of resettlement for all concerned. At the moment this is very far from being the case. We have been told by the UNHCR that the influx of Syrian refugees is slowing all refugee resettlement cases in Turkey. Given that most countries provide large amounts of funding to the UN each year, we hope more of this will be provided to resettle refugees who have been waiting years to be received in safe third countries, where they can make a valuable contribution to society.
If this does not happen, we foresee an ever-deepening crisis for refugees in Turkey and for the UNHCR as an organization.
Iranian refugees in Iraq, Pakistan, India, Cyprus and Greece face the same dilemma. Some of our cases have been waiting 9 to 22 years for acceptance which is why the refugees have been risking their lives with smugglers resulting in hundreds of deaths already this year, including many children, when overloaded boats sank in coastal waters of at least four different countries. Recommendations made to the UNHCR since 1994 regarding Turkey have mostly been ignored and the situation now is worse than when the recommendation were made. Ironically, The refugee’s movements are also restricted in Turkey which is a violation of the UN Human Rights Charter, the same organization that is supposedly protecting them.