Turkey as a Country of Migration: Notes on 2020

Selman Salim Kesgin
Dr., Turkish Red Crescent Academy

Turkey has become a destination country for migrants from almost every corner of the world due to its geopolitical basin, historical and cultural past, and the economic and political policies it has adopted. For this reason, the number of visitors coming to Turkey for education, work, and asylum has experienced continuous growth since the early 2000s. Accordingly, Turkey hosts a total of around 5 million migrants, with 900,000 residence permits for migrants, 3.6 million Syrians under temporary protection, and 400,000 applicants for international protection. According to this, 6 out of every 100  people living in Turkey is a migrant. When considering the presence of the hundreds of thousands of people with no official record as an irregular migrant in addition to this data, the migration structure in Turkey attracts more attention.

Most of the approximately 900,000 residence permit holders living in Turkey for reasons such as education, work, and lifestyle come from Iraq, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, respectively. When viewed in terms of applications for International Protection, around 300,000 people who’ve been forced to leave crisis zones in different geographies of the world, in particular Afghanistan and Iraq, have applied for international protection in Turkey in the last three years. Despite a slight decrease, irregular migration toward Turkey has continued in 2020. 

The most important agenda item among migration policies in Turkey is the Syrian refugees under temporary protection. As of 2020, 3.6 million people who have had to leave their country following the war that started in Syria in 2011 are living in Turkey.

All these data show that Turkey, which has been a transit country for migrants who have previously emigrated or want to go to Europe, is now a destination country for people who have regular or irregular migration cases. Being a destination country requires developing policies that take migrants into consideration in health, education, security, economic, and social policy areas. Social cohesion and social policy areas concerning community life have special importance in terms of constructing a common future with migrants.

The most significant development to have left its mark on 2020 in terms of migrations, immigrants, and migration management as in all areas of society has been the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, which started in December 2019 and then spread quickly all over the world, has also caused significant changes in border and immigration policies. Many countries in geographical proximity to Turkey have suspended border crossings. This situation has adversely affected migrants with travel plans in Turkey as well as all over the world.

Another prominent issue regarding the pandemic and migration is the matter of access to health services by migrants. One important development during the COVID-19 pandemic for migrant access to healthcare was the announcement that everyone regardless of health insurance coverage and legal status in Turkey will be provided with testing, diagnosis, and treatment services free of charge with regard to COVID-19 through the regulation made on April 13, 2020. In fact, asylum seekers can have free access to healthcare services independent of this regulation. One regulation was made in January 2020 on the issue of international protection applicants’ access to health services, another agenda under this heading. According to this, the general health insurance of applicants without any health insurance who are unable to pay and of status holders will be covered by the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) for 1 year from the date of the application registration.

The pandemic has more so affected migrants and asylum seekers economically, particularly those at relatively lower socioeconomic levels. Asylum seekers mostly work in informal labor markets, and these sectors have been negatively affected by the pandemic; this has led to migrants and asylum seekers encountering economic problems.

Alongside the aforementioned problems, one other issue that needs addressing is the risks from the negative impacts of the pandemic, especially the risk of asylum seekers’ gains reversing in economic, cultural, and social cohesion fields in the past years.

Some of the steps the immigration management bureaucracy has taken in 2020 can be summarized as:

  • Continuing the activities organized by the Department of Compliance and Communication online,
  • Announcing that the entry ban for violating length of stay will not be applied to foreigners unable to leave Turkey due to the pandemic,
  • Taking pandemic measures at Removal Centers,
  • Adopting tasks and procedures for the Provincial Directorates of Migration Management in accordance with pandemic conditions.
  • One significant event experienced in 2020 was the month of irregular migration movements that started on the border of Edirne on February 28. Although the majority were young males, asylum seekers in the scope of high vulnerability groups such as women, children, and the elderly coming mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Pakistan, who had to leave their country due to war, crisis, and oppression, seeking asylum in other countries in an attempt to build themselves a new future, went on their way toward European countries following the announcement that Turkey would be loosening its border inspections.

The following points have been determined in field research conducted at the border:

  • The Greek government announced that they had suspended their asylum applications for a month, increased border security with the approval and support of the European Union and used firearms and gas bombs against those who wanted to cross the border; 3 refugees lost their lives as a result.
  • Asylum seekers who managed to cross the border over the Meriç River were captured by Greek security forces and paramilitary groups made up of locals; they were left back at the Meriç River, tortured with their belongings being taken.
  • The fact that Greek security forces did not receive the application for asylum and that their practices were in violation of and disregard for international law and human rights law means they had violated the European Convention on Human Rights’ prohibition of collective expulsion of aliens and discrimination (i.e., right to life, right to effective application, right to liberty and security, and right to asylum).
  • With the cooperation of non-governmental organizations and public institutions, needs of asylum seekers (in terms of health, protection, shelter and security) had been met. 

Another issue that came to the fore in 2020 was the continuation of irregular migration movements. One particularly tragic example of this issue is the boat that sank carrying migrants and the deaths of 60 people on June 27.

The increase in violent events against asylum seekers is one of the prominent developments of the past year as it puts social cohesion at risk. Violence, extortion, and murder against asylum seekers have been experienced in 2020 at rates not previously encountered. Having relevant authorities monitor this situation and holding the required legal proceedings for rights violations is very important.

One important component of the immigration and integration policies in Turkey is educational policies. When looking at access to education for persons under temporary education in particular, 63% of those of school age under temporary protection are seen to be enrolled.

The pandemic has clearly created significant barriers to education. Not having devices such as tablets and computers in the distance education process and problems accessing the internet formed an obstacle in refugee access to education.

Although asylum seekers have no barriers in accessing healthcare, they are seen to experience problems due to the language barrier, especially in terms of communication. The need for more effective language education, which has become a parameter for many subjects, ought to be emphasized once again.  

When looking at international migration toward Turkey through the perspective of humanitarian aid in this context, the following issues will continue to remain as important in 2021 as they had been in the previous year:

Issues regarding migrants and asylum seekers access to public services,

Issues related to enabling coordination in the activities of international institutions and non-governmental organizations operating in the field,

Issues regarding the transition to a right- and responsibility-based social policy approach in dealing with asylum seekers,

Issues regarding the duties of local governments and powers on the matter of the social cohesion between refugees and the host society and social policies,

Issues regarding disadvantaged refugee and migrant groups. 

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