Iranian Refugees At-Risk
Iranian Refugees' Alliance Quarterly Newsletter
(Fall 95/ Winter 96)

Turkey's Refugee Machination
Fairness & the UNHCR
Advocay on behalf of Iranian Asylum Seekers in Turkey
Children are Refugees Too
Illusary Appeal: The case of UNHCR refugee determination procedure in Turkey
Refugee Voices

Turkey's Refugee Machination

(from Iranian Refugees At Risk Fall 95/Winter 96)

In November 1994, Turkey announced new regulations to admit non-European asylum seekers into its territory on a temporary basis. These regulations gave the government authority to determine refugee claims rather than deferring the task to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The determination procedure designed for this purpose has formally lacked the most fundamental requirements for a fair determination. Applicants have no access to legal advice and representation, they are not afforded full and fair hearings, and are denied the right to an effective appeal of a negative decision or a deportation order. As the regulations came into full effect, the government's intention to forcibly return genuine refugees became all too clear. In Fall 1995, dozens of asylum seekers have been threatened with deportation, including a group of 5 recognized by the UNHCR and accepted by third countries for resettlement. In October 1995, pressed by the UNHCR, the European Commission on Human Rights and international organizations, Turkish authorities declared the excuse for returning the 5 men as merely a delay in presenting their application for temporary asylum. While the delay infraction violated Article 4 of the regulations, whereby asylum seekers should apply within 5 days to the local authorities or authorities at the city where they entered the country, the government's attempt to deport the refugees was a flagrant violation of international law, which proscribes the return of refugees to a country or territory in which their life or liberty may be endangered.

The stringent 5-day rule is not the only ruse designed to return refugees to their country of persecution. Recent accounts received from asylum seekers indicate a pattern that for no declared reason, the local police officers designated to register and interview applicants refuse to accept applications for temporary asylum and often coerce applicants to return to their country of origin.

Reports from those who have convinced the local police to accept their applications and receive an interview, suggest that, in effect, decisions are being made by the interviewing police rather than by the Ministry of Interior--which, according to the official regulations, is supposed to determine the claim "in conformity with the 1951 Geneva Convention." As reported, the Ministry's decision is consistent with the opinion of the interviewing police officer recorded in the applicant's file. Police officers, however, lack the necessary knowledge of the proper procedures for interviewing refugees, human rights and refugee issues, nor do they understand the circumstances concerning asylum seekers.

Although the regulations provide an opportunity to make an objection to the deportation verdict to the Ministry of the Interior, the only real hope that exists for revocation of deportation orders is UNHCR's intervention. UNHCR has been under great strain to fulfill its mandate in Turkey to protect people under internationally accepted procedures. In several occasions UNHCR has been powerless to protect refugees from deportation. Neither the regulations nor the practices of the government provides for the agency's exercise of its mandate power to declare an individual a refugee, in spite of an adverse determination by the government. The regulations restrict UNHCR's role to cooperation "primarily on aspects such as giving food and shelter, transport, resettlement, passport and visa problems regarding a third country." In practice, the government has created obstacles to make access for asylum seekers to the UNHCR impratical and even perilous. Asylum seekers can hardly oblige with the 5-day rule to lodge refugee claims if they first lodge a refugee claim with the UNHCR. Once an asylum seeker registers with the local authorities he or she will be kept under surveillance until his or her case is resolved by the Interior Ministry.

Nevertheless, most asylum seekers still approach the UNHCR when they first arrive in Turkey because they are unaware of the new regulations or are afraid to approach the Turkish authorities. While there is no doubt that a portion of asylum seekers benefit from UNHCR's protection, serious concern remains regarding those who are determined by the agency not to be refugees and denied protection. Not only improvements have not been made to correct the shortcomings and flaws that previously existed in the UNHCR Branch Office's determination system, the current procedure includes lesser safeguards and has thus become more error-prone.

Asylum seekers are usually interviewed when they first approach the Office for registration, without adequate notice, or legal counseling or time to prepare themselve. Since this interview is the only opportunity during an asylum seeker's stay in Turkey to present one's claim to the UNHCR, the failure to provide legal advice and assistance at this stage is one that can never be remedied. There is no opportunity to appeal a negative decision nor a mechanism to resolve matters concerning the refugee claim before a decision is reached by the UNHCR. One desperate asylum seeker who registered with the local police in Agri after his interview with the UNHCR could not obtain rudimentary information about his application with the UNHCR. While he was informed by a visiting UNHCR officer that his case was transferred to an officer different from the one who previously interviewed him, for months he has not been able to find his new officer.

Another asylum seeker contacted Iranian Refugees' Alliance upon receiving a negative decision of his case by the UNHCR. He was defenseless and mortified because the local police have been raiding his hotel room to find the UNHCR rejection letter. The indicator for the police seems to be a report from the hotel manager to the police. In Agri, UNHCR pays for hotel expenses of asylum seekers while their cases are under consideration or received positive determinations. Apparently UNHCR had stopped payment for the concerned asylum seeker.

Although it is stated in the new UNHCR rejection form letters that the agency's determination does not affect a person's temporary asylum application with the Turkish authorities (that is a separate procedure), accounts from several other asylum seekers indicate otherwise. Once the Turkish authorities find out about a person's rejection from the UNHCR, they may serve a deportation order. Evidently without UNHCR approval there is little prospect for resettlement in a third country. This seems enough reason for Turkish authorities to decline an application.

Asylum Seekers in the Ankara Sit-in

A sit-in staged in Ankara in early August 1995, by a group of 161 Iranian asylum seekers continued in Winter 1996 without a resolution. Most of the participants were already served with deportation orders by the Turkish authorities, while such orders were imminent for others due to their cases being closed by the UNHCR.

In late October 1995, Turkish officials including the Turkish Ambassador in the US gave verbal assurances that due to humanitarian concerns the sit-in participants would be issued an extension of their stay permits. In this connection, in early November, officials from the office of the Minister for Social Affairs visited the sit-in to discuss a new location for the people.

However, in late November 1995, two sit-in participants were apprehended outside of the sit-in and subsequently served with deportation orders. As a result of heavy petitioning of the Interior Ministry and local officials of the towns in which the apprehended were returned and detained, the deportation orders were suspended. Nonetheless, these incidents indicated retraction of the earlier assurances, a matter also confirmed by the Turkish embassy in the US which disowned its earlier assurances as internal misunderstanding.

In November 1995, despite widespread expressions of concern regarding the sit-in participants and particularly policies and practices governing UNHCR Office's refugee determination procedure, the UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva announced that the cases of the aggrieved asylum seekers would not be re-opened. The statement issued in relation to the Headquarters' position was also a disappointment vis-a-vis the Turkish government. The statement failed to address the reasonable likelihood of danger faced by sit-in participants if deported to Iran due to exposure of their identities, political views and affiliations in Turkish and international media and as the action would be perceived by the Iranian regime.

Turkey's government broke down in Fall 1995 and elections were going to be held on January 24, 1996. By mid winter 1996, the new government has not been formed and Turkish authorities have not declared a clear position on the sit-in.