Escape to Uncertainty

Turkey opens its doors to refugees, but few are allowed to stay.

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Editor's note: Excerpted from an article published in the April issue of National Geographic magazine's Turkish edition. Some sources agreed to speak to our reporter on the condition that their surnames be omitted.

It was the bombs that day that finally made up her mind.

They had been raining down for a full 24 hours, recalled Inam Tahir, 27. Soldiers pillaged the neighborhood. She and ten family members left their village of Darkush in a hurry to begin the terrifying three-day trek to neighboring Turkey. Tahir regrets she forgot to lock the door; even in war, house pride dies hard. But she admits, "We might not have a roof over our heads when we go back."

Today Tahir and her family crowd into a converted storeroom with a hundred other refugees on the ground floor of a building in Hacıpaşa. Fleeing a civil war that's claimed 70,000, they had finally reached the Turkish border village after wading through the Asi River. "We came here with hope, but look at us now," she said. "How can a human being live like this?"

"I had to leave my husband of 50 years, the father of my children," said a tearful Nadire Meymo, 70, another refugee from Darkush. "He is crippled, so he didn't want to be a burden to us. We said our good-byes. I don't know if I will ever see him again."

Residents of Hacıpaşa mobilized to help the newcomers. "We give them temporary support," said Mehmet Ziya Kırk, a village official. "We place them wherever possible: garages, wedding halls, mosques. Most of them will go to the camps in a few days."

Cities of Tents

Ever since the first wave of Syrian refugees crossed its border in April 2011, Turkey has followed an open-door policy. To date, about 193,000 have been settled in 17 camps, most composed of tents, administered by the country's emergency management agency. Along with food and health care, the government provides for schooling children—classes are taught in Arabic, but Turkish language study is also offered. With the cost of hosting the Syrians now approaching $1 billion, Ankara has appealed to the international community for help without success. In a recent report Amnesty International called the Western response to the Syrian refugee crisis "a spectacular failure."

At a camp in Yayladağı, a border town about 30 miles south of Antakya, tight security measures were evident at its checkpoints, but inside a semblance of workaday life had resumed—a central market of Syrian vendors of groceries, cell phones, kebabs, and baked goods. The spirit of survival prevailed. "They created their own system," said Mahir Balsever, the camp coordinator. "We used to offer three meals a day, but now they receive 80 lira [$40] per person each month. They do their own shopping and cook their own food." Around 6,000 cram into Yayladağı's two "tent cities"—roughly equal to the area's surrounding Turkish population.

"At the beginning, the plan was to keep all the refugees in the camps, but their number has grown too large," said Carol Batchelor, the Turkey representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR). "And many are in need of help." (UNHCR manages the Syrian camps in Lebanon and Jordan while remaining an observer in the Turkish camps.) The estimated 200,000 Syrians outside the camps-some live with relatives while others with the means prefer more private accommodations—lacked access to services, but in January local police began to register those outside the camps to better account for and assist them. Batchelor predicts the number of Syrian refugees could reach one million by year's end.

In Limbo

After two years and no resolution of the conflict—though the United States and Russia propose to bring together Syria's opposition forces and its government for a peace conference in July—advocates question whether a more permanent form of settlement, in Turkey or elsewhere, is needed. "The Turkish government probably assumed the conflict wouldn't last this long and believed the refugees would soon return," said Taner Kılıç, a lawyer for the Izmir-based Association for Solidarity with Refugees. "So it refers to them as guests, but there is no such status in international law." Under the Turkish model, these "temporary" residents are technically not entitled to refugee status.

Before the arrival of nearly 400,000 Syrians, Turkey's resources were already strained by managing the plight of 53,000 registered asylum seekers and refugees—unofficial estimates are much higher—from 60 other countries who sought to escape oppression, discrimination, and war.

"We signed the Geneva Convention 62 years ago, but legal regulations haven't ever been implemented," Kılıç said. As a first step toward establishing better compliance and federal standards, legislation passed by parliament in April created a national civilian agency to oversee refugee applications, currently a process that resides in part with local police and security forces, which often lack the relevant training.

In the absence of protocols, municipalities have been inconsistent in their handling of refugees, who face roadblocks to securing housing, health care, and employment. On paper, refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to work permits, but in practice they have been nearly impossible to obtain; refugees must demonstrate they have skills that Turkish citizens don't. Most resort to working illegally, and they aren't eligible for government assistance during the application for refugee status or asylum, a process that can easily take more than two years.

And that's just to register with UNHCR and wait for an interview with the agency. Add follow-up and appeals, and the average time for a decision extends to four or five years. Meanwhile the government sends applicants to one of 61 satellite cities for a compulsory stay. Depending on the result, they either get refugee status and are placed in a third country by UNHCR, or continue waiting, uncertain about their future. "They can't go back, and they don't know where they will end up," said Halim Yılmaz, an attorney specializing in refugee law. "They are stuck in limbo."

Most wish to continue on to Western Europe, where, in 2011, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Sweden welcomed the most asylum seekers, each taking between 10,000 and 14,000. (France and Germany both reported more than 50,000 applicants.)

Exclusionary Policy

The story of Behnam N., a student and journalist from Iran, is typical. The 25-year-old was imprisoned twice and tortured because of "antigovernment" activities. His family sold their house to raise his bail. He said he had no other choice but to leave. After arriving in Turkey 17 months ago, he went to the UNHCR's office in the city of Van to apply for asylum. He got an interview set for three months later, but the subsequent earthquake in Van crippled the city's ability to manage refugees. He remains an illegal resident in another satellite city and has since reapplied. "Being a refugee teaches you to keep your expectations to a minimum and make do with less," he said.

One thing is clear—Turkey isn't an option for him. The country specifies a "geographical limitation" to the 1951 Refugee Convention, whereby it is only obligated to apply the convention (that is, give official status) to Europeans. It's a catch-22: The vast majority of those who seek asylum or shelter in Turkey are from outside Europe, so few actually qualify for refugee status or resettlement there.

Not surprisingly, Turkey's exclusionary policy is controversial among its human rights watch groups—and a sticking point for joining the European Union. "With its growing economy, the government might fear a refugee influx if there weren't any geographical limitations," acknowledged Öztürk Türkdoğan, director of Turkey's Human Rights Association. "But it is possible to control such an influx through certain criteria and regulations. We look at the situation from a humane point of view: If you believe in human rights and want to create your system according to it, then you respect a person's right to be a refugee."

Other advocates worry that the Syrian-dominated headlines deflect attention and resources from other groups. "Now everybody thinks of Syrians when the refugee issue is mentioned. The rest are forgotten," said İbrahim Vurgun Kavlak of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants. "The government helps Syrians and takes care of their needs, but nobody cares about the others."

"We Don't Belong Anywhere"

Chechens are one community whose fate hangs in the balance. Since Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, Chechens who fled during the 1999 war should have been entitled to refugee status (and thus permanent resettlement) in Turkey. In reality, and despite living in Turkey for as long as 14 years, they remain "temporary guests."

Ali V. arrived in 2006; today he's in Sakarya, a province along the Black Sea coast, and must check in with local police each month. "When a prominent Russian came to Turkey we used to be taken into custody and held for a few weeks," he said of the suspicion surrounding Chechens. "Fortunately this practice came to an end. But still, we feel as if we live in the air. We don't belong anywhere."

Hasan Yılmaz, who handles court cases for Chechens, sees them as one of the most disadvantaged groups. "In the beginning they couldn't even get residence permits," he said. "They were held in camps in bad conditions for years. Their situation has improved only in the last few years." The camps closed and most of their inhabitants have since been placed in apartments. However, the treatment of Chechens remains influenced by Turkey's relations with Russia, explained Volkan Görendağ, of Amnesty International Turkey. "Chechens are close to Turkey because of their religion, but on the other hand there is pressure from Russia," he said. "Turkey is stuck in the middle and doesn't want to make a decision. The guest concept makes it easier; it gives people a right to residence while Turkey maintains the power to end it."

Dead Bodies in the Snow

Horşid—like many Afghan girls—was married off at a young age and had two children. When her husband died, she was forced to marry his brother and had a son with him. When that husband disappeared without a trace and her future once again became unclear, she decided to run away. She and her children walked for two weeks and, aided by smugglers, finally arrived in Van, the gateway for many illegal entrants. Although border patrols have increased, migration continues, enabled by both the region's rugged physical geography and an organized smuggling network.

Salih Mesudi came to Van with his wife and three children using smugglers, to whom they had paid $500 per person—a sizeable sum for a country with a per capita GDP of $1,000. "We trudged through the snow for about 12 hours. Smugglers knew when the soldiers patrolled the area—when it was safe to cross," he recounted. "We entered without being caught. I was very worried, especially for the kids, but we didn't have a choice."

Others have not been as fortunate in their attempts to reach the area. "When snow starts to melt in April dead bodies show up one by one," said Onur Varol, a lawyer in Van. "A life that started who knows where ends at a cemetery of unknowns in Turkey. Then you see the real face of this border, the real drama of refugees."

Afghans have a particularly tough predicament, explained Özge Çelebi of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. Many originally fled to Iran during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, some living there for more than three decades. But they began to trickle into Turkey in recent years to escape the economic squeeze in Iran. Given their history, they can't renew their original Afghan documents and are effectively nationless.

With about 10,000 registered, Afghans are the largest group of asylum seekers in Turkey, but it is believed there are just as many who are illegally resident. Ali Hikmet, one of the organizers of the Afghan community in Turkey, has been approved for refugee status by UNHCR but has been waiting for a resettlement option for four years. Few countries want Afghans, he said. Lack of education plays a role. And the number of Afghan refugees continues to grow. "UNHCR used to give interview dates in two to three months, but now there aren't any appointments before 2015," he said.

Afghans congregate in the humble neighborhoods around Van Castle, where rents are low. Freezing cold infiltrates Marziye's home through broken windows. She migrated with her family to escape Iran, where she lived for 11 years, and is among those waiting until 2015 for an interview. "Our life is in the hands of others, and we can't do anything about it," she said.

The influx of Afghans poses a serious challenge, one that requires a high-level government resolution, according to Carol Batchelor. "We're talking about two million refugees worldwide," she said. "The number of applicants increased by 1,500 percent, and it's not possible to deal with these kinds of numbers. Besides, it's a complicated type of immigration. Some need protection, and some come here for economic reasons."

Asylum for Gays

While many Afghans have fled Iran for Turkey, nearly as many—7,000—Iranian nationals also seek asylum in the country. About 1,500 are concentrated in Kayseri, which is on the Tehran-Ankara rail line. In a rundown house that feels out of place in an otherwise well-to-do city, a framed banknote with Ayatollah Khomeini's portrait hangs on the wall. "It reminds me of where I come from and what I've gone through," said Areş Bineşpajoh, who came to Turkey in 2011. "So I look at it every day." For being a homosexual, he was imprisoned three times—kept in solitary confinement and tortured. "They would have killed me if I hadn't left," he said. "The police were constantly after me." He is estranged from his family, who still send occasional emails to remind him that he brought shame on them.

The organization KaosGL advocates for roughly 300 asylum seekers from Iran who identify as gay—an admission that carries the death penalty. "Their biggest worry—like all refugees—is money, because they can't expect help from their families," said Hayriye Kara, a lawyer for the group. Yet Turkey isn't exactly a safe haven. During their application process, the asylum candidates are often placed in cities in the country's conservative heartland, where they have been harassed and even attacked. "They have to keep a very low profile," said Kara. Since refugees with alternate gender identification represent a "high-risk" group, UNHCR often prioritizes their resettlement.

Like Areş, Moein T. left Iran because of his sexual orientation. His brother lashed out at him, breaking his nose, and his family tried to force him into a marriage. A jeweler by trade, he works in factories and at construction sites—wherever he can find a job. He said employers exploit the refugees' lack of legal protections. "Although we work more than Turkish workers, we get half of what they get," he said. "Sometimes they don't pay us anything because they know we can't complain to the authorities."

Persecuted Minorities

Founded in Iran in 1844, the Baha'i faith is the country's largest non-Muslim religion, with 350,000 followers there and more than five million worldwide. Its Iranian devotees have suffered under the weight of the Islamist regime's repression.

The Baha'i conflict with Muslims on a central tenet: They believe their prophet Bahaullah is the successor of Mohammed. As a result the faith is seen as "perverse," and its adherents face imprisonment and marginalization—their cemeteries are destroyed, their marriages are not recognized, they are denied the right to higher education.

The Baha'i seeking asylum in Turkey are also based in Kayseri. Feride Sadıqi and her husband and daughter left Iran when their safety became questionable. They have been waiting for a new chapter in their lives to begin for nearly two years. Although they have been accepted by Canada, their departure date hasn't been set. "It's like jail," said Feride. "When we say we are refugees, people look at us with disgust—as if we did something wrong and had to come here." Backed by an organized worldwide network, however, the Baha'i tend to have expedited placements. Each year around a thousand are settled in new countries.

Life is equally perilous for those in the Iranian opposition. Yunus was followed closely by Iranian intelligence agents because of his political activities. "If I hadn't fled they would have killed me," he said. His application for refugee status was accepted, but no country has admitted him yet. He struggles with a respiratory problem and has no access to health care. "If it doesn't get any better, I will try to go to Europe illegally. I tried once before, but I was caught and imprisoned," he recounted. "They don't give us any other choice."

Europe's continuing economic crisis has heightened tensions and debate over immigration. "With its new regulations, Europe is like a fortress from the Middle Ages," said Ahmet İçduygu of Koc University's Migration Research Program. He pointed to a recent 12.5-kilometer-long (7.7-mile-long) wall built by Greece along its border with Turkey to stem the tide of illegal migrants. "But this will only serve to increase both the amount of money paid to the smugglers and deaths during riskier attempted journeys."

Turkey has no plans to lift the geographical limitation rule, even though dropping it is a necessary condition for joining the EU. Ankara has been in formal accession talks since 2005, but those negotiations have stalled. The result is that many refugees, especially Afghans, will remain in limbo.

But more inevitably will come. "Nobody wants to make this dangerous journey, but when they do, nothing can block the flow, not fortresses or millions of dollars' worth of armies," said Iranian Behnam N. "Stopping people who are on the run to save their lives and have nothing to lose is impossible."

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