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EU: Don’t send Syrians back to Turkey

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Lack of jobs, school, health care spurs poverty, exploitation

(Brussels, June 20, 2016) – Delays in registration and limited implementation of temporary protection policies in Turkey mean that many Syrian refugees are left without effective protection or access to jobs and services that they desperately need, Human Rights Watch said today. As long as Turkey remains burdened by overwhelming numbers of refugees and unable to provide sufficient protection and security for all, the European Union should not be sending Syrian refugees back to Turkey.

“As Turkey is host to over two million Syrian refugees it is hardly surprising that many are not getting the support they desperately need to maintain livelihoods,” said Stephanie Gee, fellow in the refugee rights program at Human Rights Watch. “The EU is morally, and indeed legally, obliged to share some of the refugee burden by not sending Syrian refugees back to Turkey without assessing their asylum claims.”

An agreement, that went into effect in March 2016, between the EU and Turkey provides that many Syrian asylum seekers in Greece could be returned to Turkey without EU evaluation of their original protection claims concerning conditions in their home countries because Turkey is a “safe third country” or “first country of asylum” for them. “Safe” for the purposes of this analysis means more than being safe from war or persecution. It means that an individual refugee has protected rights in line with the Refugee Convention, including the rights to work, health care, and education.

The laws and policies governing Syrian refugees’ lives in Turkey, however, do not grant them full refugee rights, and the protections these laws and policies do extend have yet to be fully realized. As a result, many Syrians in Turkey still cannot access education, health care, and lawful employment. Furthermore, delays of up to six months in registration for temporary protection mean that some refugees are unable to get basic services and live in fear of being forced to live in a camp or deported.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented how Turkish pushbacks at the Syrian border constitute refoulement – being returned to a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened – and has repeatedly called for the EU to recognize how both relevant policies and circumstances on the ground in Turkey mean it should not be considered legally “safe” for returns. New legal analysis and research demonstrate in detail why the quality of protection in Turkey for Syrians does not rise to the level required for “safe third country” or “first country of asylum” returns.

In March and April, Human Rights Watch interviewed 67 Syrian refugee adults and children living in Turkey. These interviews, along with information from nongovernmental groups and public reports, revealed that many refugees face months-long delays in registering for temporary protection, leaving them unable to enroll their children in school or get health care.

One 21-year-old Syrian man said he went five times to two different police stations before he was even able to make an appointment – for a date three months later – to apply for registration. Others said officials imposed requirements for registration that were not specified in the regulation, such as a rental agreement with a landlord.

“Truly, it isn’t safe for us here – we fled death, but have come to a place where we have no life,” said “Mahmoud” (not his real name), a 29-year-old former journalist from Hama who has only been able to find occasional employment freelancing or working small jobs. He said he was grateful Turkey had allowed him to stay in the country, but he did not feel his temporary protection status offered real stability. “I just want to be in any place that respects rights, where I can ask for them and be truly assured that I have them – nothing more,” he said. “We just want to live, and for the law to protect us.”

The Turkish government says it has spent US$10 billion on hosting Syrian refugees since 2011, and now spends about US$500 million monthly. In the past two years, Turkey has also issued regulations that allow Syrian refugees to remain in the country lawfully, use public education and health care systems, and apply for work permits. Under the EU-Turkey deal, the EU has promised Turkey at least €3 billion to help host the refugees, of which it has disbursed €180 million so far. However, these measures have yet to make a significant impact on many Syrian refugees.

Turkey has registered more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees since 2011, although some of them may have since left the country. Almost 300,000 live in 26 state-run camps near the border, according to Turkish officials; the other nearly 90 percent live in towns and cities.

While Turkey signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, it limited its application to European refugees, excluding all others from its protection. A 2013 law established a system of “international protection” for non-European asylum seekers that brings Turkish refugee law closer to the convention’s provisions. The law also provided for a temporary protection regime, which was fleshed out in an October 2014 regulation. The regulation governs rights and benefits for most Syrian refugees in Turkey, but it could be terminated at will by the Council of Ministers. If that happened, beneficiaries would lose the guarantee that they could remain in the country legally.

In January 2016, Turkey issued a new regulation allowing Syrian temporary protection beneficiaries to apply for work permits, but subject to certain residency criteria and only if they can find an employer willing to sponsor them. As a result of the limitations, adult refugees that Human Rights Watch interviewed were either ineligible to apply, lacked information about the policy, or could not find a sponsoring employer. Among the Syrian refugees interviewed, 24 adults were eligible for work permits and another 24 were not, and none had applied or heard of anyone who had.

Human Rights Watch has documented how these types of difficulties put Syrian refugee families in Turkey at risk of poverty and child labor. They also put Syrian workers at risk of exploitation. One woman said she was paid half of what her Turkish co-workers received and that sometimes her employers halved even that small amount. She also described instances of physical abuse of Syrian workers by managers.

In April, a UN World Food Programme assessment of 1,562 Syrian households in southeastern Turkey found that 93 percent of those interviewed were living below the national poverty line. The report found that limited access to stable employment was strongly linked to food insecurity.

The majority of Syrian children in Turkey remain unable to attend school. In November 2015, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting the reasons Syrian refugees have not been able to go to school in Turkey. The government has taken admirable steps to address these gaps and has pledged to enroll 450,000 Syrian children by the end of this year. However, the Education Minister recently acknowledged that “only 325,000 Syrians in Turkey are attending school out of more than 756,000 school-age refugees in Turkey.” The number of school-age children may be even higher, as there are now nearly 940,000 Syrian children aged 5 to 17 registered in Turkey, though some may have left.

International donors should support the Turkish government in efforts to improve the realization of basic rights for Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey. In the meantime, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Greece should consider all asylum applications of Syrians who have come through Turkey on their merits, as they should not be considered inadmissible on the grounds that Turkey is a “safe third country” or “first country of asylum” for all Syrians.

“Turkey already hosts over two million refugees, many of whom are struggling to survive and do not see their rights fulfilled as refugees,” Gee said. “Instead of trying to pass the buck and violating their own standards, EU governments should play their part in global responsibility-sharing and give Syrian asylum seekers a chance to make their claims.”

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