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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Turkey

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Turkey , 1 June 2000, available at: [accessed 22 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Turkey hosted about 9,100 refugees and asylum seekers in 1999. The government granted temporary asylum for 2,014 non-Europeans (mostly Iranians and Iraqis) and Convention refugee status for 16 Europeans (from the Russian Federation). Some 5,757 asylum seekers, mostly Iraqis (2,833) and Iranians (2,826), had cases pending with the Turkish government. Another estimated 850 Bosnians, 400 Kosovars, and about 100 Chechens were living in Turkey at year's end. These people, however, probably represented only a fraction of the foreigners residing in Turkey who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries.

Either because they were ineligible to meet procedural requirements, or because they feared rejection of their claims and deportation, many would-be asylum seekers appeared to prefer remaining in hiding, or moving on to third countries, rather than coming forward with refugee claims.

Turkey was the country of origin for 19,220 asylum applications filed in Europe in 1999. The largest number by far, 9,094, were filed in Germany. The United Kingdom, with 2,850, was the second destination chosen by asylum seekers from Turkey.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which runs a refugee determination procedure parallel to the government's, recognized 1,907 persons as refugees in 1999, of whom 1,508 were Iranians and 349 were Iraqis.

UNHCR assisted in resettling 1,844 refugees from Turkey in 1999, a modest increase from 1998. At year's end, UNHCR was assisting 8,683 persons, including 3,923 Iranians, 2,781 Iraqis, 514 Bosnians, 384 Kosovars, and 734 Turkish refugee returnees from northern Iraq.

Between 500,000 and 1 million citizens of Turkey (overwhelmingly Kurds) were displaced within Turkey because of the conflict between Turkish military and security forces and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey. Almost all had been displaced in previous years, but were not able to return to their homes in 1999. The apprehension of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan by Turkish special forces in Kenya, his return to Turkey in February, and his subsequent trial and death sentence in June preoccupied ethnic Kurds and Turks alike. In September, responding to a call from its imprisoned leader, the PKK unilaterally announced an end to its 15-year armed struggle.

A powerful earthquake on August 17 devastated Turkey, destroying or damaging between 115,000, and 200,000 houses and businesses, killing more than 15,000 and injuring more than 25,000. Although the earthquake created vast emergency humanitarian needs and displaced hundreds of thousands of people – 200,000 people were sheltered in 130 tent and prefabricated encampments – the U.S. Committee for Refugees' (USCR) definition of internally displaced persons does not include persons displaced by natural disasters. Therefore, USCR's estimate of internally displaced persons in Turkey in 1999 does not include persons displaced solely on account of the earthquake. Nevertheless, the 108,000 earthquake victims remaining in tents at year's end created a competition for scarce resources that likely would further delay the return to their homes of people displaced because of conflict.

Internal Displacement

Although violence eased in 1999, and the government lifted the State of Emergency in Siirt Province in November, it also renewed the State of Emergency in five other southeastern provinces (Diyarbakir, Hakkari, Sirnak, Tunceli, and Van) that month for at least another four months.

Although there were fewer reports of new displacement in 1999, the government's official figure for evacuated persons who remained displaced at the end of 1999 was 336,434. This was about 85,000 fewer than the government had reported at the end of 1998. The government attributes the lower figure to its projects to encourage return of displaced people in the southeast.

A USCR mission to the region in September 1998 found, however, that the authorities still prevented the vast majority of displaced people from returning, and that the return programs often involved a political loyalty test, such as agreement to participate in the Village Guards, a Kurdish paramilitary group created by the government to oppose the PKK in the southeast. In fact, many of the displaced fled their homes under threat from the Village Guards themselves or were forced to leave for refusing to join the Village Guards in the first place. There were also continuing reports in 1999 that Turkish authorities prevented villagers from farming or rebuilding in the vicinity of many evacuated villages.

The government's count of internal displacement includes only persons displaced as a result of village and hamlet evacuations; it does not include people who fled towns or cities in the southeast, or villagers who felt compelled to flee, for example, because of conflict with Village Guards, even if the village itself was not evacuated. Therefore, the figure based solely on evacuations must be regarded as below the baseline for an estimate of the number of internally displaced persons in Turkey.

Estimates of the numbers of displaced people, however, vary widely. At one end of the spectrum, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official meeting with USCR in Ankara in September 1998 said that there were no internally displaced people in Turkey. At the other end of the spectrum, the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD) put the number of displaced persons at three million.

In its human rights reports each year from 1996 through 1999, the U.S. Department of State has said that the figure of 560,000 internally displaced persons is credible, although using the same figure for four years casts some doubt on its credibility.

Internal displacement resulting from conflict and fear is part of a larger migratory phenomenon occurring in Turkey. Urban populations have grown dramatically throughout the country in recent years. Many migrants have a mix of political and economic motives, and have migrated due to varying degrees of coercion and choice. Undoubtedly, economic factors account for much of the urbanization. However, many economic migrants could be considered to be forcibly displaced by the economic disruption in southeastern Turkey stemming from the 15-year conflict. USCR therefore prefers a range of 500,000 to 1 million as reflecting both evacuations and spontaneous movement, as well as displacement from the southeast to the central and western parts of Turkey and rural to urban movement within the southeast itself.

In November, USCR published The Wall of Denial: Internal Displacement in Turkey. In a letter conveying the report to the Turkish government, USCR said, "Four of the 13 recommendations we make to your government relate to access to the displaced for humanitarian and human rights organizations and other interested parties. There are recommendations relating to the needs for assistance and/or compensation, including the need to facilitate voluntary return through reconstruction and rehabilitation of destroyed or damaged properties." The letter added that the paper was being published "at a unique historical moment" with the capture of Ocalan and his call for PKK fighters to lay down their arms. USCR's letter quoted its report, saying that Turkey "has an opportunity unmatched in 15 years to arrive at a settlement that could end the bloodshed, rebuild the southeast, and allow the displaced to return to their villages."

Asylum Procedures

During the year, 4,910 persons, mostly Iranians and Iraqis registered asylum claims with the Turkish police. The government granted 2,014 persons temporary asylum and 16 Convention refugee status, and rejected 809 asylum claims during the year. The approval rate for cases interviewed in 1999 was 72 percent. The Turkish authorities rejected 176 asylum claims in 1999 because of failure to meet procedural requirements.

On January 13, 1999, Turkey amended its 1994 asylum regulations, extending from five days to ten the deadline for registering asylum claims with the authorities after arriving in the country. The amendment let stand, however, the requirement that undocumented asylum seekers register their claims with the police in the province where they entered the country. The amendment also introduced a right to appeal.

On February 9, 1999, USCR wrote to the Turkish government saying, "We welcome this change and believe it will enhance the opportunity for asylum seekers to seek and find protection from persecution in Turkey, and, for some, the chance to be resettled in the United States and other countries." USCR urged the Turkish authorities to implement the regulation "with flexibility," particularly so that late registrants would still be accepted in two situations: when extraordinary circumstances prevent individuals from applying within the ten-day limit; and when changed country conditions in the home country cause third-country nationals residing in Turkey to seek asylum. USCR added, "We also continue to hope that Turkey will drop the requirement that asylum seekers who enter Turkey illegally must register their claims at the governorate of the province where they entered the country."

Turkey's asylum regulations instruct local police near the borders to conduct interviews to determine if refugee claimants should be recognized officially as asylum seekers. Because Turkey retains the geographic limitation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention to "events occurring in Europe," it refuses to recognize non-Europeans as refugees. Therefore, the asylum regulations take a convoluted approach to defining the terms "refugee" and "asylum seeker." Normally, an asylum seeker is considered to be a person claiming to be a refugee whose status has not yet been determined by an adjudicator. However, according to the Turkish regulations, the distinguishing feature between a refugee and an asylum seeker is whether or not the person in question is of European origin.

Generally, undocumented, non-European asylum seekers first present themselves to UNHCR offices in Ankara or border areas, where UNHCR interviews them, gives them a letter saying that they are asylum seekers on their way to lodge an asylum application with the Turkish authorities, and directs them to go to the police at the province where they entered the country. It is rare that asylum seekers register only with the police and do not first present themselves to UNHCR; such cases are limited to Europeans and Turkomans.

When the asylum seeker arrives at a police station, the formal asylum procedure begins. Local police conduct the asylum interviews but do not make a status determination. They send the file to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) in Ankara, where it is reviewed and passed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs then asks UNHCR its opinion on the claim. (UNHCR does not actually see the police file; nor is UNHCR present during the police interviews.)

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs then makes a recommendation to the MOI, which informs the police whether the claim has been granted or denied. If granted, the recognized non-European "asylum seeker" is given a six-month residence permit, sent to a satellite city, and directed to UNHCR to be considered for UNHCR recognition (if not already recognized) and third-country resettlement.

If denied, the applicant has 15 days to appeal the decision or leave the country. The appeal is also decided by the MOI, although by a higher official. In practice, UNHCR and the Turkish authorities rarely disagree on refugee recognition. Turkey most often denies appeals because of the applicant's failure to file the claim within ten days of arrival.

When an asylum seeker receives a deportation order, UNHCR assigns a high priority to completing its determination of the person's refugee status. If UNHCR recognizes a refugee slated for deportation, it writes a "letter of support" calling upon the MOI to suspend the deportation order.

UNHCR recognized about 80 persons as refugees (33 cases) in 1999 whom the government had rejected, usually on procedural grounds. Although UNHCR extended its mandate on behalf of such recognized refugees, it was not able to refer them successfully for third-country resettlement, because the government refused them permission to leave via resettlement, insisting instead on their deportation. On appeal, the Turkish authorities granted temporary asylum in 9 cases and rejected 22; two more cases were pending at year's end.

Some asylum seekers have complained that Turkish police who interviewed them in the border towns place more emphasis on determining how they managed to enter the country and other security matters than on the grounds for the refugee claim. Some asylum seekers have alleged that they were subjected to body searches for false passports during these interviews. Asylum seekers have also told nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the interpreters used in the police interviews are often incompetent.

In 1999, the Austrian government coordinated a European Union (EU) initiative to train Turkish police to conduct first-instance interviews of asylum seekers. The training program, in which UNHCR participated, resulted from an EU "action plan" to stem the influx of Iraqi migrants into the EU.

Turkish administrative courts have intervened in several cases involving asylum seekers who failed to meet the deadline, and have enjoined the police from removing those persons. These cases cite Turkey's international obligations not to return refugees to persecution. In some cases, after the courts have suspended deportations, the MOI has allowed asylum seekers who had failed to meet the ten-day filing deadline to enter the asylum procedure. In other cases, the MOI has appealed the administrative court decisions in favor of asylum seekers to the Council of State, the highest administrative court. At year's end, eight such cases were pending with the Council of State.

Restrictive Measures

UNHCR has noted a steady decline in the number of recorded cases of Turkey's refoulement of Iranian and Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers since 1994. No UNHCR-recognized refugees were refouled in 1999. However, Turkish authorities forcibly returned 46 asylum seekers with applications on record with UNHCR. In contrast, UNHCR documented 64 cases of refoulement in 1998, including 15 refugees and 49 asylum seekers. The forced returns in 1999 included 27 Iraqi asylum seekers and 18 Iranians.

These statistics are deceptive, however. UNHCR's documentation of refoulement focuses exclusively on people who have been able to file claims with its office. The great unknown is the number of people apprehended at borders who might be seeking asylum from persecution but who are never given an opportunity to file a claim. During USCR's September 1998 site visit to the southeastern border area of Turkey, a long-term UNHCR field officer said that he had never seen a case of an asylum seeker brought to UNHCR who had first been apprehended by the police or military. In effect, only those asylum seekers who manage to evade capture and can approach a UNHCR office are able to pursue their asylum claims with the authorities. The rest, particularly if apprehended in the border area, are summarily deported.

Apprehensions of migrants attempting unauthorized entry into Turkey from Iran and Iraq were often not reported because of the remoteness of those borders, the lack of access for journalists and independent monitors, and the high military and police presence there. Nevertheless there were several unconfirmed reports of serious abuses in the border region. One report confirmed by several sources said that Turkish security forces killed nine Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers on May 25 as they tried to cross the border. The nine who were killed were part of a caravan of 50. Five others were injured and hospitalized; the remaining 36 were reportedly detained.

In an unconfirmed report, the Communist Party of Iraqi Kurdistan alleged that Turkish forces apprehended and summarily executed five Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers from Erbil in the Shamdinan region (an area of PKK activity) on September 28. The communique listed the names and biographical details of the five, and said that an unknown sixth person was also killed.

In March, a local press report quoted the security director of Van, a town on the Iranian border, saying that 1,479 migrants had been apprehended in Van the previous year and that "they were all deported." He gave no indication that any had been given an opportunity to apply for asylum. He added that Turkey was making "intensive efforts" in 1999 "to stop illegal entries." On August 11, a group of 251 Iraqis and 5 Iranians were reportedly apprehended trying to cross from Iraq into Turkey.

Throughout the year, Turkish border authorities apprehended, detained, and deported foreigners attempting to transit through Turkey to Greece and other European countries. In 1998, the Turkish authorities apprehended about 20,000 improperly documented third-country nationals seeking to cross from Turkey into other countries. Although there was no officially published total of apprehensions and deportations for 1999, unofficial sources put the number at about 8,000. Such apprehensions on the border with Greece were the subject of frequent press reports throughout the year.

In practice, most undocumented aliens are deported to neighboring countries. Generally, only foreigners with travel documents are deported directly to noncontiguous home countries. Iraqis and Iranians are deported directly to their home countries. Foreigners apprehended in large groups were rarely allowed to apply for asylum, although some individuals were able to seek asylum following apprehension, according to UNHCR.


Most non-European refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey are concentrated in three areas: Ankara and its satellite towns; Silopi, on the border with Iraq; and Agri and Van, near the Iranian border. UNHCR has no direct involvement in sheltering refugees and asylum seekers, but provides financial assistance to recognized refugees in need or to asylum seekers who meet UNHCR's assistance criteria. UNHCR has generally set a higher priority for its financial assistance resources in border towns in order to encourage compliance with Turkish regulations and to discourage the authorities from deporting indigent asylum seekers from border areas. However, in 1999, because of budget constraints, UNHCR was compelled to decrease its financial allotment for the border regions by 10 percent. Consequently, asylum seekers in the border area received the same level of assistance as those living in the rest of Turkey. This created particular strains in Van, near the Iranian border, because of a significant increase in the number of both Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers looking for accommodations there.

Those staying in and around Ankara live in slums, where many internally displaced persons also live in impoverished conditions. Generally, persons whom both UNHCR and the government recognize as refugees are permitted to reside in the satellite cities pending their resettlement. In general, they live in hotels. Some, who need more secure protection in Turkey, are sheltered in a guest house in Yozgut. UNHCR has established field offices both in Silopi (since 1991) and Agri (since mid 1995). Refugees in Silopi generally reside in mud-brick houses without electricity or running water with only minimum humanitarian aid.

In August, the International Federation of Iranian Refugees (IFIR) issued a statement charging that the police in Hakkari were physically and psychologically abusing refugees residing in that town. "Refugees are summoned to the police station on a daily basis and beaten," the IFIR alleged.


The only durable solution for recognized Iraqi and Iranian refugees is resettlement to a third country. In 1999, 1,844 refugees were resettled, including 1,114 Iranians and 666 Iraqis. The principal resettlement countries were Canada (576), the United States (356), Australia (341), and Norway (275). Even though UNHCR recognizes someone as a refugee and another country expresses a willingness to resettle that person, the Turkish authorities refuse to allow refugees to resettle who have not met the filing requirements, in particular, the ten-day deadline to submit applications after entry.

About 2,500 recognized refugees were awaiting resettlement at year's end.


Only a fraction of the Iranians in the country have ever approached the UNHCR office or the Turkish authorities for recognition as refugees. During the year, the Turkish authorities granted temporary protection to 1,266 Iranians and rejected 250 claims on the merits; the authorities rejected another 69 cases for failure to meet procedural requirements. This resulted in an 80 percent approval rate. Turkey provided temporary residence permits to recognized asylum seekers with the expectation that they would seek refugee determination interviews and third-country resettlement with UNHCR.

In its parallel procedure, UNHCR recognized 1,508 Iranians as refugees in 1999, and by year's end was assisting 3,923 Iranians.

Despite the suspension of UNHCR processing of Iranian refugees for resettlement from (see Iraq), the UNHCR office in Turkey did not terminate its "irregular mover" policy, whereby it declines to provide assistance or resettlement referrals for refugees who transited through a country where they could have applied for help from a UNHCR office. (Although most commonly applied to Iranians, the irregular mover policy is sometimes applied to Afghans and Africans as well.) As the situation for Iranian refugees in northern Iraq deteriorated during the year, the UNHCR office in Ankara reported to USCR that it was willing to make some exceptions on a case-by-case basis for Iranian irregular movers who were able to establish that they fled from northern Iraq to Turkey because of "protection constraints."


During the year, the Turkish authorities granted temporary asylum to 738 Iraqis and rejected 532 cases for failure to establish a refugee claim on the merits. The authorities rejected another 99 Iraqi asylum applications for failure to meet filing requirements. This represents a 54 percent approval rate.

Those who were recognized were provided with temporary resident permits with the expectation that they would seek third-country resettlement through UNHCR; those who were rejected were told to leave the country within 15 days with the possibility to appeal during that time.

In its parallel procedure, UNHCR recognized 349 Iraqis as refugees in 1999, and by year's end was assisting 2,781 Iraqi refugees.

According to Turkey's passport law, the police are required to deport persons who present a false passport. This presents particular difficulties for Iraqis from northern Iraq because no government there is authorized to issue passports. Consequently, the police consider passports from this region fraudulent.

During the year, 27 UNHCR-documented Iraqi asylum seekers were refouled.

Kosovar Refugees

About 18,000 Kosovars entered Turkey in the spring of 1999, including about 8,000 evacuated from Macedonia. By summer's end, however, most had voluntarily returned to Kosovo.

The first group of 1,267 evacuated from Macedonia arrived in early April as part of the Macedonian government's summary removal of Kosovar refugees from the Blace border area. Overnight, the Macedonian authorities forced hundreds of Kosovars stranded in the no-man's land between Kosovo and Macedonia into buses and planes bound for Turkey. Neither UNHCR nor the International Organization for Migration (IOM) played any role in this transfer. Refugees arriving by air landed at the Corlu or Istanbul airports; those arriving by bus crossed at Kapikule on the Bulgarian border. Turkish authorities brought the refugees to the Gaziosmanpasa camp, a site near the Bulgarian border most recently used to house Bosnian refugees, about six miles (10 km) from the town of Kirklareli.

USCR visited the Gaziosmanpasa camp in early May to assess the conditions of the Kosovar refugees, and published their accounts in an issue paper, Destination Unknown: From Kosovo to No-man's Land. Although the refugees were highly critical of their treatment by the Macedonians, they praised Turkey for its hospitality. Although many whom the Macedonian police rounded up on the border and put on planes had no idea where they would land, they said they were relieved by the warm welcome from the Turkish authorities upon arrival. They expressed satisfaction that their basic needs were being met and that they were being treated with sympathy and compassion (see After the initial summary transfer of the first group from Macedonia to Turkey, UNHCR and IOM did become involved, in part to ensure the voluntariness of the evacuations. They were also involved in family tracing for those who were removed in early April, registering 499 split family cases. Most of these cases were resolved by repatriation, although 24 were reunited in Turkey.

By June 10, Turkish officials said that 17,025 Kosovars had entered Turkey, of whom 7,301 were staying at Gaziosmanpasa. More than half of the Kosovars lived in Turkish urban centers. Although they lacked a legal status per se – termed "guests" by the Turkish authorities – Turkey issued them six-month temporary residence permits in April, and extended them for another six months in September.

After the bombing campaign ended in June, and NATO (KFOR) forces entered Kosovo, many of the refugees in Turkey were anxious to return. According to the Turkish MOI, 17,824 Kosovars voluntarily repatriated by year's end. That number appears to include Kosovars who were already in Turkey before March (refugees sur place). UNHCR recorded 8,534 returns from the Gaziosmanpasa camp, although UNHCR and IOM only assisted 1,710 to return from Gaziosmanpasa.

At the end of 1999, there were 80 Kosovars remaining in the Gaziosmanpasa camp. The Istanbul police still had 105 Kosovars registered with temporary residence permits. Another 200 to 250 Kosovars were living in other Turkish cities at year's end.

Bosnian Refugees

As Europeans, Bosnians, like Kosovars, are not handicapped by the geographical limitation to Turkey's accession to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and can, in principle, be accepted as refugees. In practice, however, Turkey's response to the 18,000 Bosnians who sought refuge on its territory starting in 1992 was to extend a form of temporary protection similar to those elsewhere in Europe. Like Kosovars, Bosnians were regarded as "guests" without permanent status.

Many Bosnian refugees have opted to repatriate or to move on to third countries. By year's end, only about 850 remained in Turkey, of whom 89 were residing in the Gaziosmanpasa Center in western Turkey. The refugees living in this center overwhelmingly are Muslims from Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia, who cannot return to their places of origin. UNHCR provided food to about 328 Bosnian refugees in Istanbul, and underwrote medical costs for about 250 to 300 Bosnians who used a Red Crescent clinic in Istanbul.

Some 211 Bosnians voluntarily repatriated in 1999, a 29 percent decrease from 1998. From 1997 through 1999, UNHCR assisted 1,136 Bosnians to repatriate. Although UNHCR recommended no Bosnians in Turkey for resettlement, the United States resettled 44 Bosnians from Turkey in 1999, presumably family reunification cases.

Other Nationalities

In 1999, Turkey granted temporary asylum to ten persons of various nationalities. The total of such cases, including persons recognized in previous years, was 98 at year's end. UNHCR recognized 50 such cases in 1999, and assisted about 350 refugees from various nationality backgrounds at year's end.

In November, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit warned of a possible large influx of refugees from Chechnya after 74 Chechens crossed into Turkey from Georgia the previous week. By year's end, Turkey had granted Convention refugee status to 16 Chechens.

Repatriation of Turkish Kurds from Iraq

The 108 Kurdish refugees who repatriated from northern Iraq in 1999 represented a sharp drop from the 615 Turkish Kurds who repatriated in 1998. About 1,900 Turkish Kurds have returned since an organized repatriation program began in August 1996.

Although the government has not extended an amnesty to the Kurdish refugees who fled in 1994, it has said that it would not prosecute them for illegal departure from Turkey. Some returnees have been arrested upon return, mostly charged with membership in (or support of) an illegal organization. A small number remained imprisoned at year's end. During UNHCR monitoring missions, returnees complained most often about economic conditions in the southeast. Few returnees have been able to return to their villages of origin, and therefore have joined the ranks of the internally displaced upon their return from northern Iraq.

Turkey as "Safe" Third Country

The European Union's (EU) High Level Working Group (HLWG) on Asylum and Migration issued a draft action plan for Iraq in September that said Turkey was interested in concluding readmission agreements with EU member states as part of stepped up coordination with the EU "to combat illegal immigration." The HLWG also reported that EU member states were engaged in ongoing negotiations with Turkey to conclude a transit agreement that would allow EU member states to send rejected Iraqi asylum seekers into northern Iraq (either voluntarily or forcibly) via Turkey.

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