On Sunday, 19 December 2010, 12 iranian refugees were arrested by turkish police forces after protests in front of UNHCR’s offices in Ankara. The demonstration was held in order to denounce the refugee agency’s violation of the rights of asylum-seekers in Turkey and was part of an international campaign coordinated by the International Coalition for the Rights of Iranian Refugees (ICRIR).
The refugees’ list of accusations against UNHCR is long. In a call for joint international protests against refugees’ situation in Turkey, ICRIR representatives proclaim deep concern about unprofessional and criminalizing treatment by UNHCR staff, long waiting periods for recognition as refugees, untenable living conditions for asylum-seekers, insufficient protection against violence and abuse by both turkish police and iranian secret agents as well as denial of official refugee status without cause.
In an open letter to UNHCR Ankara on December 13, ICRIR published the refugees’ demands towards UNHCR, which include the recognition of Iranians fleeing Iran as prima facie refugees as well as a systemic redress of the deficiencies mentioned.
The protesters were met by a UNHCR delegation during their time in Ankara, who promised to reply to their demands within the time frame of one week. Meanwhile, the 12 detained refugees were released on december 21 and brought back to the “satellite cities” of Kayseri and Nigde, where they arrived safely, according to ICRIR, although they had received threats before by the police.
UNHCR plays an important role in granting refugee status in Turkey, since the country remains a “geographical limitation” to the Geneva Convention. There is thus no national asylum system that would allow non-Europeans to be recognized as refugees. It is therefore pretty much UNHCR that de facto decides who is granted official refugee status and who’s application is rejected. The former do then in principle have the possibility of being “resettled” to a third country – a possibility however that often leads to years of waiting for one of the rare places.
While on the one hand lifting this “geographical limitation” and enabling the establishment of a functioning national asylum system in Turkey therefore seems to be an important issue, this demand risks at the same time of being used for the EU’s strategy of externalizing its migration regime: Once such a system is in place, EU member states could declare Turkey a “safe third country” and “outsource” its asylum system, while using Turkey as a “buffer zone”, trying to prevent migrants from reaching the EU.