The report was last updated in March 2020.
For people seeking international protection in Turkey in 2020, COVID-19 meant it was extremely difficult to apply for international protection and often extreme hardship due to problems with the economy and the nature of most refugees’ work, coupled with very limited access to support services. There were a total of 31,334 applicants for international protection in 2020, down from 56,417 in 2020. The number of registered temporary protection beneficiaries increased however, from 3,589,289 in 2019 to 3,663,336 in 2020.
Nearly all asylum-related activities were suspended during COVID-19. This includes a closure of registration offices of the Provincial Directorates for Migration Management (PDMM) from March to June 2020 across the country. Interviews and the processing of applications for international protection were thus delayed. Similarly, resettlement services were suspended for the same period, and there continued to be a global pause on international flights between March and September 2020. This also applied to returns. Access to all government institutions was difficult for lawyers and refugees alike throughout the year. Many NGOs resorted to online services. This meant difficulties accessing removal centres were compounded. Access to health services had been restricted in amendments to legislation in December 2019 although access for COVID-19 tests and services was to be available to all. Many people seeking international protection struggled to afford basic protective equipment and hygiene products and supplies from other sources were intermittent.
The EU continued to provide funding including for education services and cash assistance programmes. In the context of the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement between 4 April 2016 and 1 April 2021, Turkey had readmitted a total of 2,139 persons from Greece including citizens of Pakistan, Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Bangladesh. As of 1 April 2021, 28,340 Syrians had been resettled (since 2016) to the EU under the 1:1 scheme.
The bigger political picture saw Turkey pushing for a ‘safe zone’ in north eastern Syria and promoting returns to Syria. There was also a stand-off between the EU and Turkey in early 2020 as Turkey opened its borders to Europe whilst Greece temporarily closed its borders, including to refugees, resulting in pushbacks and inhumane conditions at the Greek-Turkish border. Approximately 13,000 (mostly undocumented) refugees gathered at the Pazarkule border in Edirne. These events had further impact as those who returned back to their assigned cities afterwards could be fined on the way back, had often sold all their possessions, and faced the prospect that their application for international protection was deemed withdrawn.
Looking forward to 2021, DG ECHO at the European Commission will no longer be active in Turkey after 10 years and humanitarian aid will become permanent aid governed by the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs. The Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) project will be revised to support those who can be employed in the labour market through vocational trainings. The Ministry of Family and Social Affairs will support ongoing services such as language support, care for children, women, disabled people. Basic services and protection projects governed by DG ECHO will be transferred to the EU Delegation who will work in cooperation with the national authorities governing those areas. At time of writing of this report in April 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing and still a huge problem in Turkey.
International protection procedure
- Access to the territory: The Covid-19 pandemic had serious effects in Iran as of March 2020 which meant there was a decrease in the number of refugees and applicants for international protection who entered Turkey from the Iranian border. The border was closed and the weather conditions in winter were harsh. Access at air borders was also difficult as strict measures were implemented at Turkish airports due to COVID-19. This included forced quarantine periods as well as an attempt to return persons back to their country of origin where travel restrictions allowed it.
- Registration: The registration of applications for international protection largely stopped due to COVID-19 as PDMM offices were closed from March to June. This resulted in increased delays in accessing the international protection procedure. During this waiting time, persons in need of protection were left destitute with limited access to basic services and at risk of human rights violations, including vulnerable groups.
- Quality of the first-instance procedure did not improve: Similarly to 2019, practice on the examination and the decision-making at first instance is not uniform across provinces. The quality of interviews, the assessment of evidence, the lack of identification of vulnerable groups, the lack of training of migration experts as well as the lack of available interpreters have been reported as particular concerns throughout the year. Quality gaps at first instance have also been identified by Administrative Courts in certain cases. Structural problems in the international protection application procedures include a lack of uniform application of procedural rules at PDMMs, no information about the “opening” and “closing” of satellite cities, the lack of sufficient interpretation services at PDMMs, oral rejections of applications with no legal and legitimate grounds, use of implicit withdrawal mechanisms preventing refugees from accessing basic services, limited access to legal aid.
- Protection from refoulement: In December 2020 the Constitutional Court ruled on the suspensive effect of administrative appeals against deportation decisions. The Court said that the appeal has to suspend the deportation process otherwise it violates the prohibition of ill-treatment and the right to an effective remedy.
- Legal assistance: The legal aid project implemented by the Union of Bar Associations in Turkey in collaboration with UNHCR, continues to provide free legal assistance to asylum seekers at all stages of the international protection procedure, detention, as well as on civil law matters and women’s rights and expanded in 2020. Access to lawyers was also rendered extremely difficult in 2020 due to the reluctance of some of them to provide in-person services in the context of COVID-19; as well as the impossibility for them to access administrative buildings nor their clients in Removal Centres due to strict COVID restrictions. Bar Associations themselves came under pressure in 2020 with amendments to Turkey’s Attorneys’ Code that Bar Associations worried threatened to silence them.
- Access to information: Access to information on the international protection procedure and applicable rights and obligations remains a serious matter of concern in practice. Information as to which PDMM office was open during COVID-19 was reported as a particular concern, as well as the impossibility to access in-person and counselling services. Nevertheless, information resources specifically on Coronavirus such as how to look after your health, government measures on curfews and travel restrictions, and how to access government assistance were made available in Turkish, Arabic, English, Farsi, for example by SGDD-ASAM.
- Situation in the buffer zone: After their failed attempts to cross the Greek-Turkish border in early 2020, many refugees had to find accommodation in an open field in the buffer zone in the cold weather and with poor hygiene conditions from 27 February to 26 March 2020. No shelter was provided, either by the State nor NGOs in the buffer zone. Refugees ‘constructed’ temporary shelters out of plastic bags and tree branches. Supplies of basic food packages were provided by the Turkish Red Crescent, DGMM and AFAD, but were insufficient. The number of toilets and washing units were also inadequate for thousands of people in the zone. An important lack of insecurity and related incidents were also reported
- Access to housing: One of the most prominent shortcomings of Turkey’s legal framework for asylum remains the failure to commit to providing state-funded accommodation to asylum applicants. This results in important issues of homelessness or sub-standard living conditions putting them at serious risk of discrimination and serious violations. Refugees’ material conditions further considerably worsened due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Izmir earthquake in October 2020 also affected many persons seeking international protection in that region.
- Access to the labour market: Due to the nature of their work and frequent lockdowns and the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, many refugees, asylum seekers and beneficiaries of temporary protection struggled to find work and to cover their basic needs including protective equipment and hygiene products. In research conducted by NGO ASAM in April 2020 with 1,162 temporary protection and international protection status holders 89% of interviewees said they were unemployed after the COVID-19compared to 18% before the pandemic
- Access to education: Covid-19 again played a huge role in access to education from early 2020 with the majority of schools closed for the majority of age groups for most of the year. The Turkish government provided EBA TV (Education Information Network TV) offering educational services to those who are unable to go to school. Education was provided for students in twenty-minute videos on three channels on TRT (Turkish Radio Television). Research showed that the restrictions due to the virus affected the learning processes of forced migrant children as there were problems accessing the internet or devices such as televisions, tablets, computers or having their own space to study. In addition, a recent amendment to the Regulation on University Education Scholarships from the Directorate General of Foundations said that any unlawful act infringing the LFIP and Passport Law shall lead foreign students to lose their scholarship.
- Services for the disabled: The circular on the organization and functions of the General Directorate on Disabled and Elderly Services, enacted on 27 March 2020, was amended. The General Directorate is now also responsible for disabled and elderly beneficiaries of temporary protection.
Detention of asylum seekers
- Forced or mandatory returns were suspended from March 2020 until the autumn and there were less of them in 2020 due to travel and other restrictions and the closed border because of COVID-19. Quarantine measures were undertaken before people were put in removal centres. People were released from removal centres to ensure centres were not too crowded and they were given reporting obligations instead.
- Alternatives to detention: New amendments to the law in December 2019 included Article 57(A) LFIP which lays down alternatives to pre-removal detention including inter alia: residence at a specific address, working on a voluntary basis for public good, reporting duties, family based return, return counselling, financial guarantees and electronic tagging. These measures shall not be applied for more than 24 months and non-compliance shall be a ground for imposing pre-removal detention. A lack of an implementation regulation in 2020 meant that these measures were not implemented apart from reporting duties. A consultation project was started between DGMM and IOM. In Istanbul reporting duties seemed linked to security measures under criminal law.
- Appeals against detention orders: The seven-day limit was not applied uniformly across Turkey but where it was applied it caused difficulties for lawyers to be able to make an appeal in time for their clients. The already difficult access to detention facilities was made more complicated in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Content of international protection
- Residence permits and other administrative procedures: There were delays with all administrative procedures in Turkey in 2020 due to COVID-19. Small changes to data such as registration of births and corrections to documents could be carried out online.
- Resettlement: Resettlement stopped between March 2020 until September due to COVID-19.The COVID-19 situation significantly affected the processing for resettlement; however, remote interviewing measures were set in place in five locations across Turkey, in cooperation with DGMM, allowing interviews, which were suspended from March to June to gradually resume. The pandemic also affected resettlement departures because of the global pause of international flights between March and September. As of the end of October 2020, UNHCR provided over 5,633 resettlement submissions (4,625 Syrians and 1,008 refugees of other nationalities) to 18 countries; and 3,382 refugees (2,602 Syrian and 780 of other nationalities) departed for resettlement to 14 countries.
Temporary protection procedure
- Registration: The issues mentioned above on the registration of applicants for international protection also apply to the registration of individuals falling under the temporary protection procedure (i.e. unclarity as to which cities are open/closed for registration, lack of ID documents resulting in irregular migrants being at risk of deportation and administrative detention). Additional issues relate to the significant delays in security checks and pre-registration which may take several months depending on the province. This is exacerbated by a lack of interpreters and other practical impediments to registration such as errors on the part of DGMM officials, which may only be corrected following time-consuming legal intervention.
- Access to services upon return to Turkey: A DGMM Circular of 7 January 2019 clarified that persons returning to Turkey as of 1 January 2019 after having signed a “voluntary return document”, especially pregnant women, elderly persons and children, should be allowed to re-access services. This has worked in some provinces but not in others and many stakeholders have noted difficulties in getting temporary protection status ‘re-activated’ once people are back in Turkey.
Content of temporary protection
- Housing: The number of people in temporary accommodation centres continued to go down in 2020. The number of residents decreased from 64,048 in February 2019 to 56,970 in April 2021.
 UNHCR, Returns from Greece to Turkey, 31 January 2020, available at: http://bit.ly/38XgArI
 See DGMM, Temporary protection: https://bit.ly/3wm3j97.
 The Ministry of Family, Social Affairs and Labour changed its name and it is called the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs as of 21.04.2021.
 Information provided by a stakeholder, March 2021.
 UNHCR Turkey, Operational Highlights 2020, March 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3esx9AE.
 See for example, Amnesty International, ‘Turkey: Syrians illegally deported into war ahead of anticipated ‘safe zone’’, 25 October 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2XTTa4V; and Human Rights Watch, ‘Turkey: Syrians being deported to danger’, 24 October 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2VFjCw7.
 DGMM Circular 2019/1 on Cessation of Status of Syrians due to Voluntary Return, 7 January 2019.