More often than not, news coverage of Turkey’s treatment of refugees is negative. Whether commentary is focused on conditions for asylum-seekers waiting for their status to be determined, or on the problems facing those who have already been found to qualify for refugee status, most problems regarding Turkey’s asylum policies link back to the Turkish state’s unique “geographical limitation” to its signing of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This clause says that only asylum-seekers from Europe may be granted refugee status and therefore have the possibility of full integration into Turkish society, while qualifying non-European refugees must await resettlement to a third country.
Last month, however, Turkey took a big step toward setting up a proper domestic legal framework and administrative infrastructure for asylum: the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, which was passed by the Grand National Assembly on April 4 and published in the Official Gazette on April 11.
The new law does not lift the “geographical limitation,” but it does take many steps in the right direction. While non-European refugees will continue to have to wait for UNHCR to find them one of the very limited resettlement opportunities to the United States, Canada, or Australia as their only long-term solution, the law brings the Turkish asylum system up to European standards. The patchwork system of circulars and directives that was used to inform Turkey’s treatment of asylum-seekers is now being replaced by comprehensive legislation that establishes legal procedures for the determination of refugees, their reception and accommodation, and their access to basic services. It is anticipated that the next step for Turkey could be the eventual lifting of the “geographical limitation.”
Turkey’s leading refugee advocacy NGO, the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA), held a symposium in Ankara on April 19 with representatives from bar associations around the country, as well as representatives of UNHCR, IOM, the European Union Delegation, and other national NGOs working on refugee rights in Turkey. The conference was part of HCA’s ongoing efforts to mobilize lawyers across the country to prepare for the many changes that the new law will bring. Until now, NGOs have been the main legal assistance provider for asylum seekers in Turkey. Once the law is fully in force a year from now, it is expected that lawyers will play a much more active role in refugee legal assistance. HCA has been exploring how Turkey’s state-funded legal aid scheme can be adapted to facilitate legal assistance for asylum-seekers.
In addition to the Turkish and international organizations at the conference, representatives of the Dutch Legal Aid Board and the Dutch Council for Refugees were also in attendance. The Dutch government has been a strong supporter of Turkey’s efforts to build European-style reception and accommodation centers for asylum-seekers. Once the new law is fully in force, much of the processing of asylum applications will take place in these new large-scale centers. In parallel with this close cooperation between the two governments, HCA has partnered with the Dutch Council, the leading NGO working to protect the rights of refugees in the Netherlands, to help channel lessons from the Dutch experience on the organization of state-funded legal aid for asylum applicants.
The Foreigners and International Protection Law was conceived and adopted as part of Turkey’s legislative harmonization efforts to join the EU, and therefore its features governing access to free legal assistance have much in common with European countries. Compare this to the United States, which does not even recognize the right of those in immigration proceedings to have legal representation.
Nevertheless there are other valuable lessons the American legal community can share with their Turkish counterparts. The Refugee Solidarity Network (RSN) was established for exactly that purpose. RSN sets out to help build mechanisms for partnership between lawyers and civil society in Turkey—through the very things lawyers take for granted in the United States, like over 200 law school clinics that effect enough change to cause alarm, or pro bono programs that inspire feature length films and competition among the profession for prestigious awards. The new law and its guarantee of legal representation for asylum-seekers confirm that as the respective professionals engage, American lawyers can gain inspiration and lessons from Turkey, not just the other way around.