Turkey Halts Deportation Campaign

(from Iranian Refugees At Risk Summer/Fall 97)

In March 1997, Turkey launched a deportation campaign against Iranian refugees, mostly those who had entered Turkey via Iraq and had failed to register with the authorities due to fear of arbitrary deportation by the border police. Iranian Refugees' Alliance wrote the following letter to the Interior Ministry, to protest these deportations and bring to the attention of the authorities the first hand experience of it's representatives' recent visit to Turkey. In addition, we tried to engage international organizations in protesting the deportations.

The protest was directed at non-compliance of Turkey's new asylum regulations with international law as well as the arbitrary practices of the border police. However, Turkish authorities continued to ignore or dismiss the criticism. In one reply in May 1996, although a Turkish embassy official in Canada acknowledged one criticism "that there is lack of information to asylum-seekers regarding applying within five days to the relevant Turkish authorities," he dismissed it as "baseless" since "a comprehensive information campaign on the Ordinance has been carried out by the use of booklets and video cassettes."

The official also said that: "Turkey has asked the UNHCR and third countries not to determine the status of the asylum-seekers who do not legalize their status in the country. However, flexibility will be shown for refugees who have already obtained a visa from a third country, and Turkey and UNHCR will cooperate in order to prepare a joint list of these individuals."

Although Turkey's eventual reaction was welcomed in saving hundreds of other refugees from deportation, more than 80 refugees who were by then deported to northern Iraq, continued to face the worst possible living conditions and serious threats against their lives by Iran's agents in northern Iraq.

In mid-summer 1997, the deportees to Iraq finally began to receive transit visas from the Turkish authorities and returned to Turkey for onward resettlement. Those refugees who remained in hiding in fear of deportation were also given temporary stay permits for the time needed for processing of their visas to third countries. Mrs. Meral Aksener

Iranian Refugees' Alliance, Inc.

April 7, 1997
Minister of the Interior
Dear Minister Aksener:
Iranian Refugees' Alliance is writing this open letter to you to urge ceasing expulsion of Iranian asylum seekers to Iran or Iraq, where they may face serious human rights violations. Since 26 February 1997, more than 80 asylum seekers have been forcibly returned by the Turkish government and hundreds more are at risk.

These forcible returns violate internationally accepted refugee and human rights laws and must stop immediately. At present it appears that most of the at-risk asylum seekers are:
-recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and would be leaving Turkey for resettlement shortly,
-expelled solely on the procedural ground of having failed to register an asylum claim within the required time period,
-returned despite ongoing serious human rights situations in Iran and despite scores of assassinations and kidnappings attributed to agents of the Iranian government operating in northern Iraq and other reported human rights violations in the region.

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention prohibits the imposition of penalties on refugees due to their illegal presence and requires an unconditional examination of each and every refugee's claim. It further prohibits States from sending anyone against their will to a country where they would be at risk of human rights violations (the fundamental principle of non-refoulement.) At its 28th session, the Executive Committee of the UNHCR, which was represented by Turkey among other member states, reiterated that no reservations are permitted to this fundamental principle. It was clearly stated that application of the principle of non-refoulement is not dependent on the lawful residence of a refugee in the territory of a Contracting State and that this principle applies not only with respect to the country of origin but to any country where a person has reason to fear persecution.

Penalizing asylum seekers for their failure to register an asylum claim with the Turkish authorities is further unjustified by the fact that Turkey's asylum practices in the past two years have violated the trust and confidence of any impartial observer, let alone asylum seekers whose lives may depend on this system. Several international organizations and national critiques have criticized the 1994 Turkish Asylum Regulations on such technical and substantial grounds as:
-the five-day deadline for filing claims and its rigid application, the geographic restriction for filing claims at the borders,
-disqualification of the police as authorities responsible for interviewing asylum seekers,
-lack of expertise and partiality of officials of the Foreigner's Bureau within the Interior Ministry responsible for both making the decisions and reviewing them on appeal,
-partiality of the currently available administrative appeal which is referred to the same division making the initial decision, and lack of a judicial review for negative decisions and deportation orders,
-lack of any practical opportunity for obtaining legal assistance and the right to representation for asylum seekers,
-unwillingness to cooperate with the UNHCR and to defer when this agency decides a person is qualified as a refugee.

Other foreboding signs have to do with the unrelenting powers of the local police in implementing the regulations, including stepping out of the regulations with impunity. In a recent visit with asylum seekers in Turkey, members of Iranian Refugees' Alliance obtained a more accurate and comprehensive picture of the current situation as it relates to Iranian asylum seekers and the reasons for their failure to present themselves to the Turkish police. We feel we should immediately put on record some of these findings to encourage a better understanding of the prevailing distrust and fear among Iranians:

In the past two years many asylum seekers have been arbitrarily refused to register an asylum claim and summarily returned by the border police in violation of the procedures set out in the Turkish regulations. Since December 1996, at least 85 Iranian Kurds who approached the police in Sirnak to register have been reportedly refused registration and deported to Zakho in northern Iraq. As a result very few Iranians have been registered in Sirnak in recent months. At the time of their registration, the police resorted to deceitful methods to deport them since they all met the requirements. Some were instructed twice by the police to return in two days, after which they were told that they had failed the "five-day rule". In some other cases their identification documents and UNHCR registration letters were confiscated by the police and they were finally deported for not having them. Others were returned for failure to come up with the money requested by the police; an amount which is reported to exceed $1000.

The tragic deportation of a group of 21 Iranians who were summarily returned to Iran in August 1996 by the police in Agri, despite meeting the requirements, is another well-documented example. However, to date, there are no indications that the perpetrators of this unlawful act were ever prosecuted or disciplined.

There have also been many reports of physical and verbal abuse and various forms of intimidation while asylum seekers stay in the border towns. Those residing in the southeastern provinces report being regularly beaten or insulted by the police. One reason for the beatings appear to be their illegal entry, an issue which the police regards with highest sensitivity since the creation of the no-fly zone above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq. Naturally these entries cast doubt on the ability of the police to control the borders and aggravate the police for being "humiliated in front of their superiors." In this connection, it is believed that one purpose of the arbitrary deportations by the police is to use them as a measure to deter others from crossing the border and increase police performance in securing the borders.

In their interviews with the police, asylum seekers are not only greeted with hostility and threats, but also with disbelief and an atmosphere which is least conducive to elucidating an asylum claim. The police appear totally ignorant of the conditions of the countries that asylum seekers are fleeing and have not been able to demonstrate even a superficial knowledge of refugee and human rights laws. In Sirnak, police are often overheard commenting that a refugee is "a person who has lost his dignity", which does not demonstrate an awareness of the principles and requirements for refugee protection. Instead of inquiries of reasons for seeking asylum, most questions aim at finding grounds for deportation. By making the simplest mistakes in describing the details of their flight, asylum seekers are threatened with deportation. Iranian Kurds are regularly interrogated about PKK and accused of cooperation with them. There is a strong fear among secular Iranians to express their anti-Islamic sentiments, a common basis for their persecution, because this offends the police and may adversely affect their treatment. Asylum seekers have been subjected to spontaneous bodily searches for false documents during their interviews, which, if found, subjects them to immediate deportation.

Iranians residing in the eastern provinces feel extremely vulnerable to attacks by Iranian agents, who in the past have reportedly kidnapped and assassinated many Iranian dissidents in Turkey. Every day, many Iranians who wish to travel to or through Turkey by land, pass through these border towns. Busloads of pro-government Iranians on religious tours to Syria stay in Agri on a regular basis at close proximity to asylum seekers, as there are few guest houses in the border towns. Asylum seekers who stay in southeastern segment of Turkey which is under martial law are subject to the brutal realities of war. Most importantly they are posed with serious threats to their personal security. In 1996, paramilitary "village guards" have repeatedly raided dwellings of Iranians in Sirnak to use them for temporary operation bases against the guerrillas.

Problems with translations have become crucial since even in the third year of the implementation of the new regulations, competent, qualified and impartial interpreters have not been available during the process; In Sirnak, Iranians resort to using a food service worker at the police station to assist with translations-this worker does not even speak the same Kurdish dialect. In Agri, Iranian asylum seekers who speak Azeri are called in by the police to translate. According to their own assessment, they can hardly translate 50% of the communication. An orientation video for asylum seekers shows that translations in Ankara's Foreigner's Bureau of the police take place in a tri-lingual situation (Turkish to English to Farsi) and this is by using a police officer who is not even fluent in English. Considering that most Iranians are not fluent in English either, such a scenario shows unacceptable criteria in selection of translators and a lack of knowledge that an applicant's asylum claim cannot be developed or fairly assessed if the communications are not accurately and completely interpreted.

While international refugee laws require that asylum seekers who have fled without passports and do not have relevant documents to prove their nationality must be given the benefit of the doubt in light of their special circumstances, in Turkey, they are refused access to the asylum procedure and deported by the border police. Those found with false documents are also subject to immediate deportation under the Turkish legal system. These requirements are neither mentioned in the regulations nor in the information pamphlet provided to asylum seekers.

While reported figures of refoulements (120 Iranian and Iraqi refugees in 1995 and 139 in 1996) show that deference is not given to UNHCR by the Turkish authorities in cases where this agency recognizes a person as a refugee, reports from Iranians residing at the border towns also indicate destructive attitudes by the border police in cooperating with local UNHCR offices. At times, when local officers have tried to remind police officers of the regulations or make inquiries about registration refusals, they have been treated with hostility and their advice has been ignored. On one occasion, in Sirnak , the police deceived a group of asylum seekers into signing a complaint against the UNHCR local officer. When called in to court, the judge withdrew the complaint after realizing that the plaintiffs had no knowledge of the deposition they were forced to sign. Such engagements severely undermines protection of refugees.

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that there are so many asylum seekers who have not presented themselves to the authorities. Nor is it difficult to understand their duress. A provision of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties states that a material breach of a multilateral treaty entitles a party especially affected by the breach to invoke it as a ground for suspending the operation of the treaty in whole or in part.

We urge you that until effective improvements have taken place both in the regulations and their implementation, asylum seekers should not be penalized in any way for acting on their lack of confidence in the procedure: As an interim measure we urge you to allow persons who have failed to register a claim within the deadline to access administrative courts to exit Turkey for safe countries. In late 1996 early 1997 such persons were allowed to redirect their deportation orders from their country of origin to their country of resettlement through these courts. This practice can further be complemented by letting asylum seekers regularize their status with the police (register asylum claims) even before they are admitted by a resettling country.

Much public sentiment in Turkey has been sympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers. If the Turkish government wants to win the trust and confidence of its own people as well as the international community and finally asylum seekers, it must bring in line its asylum system with internationally acceptable standards. Effective control should be exerted on police officers who are responsible for receiving asylum seekers at the borders or registering their claims.

Once again, we urge you to stop expulsion of Iranian asylum seekers. We thank you for your attention to this matter, and welcome your response.
Dr. Mona Afary
VicePresident-Iranian Refugees' Alliance, Inc.