“Except God, We Have No One”: Lack of Durable Solutions for Non-Syrian Refugees in Turkey

Turkey is the world’s largest host of refugees and asylum-seekers, with the majority – 2.8 million – having fled the conflict in neighboring Syria. Another 290,000 come from other countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.

The Turkish government has taken a number of positive steps to improve the lives of Syrians in Turkey, particularly in education and employment, even holding out the possibility for citizenship. Humanitarian actors are primarily focusing their efforts on the needs of the Syrians, but the protection measures available to displaced persons of other nationalities are far fewer and their living conditions are underreported.

Turkey categorizes people who are not Syrian and who have fled from persecution in countries other than in Europe as “conditional refugees,” allowing them to stay in Turkey only temporarily, and placing heavier restrictions on them. This includes constraints on their movements and access to work and leaves them with greater uncertainty about their future. Among the “conditional refugees” are many who face particular vulnerabilities and even more hardships, including LGBT people, single women and single parents, survivors of sexual or gender-based violence, religious minorities, and refugees from African countries. The asylum system in Turkey is relatively new and faces great challenges, but it must be updated to reflect current realities. It should be based on an equitable protection for refugees of all nationalities, and include specific protection measures for refugees facing particular vulnerabilities.

An Afghan refugee and his daughter in Aksaray, Turkey.
“Except God, we have no one,” said the Afghan woman pictured above.
Ali, a 48-year-old Afghan asylum-seeker with his grandson in Kayseri, Turkey.

The high cost of paying smugglers and the closure of Europe’s borders in the spring of 2016 have left thousands of refugees with no other choice but to stay in Turkey with little prospect of moving to another country or of going home.

Only 10 percent of Turkey’s 2.8 million Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers, and hardly any people of other nationalities, live in state-run camps. The vast majority live in mostly urban settings around the country and have to rely on their own funds and networks to find accommodation.


In 2015, an unprecedented 800,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece with the aim of reaching western and northern European countries. This flow was significantly cut back in 2016, following an agreement between Turkey and the European Union (EU), in which Turkey agreed to prevent people from crossing its borders irregularly and accept refugees returned from Europe in exchange for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU, revival of EU accession talks for Turkey, and billions of Euros in assistance from the EU.

More than three million refugees now live in Turkey, making it the host to the largest number of refugees in the world. This includes 2.8 million from Syria and 290,000 from other countries, particularly Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Adding to this quantitative challenge is a complex political context. Turkey has faced terrorist attacks that have claimed more than 400 lives since June 2015, a conflict in the southeast of the country and significant domestic political upheaval, including a coup attempt, within the last year.

Though it is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Turkey maintains a geographic limitation to its scope and only grants the status of “refugee” within the meaning of the Convention to people fleeing persecution in a European country.

The problem is not identifying the vulnerable, but whom do you pick? The vulnerable among the vulnerable?

UN Official from turkey
Many refugees in Turkey face particular vulnerabilities based on their race, religion, or sexual identity. Pictured above are two transgender women from Iran.


In order to address the specific needs of non-Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers, the Turkish government should:

  • Lift its geographic restriction to the 1951 Refugee Convention and enable people of all nationalities to benefit from the rights provided under the Convention, including the rights to work and to freedom of movement.
  • Until the geographic restriction is lifted, improve its “satellite cities” system of assigning international protection applicants by:

    • Taking into account the existence of support networks based on nationality, faith, sexual orientation or gender identity, and of places of worship of a person when selecting their satellite city;
    • Providing temporary accommodation that is accepted as a valid address during the process of registering with the authorities;
    • Systematically providing financial support during the first stages of the process of applying for international protection at least until applicants are eligible for a work permit;
    • Facilitating the application process for international protection, search for housing, and access to healthcare and education by adding an appropriate number of dedicated officials and interpreters;
    • Covering the transportation costs of international protection applicants from their initial registration in Ankara to the satellite city to which they are assigned.
  • Support resilience and enable “conditional refugees” to better integrate into Turkish society by:

    • Extending the scope of the type of work permits available to “temporary refugees” (currently only applicable to Syrian nationals) to include “conditional refugees,” and thus facilitate their access to the labor market and their ability to support themselves financially;
    • Providing support to refugee children attending public schools through Turkish language and cultural orientation classes to help them adjust to the Turkish education system and avoid school dropouts;
    • Ensuring that Turkish lessons for adults are provided to help “conditional refugees” with access to services and administrative procedures as well as their social interactions;
    • Engaging community representatives and refugee and asylum-seeker civil society organizations of all nationalities through dialogue mechanisms at the national and local level.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should better support refugees from countries other than Syria and European countries by:

  • Operationalizing its planned telephone system by which people can access relevant information to their situation including asylum status and opportunities for assistance in a language they understand. UNHCR should also ensure that the lines are adequately staffed so as to be available for callers on a regular basis and continuously evaluate and improve upon the system;
  • Increasing outreach to refugees and asylum-seekers living in towns and cities across Turkey including Istanbul, to better understand the challenges they face and help provide solutions;
  • Establishing and maintaining a dialogue with community representatives and civil society organizations of refugees and asylum-seekers from a range of nationalities;
  • Ensuring that winterization programs benefit all those who need it and include asylum-seekers as well as recognized refugees;
  • Providing additional support in the form of specialized counselors to refugees facing discrimination, including based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, or religion;
  • Providing support to survivors of sexual or gender based violence, including providing them with safe accommodation and financial assistance. Measures should include places in safe shelters and psychosocial support with the assistance of an interpreter if needed.

The European Union (EU) and its member states should:

  • Refrain from sending asylum-seekers back to Turkey under the EU-Turkey statement of March 18, 2016;
  • Ensure that EU funded humanitarian assistance programs in Turkey effectively benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from all countries, not only Syria;
  • Include refugees from countries beyond Syria in the EU’s resettlement program and increase the number of non-Syrian refugees resettled by individual EU member states.

The United States should:

  • Continue to provide resettlement opportunities to refugees from all countries present in Turkey and consider extending the number of available places.

Izza Leghtas and Daniel Sullivan traveled to Turkey in December 2016. RI extends a special thanks to the refugees and asylum-seekers who shared their stories with us.