“You Cannot Exist in This Place:” Lack of Registration Denies Afghan Refugees Protection in Turkey

Turkey currently hosts the largest population of refugees in the world, including a growing number of Afghan refugees fleeing either violence and conflict in Afghanistan or the lack of opportunities and protection for Afghans in Iran. A group that receives less attention than Turkey’s 3.5 million Syrian refugees, Afghan refugees in Turkey face many difficulties, including in accessing housing, education, and employment.

In September 2018, the Turkish authorities fully transferred responsibility for the registration and processing of asylum applications of non-Syrians from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM). Although the transfer had been planned for at least two years, its implementation was sudden and came in the wake of a surge in Afghan arrivals in 2018.

In October and November 2018, a Refugees International (RI) team visited Turkey to research the effects of transferring registration and processing operations to the Turkish authorities. RI interviewed dozens of single Afghan men who described major obstacles in registering as asylum applicants with the offices of DGMM at the local level, the Provincial Directorate of Migration Management (PDMM). Some were told that the authorities did not register single men, and others that they should return several months later to register. This means that they were not able to obtain Turkish identity cards (“kimliks,” in Turkish). Being without documentation from the Turkish authorities exposes these men to the risk of arrest, detention, and deportation, and impedes their access to such essential services as health care and education. Families interviewed by RI appeared to face fewer difficulties in registering. However, many described delays in obtaining their kimliks. This delay then prevents them from sending their children to school or receiving health care and humanitarian assistance, such as cash assistance and coal for the winter months.

The Turkish government must urgently make changes to the way this system is being implemented to ensure that all newly arrived asylum seekers are promptly registered and receive kimliks, whether they are single men or members of a family. Prior to the transfer in September 2018, UNHCR in Ankara referred non-Syrians to cities in which they could register with the Turkish authorities. However, under the new system there is no centralized referral mechanism. The government should therefore put in place a system that fills this gap by directing newcomers to places that are open to the registration of international protection applicants, and issuing them with documents that enable them to travel there legally and safely.

The new system is still in its initial phase of implementation. At this time, Turkish officials have an important opportunity to make adjustments that will better safeguard the rights of refugees and avoid their being trapped in an irregular situation on Turkey’s territory.

*Terminology: Unless otherwise specified, the term “refugee” in this report is used to reflect the meaning of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as someone who left their country “due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” anywhere in the world. Where relevant, the terms “conditional refugees” and “international protection applicants” refer to their status under Turkish law.



  • Commit to providing prompt registration to all new international protection applicants, including single men.
  • Set up a referral system among PDMM offices – for instance at the regional level – to direct people to cities that are open to registering new international protection applicants.
  • In cities where it is not possible to register new applicants, PDMM should issue documentation to allow applicants to travel legally to a city that is open for registration.
  • In the case of delays between the registration of applicants and the issuance of Turkish identity documents (“kimliks,” in Turkish), PDMM offices should provide applicants with a temporary identification to protect them from detention and deportation.
  • Renew the kimliks of international protection applicants for a minimum of six months.
  • Ensure that any foreigner who is detained in a removal center has access to legal assistance and to UNHCR and is able to apply for international or temporary protection.


  • In line with UNHCR’s protection mandate, strengthen protection provided to Afghan asylum seekers and refugees, as well refugees of other nationalities, and ensure those who wish to contact UNHCR about their case can obtain access. This access could be facilitated through outreach activities in the cities in which refugees live.

To the Commission of the European Union (EU) and EU member states:

  • Ensure that EU funding under the EU-Turkey statement effectively benefits Afghan refugees and those of other nationalities. – In progress reports, include information on how EU funds for refugees in Turkey are reaching non-Syrian refugees. – Increase resettlement of refugees from Turkey, including non-Syrian refugees.

To the United States government:

  • Continue and increase support for humanitarian assistance to Afghan and other non-Syrian refugees in Turkey.
  • Increase resettlement of refugees from Turkey to the United States, including Afghan and other non-Syrian refugees.


Turkey’s Asylum System

In March 2016, the EU and Turkey concluded a political agreement in response to the arrival of 800,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants on Greece’s shores after they crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey. The commitments included a promise by Turkey to better control its borders to prevent further crossings and a commitment by the EU to provide Turkey with 3 billion Euros to help it provide for refugees, with the possibility of an additional 3 billion Euros in 2018. In March 2018, the European Commission announced that it would issue the second tranche of 3 billion Euros to Turkey.

With close to 4 million refugees on its soil, Turkey is the largest refugee-hosting country in the world. As of October 2018, Turkey hosted some 3.5 million Syrians, 170,000 Afghans, 142,000 Iraqis, 39,000 Iranians, 5,700 Somalis, and 11,700 refugees and asylum seekers from other countries. More than 95 percent of Turkey’s refugee population lives outside of camps, in urban, peri-urban, and rural areas.

Although Turkey is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has never lifted a geographic restriction in the original convention that recognizes as refugees only those people who fled from persecution in a European country. Under Turkish law, Syrians are granted “temporary protection” – not full refugee status – whereas those fleeing from persecution in a non-European country other than Syria are considered “conditional refugees.” Their stay in Turkey is meant to be temporary until they are resettled to another country, as stipulated in Turkey’s current (and first) asylum law, the 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP). The law also provides for the category of “subsidiary protection,” which applies to those who do not qualify for refugee or conditional refugee status but who cannot return to their country because they would face a death sentence, torture or other ill-treatment, or indiscriminate violence.

Until recently, non-Syrian refugees confronted two parallel asylum systems in Turkey. Upon arriving in the country, they registered with the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) – an implementing partner of UNHCR – in Ankara. ASAM referred them to one of some 60 “satellite cities” where they had to register with PDMM and live. Non-Syrian refugees were subsequently interviewed by UNHCR in Ankara, which conducted a Refugee Status Determination (RSD) on their case. In parallel, after registering with PDMM, they awaited an interview with DGMM regarding their application for international protection under Turkish law.

UNHCR Ends Registration of International Protection Applicants

In September 2018, UNHCR announced it was ending its registration and processing of applications for international protection, directing applicants instead to PDMM. This change means that international protection applicants now undergo only one process, the one led by DGMM. In October 2018, an RI team traveled to Turkey to investigate the effect of this change on non-Syrian asylum seekers and refugees – particularly Afghans, who constitute the largest group. RI found that newly arrived Afghan asylum seekers face significant obstacles (see Section IV for details) in registering with PDMM and obtaining kimliks which provide refugees with access to essential services, such as health care and education. This is particularly true for single men.

Now that UNHCR no longer registers international protection applicants or conducts RSD, inability to register through the national asylum system deprives these Afghans of the chance to be resettled to another country at a later stage. In at least one case documented by RI, applicants were recognized as refugees by UNHCR and had their case submitted for resettlement, but their claim for international protection was rejected by DGMM. As it stands now, those whose applications for international protection are accepted by DGMM receive conditional refugee status or subsidiary protection.

Afghan refugees interviewed by RI indicated that, having been told by ASAM that UNHCR would no longer register or process their cases, they no longer see any point in approaching UNHCR via ASAM. RI is concerned about how UNHCR will carry out its protection mandate toward Afghan and other non-Syrian refugees now that it no longer comes into contact with them at the registration stage. Faisal, an Afghan man in Kayseri, told RI, “When the UN office was open, things were better. They offered services, you could ask questions. Now that it’s closed, there is no way to get help.”

Afghan Refugees in Turkey

Although Turkey has hosted Afghan refugees for years, the number of Afghans arriving via Iran – either as a place of transit, or because they were living there as refugees – increased significantly in 2018. Nearly 20,000 Afghan nationals entered Turkey between January and March 2018, compared to 6,000 over the same period in 2017. This increase was reportedly driven in part by the fact that the Turkish authorities are building a wall along Turkey’s border with Iran. In early 2018, the construction firm building the wall announced that it would be completed by spring 2019. Because of a lack of opportunities and protection in Iran, many Afghans go to Turkey, either to stay or in on the hope of resettlement to a third country, and the threatened closure of this route reportedly spurred more crossings. Between January and June 2018, Turkey returned 17,000 Afghans to Afghanistan. The Turkish government presented these returns as voluntary. However, RI and others received reports from actors on the ground that returnees in fact were coerced or misled into signing documents they could not understand and returned against their will to a country ridden with violence.

Even for Afghan refugees who are registered and settled in Turkey, many challenges remain. For example, Turkey’s satellite city system has forced many Afghan and other non-Syrian refugees to live in remote cities with few work opportunities and no support networks. Non-Syrian refugees are not allowed to live in Turkey’s large cities, such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Many struggle to make a living in the cities to which they have been assigned, and any work they can find is mostly in the informal sector where they are often victims of exploitation. Further, most humanitarian actors in Turkey focus their efforts on the Syrian refugee population. Refugees from Afghanistan and other nationalities are mostly left to fend for themselves. Resettlement to a third country is available to only a tiny number.

RI first documented these challenges in a 2017 report, “Except God We Have No One”: Lack of Durable Solutions for Non-Syrian Refugees in Turkey. In October 2018, RI found that conditions for Afghan refugees had worsened. For many of those who have recently arrived in Turkey, and as described in the section below, obstacles to registration with the Turkish authorities leave them undocumented and unable to access basic services. Resettlement to the United States, the destination for more than 90 percent of non-Syrians resettled from Turkey in 2016, has been drastically cut. In 2016, 495 Afghans were resettled from Turkey; in 2017, that number decreased to 213. For both years, Afghans were resettled only to the United States and the United Kingdom from Turkey. In the first quarter of 2018, only 27 Afghans were resettled – 23 to the United States and four to Canada.16 With ongoing violence in Afghanistan and with European borders closed, Turkey will be the home of Afghan refugees for the foreseeable future. However, life there is becoming increasingly difficult.

Several Afghans told RI that the challenges they face in Turkey – including limited access to work, decent housing, and documentation – make life much harder than they had anticipated. In some cases, the severity of these conditions is creating a push factor for Afghans to move on to Europe. Kareema, a woman living in Turkey with her husband, children, and adult brother, told RI that the harsh living conditions made them think of attempting the journey to Europe. “We’re thinking of going illegally to another country … at least to cross the border and go to Greece and then Germany … We were thinking initially to stay in Turkey, but now the economic situation [for us] is worse than Afghanistan. The only thing that is better is that no one is threatening us.”