I met Anna, an urban planning engineer from Iran, in December 2016 when I was researching the living conditions of non-Syrian refugees in Turkey. Anna fled her country when her family discovered she was transgender. She told me about the hardships and discrimination she had faced in Turkey, in every aspect of life, including work and housing. Most critically, she has been the target of threats and has been physically attacked. Listening to her story, I found some hope in the fact that she was going through the process to be resettled in the United States. With her indisputable vulnerability as an LGBTI refugee and her excellent English, I thought it would not be long before she left these struggles behind for a new life in the United States.
I was wrong. Recently, I contacted Anna to see how she was doing. She is still in Turkey, still unable to be herself and dressing like a man so she can get by. She said she has no news about the resettlement process and no other options for leaving Turkey.
Anna is one of tens of thousands of refugees in Turkey that receive little attention. While Turkey hosts 3.2 million refugees from Syria, there are around 300,000 men, women and children from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, and other countries who fled their homes due to war or human rights abuses. Turkish law, which only considers people who fled persecution in a European country to be refugees, allows non-Syrian refugees to stay only temporarily, until they are resettled to another country. The authorities assign them to one of 62 “satellite cities” where they must live and regularly check-in with the local authorities. They cannot travel outside their assigned city without special permission. A major challenge for non-Syrian refugees is that they are not allowed, except in exceptional circumstances, to live in Istanbul. But given the lack of job opportunities in many of the “satellite cities,” many non-Syrian refugees move to Istanbul in search of work in the informal labor market.
Ali (not his real name), a young man from Afghanistan I met in Istanbul October, described the struggles and obstacles he faced as he tried to find a place to live and get medical treatment, basic needs that are so difficult to access for many non-Syrian refugees in Turkey. He told me he had been referred to a small town where he did not know anyone. “For 40 days I was sleeping outside,” he told me, adding that when he approached the police about receiving a kimlik (a government-issued identity card that is necessary for refugees to access medical and other services), the police said he needed to provide an address. Ali said that as a young single man, landlords were not willing to rent to him. Ali got sick and went to Istanbul where he has friends, but without an identity card he still cannot access public health services. “I lost weight, I feel cold,” he said. “Nothing can warm me.”
When I was in Turkey in December 2016, the United States was the destination of almost all – 91 percent – of the non-Syrian refugees who were resettled. The Trump Administration’s decision to drastically decrease the number of resettlement spots to the United States (from 110,000 to a maximum of 45,000 for the coming year) has dramatic consequences on this particular segment of refugees. These policies have particularly harsh consequences on refugees, including LGBTI refugees like Anna, whose vulnerabilities mean that they should urgently be given protection in another country. And while the EU has a resettlement program for Syrian refugees from Turkey, it excludes non-Syrians.
Almost a year on, non-Syrian refugees in Turkey still face the same hardships: restrictions on where they are permitted to live, exploitation in the informal job market, and they feel excluded from humanitarian assistance because of their nationality. Turkey faces a long list of challenges that come with hosting 3.5 million refugees, the highest number for any refugee-hosting country, but the Turkish authorities and international and humanitarian actors should not treat people differently based on the country from which they fled. A refugee is a refugee.
Top photo: Afghan refugees in Turkey.