According to statistics made available by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), between 1981 and 2005 over 664 000 Turkish citizens applied for asylum, mostly in various European countries. Refugee recognition rates have differed from country to country, but generally have been low, as many have tried to use asylum channels as a means of emigrating for other purposes. Since the conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK grew less intense in the second half of the 1990s, and with the political reforms that were initiated at the same time, asylum applications by Turkish citizens have decreased.
On the other hand, Turkey has always been a country of destination for asylum-seekers looking for a safe haven. As stated earlier, the Law on Settlement, which was adopted in 1934 (Law No. 2510, dated June 14, 1934) is the main legislation that sets the terms on who can immigrate, settle, and acquire refugee status in the country. As part of the new Republic's nation-building project, the law demonstratively gave, and still gives, preference to immigrants and refugees of Turkish descent and culture. Asylum-seekers with such backgrounds are permitted to stay in the country on an unofficial basis, settle, work, and acquire Turkish citizenship once they have resided in Turkey for five years without any interruptions. The new Settlement Law of September 2006, which amended the 1934 Law, still upholds this bias.
One group of "Turkish descent and culture" that has received protection is Bulgaria's minority Turkish community. During the last years of the communist regime in Bulgaria, harsh assimilation policies were directed towards the Turkish and Pomak minorities. Among other things, these policies forced members of these minority groups to change their names and banned use of the Turkish language. Ethnic conflicts between the Bulgarian security forces and the Turkish minorities ensued. To reduce these tensions, in 1989, the Bulgarian government expelled 300 000 Turks and Pomaks, who then sought shelter from this political persecution in Turkey. Following the regime change in Bulgaria in 1990, a third of these refugees returned, while the rest remained and acquired Turkish citizenship. With Bulgaria's recent accession to the EU, an increasing number of these Turks of Bulgarian origin have again applied for Bulgarian citizenship so as to attain the right to travel to Bulgaria and other EU countries without a visa.
Similarly, around 20 000 Bosnians were granted temporary asylum in Turkey during hostilities in the former Yugoslavia that occured between 1992 and 1995. Since the adoption of the Dayton Peace Agreement, many of these refugees have returned to Bosnia. Likewise, in 1998 and 1999, about 18 000 Kosovars escaped to Turkey and enjoyed protection from the ethnic strife in their homeland. A majority of them returned with the lessening of the conflict.
The 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees is the second main legal document that has implications for refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey. By becoming a signatory of the Convention in 1962, Turkey accepted international obligations concerning asylum and refugees, but maintained a geographical limitation on the origin of persons seeking protection. It did not assume any obligations with regard to asylum-seekers and refugees from outside Europe. As it did not have specific regulations regarding the status of non-European asylum-seekers, Turkey applied its domestic laws to foreigners entering the country. According to the law, foreigners are expected to possess valid identification upon their arrival in the country and must depart within the permitted period of stay. Turkish authorities considered non-European asylum-seekers as people under temporary protection who would leave the country one way or another: either to resettle in a third country, if their asylum applications to UNHCR were accepted, or to return to their country of origin, if UNHCR rejected their applications.
In recent times, Turkey has become a major country of asylum for people escaping the mayhem caused by the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the current conflict in Iraq. Turkey has also been under pressure to align its asylum system with that of the EU. This would require Turkey to lift its geographical limitation on the origin of asylum-seekers and introduce a fully-fledged national asylum system. Turkish authorities are uneasy about lifting the limitation, fearing that Turkey could become a buffer zone for the EU, which is making its own asylum system more restrictive. Moreover, in response to growing refugee pressures from Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, Turkey has been tightening its asylum policy.
In November 1994 Turkey adopted the "Regulation on the Procedures and Principles Related to Mass Influx and Foreigners Arriving in Turkey or Requesting Residence Permits with the Intention of Seeking Asylum from a Third Country". This was done in an effort to handle the large inflows of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and, to a certain extent, to limit the engagement of UNHCR in determining the status of refugees.
Applications under the 1994 Asylum Regulation, 1995-2007
Source: Foreigners Department of the Ministry of the Interior
In March 2004, Turkey, in cooperation with Denmark and England, embarked on an Asylum-Migration Twinning Project in the context of accession negotiations with the European Union. The project's goal was to bring Turkey's asylum and migration procedures in line with those in the acquis communautaire of the European Union. The final result of the Twinning Project was a "National Action Plan on Asylum and Migration (NAP)". A new asylum law is being prepared as part of the NAP, but Turkey has not designated a clear-cut timeframe for the adoption and implementation of the law.
Meanwhile, the living conditions for asylum-seekers and refugees in Turkey are unfavorable. Asylum-seekers and refugees are usually allocated to one of thirty "satellite cities" scattered across Turkey, which limits their ability to develop personal networks and find informal working opportunities. Although they receive a residence permit, they receive no support from the state, being expected to support themselves. Their residence permit, which is valid only for the municipality its holder is assigned to, has to be renewed every six months, at a fee of around 150 Euros per person.
Moreover, despite laws on patient rights and emergency health assistance that do not differentiate between citizens and non-citizens, access to health services is still one of the most serious problems confronted by migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, and especially rejected asylum-seekers who remain in the country undocumented. In case of emergency, they are dependent on either the assistance of non-governmental organizations or the kindness of a doctor who will overlook their illegal status. Few hospitals provide treatment without requiring legal identification.
There are no specific public assistance programs for migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Although the Social Assistance and Solidarity Fund must offer services to everybody within the borders of Turkey who have financial troubles, their services are restricted to those with residence permits. The same problem exists with regard to education opportunities for migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Provision 42 in the Turkish constitution grants everyone the right to education, without discrimination on the basis of race, religion or nationality, but again, the person must be able to present a residence permit.