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Turkey Absorbs 2 Million Refugees, But Won't Offer Asylum

A refugee boy plays a violin as hundreds of migrants are blocked from marching down a highway toward Turkey's western border with Greece and Bulgaria on Saturday. Turkey has some 2 million refugees, mostly from Syria, but says they will not be allowed to settle permanently in the country.

As refugees stream into Europe, here's something to consider: The burden being shouldered by Turkey alone dwarfs the numbers currently trying to get to Europe.

Turkey has 2 million Syrians and Iraqis and has spent $7.6 billion caring for them. But here's the catch — the refugees are not allowed to seek asylum in Turkey.

Of those refugees in Turkey, only about 260,000 are in camps. The vast majority live in cities around the country. Syrians in particular were allowed to move about freely until a recent effort to control their movements was announced. Many are asylum seekers, but they have to wait, often for years, while a backlogged United Nations refugee agency tries to resettle them in other countries.

That's one reason, experts say, for the large numbers of migrants crowding cities like Bodrum and Izmir and willing to risk their lives to get to Greece.

Metin Corabatir at Ankara's Asylum and Migration Research Center says if Turkey offered these people asylum, the push to Europe would be smaller, but that's not going to happen anytime soon.

"There is no integration program," he says. "The term is almost alien to Turkish asylum culture."

Turkey is one of nearly 150 countries to sign the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. You can find archival newsreel footage online that shows the convention was designed to help Europeans displaced by World War II and the Cold War that followed.

Since then, many countries broadened their definition of asylum seekers to reach well beyond Europe, but Turkey wasn't among them.

Hence, something of a modern paradox: Turkey's humanitarian generosity is beyond reproach. Migrant advocates say it puts many wealthier countries to shame.

But Syrians and Iraqis find themselves living in Turkish cities with a status just a step or two above illegal migrant. With work permits hard to come by, Corabatir says those who can find work get it under the table, for low pay. He says the decision to keep moving is hardly surprising:

"There is no future in Turkey, and they lost any hope for peace in their country," he says. "So they're getting more and more hopeless."

Migrants listen to a speaker talk to them about their future as they rest in a stadium while waiting to cross from Turkey's western border into Greece and Bulgaria on Wednesday.
Emrah Gurel / AP
Migrants listen to a speaker talk to them about their future as they rest in a stadium while waiting to cross from Turkey's western border into Greece and Bulgaria on Wednesday.

Turkish Fears

For years, Turkish officials have argued that lifting the restrictions on asylum would open this majority Muslim country on the edge of Europe to an even bigger flood of refugees and migrants from all over the region. But some feel that argument isn't persuasive, pointing out that Turkey's unusual asylum policies clearly aren't deterring the latest wave of arrivals.

"They will come — the problem is how are you going to deal with the issue?" says Orcun Ulusoy in Amsterdam, where he has been researching deaths at the EU's border over the past 25 years. He says the international community had years to see this mass movement of people coming.

"I mean, it's just like a mathematical formula, what's going on in Syria," he says.

"When the first group entered to Turkey or other countries from Syria, everybody knew that they were there for years, and nobody took action, including Europe."

Some in the EU continue to ask, "Why don't the refugees just stay in Turkey?" Migration experts say take a closer look: The vast majority of Syrians, several times the number trying to get to Europe, are staying put in Turkey, and Lebanon and Jordan, despite the difficult conditions. If they begin to move, the current migrant crisis will seem small by comparison.

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