By Sile and Helen, International Protection Policy Team
After a week of meaty kebabs and brain-splittingly strong Turkish coffee, we were longing for some good, honest, home-cooked food. And to our delight this came in the form of an impromptu lunch date with a Kurdish NGO on our last day in Istanbul. Their small, homely office, based in a converted apartment building in downtown Istanbul, disguised the extent of their reach and the importance of the services they provide to displaced Kurds, both Turkish and Iraqi, throughout the country. Unfortunately our Kurmanji is even worse than our Turkish so we had to rely on an interpreter to communicate with our hosts on our behalf. However, this didn’t prevent us gaining a valuable insight into the experiences of Kurds within Turkey and the challenge of meeting the needs of an ever-increasing population. As we head east we are likely to meet more and more Kurds, who live in the mountainous region that spans eastern Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq and north-western Iran.
A sleepless 8 hour train ride brought us to Ankara, capital of Turkey and the administrative heart of the country. Our week began with a visit to the UNHCR office and a meeting with the man at the top. The Representative welcomed us with a glass of cay (Turkish tea) and a break-down of the refugee status determination system within Turkey. Turkey is one of only a handful of countries that applies a geographic restriction to the application of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This means that the Turkish authorities only provide refugee status for asylum seekers from Europe. Since the majority of refugees are non-European, they are dealt with by UNHCR. Currently UNHCR has a caseload of approximately 14,000 asylum seekers, processed by a staff of only 47. As you can imagine, this is a lot of work and delays are commonplace. However, the service they provide enabled almost 3,000 refugees to depart Turkey last year, to begin a new life in the USA, Canada, Australia and Finland through their resettlement programmes. We also met with one of UNHCR’s partner agencies that provides psycho-social support to refugees and asylum-seekers in Ankara, Istanbul and a handful of the satellite cities to which refugees are dispersed after they register with UNHCR. Life in one of the 27 satellite cities is often hard for refugees, particularly as they often experience real obstacles in accessing work, healthcare and education. As a result, many choose to live irregularly in Istanbul or Ankara, or to make the dangerous and expensive journey to Europe in hope of finding a safer, more dignified existence. Some succeed, most find themselves trapped between the promise of security in the West and a life of poverty and debt while they wait for an uncertain future.