Turkey: Immigrants with No Rights


Placards on which, “We are in pain, we are just tourists,” is written, hang from the windows of the Istanbul Foreigner Guest House.
Turkey: Immigrants with No Rights
Activists carrying that read, “You are not alone,” in various languages, are demonstrating and demanding the release of arrested immigrants.

They live an illegal and invisible life in detention centers named “guest houses” without knowing how much longer they will be there.

Turkey is a transit migration country. An average of 100 thousand people pass through Turkey each year. The first large asylum and refugee movement resulting from the 1979 change of regime in Iran was followed by migration resulting from the pressures on Bulgarian Turks, Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo civil wars, the policies of the Saddam regime and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

45 percent of the asylum seekers in Turkey are from Iraq, 24 percent are from Iran, 18 percent are from Afghanistan, 7 percent are from Somalia and the rest come from various countries.

Death awaits immigrants at the Turkey-Greece crossings
“I study in Istanbul. Education was not my only reason for coming here. Life for youngsters is difficult in Iran. After I graduate, I will not stay here, I will neither return to Iran.”

Thanks to his student status, Mahmoud is one of the 234 thousand legal immigrants in Turkey. The 26-year-old Mahmoud says he chose Turkey in order to cross borders and move to Europe and then to the United States of America, just like his relatives and friends did.

Germany, Bulgaria and North Cyprus are among countries that send legal immigrants to Turkey. Most of those who come illegally aim to cross to other European countries through Greece.

According to the Migreurop and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports, illegal immigrants who are captured in Greece means are kept under detention and secretly sent back to Turkey though the Evros/Meric river or the Aegean Sea.

Many immigrants lose their lives on their way back and forth between these two countries. Since 1988, 1074 people who tried to cross the Aegean Sea and 112 people who tried to go to Greece through the mountains, died from hypothermia, 92 people were killed by mines, and 33 people died from the bullets fired by border police(1). Those who are arrested are locked into guest- houses.

The General Staff states that between 2002 and 2007, Greece left some 12 thousand people at the borders, while Turkey applies the same system at Turkey’s southeast border.

Are Guesthouses a solution or a problem?
Why are ‘captured’ immigrants and asylum seekers locked into guesthouses? Turkey is one of the three countries that introduced geographical limitations to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol(2).

With this limitation, the fact that those coming from countries outside Europe may not be given ‘refugee’ status was formalized. The refugees who do not apply to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in order to cross to third countries, are locked into guesthouses if captured.

Civilians are banned from entering guesthouses. Although lawyers and UNHCR officials have the right to enter guesthouses, this is not always the case in practice. According to the Helsinki Citizens’ Association (HCA) that provides asylum seekers with legal assistance, the refugee applications made at the guesthouses are not conveyed to the UNHCR.

There are frequent insurgencies at the guesthouses due to ill treatment and bad living conditions. Police tries to fight down insurgencies with violence.

In June 2008 during the insurgence that took place at the Kirklareli guesthouse, an asylum seeker died. It was stated that the Polish man Darius Witek committed suicide in September 2007 just before being deported. Nigerian Festus Okey was shot to death by a police bullet at the Istanbul Taksim Police Station in August 2007 after applying to the UNHCR for asylum.

According to statistics for 2010, there are 16,337 recorded asylum applications at the UNHCR. One fourth of the applicants are under the age of 17. A total of 3,800 people in 2008, and 6,000 people in 2009 were settled in third countries(3). The number of people held in guesthouses is unknown. But the state says that a total of 50-60 thousand illegal immigrants are caught each year.

Those immigrants whose refugee applications are rejected or not found at all, are sent back to their countries no matter what their reasons for coming to Turkey are. A total of 19,618 people were deported in 2009.

Turkey is violating the non-refoulement principle of refugee rights laws. Moreover, those who are deported have to pay for their return trip. There are many who stay at the guesthouses because they cannot pay for the flight back.

Thousands of immigrants who come to Turkey due to economic reasons become underpaid illegal workers until they return to their countries or until they are caught.

Women immigrants and house labor
“I came to Istanbul as a tourist and stayed when I found a job. I have been here for the last four years. I send money to my family in Turkmenistan for my mother’s therapy. I stay at the houses where I look after children or do the housework.”


Turkey: Immigrants with No Rights
Bia Cennet



Cennet, 23 years old, is one of the thousands of women who come to Turkey from neighboring countries for economic reasons, to work. She is a high-school graduate. Women who come from bordering countries with a tourist visa earn money by doing housework. Since they generally don’t leave the place their place of work, they don’t risk getting caught. Since they don’t spend money, most of what they earn is sent to their families.

“I will go back to my family when I have earned enough money”
Ruslan, 26 years old, was a teacher in Azerbaijan. He works as a gardener in Istanbul... Like Cennet, he came to Turkey with a tourist visa.
“After my brother found a job here, I came with my wife and child. But they said that my family could not stay with me if I were to start working. I have been sending them money. I’ll go back when I have earned enough.”
Ruslan hasn’t left the place where he works for years as he fears being caught after his visa expired.

Roberto from Cuba has a similar story. He came to Istanbul with a visa ten months ago after his friend found a job here. He works in the entertainment sector.
“I don’t speak Turkish, but many people speak Spanish where I work. Therefore, I spend most of my time here.”
Roberto, who lives in a small house with a couple of other Spaniards, would like to bring his wife and child to Turkey when he finds a job that offers him a contract.

Immigrants are imprisoned into invisibility
Immigrants have to become invisible to be able to stay in Turkey. The people become aware of them only when there is an insurgence or a fire at the guesthouses, or when a boat carrying immigrants sinks at the Aegean Sea.

After “the Armenian genocide” bill was passed under commission in the United States, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened illegal workers who come from Armenia by saying that he would send them back to their countries.

Although the prime minister said the number was 100 thousand, research shows that the number of Armenian illegal workers is around 10-12 thousand.
These immigrants, who do housework or look after children or the elderly, cannot get citizenship for their children that are born in Turkey or send them to schools.

94 percent of Armenian immigrants are women. The fact that they are used as a trump card in international politics is enough to explain Turkey’s immigration policy. Warnings by the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights, and the banners of rights activists that read “you are not alone,” are not yet enough to alter policies and their implementations.




Cicek Tahaoglu ( Bianet )
June 2010


  1. Migreurop 2009 report.
  2. Countries that have introduced limitations to the Geneva Convention: Turkey, Vatican and Madagascar.
  3. A total of 1,262 people in 2005, 1,609 people in 2006, and 2,667 people in 2007 were settled in third countries.

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