Turkey’s Mysterious Disappearing Refugees

Official refugee estimates by the United Nations and the Turkish government are calculated by registration instead of tracking, thereby including hundreds of thousands who have found refuge in Europe or returned home. By John Butler and S. Keleşoğlu.

Over 2015, Europe experienced a refugee influx of historical proportions. The relative trickle of Mediterranean boat people became a flood, with EU border management agency Frontex counting 880,000 asylum seekers taking the dangerous sea route to Greece. Meanwhile, mass migration along the land route from Turkey to Europe became a practical possibility for the first time: one million are estimated to have arrived in Germany alone.

Yet over the same time period, the number of Syrian refugees registered in Turkey by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) went from 1.5 million to 2.5 million. This ever-increasing number (it currently stands at over 2.6 million), formulated in conjunction with the Turkish government, is being accepted uncritically by aid groups and government officials, but Turkey’s surprisingly-quiet cities suggest that something different is happening on the ground.

If the above figures are right, then, even without counting anyone who went on to Europe, over 80,000 refugees must have crossed the Syrian border into Turkey every month in 2015. However, during that year, Turkey closed off large sections of the border, and the principal population movement noted by some observers was in the other direction, as rebel gains in Idlib alongside the Kurdish victory in Kobani and continued expansion within the northeast meant that many who fled have been able to return to their homes.

So where are these vanishing hundreds of thousands of refugees in Turkey? The answer is that while a great deal of effort has gone into counting refugee arrivals, there are no effective mechanisms in place for counting those who leave. The only indicator we have that takes account of those leaving is the number living in camps: a figure that only increased from approximately 230,000 to 270,000 over the course of 2015. The Coordination Group of Afghan Refugees in Turkey, on the other hand, says that their figures suggest that fewer than 7,000 of 94,000 registered Afghan refugees remain in the country.

Those who have gone through the registration process may also be being counted more than once: according to media reports, the computer system has been re-registering the same person if they enter Turkey a second time from a different border crossing.

Many Syrian nationals formerly crossed over to Turkey whenever they believe themselves to be under threat and returned home whenever the coast seemed clear, meaning that double-counting may have significantly reduced the reliability of the figures. However, this way of maintaining ties to Syria is increasingly untenable, as recent border security measures have made movement out of the country much more difficult.

In March 2015, Turkey closed many border crossings along the 822 km land border, with only a handful of crossings permitted for civilian and humanitarian use. Rules of engagement for border guards changed, with use of live ammunition now permitted to deter those who attempt to cross into Turkey illegally. The government also announced plans to secure the border by building 3-metre walls in four provinces.

Syrians in Turkey have also been subjected to increasing restrictions on movement within Turkey: only those holding residency permits are able to travel around the country freely. Others must secure permission from the local police or Directorate General of Migration Management before attempting to travel out of their province of registration.

But many of those who came in, especially during the brief period in which Europe’s gates were left open, probably spent mere days in Turkey en route to Germany or Sweden.

It seems nothing short of phenomenal that the European Union has not considered the discrepancy between refugee registration and refugee tracking in its dealings with Turkey—nor the large group of vulnerable individuals fleeing through Turkey from conflicts outside Syria. Frantic negotiations set to continue this weekend will be based around bargaining for Turkey to prevent this large number of Syrian refugees from entering Europe, many of whom are already there.


John Butler is a former humanitarian aid worker. 

S. Keleşoğlu is a humanitarian aid worker based out of southern Turkey.

Cover photo credit: EC/ECHO/flickr/some rights reserved

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