Turkey shares a long border with Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey, a nation of 76 million people, has accepted over 3 million Syrian refugees – children, women and men who fled death and destruction in a place of implacable violence.
Even though Turkey opposes the Syrian government and ISIS, and has suffered acts of terror within its own borders, the refugees were permitted to enter Turkey without the requirement of intensive vetting. While the populations of both countries are predominantly Muslim, the countries have distinct cultures, languages and political systems. Turkey is no backwater Third World nation; but it is also not as affluent or progressive as most European countries or the United States. Its willingness to open its borders to millions of refugees and commit scarce national resources to their well-being is remarkable.
I recently worked with the American Bar Association Rule of Law program to research and produce materials for training Turkish lawyers about the rights and obligations of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Lawyers throughout Turkey have volunteered to learn about refugee rights under international and domestic law. They are advocating for Syrian refugees in the following areas:
1. Status – On Oct. 22, 2014, the Turkish Council of Ministers issued the Temporary Protection Regulation that addresses the mass influx of people who fled civil unrest in Syria after April 28, 2011. Under this regulation, Syrian nationals, stateless persons (e.g. Palestinians) and international refugees who come directly to Turkey from Syria can apply for temporary protection in Turkey together with the right of access to services and benefits including health care, education, work and legal assistance. Temporary protection can be denied to those who have committed certain crimes or present a danger to public safety and national security.
2. Health care – All TPR beneficiaries are entitled to free primary health care at public hospitals and clinics. They are entitled to free specialized health care if referred by a primary health care physician. In emergencies, they are entitled to health care at private hospitals and teaching hospitals.
3. Housing – Aided by the United Nations and international relief organizations, refugees are provided food and shelter at multiple refugee camps throughout Turkey. However, they are also entitled to seek out and rent housing anywhere within the province in which they reside. They are entitled to the same rights as any tenant who is a citizen of Turkey.
4. Education – Refugee children are entitled to enroll in Turkish public schools according to their education background and level of Turkish language fluency. They can also attend special schools staffed by Syrian teachers who teach a traditional Syrian curriculum in Arabic. These schools are typically operated under the auspices of nonprofit nongovernmental organizations, known as NGOs, and are subsidized by the Turkish government.
5. Work – Syrians in Turkey are entitled to work but must first obtain a work permit. A work permit may be granted after the refugee has been in Turkey for at least six months and can confirm that he or she has been offered employment. The application and process is entirely online.
The strain on Turkey’s culture and economy because of its commitment to Syrian refugees is enormous. Turkey and other countries in the region look to the international community to share the load of accommodating millions of them. While Europe has responded – both by accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees and donating money to Turkey – the United States has admitted only a fraction of those in need – 19,324 Syrians from Jan. 1, 2012, to Jan. 29, 2017. These refugees have been admitted only after lengthy, intensive screening by trained immigration officials. Most are women and children. Very few are single men. Sixty-four Syrian refugee families settled in Spokane in 2016.
President Trump has, of course, sought to indefinitely ban all future refugees from Syria. His executive order and a revised order that provides for only a temporary ban are, of course, the subject of ongoing litigation. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has sent an unmistakable message that Syrian refugees are not welcome in the United States.
It is one thing for Americans to talk about America first and the need to protect national security. It is an entirely different matter when we measure ourselves against the selflessness of Middle Eastern countries that have absorbed the brunt of disruption in that part of the world.
George Critchlow is a professor emeritus at Gonzaga University School of Law.
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