Interview with Three BU Graduates at “Refugee Rights Turkey” (October 21, 2015)

Refugees and their plight have recently become a major issue in Turkey and many countries around the world.  Şenay Çınar from Boğaziçi Magazine, the monthly publication of BU’s Alumni Association (BUMED), talked with three Boğaziçi University members who are currently active in Refugee Rights Turkey: Oktay Durukan, Öykü Tümer and Nur Özkut.  The interview, which appeared in the October 2015 issue of the magazine, addressed important issues such as the services that the organization provides for refugees, the legal situation in Turkey vis-â-vis refugees, and also the benefits a Boğaziçi education may have provided to their work in this field.  We share the interview with our readers…

Could you please introduce yourselves first?

Oktay Durukan:  I graduated from the Department of Sociology and the Department of Political Science and International Relations in 2000.

Öykü Tümer:  I graduated from Political Science and International Relations Department in 2008.

Nur Özkut:  I graduated from the Department of Political Science and International Relations and the Department of Philosophy in 2013.  I am currently working towards my Master’s degree.

When did Refugee Rights Turkey start its operations? What kind of activities does the organization undertake?

Oktay Durukan:  The activities of Refugee Rights Turkey date back to the 2003-2004 period.  During that time, a group of international friends who had work experience in providing legal assistance and counseling services for refugees in other countries saw the need for the same in Turkey and started a voluntary project aimed at providing, free of charge, information and counseling services to asylum seekers in Turkey.  In 2005, they moved their work to the Istanbul-based Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (hCa), an association that had been active in human rights and democracy issues in Turkey since the 1990s. They are now operating within the framework of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (hCa) as the Refugee Advocacy and Support Program of hCa.  During 2004-2005, I joined the process as their first local member.  After 10 years at hCa, when our activities and services expanded, we established a separate association: Refugee Rights Turkey.  Refugee Rights Turkey is a new institutional identity, but it is the culmination of 10 years of experience and learning.  Then, Öykü and Nur assumed important responsibilities in the reorganization of our activities, so now there are three generations of BU graduates in the “kitchen” of our association.  There are several friends from our university circle among our members and supporters.

Our work comprises three components: legal assistance, advocacy, and capacity building.  We provide free legal information and counseling services to the people who had to leave their homeland because of war and persecution and sought asylum in Turkey; we try to facilitate their access to legal protection mechanisms and to prevent all sorts of violations, applying to the courts when necessary. Secondly, we advocate for improvements in Turkey’s asylum legislation and policies in line with international standards.  Where do legislation, institutions, or implementation go wrong, and how can they be improved?  We try to stay in contact with decision-makers and relevant public institutions.  We publish reports and proposals.  We work towards increasing public awareness and sensitivity.  And thirdly, we work on capacity building so as to strengthen the availability and quality of legal assistance for asylum seekers in Turkey.  Over the years, in cooperation with bar associations, we have organized several training programs and seminars for lawyers on asylum legislation; we have issued reference guides; we work hard to enable asylum seekers to be able to benefit from legal assistance mechanisms. Similarly, we organize workshops and seminars aimed at increasing the knowledge, experience and efficiency of non-governmental organizations active in this field.

The work of Refugee Rights Turkey is geared towards enabling refugees in Turkey to access legal protection mechanisms.  However, the phenomenon of migration and asylum is as much a local issue as it is a global one.  Since Turkey is located between a region where conflict and human rights violations abound, and the safe, prosperous European countries, we have built close ties and partnerships with civil society actors in the Middle East, the Mediterranean region and in Europe.  We try to contribute Turkey’s perspective in regional and international discussions on identification and policy issues concerning migration and asylum. We know that Turkey both creates refugees and also functions as a transit point for them; currently it is an asylum country on a grand scale.

And finally, our activities also have a United States pillar.  This may be of particular interest to BU graduates living and working in the United States.  In 2013, with the support of a group of American attorneys and refugee rights advocates, we founded a second association:  Refugee Solidarity Network (RSN).  We aim to increase knowledge, solidarity and experience sharing on refugee laws and legal assistance for asylum seekers on the Turkey-US axis. Currently, RSN and Refugee Rights Turkey are collaborating on one of our most important projects here in Turkey.   

How many asylum seekers are there in Turkey at present?  Which countries do they mostly come from?

Oktay Durukan: Let me try to answer your question from a historical perspective.  When we started working on legal support for refugees in 2003-2004, Turkey was receiving approximately four to five thousand applications for asylum per year.  The four biggest groups of refugees then were Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Somalis. In addition, there was another group of refugees who were in transit on their way to other countries, and would get in touch with us if they were caught at the Turkish border.  At present, according to official records, in addition to the 2 million (2.5 million by our calculations) Syrian asylum seekers, there are around 250,000 individual refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and other countries.  There is also a major flow of Syrian and Afghan refugees from the Turkish-Greek border and the Aegean to the European Union.  Their numbers surpassed 250,000 in the first eight months of 2015.  These are significant numbers.  The confrontations and armed conflicts going on in this region during the last 7 or 8 years has turned Turkey into a major asylum and migration country.

In this context, we are concentrating our efforts on people who seek refuge in Turkey or those who are caught and detained while in transit from Turkey to other countries.  We assist them in claiming the rights accorded to them by Turkish and international laws; we try to prevent their deportation to their native land, where they will not have even minimum security; we try to ensure that their basic rights are not violated and that their basic human needs are met.  Such an influx of refugees demands that the responsibilities be shared, not only by state actors, but also by sensitive citizens and the public in general.  To that end, while we encourage improvements in Turkish laws, institutions, governance skills and policies that will help undertake such an immense responsibility, we also encourage support for the refugees from all segments of society.  We need long-term, high-quality institutional work based on knowledge and expertise in this field.

Would you talk about your legal assistance activities?  First of all, how do they reach you?

Öykü Tümer: Actually, they reach us in a variety of ways.  Some are referred to us by other NGOs active in this field or by individuals in their community; some are directed by acquaintances that are refugees in other countries; others find out about us on the Internet.  People either call us or come to office to talk about their problems.  We provide them with information on regulations and procedures, and try to formulate solutions within the framework of the laws.  A legal support file is created for each person who applies to us; the counselors and lawyers on our team follow up with the procedures and legal problems in each file. Actually, the organization of our legal support activities is similar to that of a law office offering their services free of charge.

Oktay Durukan: The relationships we form with refugees constitute the core of our work.  When we first started, there was no other NGO dealing with this issue on a human rights basis.  Human rights organizations were not involved in this area. This has been changing.  The numbers of civilian actors offering services for refugees are increasing; yet, legal assistance and counseling services, which are our areas of expertise, are still predominantly our responsibility.  Asylum law is a difficult area that requires expert knowledge.  On the other hand, this kind of work also requires operational skills and a well-defined budget.

Nur Özkut: From a practical point of view, we receive tens of applications a day from all over Turkey.  Our headquarters is in Istanbul but we follow up on the files of refugees everywhere in the country.  At present, there is a different process, a different regime for Syrians, and a different one for refugees of other nationalities.  Basically, refugees must register with relevant state institutions upon arrival in Turkey, submit information regarding their reasons for leaving their homeland, and have their situation assessed.  For refugees who are not Syrian citizens, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a different procedure.  These are bureaucratic processes that are extremely difficult to understand and carry out for an asylum seeker.  Our job is to guide asylum seekers in terms of their rights and responsibilities, to help them claim their rights, and to provide lawyers when necessary.  Individuals reach us when they encounter difficulties concerning obligatory legal processes, or when they are faced with deportation upon being caught at the border.

Obviously it is not possible for a small NGO based in Istanbul to provide the legal support needed by nearly 3 million asylum seekers with its modest resources and limited opportunities.  So we try to be as strategic as possible in our service policies and interventions.

Öykü Tümer:  Taking up from where Oktay left off, to act strategically, we need to give priority to the individuals in a certain category – for example, refugees who are faced with irreversible situations such as deportation.  Another element of our strategy is to conduct advocacy and lobbying activities, like Oktay said, to develop structural solutions, better asylum polices and implementations at a systemic level while at the same time trying to formulate solutions for individual cases. 

In this context, which groups of refugees have precedence?

Öykü Tümer:  In our legal assistance activities, we try to give precedence to unaccompanied children, victims of sexual abuse, those exposed to torture, single/unaccompanied women, LGBTi, persons with disabilities, and those under administrative detention, that is, those people whose freedom is restricted. On the other hand, it is necessary to understand that actually all refugees are vulnerable and in need of protection.  To determine the most vulnerable and unprotected people in this community, in other words, to make decisions as to the services to be provided to them with our limited resources, is not an easy task.

This is a very important problem all around the world.  What do you think about state policies in this context?  How do relevant laws function in Turkey?

Oktay Durukan:  This needs to be said: until recently, Turkey refrained from taking responsibility for these issues.  Turkey is a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and Africa, that is, the regions that produce both migrants and refugees, but there were no laws regulating migration and asylum. Turkey, a country of immigration and a transit route, would deal with the issue with old, inadequate, fragmentary regulations of the 1950s, with a small unit within the General Directorate of Security.  Obviously this led to violations and loss of some rights on the part of the individuals, and rendered the societal, economic, and security dimensions of migration impossible to deal with.

That was what we observed in 2007 and 2008, our first two years at this endeavor.  We used to say, there must be a law for this field; there must be a separate civil and specialized general directorate to govern these affairs, or perhaps even a ministry.  In a country that upholds the rule of law, these issues should be dealt with by regulations and laws that protected the rights of individuals.  Finally, as of the 2008-2009 period, with the influence of the EU accessions negotiations, Turkey launched a comprehensive reform process that had the potential to remedy these enormous gaps and shortcomings.  Work on the new law has been continuing since 2010.  We have been deeply involved in the preparation and advisory processes as an independent NGO from the very beginning.

In the end, the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, the first law governing the area of migration and refugees, was enacted in 2014.  It was a late but obviously very important step for Turkey.  The law is completely in line with European Union and European Council standards.  In that sense, it is the first step towards eliminating the legal gap that we had been referring to in our litigations.  Secondly, this law led the way to the establishment of a specialized civil institution, a first in Turkey:  the Directorate General of Migration Management.  That is an equally important step.  Obviously, it is imperative that the work not stop there, and the law be implemented.

I wanted to answer your question from a historical point of view again because the steps taken in the last 5 years are very important for us.  The reform process that this law involves constitutes the core of our advocacy activities.  When you look at the picture today, you will see that the Syrian refugee crisis erupted in the middle of this reform process. The new Directorate General of Migration Management had to deal with over two million refugees before they could finalize their own organization process and even establish their own regulations and procedures. That is not an easy task.  Today, we see that transition to the new law and the new institutional structure is advancing very slowly.  The new Directorate General has not been able to undertake the implementation of the law in its entirety.  And in a country where migration and asylum seeking had not been perceived as a policy issue until recently, it is natural for decisions-makers to find it difficult to develop the most sensible and optimal solutions.  Our mission as an independent and specialized NGO is to observe and monitor progress in the policies and the implementation processes, to provide constructive criticism and encouragement to decision-makers and public institutions.

The numbers you mention are enormous.  Hosting such a big population leads to several serious problems.  What should be done at this point?

Oktay Durukan:  That is why Turkey has to start thinking about migration and asylum as a long-term policy issue.  Neither the Syrian refugees nor the Afghans or Iraqis are likely to return to their countries any time soon.  On the other hand, the walls around the European Union are getting higher every day!  Unfortunately, many countries are not equally willing to share the responsibility for protecting refugees.  Therefore, these people are striving to find a place for themselves in the Turkish society — one way or another.  For this reason, we believe that Turkey needs to have a comprehensive integration policy for refugees and asylum seekers.  For instance, access to the labor market is very important in this context.

To open your doors to people who have fled wars and persecution, to give them the chance to find shelter and safety in your country, is not a decision to be made arbitrarily; for Turkey, it is an obligation.  Since we did open our doors to these people, which was the right thing to do, then we have to take the measures necessary for them to rebuild their lives under decent circumstances. Asylum seekers should be able to work legally and safely, and without being exploited so that they can take care of themselves and their families.  We must provide their children with access to education, and create policies that will allow them to benefit from basic healthcare.  We must build barriers against all attitudes and notions of socially excluding or marginalizing refugees, or exposing them to discrimination and violence.

Are there other NGOs that you collaborate with?

Oktay Durukan: From the very beginning, we have believed that the presence of NGOs that concentrate on this field is crucial. The number of NGOs providing psychosocial and humanitarian aid to refugees has increased in recent years; the human rights movement in Turkey has embraced the human rights of refugees and migrants.  We are pleased with this.  We are in close contact with NGOs in Istanbul and in other cities on a case-by-case basis.  Furthermore, we are conducting lobbying activities with a group of NGOs within the framework of Refugee Rights Turkey.  We also collaborate with bar associations and try to support them in providing legal assistance to refugees.

Obviously, besides NGO actors in Turkey, we are also in contact with regional and international NGOs working on similar issues.  We collaborate with them on certain individual cases, organize workshops and meetings aimed at sharing experiences and expertise, and conduct lobbying activities directed at international institutions and governments.  Asylum is a transnational issue. We try to discuss the problems and difficulties in Turkey not only at the national level but also with important regional and international actors and publics.  We also maintain membership associations and collaborate with many international networks and structures of which we are members, including ECRE, Migreurop, EMHRN, International Detention Coalition and European Network on Statelessness.

We run into refugees almost everywhere.  Is there a phone number they can call for help and support?  What can be done by people who want to help?  This would be useful information for our readers.

Oktay Durukan: Generally speaking, in their neighborhoods or elsewhere, people may encounter Syrians or other nationals who are in need of asylum, or those who are unable to meet their basic needs: in such cases we urge them to get in touch with us.  In some cases we intervene directly.  Or we may refer them to other NGOs if the problem does not involve a legal process. In any case, these persons must first register with the relevant authorities to be able to access rights and services.  They can reach us by phone or visit us at our offices.  We are currently working on a series of information leaflets, which will be put on our website in various languages.

This is the vision of Refugee Rights Turkey for the long term – to function as a specialized organization that provides guidance to both the public and state institutions or NGOs active in this area, and to do this from the perspective of human rights.

It is very important for us to be able to reach members of the Boğaziçi community, like Boğaziçi University graduates and students who may want to support us.  Support for our work can be in many ways.  The first may be of interest to students and recent graduates. We have a highly institutionalized volunteer program.  Following comprehensive training, volunteers participate in our work in three-month periods.  They are given responsibility to work in direct contact with the refugees and to offer basic legal counseling and guidance.  Both our volunteer and professional teams include individuals who do not have any legal training as well as those who do.  There are some tasks that require specific, technical expertise; those are carried out in cooperation with our friends who are lawyers. However, most of our team members receive training on refugee law and asylum systems through the conceptual and practical education programs that we provide.  So you do not have to be a law student or a lawyer.  This may be a good opportunity to familiarize yourself with this field and to work in an institutionalized NGO.

Secondly, we obviously need resources to deal with such big numbers and such difficult policy issues.  We are trying to accomplish high quality work with a professional team.  Boğaziçi members can support us and the vulnerable asylum seekers that we assist by helping us increase our resources and opportunities.  In these trying times, we have undertaken very serious responsibilities and a heavy workload with very limited and modest opportunities and a rather small team. Boğaziçi members who may want to make donations or channel financial contributions to our work through social responsibility projects or other similar endeavors should get in touch with us.   

Finally, what kind of connection do you see between the education you received at BU and the work you are doing today?

Nur Özkut:  Social science education and the academic as well as the social environment at Boğaziçi University has encouraged us think about difficult social issues in the world, and about such concepts as state, identity, citizen, or statelessness.  You read, write and develop a perspective on these issues.  Then you go one step further and begin to consider how you can contribute to what is going on around the world.  At least, that’s what happened in my case.  I started working here following the influx of Syrians, which made me think harder on these issues.  I was already familiar with Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (hCa) through Oktay.  We had invited Oktay to Boğaziçi University on the occasion of a BUSOS seminar on refugees.  Then, like many of my friends on the team, I started to work in the volunteer program and learned the basic concepts and applications.  I had the chance to see how serious the issues were, and to witness the professional work carried out here. I decided to continue my work in the program after I found myself emerged in these problems and began questioning what I could do.  I joined the team after a year of working as a volunteer.

Öykü Tümer: I had a similar experience. I joined the team in 2011, shortly before the number of Syrians started to increase dramatically. I worked in the volunteer program for a while and then joined the team.  I received my Master’s degree from the Sociology Department.  In classes and in the social environment at BU, you develop sensitivity towards world issues.  Then you try to understand and interpret what is going on, and to assess the “foreign”, the “other” in the critical set of circumstances.  Witnessing the issues that we have only read about, and trying to find solutions, excited me.  Then I started to work here at every opportunity.

Oktay Durukan: Yes, I believe we have all had similar experiences.  I am relatively more experienced of course as I lived through a very similar process years before Öykü and Nur. I think the years we spent at BU gave us the opportunity to think about creating horizons and to question issues like state, identities, borders, and conflicts.  Perhaps what led us to work in this field was the desire to try to change, to transform the world we had tried to learn about and understand at school.  Actually, the refugee stories that we witness or listen to everyday are closer, more personal manifestations of issues we have considered as concepts and watched from afar.  The difference in what we do today is that we are not only trying to understand or give meaning to what is happening; we are trying to give strength and support to the people who have had to leave their homes and countries to hold on to life, to start a new life elsewhere.  We do not only listen to the individual problems of refugees who come to us; we try to assert pressure, form policies, and create an impact for the improvement of the policies, regulations and implementations in this field.

Refugee Rights Turkey (Mülteci Hakları Merkezi)

Tel: 0212 292 48 30 /0212 292 48 30