HRA General Board Committee on Migration, Forced Displacement and Asylum
Istanbul, 27 July 2001
A group of immigrants and refugees from various countries in Africa requested the HRA on 17 July to take legal action on behalf of more than 205 Africans dumped into the border zone between Turkey and Greece, forced into crossing the border into Greece. They were reportedly starving and unsafe. The HRA Central Executive Board petitioned the Interior Ministry for information on the situation, which is yet unreplied. The letter was copied to the Human Rights Inquiry Commission of the Turkish Parliament and the State Minister Responsible for Human Rights. Ms. Eren Keskin, Chairperson of HRA Istanbul Branch, visited the Foreigners’ Police of Istanbul to get information and to see 7 African immigrants and refugees still under detention. Her requests were rejected.
The Speaker of the HRA Committee on Migration, Forced Displacement and Asylum, Mr. Y. Bülent Peker has been authorised to conduct the HRA activities on the situation by the Board on 19 July. The HRA issued an appeal for urgent action on 21 July.
The HRA has been cooperating with the Civilian Aid Association Against Disasters for conducting an humanitarian operation into the border zone, but this has yet proved impossible due to the fact that the zone is under military control.
According to the HRA research, more than 300 African immigrants and refugees were detained at various points in Istanbul on 7 July. This was regardless of their status in Turkey, the only criterion was appearently their colour. They were mistreated and kept under inhuman conditions, including hunger. An Ethiopian refugee died immediately after detention, another had miscarriage. On 13 and 14 July, between 205 and 290 of them were dumped into the border line between Turkey and Greece. Turkish gendarmery forced them into the Greek side, while the Greek border police forced them back into the Turkish side. It is alleged that three of them died, three of them were raped, and the others were starving. Some of them may still be there, and may be facing imminent death and other dangers to their safety.
More than 150 African immigrants and refugees, citizens of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kongo/Zaire, Rwanda, Tanzania, Liberia, Togo and South Africa, have filed applications with the HRA Committee, complaining of death due to detention conditions, miscarriage due to detention conditions, rape, sexual harassment, ill-treatment, inhuman treatment, degrading treatment, confiscation of property and money, and violation of passports and travel documents.
According to more than 150 complaints filed at the HRA since 19 July 2001, more than 205 African immigrants and refugees were arrested by Istanbul Police on 7 July. These people were kept under detention until 13 and 14 July, and then forced into the border zone between Turkey and Greece.
1. The only criterion in this collective detention practice was the colour of the persons. They were not questioned under detention on the grounds for leaving their countries and staying in Turkey; neither were they questioned on their legal status in Turkey. There were no charges made to them, including the usual charge that they were “illegal immigrants”.
2. It is reported that the detention conditions were inhuman, the detainees were not provided with food, clean water and sanitation. The sick persons were not provided with medical assistance while these persons, especially women, became sick due to general detention conditions, particularly the lack of clean drinking water. They were kept in crowded narrow cells for at least 7 days collectively.
3. A refugee woman died on 22 July, and another had a miscarriage, allegedly due to detention conditions.
4. The detainess were forced to sign statements in Turkish, saying that they entered Turkey from Greece and they wanted to go back to Greece on their own will. Many of them were allegedly beaten up to sign these documents. It is reported that 7 of these persons are still under detention as they did not sign those statements. It is also reported that the police tore down the pages of passports which contained the Turkish visa.
5. It is reported that between 205 and 290 African immigrants and refugees were taken to Ipsala district at the Turkish-Greek border, and left in a noman’s land without food and water. They were forced to run into the Greek side, and warned by the Turkish gendarmery that they would be shot if they turned back. They were not admitted to the Greek side, and kep under Greek detention for one or two days, and forced to go back to the Turkish side, where they were forced to go back to the Turkish side again and again. They were forced to take this trip, lasting between 5 and 13 hours approximately, up to seven times.
6. The area is a swamp, and there may be mine fields in parts of the zone in the Greek side. One applicant reported that a Northern Iraqi refugee crashed into a mine, and taken to hospital by Greek authorities four days later.
7. Applicants who left the area most recently, on 26 July, saw in the swamp area small groups of people, including women, who were unable to walk.
8. It is alleged that all the women were sexually harassed by the gendarmery when their superiors were not there. Three refugee women and a man were allegedly raped by the gendarmery. Three women (Ethiopian refugees of Erithrean origin) have been referred to Istanbul Treatment and Rehabilitstion Centre of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey.
9. It is alleged that three persons were drowned in the water during their flight between two sides. The prosecutors of Ipsala and Keşan districts stated to the HRA and Civilian Aid Association Against Disasters mission that no death was reported to them in the period since 13 July.
10. Ms. Eren Keskin, the Chairwoman of Istanbul Branch of HRA, went to the Alien Police to visit the detainees on 18 July. Although she is entitled to visit detainees as a lawyer, her request for visit and information was rejected by the police.
11. The fact that the applicants generally lack valid identity and travel documents prevent the HRA from taking medical and legal action at the moment. This causes a general feeling of unsafety for them, too.
II. HRA Applications and Preliminary Action
In analysing 123 of formal applications to Istanbul Branch of HRA between 20 and 26 July, we observe the following:
Among the formal applicants, 56 persons are citizens of Nigeria, 21 citizens of Ethiopia, 13 citizens of Sierra Leone, 10 citizens of Ghana, 7 citizens of Kenya, 6 citizens of Congo/Zaire, 2 citizens of Rwanda, 2 citizens of Tanzania, 2 citizens of South Africa, 1 citizen of Togo, 1 citizens of Liberia and 1 citizens of Canada, according to their own statements.
3 refugee women alleged rape; they have been referred to Istanbul Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. Three Nigerian immigrants have agreed to give eyewitness statements.
17 immigrant and refugee women alleged sexual harassment; statements by them and by their witnesses are taken.
A refugee alleged that his sister died due to detention conditions two weeks after she was detained. Efforts for getting an autopsy report are continuing.
A refugee woman alleged that she was pregnant at the date of detention, and had a miscarriage due to detention conditions. She has been provided with medical assistance.
123 persons allege ill-treatment. The HRA has been able to provide medical assistance only to 16 of them. Efforts for more medical assistance are continuing.
123 persons allege unlawful detention. The HRA is organising legal assistance for them.
112 persons allege unlawful deportation.
116 persons allege violation of their passports and travel documents.
84 persons allege violation of their property rights.
The HRA considers that at least 28 persons are refugees in the sense of the 1951 Convention. Only 2 persons have already claimed international protection and 7 others were considering doing so, others were not aware of their right to seek asylum.
Applications are continuing. By the end of 27 July, the number of applications were more than 150.
III. Preliminary Assessment of the Situation
i. Refugee Status
According to the assessment by our Committee on the basis of individual applications by and interviews with African immigrants and refugees living in Istanbul, mainly those who were detained during the mentioned collective detention operation, some of these persons might be refugees in terms of the grounds for leaving their countries. It is observed that some of these persons have been displaced due to fear of persecution connected with political, ethnic, religious and tribal discrimination as well as wide-spread violence and internal warfare or attacks by armed groups. They were deprived of protection by the state whose nationals they were.
On the other hand, such persons have not started asylum procedures due to lack of information, and our Association has informed them on procedures with the UNHCR.
Persons who are displaced and forced to leave their countries due to fear should at least be welcomed in another country; this is a long-rooted tration of humanity.
The HRA declares that the ultimate test of a government’s commitment to human rights is the practices and attitudes of its agents towards immigrants and refugees as well as the level of the protection of aliens’ human rights generally.
Moreover, whereas the Turkish government signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees with a geographical limitation, this limitation is only connected to the exclusion of non-European refugees from the right to seek asylum within Turkey; it does not entitle Turkey to exclude those persons from the Convention guarantees, including the obligation to test whether these persons need international protection or not.
The principles of international refugee law have to be applied to every person who may need international protection. Particularly, the geographical limitation does not exempt Turkey from its obligations to allow people to stay in Turkey until they are granted the refugee status and/or resettled in another country, neither does it entitle the Turkish government to exempt its obligations under international and European conventions to protect human rights of aliens from non-European countries.
ii. Detention Conditions
We are concerned with the manner in which these persons were detained as well as detention conditions and the conditions under which they are kept now. This constitutes ill-treatment, irrespective of their legal status in Turkey. The information we have gathered on detention conditions suggest that the conditions of detention at Istanbul Foreigners Police have not changed since the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture made a statement on them after their 1997 visit.
iii. Racists Attitudes
Collective detention of persons only on the grounds of their colour needs particular emphasis. Such a practice raises the concern that security forces discriminate people on racial grounds. Actually, all interviewees mentioned that they were discriminated by security forces generally.
We observe that the discourse of Turkish authorities and the media on aliens living in Turkey, especially on African immigrants, strengthens xenophobic and racist attitudes in Turkey, and that this is reflected in the attitudes of the security forces.
We consider that no one can be seen as unwanted guests on the grounds of their colour. Citizens of Turkey have never wanted the security forces to homogenise the country. Turkey is not an homogenous country and will never be.
iv. Deportation and Ill-Treatment
In particular, the fact that these persons were dumped into the border zone, in a way to deport them without an opportunity to judical scrutiny, risking their safety and survival, cannot be accepted in humanitarian terms. While the governments may deport persons, they can only implement such practices for good and justified reasons and in respect of the due process of law and human rights. Deportation of persons should not amount to ill-treatment and inhuman treatment, and not risk person’s life and safety.
Unfortunately, tens of thousands of people are deported from Turkey on the pretext that they are “illegal immigrants”, without questioning whether they need international protection or they are simply economic immigrants. Such practices seem to be completely under the discretion of security forces and immune both from political control and, certainly, from judiciary review. Immigration and asylum have become an area left completely to security forces in Turkey.
v. Human Rights Monitoring
Furthermore, the right of human rights activists to monitor alleged violations is now a principle of international human rights law. We protest the prevention of Ms. Eren Keskin from visiting the detainees. We should point out that she is entitled to visit detainees as a lawyer. In preventing her, the police deprived the detainees of their right to be provided with legal assistance too.
vi. Legal Remedies
The HRA declares that if the situation of African immigrants cannot be remedied by the judiciary in Turkey, it will have to bring the issue to the European Court of Human Rights and other international mechanisms.
IV. Conclusions and Recommendations
We call upon the government and the general public for humanitarian assistance to the immigrants and refugees awaiting the determination of their fate and facing imminent death due to dehydration and hunger, and for immediate clarification of their situation.
We welcome the Greek government’s cooperation with the UNHCR in authorising the latter to conduct an operation for searching immigrants and refugees who might be trapped in the border zone.
We call upon the Turkish government to do the same urgently, as well as to authorise civic humanitarian organisations to conduct a search-and-rescue operation in the border zone.
This last incident is one of the tragic examples of the Turkish authorities’ policies on the issue of “illegal immigration” and non-European refugees. We reiterate our firm stance against the illegal and dangereous trafficking of human persons, while emphasising that such operations are not independent of European and Turkish practices restricting and circumventing the right to seek asylum. The HRA will publicise its report on this issue as soon as possible.
We call upon the Turkish government to lift the geographical limitation in line with its obligations under the 1967 Protocol.
Our concern here is the unlawful and inhumane nature of practices regarding “illegal immigrants” and refugees. The HRA calls upon the authorities to improve such practices and regulate them in strict compliance with international human rights standards.
We call upon the EU and Turkish governments to implement the 1951 Convention in line with the recommendations of the UNHCR Ex-Com, and to re-organise their immigration policies fully on the basis of their human rights obligations.
The HRA declares that, at this point, the African immigrants trapped in the border zone are not under the protection of any state, and the HRA considers them having the same status with refugees under human rights law, in terms of requiring international protection, as long as they are kept there and as long as it is not clarified whether the protection of their countries of origin are available for them individually or not.
We invite the Turkish government to develop a temporary solution to the problems of these immigrants and refugees with their lack of valid identity and travel documents, and to avoid detention and/or deportation of any one of these persons, at least until their status is clarified and until legal action on their allegations is completed.
We call upon the Turkish government to investigate the allegations in an unbiased and independent manner, punishing the perpetrators and compensating the victims.
Y. Bülent Peker
Committee on Migration, Displacement and Refugees,