Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits. The government restricted freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict freedom of the press and other media and free speech through broad provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials.
The government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists since the 2016 coup attempt hindered freedom of expression. Media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment. The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. The government frequently responded to expression critical of it by filing criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups, terrorism, or otherwise endangering the state (see National Security, below).
In March prosecutors filed an opinion seeking an eight-year prison sentence for CHP Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancioglu in an appeals case related to tweets critical of government policy, including comments related to the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the 2016 coup attempt, which she made between 2012 and 2017. A lower court sentenced her to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment in 2018. In January prosecutors filed a separate indictment for “instigating the violation of privacy,” claiming that Kaftancioglu ordered photos of alleged illegal construction at the home of the Turkish Presidency’s communications director Fahrettin Altun. In October prosecutors also charged Kaftancioglu with “offending and insulting” Altun in relation to the same incident. In May, President Erdogan filed an insult lawsuit against Kaftancioglu, seeking 500,000 lira ($58,900) in damages for remarks she made in support of Bogazici University protesters. Kaftancioglu had pledged to “file a criminal complaint against the person who is occupying the presidential post,” referring to Erdogan.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups noted that the law was used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms on the floor of parliament, stating that parliamentarians could be reprimanded or temporarily expelled from the assembly; however, authorities did not uniformly implement this by-law.
Former Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen continued to face charges filed in 2019 stemming from 2017 and 2018 bar association statements titled “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.” In April the Diyarbakir Bar Association reported that the Ministry of Interior launched an investigation after the bar association released a statement for Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in their exercising enhanced caution in their public reporting.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most watched television stations and most read national daily newspapers through the companies’ affiliation with the government. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Government prosecution of journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In May the NGO Press in Arrest reported that prosecutors requested life sentences in 10 percent of cases filed against journalists since 2018. The NGO analyzed 240 press trials involving 356 journalists since 2018. In 60 percent (143) of the monitored cases, courts delivered prison sentences, ranging from 10 months’ to 19.5 years’ imprisonment. Prosecutors most frequently charged journalists with terrorism-related charges.
In January, Istanbul prosecutors filed terrorism propaganda charges against journalist Melis Alphan for sharing a picture on her social media account from the 2015 Newroz celebrations in majority-Kurdish Diyarbakir, which showed a PKK flag in the background. An Istanbul court acquitted Alphan in May, but prosecutors appealed. In July an appeals court ruled that Alphan should be retried. She faced up to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country, including using electronic monitoring.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that attacks on journalists were rarely prosecuted. Victims publicly expressed a belief that law enforcement agencies were not interested in prosecuting the crimes. In March a mob of 15 to 20 persons attacked Levent Gultekin, a columnist for online newspaper Diken and commentator for Halk TV, near the Halk TV studios. Both Diken and Halk TV are pro-opposition outlets. Following the attack, Gultekin shared that prior to the incident, he had received threats from supporters of a political party allied with the ruling party, referencing the Nationalist Movement Party. Police opened an investigation into the attack, and Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul promised to take steps to improve security for journalists but did not provide details.
On March 9, a man approached the home of radio presenter Hazim Ozsu in Bursa and shot him in the throat. Police arrested the presumed killer six days later. During interrogation, the suspect stated he shot Ozsu because he objected to some of Ozsu’s on-air remarks.
CHP parliamentarian Utku Cakirozer reported that in July alone at least 18 journalists were subjected to violence as a result of their professional activities. In August a group attacked Halk TV journalists and crew during a live broadcast from Marmaris, threatening the cameraman with a broken bottle. The journalists were reporting on wildfires in the region. Police detained the assailants after they fled the scene but later released them. News reports alleged that one of the assailants was an official at the local AKP office.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against individuals or publications in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly government efforts against PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public for speech critical of the state.
In June police forcefully detained Agence France-Presse photographer Bulent Kilic while he was covering the pride march in Istanbul. According to an interview with Kilic and photos from the scene, officers threw Kilic to the ground and kneeled on his back and neck. Kilic reported struggling to breathe. He was briefly detained before being released with no charge.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with private Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of media and books. Authorities subjected some writers and publishers to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Authorities also exercised censorship over online media (see Internet Freedom, below, for details).
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, court decisions resulted in bans for distribution or sale of certain books and periodicals. Bookstores did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
Publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The Turkish Publishers Association reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Authorities also subjected publishers to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization.
In 2020 a court ruled to ban the book The Political Branch of FETO in 21 Questions published by the CHP, which accused President Erdogan and other officials of cooperating with the Gulen movement. Prosecutors sought the ban based on insult charges and the charge of “provocation of the public to hatred and enmity.” The court decision barred future printing, distribution, and sale of the book and ordered confiscation of all copies already in print. In April the press reported that the now-banned book was cited as evidence in a prosecutorial request to the parliament to lift the parliamentary immunity of CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and seven other CHP members.
Some journalists reported their employers asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government or jeopardized other business interests and fired them if they failed to comply. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines.
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that media generally favored the ruling AKP. The president of the country’s broadcasting authority, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), told interviewers in April, “The political opposition wants to oppose [the government] in an uncontrolled manner. There are limits that cannot be surpassed.”
RTUK continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. RTUK member Ilhan Tasci, who represented the CHP, reported that as of July, RTUK had imposed 22 penalties on pro-opposition outlets only, mainly Halk TV, TELE1, and FOX TV. RTUK did not impose any fines on progovernment outlets.
In August, RTUK sent a letter to broadcasters regarding coverage of massive wildfires that broke out in July. The letter directed broadcasters to cover successful extinguishing efforts in addition to covering ongoing fires or face “heavy sanctions.” RTUK subsequently imposed fines on six opposition broadcasters for their coverage of the fires.
In March, RTUK fined pro-opposition broadcasters Halk TV and TELE1 for “mocking religious beliefs and social values.” Halk TV incurred the penalty after a news commentator noted that the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) Ali Erbas received medical care in more expensive private, rather than public hospitals. RTUK fined TELE1 because a newscaster used the term “Islamic terrorism.”
According to Committee to Protect Journalists reporting, during the state of emergency from 2016 to 2018, the government cancelled nearly 2,000 press cards and another 1,400 in 2020. In April the Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, ruled against the 2018 press card regulation that expanded government authority to cancel press accreditation cards. The court ruled that the regulation specified grounds for press card cancellation, such as “conduct against the public order or national security” and “behaviors that damage the professional dignity of journalism,” that were arbitrary and ambiguous. The court mandated revision of the regulations. In May the Presidency Communications Directorate announced new regulations that reinforced the directorate’s authority to cancel press cards if journalists create content that “praises terror, endangers national security or provokes animosity and hatred” and enabled cancellation of permanent credentials granted to journalists after 20 years of service. The Journalist’s Union of Turkey assessed that the new regulations endangered journalistic freedom by allowing the government to arbitrarily suspend press credentials. In December the Council of State suspended the application of the revised regulations, ruling that the Presidency Communication Directorate is not authorized to decide who will be given a press card or under what circumstances a press card can be cancelled.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. In March authorities blocked French freelance journalist Sylvain Mercadier from entering the country and deported him after detaining him overnight. Mercadier reported that police questioned him regarding his work and whether he focused on Kurdish issues. Mercadier intended to cover Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir, among other topics. Immigration officials indicated public security as the reason for deportation in documentation provided to Mercadier.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, police investigated 44,717 individuals for insulting the president or the state in 2020; 10,629 stood trial and 3,655 were penalized. In July a court sentenced journalist Cem Simsek to 11 months and 20 days in prison for insulting the president in connection with a 2015 article analyzing cartoon drawings showing President Erdogan. Simsek was appealing the sentence at year’s end.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” Free speech advocates pointed out that, while leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
In May, Istanbul prosecutors indicted journalist Deniz Yucel, formerly of the German newspaper Die Welt, on charges of “publicly degrading the Turkish nation and the state” in connection with two articles from 2016. In 2020 an Istanbul court convicted Yucel of “incitement to hatred” and spreading “terrorist propaganda” and sentenced him in absentia to two years and nine months in prison. An appeal was ongoing at year’s end.
In February a court sentenced CHP Aydin Province women’s branch president Ayse Ozdemir to 11 months’ imprisonment for “insulting the president” in connection with her participation in a 2020 performance to protest violence against women. Participants sang a viral Chilean feminist anthem during the performance. The court ordered a suspended sentence.
In April, President Erdogan signed a presidential order banning students convicted of insulting the president from staying in public university dormitories.
The government pursued an insult case against the Ankara Bar Association chair and executive board members for criticizing an anti-LGBTQI+ statement made by the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) Ali Erbas in 2020. The Ankara Bar Association leaders faced a potential sentence of up to two years in prison for “insulting a public official due to his or her duty for expressing beliefs, thoughts and opinions.” Police separately launched investigations into the Izmir and Diyarbakir bar associations in relation to the same incident.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization – generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied, ranging from at least 18 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists to 37 according to the International Press Institute. The majority faced charges related to antigovernment reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity in estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons to whom it has issued a press accreditation card (typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors working for print or broadcast outlets), media watchdog groups also included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, and other staff of media outlets, including digital outlets, in their definition. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported allegations from journalists that the process for receiving credentials was discriminatory and partisan, and NGOs estimated that only roughly one-quarter of the press corps were credentialed.
A study by the NGO Media and Law Studies Organization of 372 freedom of expression cases conducted from January to July found that in 58 percent of cases defendants faced charges related to terrorism. Prosecutors cited journalistic activities as evidence in 64 percent of cases where a press worker was a defendant.
In February an Istanbul court convicted the former HRA cochair Eren Keskin, two other former editors, and the former publisher of pro-Kurdish daily Ozgur Gundem on terrorism charges and sentenced them to jail terms ranging from 25 months to more than six years. In the same month hearings resumed in cases against four other journalists, including Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders, for “promoting terrorist propaganda” in a separate case related to Ozgur Gundem. In 2016 the defendants participated in a solidarity campaign with Ozgur Gundem, serving as the newspaper’s editors for one day each. Prosecutors subsequently filed charges against Onderoglu and other participants. Although an Istanbul court acquitted the four defendants in 2019, prosecutors subsequently appealed. Prosecutors sought up to 14 years in prison for the defendants in the resumed cases.
In March a court convicted an OdaTV news editor, Muyesser Yildiz, and TELE1 journalist, Ismail Dukel, for obtaining and disclosing confidential information. Yildiz was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment and Dukel to one year and 15 days. The journalists were tried in connection with telephone conversations they held with the third defendant in the case, a military officer, who allegedly provided them with information about Turkey’s intervention in Libya. The military officer received a sentence of seven-and-a-half years’ imprisonment.
In April the country’s highest appeals court ordered the release of prominent novelist and former editor of shuttered Taraf daily, Ahmet Altan. Police first detained Altan in 2016. Shortly before the appeals court’s decision, the ECHR ruled that the government violated Altan’s rights to liberty and security, right to fair and speedy proceedings, and freedom of expression. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” for alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt; he received an aggravated life sentence. In 2019 after the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the life imprisonment sentence, Altan was convicted for “aiding a terrorist organization” and released on time served. Within days of the release, he was rearrested following the prosecutor’s objection. Altan’s lawyers reported that the case against him was ongoing.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest in connection with the 2016 coup attempt or other charges. Independent reports estimated the government has closed more than 200 media companies since 2016.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of terrorism, links to the Gulen movement, or the failed 2016 coup attempt. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement, as did movement restrictions introduced as COVID-19 precautions.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allow severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit individuals’ movement, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g.).
The Ministry of Interior and provincial governors instituted travel restrictions as anti-COVID-19 measures on several occasions throughout the year.
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced some restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f.).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of terrorism due to links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as on their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security. Some persons whom the government barred from travel chose to leave the country illegally.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria without government permission. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for the Eid holiday visit program to Syria, family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
In 2019 the country’s Peace Spring military operation displaced more than 215,000 residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria in parts of Aleppo, al-Hasakah, and Dayr az Zawr. At the time the president announced the country’s intention to create a safe zone for the return and resettlement of one to two million Syrian refugees from Turkey. In October the government announced that 414,000 individuals had voluntarily returned to Syria. Approximately one-half of those displaced inside Syria because of the operation have returned according to February 2020 UN estimates, the latest available. More than 100,000 persons remained displaced, however, including tens of thousands of women and children. Turkish officials publicly committed to safe and voluntary refugee returns.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries.
The government took steps during the year to continue services provided to the approximately four million refugees and asylum seekers in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were Syrians, despite a number of economic, political, and social challenges. Amidst growing antirefugee sentiment and following attacks against Syrians in an Ankara neighborhood in August, the government announced in September the closure of Ankara Province to temporary protection registration for Syrians (joining at least 15 other provinces in the country). The Presidency of Migration Management (PMM), previously known as the Directorate General for Migration Management, reported that the government apprehended 122,302 individuals in 2020, either for staying in Turkey without proper documentation or trying to enter or exit Turkey irregularly. The PMM reported that 50,161 of those apprehended were Afghan nationals. The government did not provide official data on the number of “irregular migrants” deported to their countries of origin. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior stated that the government prevented the illegal entry of more than 505,000 foreign nationals.
Increased border surveillance and protection measures by security services along the eastern border areas with Iran prevented individuals, particularly Afghans, from accessing international protection in some cases. Media reports alleged authorities executed pushbacks back to Iran of individuals trying to access Turkey, with no opportunity provided to access the asylum procedures, deportation proceedings, or the right to appeal deportation as provided in the law. UNHCR continued to engage with Turkish authorities to support the implementation of the legal framework that provides for access to international protection, in line with relevant national and international commitments.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 Refugee Convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to nearly four million Syrians and provided international protection to asylum seekers of other nationalities. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or international protection (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had regular access to removal centers where foreigners, including persons under temporary and international protection, were detained. UNHCR continued to work together with the government to ensure access to asylum procedures for persons in need of protection, including through access to information, interpretation, and legal aid. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allowed some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances, but the Turkish government has not accepted any returns under this framework since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained strictly managed, with admissions only for medical, humanitarian, and family reunification cases from the border with Syria since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, as of December 2020, five were open for limited humanitarian, commercial, and individual crossings, and four additional gates required permission from authorities for all movements. Of the five open crossings, one permitted UN humanitarian cargo to transit the border. During the first half of the year, a second border crossing, which had previously allowed UN humanitarian movements, prohibited such crossings beginning in July per UN Security Council Resolution 2533.
Since 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting their ability to obtain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they can register. Large cities such as Istanbul and Ankara also limited registration. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which was allowed under the country’s regulations but was often necessary to survive without depending on humanitarian or government assistance.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement. The government continued efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, particularly non-Syrians, as well as those it deemed to pose security threats before they were granted status-determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities.
As of September 30, UNHCR intervened in incidents of detention of 1,160 persons of various nationalities that had been brought to its attention. The majority were Syrian nationals (710 persons), Afghans (219 persons), and Iranians (150 persons). Of those known incidents of detention in which UNHCR intervened, two persons were reportedly returned, against their will, to their country of origin. Information concerning individuals who were reportedly no longer in the country could not be verified.
In incidents of administrative detention of which UNHCR was made aware, the reasons for detention related to violations of provisions of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (including but not limited to irregular stay, lack of foreigners’ identity card due to not complying with the obligations of registration procedures, being in another city without authorization, working without a permit, entry ban, rejection of request for temporary protection), or criminal acts.
UNHCR typically intervened in incidents of detention when there were concerns detained individuals were unaware of or unable to access the appropriate administrative processes to raise potential protection concerns. In October the PMM announced it would deport seven Syrian refugees because of their provocative social media posts; the Syrians had posted videos of themselves eating bananas in response to a Turkish citizen’s comment that he could not afford to buy bananas because of the poor economy, while alleging Syrian refugees were buying the fruit “by the kilo.” Refugee rights NGOs criticized the government’s decision as “illegal,” arguing that “provocative social media posts” cannot be ground for deportation under the law.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Due to strict border control measures as well as intercity travel bans through June 1 due to COVID-19, migration into and through the country remained low in the first half of the year; however, stricter controls increased the danger for migrants and refugees attempting to travel.
After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August contributed to fears of a possible refugee influx to Turkey, authorities engaged in pushbacks, including multiple reports by international media of alleged violence and forced returns to Iran of Afghans and other asylum seekers attempting to enter the country.
While conditions in the border area between Greece and Turkey were calmer than in early 2020, migrants and asylum seekers still experienced severe mistreatment when attempting to cross the border. Amnesty International alleged the country violated the rights of migrants and asylum seekers on the border by encouraging some persons to attempt to cross the border again and by failing to rescue those stranded in the river in a timely manner. International media and UN agencies also documented similar mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey.
In September, one UN agency reported eight migrants died in Turkish waters while trying to cross the sea into Europe from Turkey. There were 43 deaths recorded along the Greece-Turkey land border, according to the agency, of which 36 were drownings in the Meric River; three other migrants were found dead in forests, two died from traffic accidents, and two others were beaten or shot dead.
A total of 21 civil disturbance incidents involving refugees were reported by media in 2020, an increase from nine such incidents reported in 2019. Tensions escalated in the Ankara neighborhood of Altindag following the death in August of an 18-year-old Turkish national who was wounded in a fight between Turkish and Syrian youths. This incident prompted hundreds of individuals to gather in the neighborhood, where they attacked Syrians’ homes and businesses and shouted nationalist slogans. At least six Syrian refugees were injured. Authorities deployed more than 1,000 police officers to the district. According to Ankara law enforcement authorities, police detained nearly 150 individuals in the following days for instigating violence on social media and participating in the riots. Some were subsequently arrested.
Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers.
UN agencies reported there were LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country – most coming from Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq – and LGBTQI+ individuals from Syria under temporary protection status. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTQI+ community. Many experienced gender-based violence. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTQI+ refugee community, particularly for but not limited to transgender persons.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned non-Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they were expected to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These international protection applicants and status holders were required in some provinces to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. International protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the PMM. Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration.
The PMM operated seven refugee camps, which the government called temporary accommodation centers, in five provinces. As of early December 2020, there were nearly 60,000 Syrians in the accommodation centers, a slight decline from the previous year. While more than 98 percent of Syrians under temporary protection live integrated in communities across the country’s 81 provinces, some Syrians elected to remain in the camps, usually because they were elderly, had disabilities, or felt they might not successfully transition to living outside the camps. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both international protection applicants and status holders (mostly non-Syrians) and temporary protection beneficiaries (mostly Syrians) the right to work, provided they were registered for six months in the province where they wished to work. Most did not have access to regular or skilled work. Conditions further deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic as overall unemployment rates in the country rose sharply. In addition, applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring anyone who required a special permit. The vast majority of both international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions. As of 2019 only an estimated 140,319 Syrians in the country had formal work permits according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.
Access to Basic Services: International protection applicants and status holders lose access to subsidized health care after one year residing in the country. Individuals meeting certain conditions, such as documented chronic conditions or those older than a specific age, could apply for an exemption to be placed back under subsidized care coverage. Temporary protection beneficiaries (3.7 million) continued to receive free access to the public-health system. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children, many of whom encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier, meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of June the Ministry of National Education reported that 771,458 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. More than 400,000 remained out of school. According to UNICEF since 2017, a total of 700,097 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education Program for Syrians and other refugees, implemented through a partnership among the Ministry of Family and Social Services, the Ministry of National Education, the Turkish Red Crescent and UNICEF, and funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to vulnerable persons varied widely. NGO staff members reported individual cases of refugees being refused health-care services.
Children of unregistered migrants, including asylum seekers, were unable to attend Turkish schools, leaving many in vulnerable situations. Some NGOs also reported some local authorities started to enforce residency requirements for registered refugees, refusing to enroll children in school if outside their place of residency in Turkey and thereby contributing to school dropouts.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for naturalization or resettlement within the country for international protection applicants and status holders or temporary protection beneficiaries, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. Temporary protection beneficiaries or international protection status holders could only access naturalization through marriage to a Turkish citizen or through an exceptional circumstances allowance. According to a December 2019 Ministry of Interior statement estimate (the most recent estimate available), 110,000 Syrian nationals had been granted Turkish citizenship. The statement did not specify the timeline nor the process for having obtained the Turkish citizenship.
As of October 25, UNHCR, in cooperation with the PMM, observed the spontaneous voluntary return interviews of 18,700 Syrian individuals in 15 provinces, where 90 percent of the refugee population resided. The total number of voluntary return interviews observed by UNHCR since 2016 was close to 120,000 individuals. UNHCR could not confirm the authorities’ estimate for voluntary returns to Syria. Through June the PMM suspended voluntary repatriation due to COVID-19 measures. Amnesty International reported in September that former refugees who returned voluntarily to Syria were subjected to detention, disappearance, and torture, including sexual violence.
UNHCR continued to work closely with Turkish authorities as well as resettlement countries to identify, assess, and process refugees for resettlement considerations. Due to the pandemic and related restriction of movement, the PMM facilitated UNHCR interviews of refugees by providing government facilities across the country, enabling resettlement processing to continue, with the required COVID-19 prevention measures and also remotely, when needed, through most of the first half of the year. As of August 31, a total of 5,607 refugees were submitted for resettlement and 4,666 refugees departed the country for resettlement.
g. Stateless Persons
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, some of whom could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of October there were 508,513 Syrian children younger than age four in the country, according to the PMM.