by Chiara Scissa
The world is becoming increasingly aware of the interconnections between climate change, human rights, and its implications on affected populations and countries. It is now widely recognised that climate change adversely impacts the right to life, property, and an adequate standard of living by hampering access to hygiene, water, and food but also adequate healthcare, among many basic necessities. This fact has been most visible during the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011.
According to the data of the Syrian Ministry of State for Environment Affairs and the World Bank, the annual temperature in Syria has increased at a rate of 0.8°C per century since the 1950s. This change is reflected in an increased frequency, length, and intensity of droughts and heatwaves. Decades of unsustainable agricultural policies, the consequent overexploitation of water and soil resources, coupled with the effects of climate change resulted in desertification, higher temperatures, and reduced precipitations. These developments dramatically impacted the agricultural industry, at that time representing twenty-five per cent of Syrian GDP.
Although in-depth research studies have so far not confirmed a causal link between climate change and conflicts, other scholars, such as Ingrid Boas, nevertheless stress that drought and water scarcity may be included among the complex and interlinked pressures that characterise the unrest in Syria. To make matters worse, water infrastructure there was consistently under attack. In a country already hit by drought, attacks on water networks cut services for weeks during the armed conflict, with millions of people suffering from long and deliberate interruptions to a water supply.
According to UNICEF, disruptions in Aleppo encompassed a deliberate forty-eight-day shutdown of a water treatment plant that served two million people. Indeed, the organisation straightforwardly claimed ‘attacks on water and sanitation are attacks on children.’ Without safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), children’s health, nutrition, safety, and education are at risk. They are exposed to preventable diseases including diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera and polio which may potentially disrupt their early development if not treated on time. Children are also at risk of undernutrition and malnutrition, vulnerable to sexual violence and injury as they collect water.
The report continues by noting that children under fifteen are, on average, nearly three times more likely to die than adults from vector-borne diseases, such as diarrhoeal disease, related to unsafe water and sanitation than violence directly linked to conflict. As a matter of fact, seventy per cent of annual children’s death are attributable to diarrhoea, malaria, neonatal infection, pneumonia, preterm delivery, and the lack of oxygen at birth. For children under five, this probability increases more than twenty times.
With millions of refugees streaming into Europe since the onset of the war, Turkey, as Syria’s closest and ‘safest’ neighbour has been the focal point of this population movement. However, Turkey’s response to the refugees has been a human rights abomination, particularly when it comes to children and minors. This article will describe the steps Turkey has taken to undermine the human rights of Syrian children and why it should not be considered a safe third country.
Children’s rights abuses in Turkey
It has been estimated that due to the Syrian civil war, as of March 2019, one million Syrian children became orphans, 4.7 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance, and another 490,000 of said children are in hard-to-reach areas. Overall, six million Syrians are internally displaced, while another 5.6 million people have left their home country. Most of them fled to Turkey. In response, Turkey passed two foundational pieces of legislation in 2013. First, the Law on Foreigners and International Protection no. 6458, which entered into force in April 2014, and second, the Temporary Protection Regulation – TPR, in 2014. Given that Turkey is one among very few countries which still has the geographical limitation to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, Syrians and non-European asylum seekers may only be entitled to the weaker standards provided under the TPR.
As pointed out by several authors, temporary protection has a more limited scope than the refugee protection and, in non-compliance with its provisions, health and education services as well as access to social assistance and employment to Syrians are often not delivered. For instance, UNICEF stressed that the situation for refugee children in Turkey remains particularly challenging, given that around 400,000 Syrian children are still out of school and are therefore at likely risk of isolation, discrimination and exploitation. Of 4 million registered Syrians in Turkey, 3.6 million were awarded the TPR, including around 1.5 million children under 18, of which 532,000 are under 5 years of age.
To date, Ankara is yet established a comprehensive human rights framework. Nor does it provide for a specific law addressing (un)accompanied minors. However, under Article 3 of the TPR, (un)accompanied minors are persons with special needs, thus entitled to additional safeguards and priority access to rights and services, such as healthcare, psychosocial support, and rehabilitation. Pursuant to the Turkish Civil Code, unaccompanied minors shall be appointed with a legal guardian, a provision that the Asylum Information Database (AIDA) claims is not respected most of the time.
In this respect, it has been noted that lawyers in Ankara have witnessed difficulties, while in some cases appointed guardians had no qualification for that role. AIDA also noted the persistent coexistence of different procedures applying to the reception and guardianship of unaccompanied minors in Turkey, which gives rise to different standards of treatment. AIDA considers, for instance, that in 2019 the legal assessments of new guardians in Antakya have not been conducted carefully.
Additionally, although Turkey has ratified both the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 2001 Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Exploitation and Abuses, Amnesty International claims that, between 2014 and 2018, Turkey has unlawfully deported Syrians to their home country, violating the principle of non-refoulement. According to such peremptory norm, States are not allowed to remove, deport or expel a person to a country where their life and liberty would be threatened, or where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.
This allegation has been also confirmed by Human Rights Watch and questions have been raised by Ambassador Tomáš Boček, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on migration and refugees of the Council of Europe, on the observance of its international obligations. Amnesty showed that episodes of deportation persisted respectively in July 2019 and May 2020. The victims are mostly men, but there is evidence of children and families deported. Moreover, Syrians at risk of deportation are often left without legal recourse or remedy to prevent their illegal removal, and the UNHCR does not have access to immigration removal centres, as also noted by the European Parliament.
Furthermore, Amnesty International, Save the Children, the European Council for Refugees and Exiles, and the Council of Europe accuse Turkey of unlawfully detaining Syrian asylum seekers. In 2017, there were 21 temporary accommodation centres for temporary protection beneficiaries. Some of these have turned into de facto detention centres for Syrians with insufficient food and dire conditions, especially for children. In practice, unaccompanied minors are kept in removal centres in border cities and a number of children begging or selling small objects in the street are detained in police stations, where they often receive documents cancelling their right to stay.
Children with their families are generally detained in removal centres where they are not granted education. For all these reasons, recently, the European Court of Human Rights found Turkey violating Article 3 ECHR (prohibition of torture), Article 5.4 ECHR (right to remedy), Article 5.1 ECHR (freedom of movement), and Article 13 ECHR (fair trial) in the case of detention pending expulsion of a mother and her 3 children, all Russian nationals, arrested for attempting to cross the Syrian border after entering Turkey.
Finally, another severe breach of children’s rights in Turkey concerns the employment of children under the age of 15, which remains a considerable problem in Turkey. The influx of refugees has led to a quickly growing number of Syrian children working especially in textile factories and agriculture. A 2020 Save the Children report finds that often families only pay smugglers for their children’s trip to Turkey. From there the children need to find jobs to continue their journey to Western Europe.
This particular pattern of emigration exposes them to exploitation, abuses, kidnapping, and detention by smugglers as well as by Turkish authorities. According to Save the Children, ‘out of 254 children interviewed in March 2019, almost thirty per cent worked in one of the transit countries before reaching Belgrade. Almost all of these children (97%) worked in Turkey. Based on the testimonies of those willing to provide this information, the prices of transferring migrants from the country of origin to the desired destination ranged from EUR 6,000 to over EUR 10,000’.
In light of the persistent violation of fundamental freedoms and human rights of Syrians and other non-European persons in need of international protection in general and of (un)accompanied minors in particular, the unfilled lack of a comprehensive human rights framework, and the increasing limitation to basic civil and political rights by the central Turkish government, it comes clear that Turkey cannot be considered anymore, if ever, as a safe third country, where international protection applicants may find guarantees of adequate protection standards.
Similarly, the heads of government and state of the EU Member States that in 2016 signed together with Turkey the so-called EU-Turkey Statement cannot shy away anymore from their international obligations and responsibilities. Neither Turkish President Erdoğan’s autocratic regime, nor the absence of a national human rights framework persuaded the EU to consider Turkey as an unsafe country for refugees and asylum seekers. On this behalf, President Erdoğan repeatedly threatened the EU to open the border with Greece as a way to convince the Union to financially support Turkey’s intervention in Syria. In March 2020, the EU refused to increase its financial aid to Ankara, claiming that EU Member States would not bow to President Erdoğan’s threats. A few days later, the Turkish President opened the gate and thousands of migrants stuck at the Turkish-Greek border to exit the country.
Ankara used migration to put pressure on a weak EU, unwilling to take on its responsibilities towards migratory challenges. The externalisation of actions to curb migration through informal agreements with unsafe non-EU countries, which unlawfully impedes people to leave their soil in exchange for financial and economic benefits, leads to human rights abuses, to breaches of international and EU law, and to extremely serious damages against the victims involved. Many scholars have also pointed out the high risk for the parties involved to violate the principle of non-refoulement, since the removal of asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey as the first country of asylum seems not to fulfil the requirement of sufficient and effective protection.
Such a human rights-breaching deal – that trapped over twelve thousand asylum seekers in the Moria refugee camp, which has a capacity to house two thousand – should end immediately. As long as EU Member States will continue to limit the access to international protection in their national territories and to add external barriers to stem migration flows, the Common European Asylum System cannot be more than empty words on the EU Official Journal.
Chiara Scissa is a PhD student in Law at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies (Pisa, Italy) and Human Rights and Migrant Protection Focal Point at the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth (UNMGCY). Her main research interests in migration and refugee studies include the impact of climate change on human rights and environmental migration. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org