Unpacking Statelessness in Turkey: Taking Stock of the Laws, Policies, and Practices

Melis Gebeş, Refugee Rights Turkey
/ 6 mins read

Following a successful two-day joint conference by RTT and ENS on statelessness in Istanbul, this blog takes a look at the current challenges faced by stateless migrants seeking protection in Turkey and what lies ahead.

Woman and Child in Istanbul
Photo via Unsplash

Turkey is the world’s largest refugee-hosting country, with over 4 million registered refugees and asylum-seekers. Being a safe destination country for many asylum seekers, Turkey also continues to be a transit route for irregular migratory flows. Refugee Rights Turkey (RRT) is a member of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) based in Turkey. RRT provides legal assistance to asylum seekers in the country and conducts capacity-building and policy and advocacy work. ENS and RRT have recently joined forces to call attention to the statelessness phenomenon in Turkey’s vast migration field within the Stateless Journeys Campaign.

The risk of statelessness among children born to Syrian refugees

Currently, there are no official, publicly available figures to indicate the number of stateless migrants in Turkey. While the absence of any data makes estimating the size and demographic make-up of Turkey’s stateless population difficult, past research has mostly pointed to the risk of statelessness among children born to Syrian refugees in Turkey. Since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, the great majority of Syrians forced to flee their country have found refuge in neighboring countries, primarily in Turkey. Today, Turkey shelters over 3.5 million people who fled Syria and have been granted a temporary protection status established by the Temporary Protection Regulation in 2014. Temporary protection status automatically applies to Syrian nationals but also refugees, including Palestinians and other stateless persons, coming from Syria.

The exact numbers of Syrian newborns in Turkey are hard to determine, but high birth rates among the Syrian refugee community suggest a substantial population that grows day by day. If not all, a considerable number of these children keep facing difficulties in acquiring both Turkish and Syrian nationalities due to legal and bureaucratic obstacles, placing them at serious risk of statelessness. Syria’s gender-discriminatory nationality law denies mothers the possibility to confer their nationality to children born outside Syria. This is the leading risk factor of statelessness for these children, as they are not able to acquire Syrian nationality when their descent from a Syrian father cannot be established. Another reported key risk factor is the failure to officially register their births in Turkey due to a complex variety of reasons such as home births, lack of awareness among the parents, and arbitrary practices of the relevant public authorities.

Although Turkey has not yet signed the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the Turkish Citizenship Law provides several safeguards against statelessness. These include a provision for the prevention of childhood statelessness, setting forth that Turkish nationality is granted to every child born in the country who would otherwise be stateless. Despite the adoption of the jus soli principle by this provision, albeit not absolute, there are still compelling circumstances that hamper its proper implementation. The conditional nature of the provision requires lodging an application together with the submission of certain documents, including a birth certificate. The birth registration issues also manifest themselves here, because to obtain a birth certificate the child’s birth must first be registered. These practical barriers render the legal safeguard ineffective, resulting in many children being unable to acquire Turkish nationality.

Challenges faced by stateless migrants seeking protection

Turkey receives significant migration from some of the countries that historically have large stateless populations such as Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, among others. However, as most stateless people that arrive in Turkey are also refugees, they usually seek protection as refugees and not on the grounds of statelessness. Turkey applies the 1951 Refugee Convention only to refugees originating from European countries, according to the geographical limitation that was established upon accession. Turkey’s national legislation, on the other hand, grants international protection status for asylum seekers who arrive in Turkey from all countries under the Law on Foreigners and International Protection. It is clearly confirmed by the law that stateless refugees can be granted international protection status but due to the lack of data, it is not known whether these status holders’ who are also stateless have been recorded as such by the authorities.

Turkey acceded to the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons. Its Law on Foreigners and International Protection establishes an administrative statelessness determination procedure and provides a protection regime for persons granted stateless status. Hereunder, stateless status holders are guaranteed not to be deported unless they pose a serious threat to public order or public security. The stateless status entitles them to apply for a work permit and receive a travel document (according to certain conditions), as well as the right to legally reside in the country. The duration of their stay as holders of stateless status counts towards the period of 5 years of uninterrupted legal residence that is required to apply for Turkish citizenship, which constitutes a facilitated pathway to their naturalization.

Although there is a relatively sufficient legal framework for the protection of stateless persons that is mainly in line with international standards, its implementation remains problematic in various ways. It is stipulated in the law that the oral statements of applicants for stateless status, who cannot present any documentary evidence to substantiate their claim, may be accepted as evidence. Yet, it has been reported that in practice a high standard of proof is applied, often requiring the submission of documentary evidence to determine statelessness, which poses major challenges for stateless migrants to receive protection. Applicants for stateless status face difficulties in obtaining a certificate of non-nationality from the consular authorities of the countries they have close ties with, sometimes from where they have been forcibly displaced, which hampers their ability to acquire documentary evidence. It is therefore presumed that very few stateless persons actually receive this status.

Encouraging mobilization against statelessness

Having long observed these multifaceted issues, RRT, with the support of the Sigrid Rausing Trust, in collaboration with ENS, has established a series of initiatives to mobilize stakeholders practicing in Turkey's migration field and raise their awareness and capacity to address statelessness. Aiming first to enhance capacity, in the spring of 2022, ENS and RRT held three online seminars on the standards for the protection of stateless persons and the prevention of statelessness in international law. A large and diverse audience consisting of legal practitioners, NGO professionals, independent researchers, and even representatives from public institutions attended the seminars and left with positive feedback.

This was followed by an in-person workshop in Istanbul on 26 November 2022, where key stakeholders were brought together for a day-long consultation and a structured experience exchange concerning the stateless migrant population in Turkey. The significant contributions of the participants greatly enriched the workshop content, enabling the discussion of useful information about the practices in the field. On the following day, RRT and ENS had a bilateral meeting, reflecting on the previous day’s discussions, and in light of them, built a road map for future collaborative actions to strategically address statelessness in Turkey. More is on the way.

Related topics