(Brussels) – Many child asylum seekers in Turkey are not going to school because of arbitrary policies for asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. The Turkish interior ministry should revise the policies for non-Syrian asylum seekers that are preventing these vulnerable children from getting an education, despite their right to it under Turkish and international law.
“Turkish law guarantees all children the right to education, but for many child asylum seekers this is an empty promise,” said Simon Rau, Mercator fellow on children’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “There are feasible steps that Turkey should take to get all children, including asylum seekers, into school.”
In March 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed the families of 68 Afghan and Iranian children ages 5 to 17, in Denizli, Trabzon, and Gümüşhane, which are among places asylum seekers are assigned, and in Istanbul, which is not. Thousands of Afghans and others have nonetheless moved to Istanbul in search of work, and as a result do not have legal status and are at risk of arrest.
Turkey hosts more refugees and asylum seekers than any other country in the world, including 2.8 million Syrians and about 290,000 people from other countries, mostly Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. In Turkey, asylum seekers from countries other than Syria are required to live in assigned cities, and are restricted from moving elsewhere even if there are few job opportunities and limited aid where they are assigned. Asylum seekers who stay in their assigned city may face poverty-related barriers to education, with parents unable to meet associated costs or feeling they have little choice but to send their children to work rather than school. Those who move in search of work lose their legal status, without which they cannot enroll their children in school.
There are 42,221 school-aged refugees and asylum-seekers from countries other than Syria in Turkey, according to government statistics, but there is no reliable data on how many of them are enrolled in schools. With donor support, the Turkish government has pledged to enroll all Syrian refugee children by the end of the current school year in June 2017, but no similar promises have been made for other child asylum seekers. School enrollment increased by 50 percent for Syrian children in 2016 over the previous school year.
Turkish asylum law and practice differentiate between European, Syrian, and non-Syrian asylum seekers. Non-Syrians must obtain and maintain legal status by registering every two weeks in their assigned city, cannot change their city on the basis that there is no available work or humanitarian support there, and must obtain permits even to travel temporarily.
Seven children Human Rights Watch interviewed, six of them in Istanbul, could not go to school because they lack legal status in Turkey. Two said they knew a 17-year-old undocumented Afghan boy who was arrested in Istanbul and deported in January.
Sharukh, 18, whose full name is not being used for his protection, as with others interviewed, is from Afghanistan, and has lived for five months in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district. His family is not registered as asylum seekers, and none of his five siblings, ages 6 to 14, have been able to enroll in school because they do not have valid documents, he said. “I don’t know how it will ever be possible for them to go to school,” Sharukh said.
Turkey’s Ministry of National Education has instructed schools to allow children to attend classes as guests if they are in the process of obtaining status as asylum seekers. But that doesn’t apply to children without status in cities like Istanbul, where non-Syrians are not permitted to reside.
But even in other cities, some child asylum seekers were not aware that they could enroll or school staff had not told them of this option. And guest students who do not yet have official identity cards do not get school reports that certify they have finished the grade at the end of the school year. Ten children interviewed were in school but had missed four months to a full year of education because they were waiting to obtain legal status, or had been told by school directors when they finally received official identification that they could not enroll so late in the year and would have to wait until the next year.
Some families described arbitrary decisions by school directors or local education ministry officials that kept children out of school. Three Afghan students dropped out after their school director arbitrarily refused to allow them to take a secondary school entrance exam, insisting that they had to enroll in a vocational school.
Poverty also keeps some children out of school by driving them into child labor. Nineteen of the children interviewed, 10 of them in Istanbul, were working or were looking for work. Turkey allows asylum seekers to apply for a work permit – with the support of a sponsoring employer in the city where the asylum seeker is assigned – six months after their initial asylum application. But official requirements are such that in practice there is very little opportunity for asylum seekers to obtain work in the formal job market. For example, the employer must employ at least five Turkish nationals for every foreigner. Staff at Turkish groups that support refugees and asylum seekers said that potential sponsors are reluctant to regularize informal workers because of requirements to pay the minimum wage and social security contributions.
None of the asylum seekers interviewed who had been in Turkey for more than six months had a work permit, because they could not find an employer to sponsor them. A social worker who has worked for two-and-a-half years to support refugees in Istanbul said she had never heard of any non-Syrians obtaining a work permit. The head of a charitable association that supports Afghans living in Trabzon, a city on the Black Sea, said that only about 25 out of 4,200 Afghans in Trabzon have work permits, and that police repeatedly arrest Afghans for working without a permit and threaten to deport them.
The obstacles that parents face to work legally make it difficult to afford to send their children to school. Public school tuition is free, but in three cases, families of children interviewed said they could not afford school-related costs like transportation, stationery, uniforms, and supplies.
Masumah, an 18-year-old from Afghanistan who lives in Denizli, came to Turkey three years ago. She was able to attend secondary school for one year because a Turkish private donor had paid her monthly school transportation fees of 150 Turkish Lira (about US$42), although “at noon I could not afford to buy anything to eat.” She had to drop out two years ago when her benefactor stopped providing support. Masumah’s father, Sarvar, earns 10 to 15 lira ($2.70 to $4.10) a day collecting recyclable materials from trash. The daily minimum wage in Turkey is 59 lira ($16). “We went hungry for three nights, a few nights ago,” Sarvar said. “We did not even have enough money to buy bread.”
Refugee families and children described a lack of Turkish language support. Turkey operates civic centers that provide language instruction for all ages, but asylum seekers must present proof of their lawful status to enroll, and several asylum seekers said they found the classes inadequate and dropped out. Extra Turkish language classes were not available in public schools for any of the children interviewed.
Turkey should ensure that asylum seekers are not assigned to cities without job opportunities or available aid, should provide information about the support available, and should allow asylum seekers to change satellite cities based on financial need. While Turkey has a legitimate interest in managing the residency of asylum seekers in its territory, the Education Ministry should allow children to enroll in schools regardless of their legal status, and enforce its policies by providing a way for families to seek redress for children wrongly excluded, including sanctions for officials who issue arbitrary decisions.
The government should make work permits more accessible by ending the requirement for sponsorship. International donors should ensure that aid to allow children to attend school is available, based on need. Arbitrary barriers for children to take secondary school qualification examinations, such as possessing a passport, should be removed.
“Education gives children and families hope, creates skills and wealth, and improves children’s health, so the benefits for children are matched by the benefits for Turkey,” Rau said. “The choice is between a better future or a gravely uncertain one.”
Asylum, Education for Non-Syrians in Turkey
Turkish law mandates 12 years of free and compulsory education for all children. The Turkish Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) specifies that child asylum seekers shall have access to both primary and secondary education. But the law also establishes four categories for refugee status. Applicants from European countries are eligible for formal refugee status, Syrians may apply for temporary protection, and other nationalities, including Afghans and Iranians, may apply for “conditional refugee” or “subsidiary protection” status, which provide rights to education, health services, and work if certain requirements are met.
To obtain legal status, non-Syrians must first travel to Ankara to register as asylum seekers. The Interior Ministry’s Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) then assigns them to one of the 62 so-called “satellite cities” across the country. The ministry may “close” satellite cities to new asylum seekers. Turkey’s three largest cities – Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara – are not satellite cities, and as a rule, non-Syrian asylum seekers cannot lawfully live there.
Syrians are not required to live in satellite cities, but they face different obstacles to education, including a backlog in the processing of requests for identification documents required to enroll in public schools. All of the Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers interviewed who are attending public schools are enrolled alongside Turkish students, whereas many Syrian students attend “second shift” classes in the afternoon and evening in which there are no Turkish children.
Turkey has allowed Syrian refugees to establish “temporary education centers” for Syrian children, which teach an Arabic curriculum accredited by the Education Ministry, but is phasing out these schools and has stated that Syrian children must be enrolled in Turkish schools by the end of the 2017-2018 school year.
Non-Syrian asylum seekers must travel to their assigned city and submit proof of an address there and their asylum application to the provincial branch of the migration agency. None of the families who spoke to Human Rights Watch had received any support from either UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, or the Turkish authorities for transportation costs, or to find accommodation, which often requires a deposit to a landlord.
A social worker who supports refugees in Istanbul said the system was especially hard for poor families with children, as “they have to start a life from zero without support.” Afghan asylum seekers said they received no information in Ankara about any services that might be available in their assigned city, and several families said they slept in public parks for days after they arrived.
Ultimately, the migration agency provides asylum seekers who meet their criteria with an identification card and number. This document, valid for renewable one-year periods, is proof of legal stay in Turkey and is required to enroll in school and get other services – although the ministry instructs public schools to allow children in the process of applying as asylum seekers to attend as guests. Children can be enrolled as “guest students” without this identification card, but do not receive school reports confirming that they passed the academic grade.
Asylum seekers must obtain a permit to travel outside their satellite city, and must check in with the migration agency every two weeks. If they fail to do so three consecutive times, their residency is invalidated and their asylum application is considered withdrawn. They may only change their satellite city under narrow circumstances, such as if they require regular medical treatment that is not available in their city.
None of the asylum seekers interviewed in Istanbul had valid residency permits and all risked being detained. They said they were afraid to go outdoors after police detained between 150 to 200 undocumented Afghans, including an unaccompanied 17-year-old boy, during sweeps in Zeytinburnu in January and February.
Local Officials Impose Arbitrary Barriers
Turkish asylum law provides for special support to unaccompanied children and refers to the best interests of the child, but arbitrary decisions by some local officials have instead barred children from education. E., 17, from Afghanistan, said he had been temporarily separated from his family in Iran when they fled to Turkey five months ago. He reached Turkey and registered as an asylum seeker in Ankara, asking to be assigned to Trabzon, where he has other relatives. But he was assigned to another satellite city. His immediate family arrived in Turkey later and were assigned to Trabzon. He informed the local migration agency office but was told that he could not be reassigned, he said. E. went to Trabzon but cannot enroll in school because he lacks legal status.
Some local Education Ministry officials have arbitrarily imposed hurdles that kept asylum-seeking children out-of-school, including not allowing them to enroll with guest status.
Masumah from Afghanistan tried to enroll her children, Arzu and Asif, in school shortly after they came to Trabzon in late 2015. The school initially accepted the children, but after a week, a school official said they could not continue studying without identification cards. When they received their cards several weeks later, the school told her that they had missed too much of the school year. She was unable to enroll them until the following year.
Romina, 16, from Iran, tried to enroll in secondary school when her family came to Denizli two-and-a-half years ago. But officials from the Education Ministry’s local branch told her that as a refugee she could only attend school for one day a week: “I was really embarrassed – I wanted to go to school but they did not allow it,” Romina said, in fluent English. She was “finding English and math lessons for myself, online,” to continue learning.
In another case, the head of an Afghan association in Trabzon told Human Rights Watch that he complained without effect to the Education Ministry after the director of the Yüzüncü Yil public school in Trabzon arbitrarily barred eight Afghan students from taking an admissions exam for high school at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. As a result, three of the students dropped out of school, and the other five enrolled in religious or vocational high schools.
Secondary schools in Trabzon allow Afghan students who have not graduated from a Turkish primary school to take placement exams, but require the children to present a passport, which many Afghan children do not have.
Impact of Poverty on Access to Education
Poverty is a key obstacle to education for child asylum seekers, and can be exacerbated if they are assigned to a satellite city where their parents have little chance to find work.
Alia, 44, from Afghanistan, said that her sons Amir Khan, 17, Umid, 15, and Farid, 13, do not go to school because they work to support the family, including four other children. Alia lives in Trabzon, but Umid and Farid work serving tea in Bayburt, a city 140 kilometers away. They work nine hours a day, five days a week, and earn 25 lira (US$6.90) a day. In Bayburt, they sleep at their workplace or at friends’ apartments, and come home once a week.
Osman, a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan who is living in Istanbul with his family, told Human Rights Watch that he and his brother Omar, 15, work in a textile workshop 11 hours a day, 5 days a week. Without their combined monthly income of 1,900 Turkish lira (US$518), their family could not afford rent. They had to stop going to school in Kunduz, Afghanistan, more than two years ago because of fighting between the Taliban and security forces close to their school. Shortly thereafter, their family fled to Turkey. None of their Afghan friends of their age are going to school. “Who wouldn’t want to go to school, if they can afford it,” Osman said.
Some child asylum seekers do hazardous work. In Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district, Human Rights Watch spoke to A., who said he was “13 or 14 years old” and works 12 hours a day, 6 days a week at a junk yard where he collects scrap material. He earns about 600 lira (US$163) a month, but has skin problems that he thinks are caused by substances he handles. Turkey provides non-Syrian asylum seekers who obtain residency in their assigned city access to public hospitals, but like other Afghans in Istanbul, A. is undocumented. Several doctors refused to treat him because he does not have papers and could not pay, he said. A. has never been to school, and came to Turkey on his own from Jalalabad. He would like to return home to his family, he said, but cannot afford to.
Mustafa, 54, and his 16-year-old son live in Denizli, where they were assigned after they fled to Turkey from Iran in 2012. Mustafa’s medical documents show he has diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and is unable to work. He receives health care at public hospitals in Denizli, but said he skips blood sugar tests because of the cost, to afford stationery, a uniform, and other school-related expenses for his 16-year-old son. “My plight will in no way interfere with the education of my son,” Mustafa said.
Few if any undocumented child asylum seekers who are injured on the job can afford private health care. Abdul Kahar, a Turkish citizen of Afghan origin, said that in early 2016, he encountered a 15-year-old Afghan boy in Istanbul “who was crying in the street who had hurt his back loading wood onto a truck.” Abdul Kahar took the boy to a hospital, but staff refused to admit him because he was undocumented. “I took him to a second hospital and paid for him. His parents sold a cow so they could buy him a plane ticket to go back home” to Afghanistan.
Humanitarian aid could go some way to alleviate the poverty which keeps many child asylum seekers out of school. But aid is inconsistent and limited.
Some asylum seekers in Turkey receive support from public Social Service Centers (Sosyal Hizmet Merkezleri) or Social Support and Solidarity Foundations (Sosyal Yardımlaşma ve Dayanışma Vakıflar), differing from province to province. Peyman, from Afghanistan, said that the only aid provided to Afghan families in Gümüşhane is distributions of coal. Mustafa, an Iranian refugee in Denizli, said he receives support of 150 Turkish Lira (about US$35) every three months.
UNHCR provides monthly support payments to refugees who have successfully undergone an interview that assesses whether they have a right to international protection, but as of mid-March, these payments had been interrupted for all the recognized Afghan and Iranian refugees whom Human Rights Watch interviewed, after the processing of the payments was moved from Garanti Bank to the Turkish post office, PTT, in January.
Sarvar, an Afghan man in Denizli, said his family of five had received 225 lira (US$61) per month until December 2016. When he went to collect the January 2017 payment, he was referred to the PTT, where staff told him that he had to show a text message confirming his eligibility. He had not received one. Nisrullahin, 52, from Afghanistan, who lives with his wife and seven children in Gümüşhane, said that he used to receive 290 lira ($79) per month, but the payments had stopped beginning in January and he did not know why.
In January, a €348 (US$371) million European Union-sponsored humanitarian assistance program in Turkey began providing monthly cash allowances to vulnerable asylum seekers from Syria and also other countries. The program aims to support 1 million people in 2017. None of the Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers interviewed in March was receiving assistance under the program.
Lack of Language Support and Non-Formal Education
Refugee families and children described a lack of Turkish language support, or the poor quality of such support, as a barrier to education. Asylum seekers who have legal status can enroll in free Turkish classes at public education centers (halk eğitim merkezi). A number of children and their parents attended classes held on weekends at the centers, but had dropped out without being able to achieve an adequate level of conversational Turkish or functional literacy.
Gulsun, 32, from Afghanistan, said that the Turkish class at the center in Trabzon included adults and children and that lessons were repeated whenever a new student was added to the class, and that there was no instruction tailored to different levels of proficiency. She stopped attending classes after six months, and still cannot support her sons, Amir, 6, and Mohammed, 10, with their Turkish homework or adequately communicate with their teachers. Two child asylum seekers in Denizli said that they were able to continue to secondary school, but were placed in vocational rather than academic tracks due to their lack of Turkish proficiency.
None of the families Human Rights Watch interviewed had children in non-formal education programs. Unlike Syrian refugees, Turkey has not allowed Afghans or Iranians to establish accredited informal schools, but in some cases, accredited non-formal classes may be the only way to provide education.
Ahmad Hossein, 47, from Afghanistan, has lived with his family in Gümüşhane for a year and a half. He said that his daughter Nasifa, 14, had never gone to school. “She can’t start in grade one,” he said, but also could not be integrated into the grade level that corresponds to her age.