A woman receives a bread ration in a refugee camp for Syrians near the town of Akçakale and the Syrian border, Turkey. More than 1,000 refugees in Turkey have been blocked from resettling in the US due to their university qualifications. Photograph: Holly Pickett for the Guardian
More than 1,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey have been blocked from resettlement in the US and other countries because they have university qualifications.
The refugees were approved for resettlement by American officials, before being blocked – sometimes just days before their departure date – by the Turkish authorities.
The news further complicates a much-hyped UN summit on resettlement in New York on Monday, where developed countries are being encouraged to resettle more refugees, 86% of whom live in the developing world.
Countries such as Turkey, which hosts more refugees than any other, are keen for western partners to share the responsibility. But this development suggests that they are also unwilling to let countries like the US cherry-pick the most educated refugees, and leave behind the rest.
“We believe that the most vulnerable need to be helped before others,” a senior Turkish official told the Guardian this week.
Some of those affected have nevertheless questioned whether vulnerability can be determined by the standard of one’s education.
Loreen and Shero, a Syrian Kurdish couple whose home was destroyed in Aleppo, applied for resettlement in the US in April 2014, along with their three children. The process took nearly two years and involved several security checks and interviews with US officials, the UN refugee agency, and the International CatholicMigration Commission (ICMC), a charity that organises part of the US resettlement procedure.
Disheartened and frustrated by the long wait, the family twice prepared to leave for Europe by rubber dinghy instead – before timely phone calls from the UN refugee agency reassured them they had reached the next stage in their application, and restored their faith in the formal process.
In February 2016, the US finally accepted their application, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) bought them plane tickets to Chicago for 31 May. The family sold their furniture, gave up their affordable flat, and moved into a more expensive one for the few weeks they had left.
Then, four days before their departure, Shero went to secure exit permits from the Turkish authorities – and was denied.
At first, no one from the Turkish government, IOM, the UN, or the ICMC could explain the delay. “Your case is not processed yet,” read a message on their online account. “Please try some other time.”
But finally, after a series of phone calls with the UN, an official admitted to them that Turkey had blocked their departure because Loreen had a banking qualification.
For Shero and Loreen, the move has been a disaster. They are now stuck in a flat they can’t afford, while their children are facing a second year out of school.
Despite recent legislative changes, the vast majority of refugees in Turkey – including Shero and Loreen – have no access to legal work, in contravention of the 1951 refugee convention. As a result, both work as manual labourers on the black market for about half the minimum wage. With both out all day, their children have been left to fend for themselves – leading to two alleged abduction attempts on their eldest daughter, Soleen.
“One day she was walking and a van stopped beside her,” said Shero. “Men inside the van said: ‘You are Syrian, you need money, come with us.’ So she ran away. After two days, the kids were playing in the streets, again people came past, walking rather than in a van, and yelled at her: ‘Come with us, we will give you money.’ And she recognised one of them [from the previous attempt].”
Several other families interviewed by the Guardian have been left in a similarly vulnerable position. Heba, a 34-year-old charity worker, was told in July that her application, along with that of her husband and baby daughter, had been canceled because of her degree in English literature from Aleppo University.
“We have no notion of what to do,” Heba said, before outlining how the situation for refugees in Turkey falls short of what is pledged under the 1951 refugee convention. “We are unhappy in Turkey, we have no rights. We can’t leave. My husband has no work permit. My baby was sick, she had a temperature, so we went to the government hospital, but they would not treat her. A while ago I went to hospital in a critical situation, I was very dizzy. They refused to help me or receive me.”
Fatima, a 25-year-old electrical engineering student, was approved for resettlement in March, along with her brother, sister, and parents. They were told they would be sent to Chicago, but before their flight was booked, their application was suddenly canceled because at least one of them had a degree.
Fatima speaks four languages and wants to develop electronics. But like other interviewees, she queried whether their educational attainment made her family any less vulnerable in Turkey.
“In Turkey, we’ve never had a job contract or a work permit,” Fatima said. “You need to work 13 hours a day just to eat. That’s why people prefer to go in the sea rather than living here. We don’t have any rights. We don’t even have the right to decide whether we leave or not. Why do we have to stay here? Why do they have the right to force us to stay here? How can they do this to us?”
Becca Heller, the director and co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center, said: “We work with thousands of refugees who wait years to be approved for resettlement in extremely treacherous circumstances. To yank the promise of safety away at the last minute of the process is inhumane and a gross violation of international law.”
Interviewees said UN officials had privately informed them that at least 5,000 Syrians were facing the same predicament. Turkish, US, UN and ICMC officials would not comment on the figure. The Guardian has met with members of a group of affected refugees who represent more than one thousand people whose resettlement has been blocked. Some of them were bound for Canada or Europe.
Should the situation continue, some of those affected said they may try to reach the west by boat, highlighting how the absence of formal means of resettlement can encourage more irregular means of migration.
“If we can’t leave to the US, we will go by boat to somewhere,” said Fatima. “Definitely we can’t stay here.”