The International Human Rights Clinic’s Trip to Turkey

Hello readers! My name is Sarah, and I am posting as a guest writer on Aaron’s blog to share some of the findings and experiences from the International Human Rights Clinic’s recent trip to Turkey.  Like Aaron, I am a 2L at Boston University School of Law.  I am from Virginia, studied English and jazz piano at Providence College, and spent three years teaching high school English in the Arkansas Delta before finding myself in snowy, wonderful Boston!

The first stop on our trip to Turkey was Istanbul, a city that completely captivated me with its beauty.  The buildings are tall and narrow; laundry waves in the breeze, high above your head.  The skyline is dotted with curving mosques, and the streets are a flood of people, rogue taxis and colorful scarves.  Old men sit at low cafe tables chain-smoking, drinking tea, and playing backgammon.  Street musicians play haunting string melodies in harmonic minor.  The markets add another layer of aromas and sounds; everywhere you turn there are fish, bags of figs and hazelnuts, and pomegranates displayed proudly in the street.

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Fishing Bridge Silhouettes

While in Istanbul, we met with representatives from Support to Life (STL) and the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA), both non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on various aspects of the Syrian refugee situation in Turkey.  STL predominantly provides humanitarian aid to refugees who are living outside of the camps.  Among other things, they have developed a food voucher that allows refugees living in major cities to purchase food at local markets; they also operate community centers to provide psycho-social support and education to displaced Syrians.  HCA is the only real legal actor among the NGOs serving refugees.  HCA stays on top of Turkey’s ever-changing government policies towards Syrians, and shares this information with Syrians to enable them to advocate for their legal rights.  HCA provides direct legal aid to Syrians who are attempting to leave Turkey; currently, this occurs through family reunification, as Syrians who have family members in European countries are able to apply for a visa permitting them to stay with these relatives, if granted.  HCA also advocates for changes in government policies to effectively address the needs of Syrians in Turkey.

Good life on a water taxi

Photo: On the Ferry between the Asian and European parts of Istanbul.

We then traveled by bus through the moonlit countryside to Ankara, the capital city. While there, we met with government officials from AFAD (the government agency responsible for disaster and emergency management in Turkey, which has largely handled the Syrian refugee situation) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and rounded out the visit with a meeting at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  While in Ankara, we learned much about Turkey’s official policies towards the Syrians.  Turkey has an open-border policy, and Syrians may freely cross the border into Turkey.  Syrians are provided with basic needs while in Turkey: the government has built twenty refugee camps, with plans to build more.  These camps provide residents with shelter, clean water, food, healthcare, and even laundry access.  Unfortunately, camps are at capacity, and Turkey is running out of the flat, vacant land spaces that can be connected to the existing water and electric systems necessary to build more camps.  While Syrians are able to register for “Temporary Protection” and legally live outside of the refugee camps, these Syrians only receive healthcare from the government, and must rely on NGOs for aid when their own savings run out.  Housing in the cities is running short and becoming increasingly more expensive.  We heard many corroborating reports that refugees are living in parks in major cities like Istanbul, even as winter is setting in.  Additionally, the Turkish government does not consider Syrians to be refugees. Rather, they call Syrians “guests”; as such, Syrians do not have any significant legal status in Turkey, are unable to work, are ineligible to be resettled to other countries through refugee resettlement programs, and cannot attend Turkish schools. We heard from NGOs that there is a rising resentment against Syrian refugees as the cost of supporting them rises.

We came away from these meetings with much to ponder.  In some senses, Turkey is an absolutely incredible example for countries dealing with a refugee crisis: Turkey has been nothing but welcoming in allowing Syrians open access to cross the border into Turkey and providing refugees with life’s basic needs.  However, it has become clear that the situation in Syria will not end any time soon.  As long as Turkey continues to recognize Syrians only as guests, Syrians are placed in an impossible position.

One of my greatest concerns is that an entire generation of Syrians may fall by the wayside.  The longer the conflict continues, and the longer Syrians go without access to meaningful work and formalized education, the harder it will be for Syria to build itself back up when the conflict ends, as Syria’s problems will be much deeper than a physically broken infrastructure.

We have much work to do to if we are to help the region effectively manage this situation, but our research team is certainly up to the task! Stay tuned to learn more about our progress on the report!

Taksim Square

Photo: Istanbul’s Taskim Square



Karen posted on January 9, 2014 at 11:03 am

I read your article with interest. I am an English as a second language instructor in the U.S. I would like to teach English to Syrian refugee students should there be a need.

Did you become aware of any opportunities while traveling in Turkey?

Thank you,


Sarah Bidinger posted on February 27, 2014 at 10:57 am

Hi Karen,

What a wonderful idea – we were not actively looking for such opportunities while we were in Turkey. However, I am sure that contacting any of the many humanitarian aid agencies in the region working with Syrian refugees would help you connect with any relevant organizations.

Best of luck!

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