Shifting restlessly in his chair, Amin Gegeo hesitates for a moment before rolling up the cuffs of his jeans. Underneath, a grim patchwork of scars zigzags across his stocky legs – reminders of the country he left behind.
“A gift from religious extremists who bombed our church in 2008,” says the 35-year-old Iraqi Christian, sitting behind the rain-fogged window of a cafe in central Istanbul. “Back then, we believed Iraq couldn’t get any worse. We were wrong.”
Gegeo, a Baghdad native and witness to Iraq’s civil war, fled to Turkey four months ago, terrified by telephoned death threats and the abduction of his aunt by fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The group’s advance across northern Iraq this past summer has sparked a humanitarian crisis that now trickles into Turkey, where more than 75,000 Iraqis have fled since June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates.
Their arrival has garnered little attention in Ankara, which is struggling to care for the one-million-plus Syrians residing within its borders.
Ankara once had a refugee philosophy of, 'Move on to Europe, you can't stay here'. This law is a sign the government is asking, 'What if refugees can't move on any more?'
But the influx has worsened a second humanitarian crisis in the country. Turkey has seen a five-fold jump in non-Syrian refugees since 2011, the fallout of conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere across the region, including Afghanistan and Somalia.
So far this year, more than 79,000 non-Syrians have registered with Turkey’s UNHCR office – nearly double the 44,800 applicants seen in 2013. According to UN data, that number was just 16,000 in 2011.
Many like Gegeo, spend their days in the drafty teahouses of Istanbul’s Kurtulus district, whose streets have harboured Iraq’s displaced since the start of the second Gulf War in 2003.
Following those who fled here more than a decade ago, they plan to make their way though Turkey’s dysfunctional asylum system, enduring years-long wait in a remote Turkish province assigned by the UNHCR. Ultimately, they hope for resettlement in Europe, North America or Australia.
But Turkey’s UN-managed asylum regime is so overwhelmed that new arrivals may have to wait up to a decade before resettlement.
“If you came from Iraq today, your first meeting with the UN – and this is to formally start your asylum process – would currently be 2020,” said Metin Corabatir, the UNHCR’s former Turkey spokesman and founder of the Research Center for Asylum and Migration, an Ankara-based immigration think tank.
Add a three-to-four-year screening process, and “new arrivals technically could remain in Turkey up to 10 years”, Corabatir said.
That new timeline, confirmed to Al Jazeera by Turkish migrant advocacy groups, is “completely unprecedented”, said Oktay Durukan, head of the refugee aid group Helsinki Citizens Assembly. “Only three years ago, asylum seekers could expect to wait between three and four years.”
The UNHCR declined to specifically comment on a timeline for new refugees. It similarly refrains from telling individual asylum seekers how long their wait might be.
“But what’s the point?” asks Latif al-Mashadani, 55, gesturing across the refugee-packed Istanbul cafe. “Everybody knows there’s too many of us and too few spaces.”
The Sunni electrician, whose brother was murdered in sectarian violence in Baghdad last winter, applied for asylum in Istanbul 11 months ago. “Nearly a year later, the UN hasn’t contacted me once.”
His tale earns a nod of affirmation from Gegeo. “Life here has a trace of dignity,” he says, contrasting Istanbul to the overcrowded tent camps of northern Iraq. “But we also live in poverty, and have to pay for it.”
The former construction worker spends his nights on the floor of an unfurnished, four-room apartment, a space he shares with his wife, three-year-old daughter and 22 extended family members. Employment has proven elusive, and an $80 food card distributed monthly by a Catholic charity is the family’s only financial relief.
“Like the Syrians, we are sinking into poverty,” Mashadani adds.
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Legally, Turkey draws a broad distinction between its Syrian and non-Syrian refugees. Ankara does not allow its million-plus Syrian refugees to individually apply for asylum abroad, and the UNHCR handpicks only the neediest for resettlement.
Non-Syrian refugees, meanwhile, cannot seek permanent refuge in Turkey, which bars non-European asylum seekers under a “geographic exception” to the Geneva Refugee Convention.
Refugees are granted temporary protection only while waiting for UN resettlement elsewhere.
That loophole forced the UNHCR to find homes for over 10,200 Turkey-based refugees in 2013, making Turkey the UN’s largest country-specific resettlement programme in the world.
But with over 170,000 asylum seekers now waiting in Turkey, a formidable bottleneck is growing.
The UNHCR will resettle 10,000 more Turkey-based refugees this year, said Selin Unal, the UNHCR’s Turkey spokesperson. “The crisis may warrant a larger number or resettlements, but it improves on the UN’s original quota of 8,000 for 2014,” she said.
Even if that rate of resettlement remains constant, however, new arrivals could wait as long as 17 years in Turkey, according to Ercoban. “Once unimaginable waiting times have quickly become the norm,” she said.
In seeming anticipation of that crisis, Turkey passed a refugee law last year that significantly bolsters the rights of asylum seekers. Under the law, non-Syrian refugees are granted free access to primary medical care, open access to public schools and the right to apply for work permits.
“Ankara once had a refugee philosophy of, ‘Move on to Europe, you can’t stay here,’ Ercoban said. “This law is a sign the government is asking ‘What if refugees can’t move on any more?'”
While refugee fatigue among developed nations adds urgency to that question, Turkey’s longest-waiting refugees already feel abandoned by Ankara and the UN.
Many of the country’s 10,000-plus Afghan asylum seekers have remained in Turkey for eight years while waiting for resettlement in the West. The will to accept them has been low, and in May of 2013, the UN froze the asylum applications of all Afghans in Turkey.
Though the UN recently agreed to unfreeze the asylum requests of unaccompanied minors and other needy Afghans, “it has marooned over 10,000 people”, said Zakira Heknat, an Afghan national and volunteer at the Afghan Refugee Association of Turkey. “These people spent their savings here hoping for something better.”
Their fate reveals an unsavoury truth about resettlement in the West, suggests Ercoban.
“Unfortunately, resettlement is not like waiting in line,” Ercoban said. “Host countries will take some refugees quickly, and will never accept others, no matter how long they wait.”
Back in the cafe, Gegeo wonders how long his family’s own asylum request will take. As Christians, he hopes their application will be fast-tracked by western countries eager to resettle Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi minorities.
But Gegeo felt unease as he glanced across the teahouse. “We are not all Christian in this cafe,” he says. “What will happen to my [non-Christian] friends?”
Two tables away, Mashadani wondered about his own fate.
The electrician felt unnerved by a series of anti-refugee attacks which targeted Turkey’s Syrian refugees earlier this year. Down to his last $4,000, he decided last month to board a migrant-packed ship to Bulgaria, a passage that poses considerable risks.
This week, a refugee vessel on a similar trip capsized near the mouth of Istanbul’s Bosporus waterway, killing 24 migrants.
Mashadani’s boat proved luckier: “I have a place to stay for now,” he said in a recent email from Bulgaria. “I won’t be coming back.”