Safeguarding Fundamental Rights of Asylum-Seeking and Migrant Children in Turkey

By: Tenzile Kocak, THO Non-Resident Fellow

Children who are forced to leave their home countries due to war, violence, persecution, destitution or other reasons, whether they are on the move with a parent or unaccompanied, constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in Europe today[1]. They often suffer serious and persistent human rights violations, such as detentions usually in inadequate conditions, ill-treatment, trafficking, lack of access to education and basic health care, and inadequate access to justice. Their situation is even more aggravated when they are separated from their parents or are on the move unaccompanied.

When transit countries and countries of destination take measures to manage the flow of migration, they need to pay particular attention to fundamental rights and special needs of children and consider their best interest. The measures countries take to address the needs of migrant children should be based on the rights of these vulnerable group first and foremost as children[2]. Unfortunately, the reality is far from ideal for many children on the move in Europe today with many being deprived of their liberty, unable to access to quality education and basic health care. While Turkey’s efforts for the protection of migrants and asylum seekers deserve praise, there is still a lot to be done to address the special needs of children on the move. As the largest donor of humanitarian aid, it is crucial for the US to step up its efforts in this regard and increase its cooperation with Turkey.

First of all, migrant and asylum-seeking children should not be placed in detention in host countries on the sole ground of their migration status. Increasing recourse to detention of migrant children instead of child welfare protection in various European countries during Syrian crisis has created concern among regional and international human rights bodies. Being placed in detention can be a traumatic experience and may have negative effects on physical and mental well-being of children. It could also amount to a breach of private life, the prohibition of ill-treatment and discrimination. States are urged by the Council of Europe to refrain from detaining migrant children and consider alternatives before resorting to such extreme measures. Detention of children on the sole ground of their migration status will not only lead to a breach of their fundamental rights, but also most of the time it will prevent them from having access to health care, education, social and other support that they may need as well as from preparing for their future whether in the host country or anywhere else[3].

Migrant and asylum-seeking children of school age who are not attending an education institution are particularly at risk of discrimination, social exclusion, early marriages and child labour. It is crucial for these children to have access to quality education, including teaching of local language when necessary, without fear of being detained or deported while at school. As of August 2018, Turkey hosts 1.7 million asylum-seeking and migrant children out of nearly 4 million asylum seekers and migrants in the country, primarily Syrians as well as nationals from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran[4]. Turkey has mobilised considerable efforts to safeguard fundamental rights and well-being of migrant children in the country. Since 2016, Turkey has been implementing its policy to integrate migrant children of school age in public school system in order to improve their access to education as well as supporting their access to higher education through various measures such as tuition fees waivers. While as of the same date 610, 278 of them are enrolled in formal education in Turkey, over 350,000 are still out of school. The main obstacles for their access to education are language barriers and economic hardship. While some of them cannot afford to pay for school expenses, others have to earn a living for their families. In order to overcome the challenge of language barrier, it is planned to provide intensive language courses to enable them to better adapt to the Turkish education system. More attention should be paid to those children who are out on the streets trying to earn a living when they should be at school. Having a good command of local language as well as a quality education in a peaceful environment will not only help them for their long-term integration, but it will also help them realize their full-potential later in their adult years.

It is also very important for children on the move to have access to basic health care, particularly considering the fact that some of them may need psychological support due to difficult experiences that they might have gone through in their home countries or while on the move. Syrians under temporary protection in Turkey are provided access to the same public health care as citizens. While Syrians residing in temporary accommodation centers have access to free on-site health services, non-registered Syrians have access to basic public health care free-of-charge. It is vital for migrant and asylum-seeking children to have access to health care not only for their physical well-being, but also for their mental well-being.

As the host to the biggest number of migrants and asylum-seekers in the world today, Turkey has been among the most generous providers of humanitarian aid. While Turkey’s efforts to safeguard fundamental rights of migrant and asylum-seeking children in the country are commendable, there remains a lot to be done to ensure well-being of this vulnerable group. While extensive work is underway to ensure their access to education through integrating them into public education system, offering intensive language courses and building new schools, it is worrying that a significant number of them still face obstacles preventing them from having a quality education, which will be crucial for their long-term integration. Also, more attention should be paid to their mental well-being to help them overcome the effects of difficult experiences and become healthy and happy adults despite their disadvantaged backgrounds.

International efforts are underway to figure out how to bring peace to Syria, but unfortunately this particular issue of better safeguarding fundamental rights of Syrian migrant children on the move does not seem to be very high on the current agenda in the US- Turkey relations. While working towards achieving peace and helping provide necessary conditions for Syrians to be able to return home, it is imperative to take positive measures in full compliance with international human rights obligations in this process. It is in the mutual interest of both the US and Turkey to increase their cooperation for the protection of migrant children in Turkey. It is particularly crucial for the US to step up its efforts by taking in more refugees, providing expertise, and technical or financial support as needed to the relevant authorities and organizations in Turkey. It will be not only in compliance with their international legal commitments, but it will also be an investment in Syria’s future when it does finally find peace hopefully sooner rather than later.


[1]Council of Europe Strategy for the Rights of the Child (2016–2021)

[2]Council of Europe Action Plan on Protecting Refugee and Migrant Children in Europe

[3]Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Positions on the Rights of Minor Migrants in an Irregular Situation

[4]UNICEF Turkey 2018 Humanitarian Situation Report