HasNa’s 2021 Peacebuilder of the Year

Ankara, Turkey

Our main motivation is the resilience of refugees; their determination to survive

and their hopeful outlook for the future. Their strength is our strength.

For the past five years HasNa has celebrated the International Day of Peace on September 21st by showcasing exceptional peacebuilders. Committed to bridging divides, strengthening their communities, and promoting visions of a common future, HasNa’s Peacebuilders are integral parts of the societies they work to improve. This year it is HasNa’s pleasure to recognize the Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (İltica ve Göç Araştırmaları Merkezi – IGAM) for its outstanding work in the field of migration and refugee advocacy, policy development, and educational, vocational, and social cohesion programming.

As we continue our work at HasNa to build and foster the conditions for positive peace, it is our honor to recognize IGAM as an organization that has worked tirelessly to put theory into practice and make a concrete impact in the lives of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. IGAM was selected from a diverse group of civil society organizations, journalists, non-profits, and think tanks. The scope, impact, and productivity of the organization made it a stand-out candidate, as well as its demonstrated history of collaboration within Turkey and the international community. Metin Çorabatır, Malala Education Champion and President of IGAM, spoke with HasNa this week about the importance of refugee response initiatives in Turkey, and how IGAM has worked with local governments, civil society organizations, and international nongovernmental agencies in serving refugee communities.

Logo of the The Research Centre on Asylum and Migration

Interview with IGAM President Metin Çorabatır

HasNa: Why was IGAM established? What needs did it aim to fulfill and has this changed over time?

Metin Çorabatır: IGAM was established in June 2013 to fill a gap in the Turkish asylum system. At that time, civil society organizations (CSOs) in Turkey were multiplying, and diversifying the scope of their activities in response to the Syrian refugee influx. IGAM’s founding members noticed the lack of an independent policy institute that functioned as a platform for policy debate, research, policy papers, and legal and political consultation on refugee issues. The few academics that were active in the field were focusing on theoretical discussions and their areas of expertise lay in general migration studies. Existing CSOs, on the other hand, were either rights-based advocacy groups or relief organizations. Within this context, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was the main actor fostering thought on asylum and producing solutions. It provided strong support to the Turkish government in improving its refugee policies, and helped to develop CSOs by offering them food for thought. However, the UNHCR began to increasingly focus on cooperation with the government in the drafting of Turkey’s new asylum law, a process that was marked by compromise and deviation from certain international standards. At this time, we as the founders of IGAM identified a gap in the absence of an independent institute that would promote thought on asylum and develop political and legal input on the topic. IGAM’s main objective was, and still is, to improve asylum law and practice both in Turkey and across the world. This objective, the reason why IGAM was established, is ambitious and it will continue to be our end goal as long as the refugee problem exists. This aim may never be achieved, it will require constant and persistent effort as will international human rights law and practice.

Although IGAM continues to work to improve refugee law and practice, since 2013 our focus also expanded to more operational projects including running refugee centers, implementing social inclusion and education projects, and executing vocational training and wholistic integration programs. Since 2018, IGAM hosts one of Turkey’s three Malala Education Champions. We have stepped up our efforts in combating and mitigating the rise of hate speech and xenophobia. Our activities in this area led the UN Economic and Social Council, NGO subcommittee to recognize IGAM as one of the “Best Practices in Fighting Xenophobia and Discrimination Against Refugees and Immigrants” in 2018. In this way, IGAM functions today as both as a research, policy development, and legal advocacy group on the one hand, and as an operational CSO on the other.

HasNa: What are the most significant challenges facing refugees in Turkey today? And what is being done to overcome them?

Metin Çorabatır: As in many countries, refugees face plenty of challenges in Turkey. It hosts the largest refugee population in the world (at more than four million), and for 10 years the international community has failed to adequately live up to its burden-sharing responsibility. This has serious economic, social, and political consequences. In the absence of voluntary repatriation in the foreseeable future and with limited resettlement options, the only remaining durable solution is local integration. However, Turkey still maintains a geographical limitation to 1951 Refugee Convention that allows refugee status only to those who are nationals of a European country. So, 99 percent of refugees in Turkey, including those from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, and many other non-European countries, don’t benefit from the refugee status as defined under international law. Within this framework, IGAM believes that the main challenge is political, and we need to convince the political elite to lift the geographical limitation and apply the 1951 Refugee Convention in full.

HasNa: In Turkey, it seems as though anti-refugee rhetoric is on the rise. Do you agree, and if so, what is IGAM doing to combat anti-refugee sentiment among the public and within the media and political arena?

Metin Çorabatır: Unfortunately, it is true that anti-refugee rhetoric is on the rise in Turkey. We believe that this is more related with political factors than socio-economic ones. As Turkey heads for a crucial general election in 2023 (albeit possibly earlier), the opposition sees this issue as the Achilles’ heel of the current government. The opposition believe the more they talk about sending refugees back to their countries of origin, the more votes they will win. In other words, this trend is largely due to elite rhetoric. They use social media very effectively, disseminating a lot of disinformation, faulty interpretations of international refugee law, and distorted facts about refugees. IGAM tries to combat these anti-refugee sentiments through both traditional and social media. IGAM frequently appears on and is featured in both international and local media. We participate in round table discussions, provide live interviews, offer contextual information, write op-eds, etc. We also initiated IGAMTV, a YouTube channel that now has 88,773 views and 1,820 subscribers. On the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees we broadcast a 16-part analysis of this document, and on World Refugee Day in 2021, Guy Goodwin-Gill, a renown expert on international refugee law, took part in an exclusive conference on IGAMTV.

IGAM also encourages cooperation between other rights-based NGOs and the UNHCR, as we all share a common cause in refugee protection. We actively engage in political debates on asylum issues, and voice opposition to xenophobic rhetoric. Still, even the most anti-refugee parties, including the main opposition party, invite us for consultations. We are also critical of government policies, especially the recent demolition of low-income tenements that provide shelter to poverty stricken refugees in Ankara. Over time, we have been happy to see that some of our arguments appear to have taken root as more and more people begin to discuss the principle of non-refoulement, the geographical limitation, and notions of integration. We aim to teach the public what it means to be a refugee, and how it is different from other forms of migration. One project that we are currently working on is the creation of a visual asylum museum that will explore all significant forced migration movements across the globe since the eighteenth century and the corresponding national and international legal, institutional, and policy responses. Exhibits would be accessible in both Turkish and English.

HasNa: Do you see any room for optimism when it comes to IGAM’s activities and the situation for displaced peoples in Turkey? What motivates your organization?

Metin Çorabatır: We are always optimistic. Our main motivation is the resilience of refugees; their determination to survive and their hopeful outlook for the future. They try their best to send their kids to schools believing that education is the main avenue for a better future. Their strength is our strength. Also, we are motivated by our experience in observing that most anti-refugee attitudes are based on false information or a lack of information. We are confident that if one talks in an informative and authoritative way, there is always a room to convince others. Dialogue is the cure; and we aim to create more dialogue.

HasNa: What can individuals and organizations abroad, particularly those in the United States such as HasNa, do to aid your work, spread your message, and further your mission?

Metin Çorabatır: We always learn from the experiences of others. Talking to organizations such as HasNa always inspires us and enhances our vision. Sometimes we focus too heavily on domestic issues and lose sight of what is happening in other countries. We also need organizations in the United States to be the voices of refugees in Turkey, and to spur interest within the US. Turkish CSOs need more cooperation with their US counterparts to appeal to more funds and to implement joint projects. Aside from public funding, we also believe that charity and philanthropic organizations in the US are less aware of the plight of refugees in Turkey.