Registration insights from Turkey’s Temporary Protection experience
Forum on the EU Temporary Protection Responses to the Ukraine War
Contribution by Yigit Kader, Independent Consultant
1 July 2022
As a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine, more than a quarter of Ukraine’s population has been displaced. Based on data from multiple sources, UNHCR estimates that as of 21 June 2022 more than 5.2 million people have fled Ukraine to find protection.
This constitutes the fastest growing refugee influx since the Second World War. In just a month, millions of refugees crossed into countries bordering Ukraine, mainly to Poland, Romania, Hungary and Moldova. In the following two months, a large number of these refugees have moved onwards to other countries, specifically EU Member States (EU MS) where they have family members or other connections.
What these numbers show is not only the large scale of the humanitarian tragedy but also the rapidly growing resource and capacity needs for a proper protection response. To facilitate this response and institute a union-wide coordination mechanism, on 4 March 2022 the EU officially recognised the situation as a mass influx and declared temporary protection by activating Council Directive 2001/55/EC (the Temporary Protection Directive).
The Temporary Protection (TP) Directive is not a new instrument as it was developed in the late 1990s following refugee movements from the Balkans, but it has never been used up until now. However, it may be argued that it was, in a sense, tested by Turkey as the country utilised a temporary protection instrument since 2014 that is inspired by the EU’s TP Directive, in its response to the mass influx from Syria.
The specifications of the temporary protection instrument and the general international protection framework in Turkey have similarities but also significant differences when compared to those of the EU. The processes that led to the crises in Ukraine and Syria, the nature of the conflicts and the profile of refugees in the two situations are also considerably different.
A basic example in this regard is the relatively high number of Syrians who did not hold any national identification documentation even before fleeing to Turkey. Despite these differences, it is still extremely important to properly analyse the Turkish experience to prevent a repeat of the most significant challenges faced when responding to a mass-influx situation.
This contribution specifically focuses on one part of this response, namely the procedural step of registration, due to its high relevancy in the immediate term and its far-reaching impact on the later stages of the protection response. The contribution will first present information on registration and the refugee situation in Turkey as a brief background. Then it will move on to a discussion of the problems faced by Turkey related to the registration of Syrian refugees, the costly solutions to these problems, and finally the lessons that can be drawn from this experience.
Registration’s function and role in the international protection context
Refugee registration may seem like a straightforward initial step of the protection response. It does, however, contain various unique challenges, especially in an emergency context. Moreover, shortcomings in the registration procedure led to substantial barriers to the effective provision of protection and assistance. Registration, as defined by UNHCR, is ‘the recording, verifying, and updating of information on persons of concern with the aim of protecting and documenting them and of implementing durable solutions.’
Accurate registration data is a must for the identification of protection needs and any effective planning on addressing them. In other words, information obtained, and documentation provided through registration constitute the necessary basis for ensuring the legal protection of refugees, understanding the composition and specific needs of the refugee population, planning and the delivery of assistance, the referral of vulnerable refugees to available services, and, especially in cases of unaccompanied minors, the tracking of family members.
A brief chronological look at Turkey’s temporary protection experience
The first group of refugees, consisting of 252 people fleeing the conflict in Syria arrived in Turkey in 2011. By the end of 2012 the number of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey reached 14 237 and by the end of 2013 it had exceeded 220 000. In 2014, Turkey was hosting more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees and became the largest refugee hosting country in the world. The steady increase in the number of Syrian refugees continued until 2017 when it reached 3.4 million. Today this number is around 3.7 million and the vast majority of Syrians in Turkey have been covered under the temporary protection regime since October 2014. The total number of asylum seekers and refugees (Syrian and non-Syrian) is estimated to be around 4 million.
While these figures show that Turkey has been dealing with an unprecedented refugee crisis, they also show that the Syrian civil war allowed a significantly more forgiving time window to prepare for the reception of refugees compared to the war in Ukraine.
Turkey has put this window of time to good use in terms of the preparation of the physical facilities used to accommodate the initial groups of displaced Syrians and their reception conditions. However, Turkey’s performance in terms of registration has not been as positive. It has taken many years for Turkey to establish a centralised database with accurate registration information, including the necessary vulnerability data for effective planning and the provision of protection services. This was mainly due to the lack of a uniform approach up until late 2016.
Turkey’s central migration authority is the Presidency of Migration Management (PMM) (formerly known as the Turkish DGMM) which is responsible for the conduct and coordination of all processes and procedures related to refugees (as well as most other foreigners) in Turkey. Before the establishment of the PMM asylum procedures fell under the responsibility of the Foreigners’ Branch of the Turkish National Police (TNP). UNHCR also conducted registration and refugee status determination procedures in Turkey until September 2018. Today, all registration procedures are undertaken by PMM through its extensive network of field branches in 81 Turkish cities and more than 35 districts.
However, PMM is a relatively young institution which was established in 2013 through a comprehensive legal and institutional reform of the migration system in Turkey. It became officially functional in 2014 and only fully operational with its field branches in mid-2015. Even then, temporary assignment of TNP staff in PMM branches continued for several years to compensate for a staff shortage.
Following the start of the mass-influx from Syria, another Turkish institution, namely the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), also became involved in the refugee response to establish and manage the temporary camps where a proportion of the Syrian refugees were accommodated and to coordinate the services for Syrian refugees who resided outside the camps.
Until the completion of the PMM’s establishment process (including the recruitment and training of staff, the development of a centralised case management system and the creation of the physical capacity necessary to tackle all asylum procedures), the registration of Syrian refugees was undertaken by both the TNP and AFAD, with operational support from agencies such as the Turkish Red Crescent. There was no central coordinating authority.
While a multi-institutional approach is only natural in responding to a mass-influx situation, the utilisation of different systems and databases which were not integrated, in some cases not even fully digitised, and the lack of a uniform template for the data to be registered inevitably led to crucial shortcomings. These shortcomings ranged from large number of duplicate registrations to inconsistent datasets, inaccurate information (especially in relation to places of residence and vulnerabilities) and many unregistered refugees. AFAD’s official estimate in 2014 was that at least 31 % of Syrian refugees in Turkey were unregistered.
These issues could not be solved even by the establishment of the PMM and its central case management system. Contrary to the occasional argument, the new Turkish legal and institutional migration management structure was not a direct response to the Syria crisis. Its development started well before the first conflict in Syria, with the main aim of improving Turkey’s EU accession process and complying with the ECtHR judgements in relation to migration and refugee law.
In light of the significantly lower number of asylum applications and refugees in Turkey prior to the Syrian crisis, this also meant that the new institutional structure was designed to process a much smaller caseload compared to the millions of refugees when PMM became operational. The newly established institution had the ambitious tasks of adjusting its structure in the face of a colossal caseload and consolidating millions of registration entries of inconsistent formats and subpar accuracy. Initial attempts at merging and updating registration data did not yield the desired results and inaccurate data remained a problem for the PMM and other service providers in Turkey for several years after its formation.
The costly solution
The actual solution came in the form of a massive registration verification initiative in active cooperation with the UNHCR in late 2016. The initiative was in fact a series of projects spanning five years, where the initial phase of 2017-2018 was mainly spent on consolidating and updating the existing registration data. After this first phase the initiative gradually transformed into a continuous registration process for maintaining the accuracy of the collected information.
In this initial two-year period 2.7 million Syrian refugees’ registrations were verified and the registration system was revised for the better collection of vulnerability information. This effort included 914 000 new registrations, the removal of duplicate entries, 55 data lines used in registrations being increased to 99 with the addition of new vulnerability sections, the identification of a large number of vulnerable refugees and the establishment of protection desks in provincial PMM branches to enable the referral of vulnerable refugees to appropriate services. PMM was able to identify 45 000 new vulnerable refugees in 2018 through this revised registration modality. The annual number of identifications increased to 183 444 in 2019.
The verification initiative was successful, but it was also costly. On top of the impressive internal resources mobilised by the PMM, the external support received through UNHCR was USD 43.8 million, including the temporary assignment of around 900 staff for the first two years. However, to fully understand the actual cost, one should also look at the entirety of the Turkish asylum system in the given period. Turkey received 112 415 asylum applications (non-Syrians) in 2017 and 114 537 applications in 2018. These are still the highest numbers of annual asylum applications in Turkey’s history. On the other hand, the number of asylum decisions issued by PMM in those years were only 3 258 and 2 734, respectively. This is a significant drop compared to the 66 167 applications and 30 380 decisions made in 2016.
This severe inefficiency in processing asylum applications was arguably the most important negative consequence of allocating substantial institutional resources to re-register millions of Syrian refugees who could have been properly registered years ago. The stretched resources were not sufficient to address the past shortcomings and the emergent challenges simultaneously. The effects of the resulting backlog of non-Syrian asylum applications remain an issue even today.
Following the activation of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive, the European Commission issued two operational guidelines and a 10-Point Plan to assist the EU MS respond to the mass-influx and apply the relevant EU law. The first guideline was on external border management and the second one was on the implementation of the Temporary Protection Directive.
Similar to the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive, the guidelines were welcomed by the international community. The guidelines foresee, among other things, simplified border controls and the maintenance of freedom of movement for Ukrainian refugees, reflecting an unusually protection–centred approach taken by the EU. Registration procedures are also among the various subjects which the guidelines aim to clarify. The 10-Point Plan, first presented at the extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council of 28 March 2022, called for the development of a technical solution to enable the EU MS exchange information on registered beneficiaries of temporary protection or adequate protection under national law (i.e. an EU platform for registration). However, the guidance in this regard and the Turkish experience share some concerning similarities, and the expected specific function and capabilities of the registration platform are not clear.
One of the most important lessons to be drawn from the shortcomings in the Turkish response to the mass-influx from Syria was that the absence of a central registration system and uniform approach to registration. This rendered the ability to achieve accurate registration data and avoid duplications extremely challenging, if not impossible. This risk is significantly exacerbated where multiple institutions are simultaneously responsible for registration.
The abovementioned guidelines and the 10-Point Plan foresee a coordination mechanism by the Solidarity Platform that utilises the EU Migration Preparedness and Crisis Management Network. Aggregate data are planned to be regularly shared between the EU and the EU MS to ensure the availability of reception capacity. Moreover, the guidelines explicitly state that Eurodac or other union-wide systems cannot be used to register beneficiaries of temporary protection due to a lack of legal basis, and that EU MS should use their own national systems for registration.
The Turkish case shows that maintaining coordination, even between national institutions, proved to be a challenge. In the current case it is not only different institutions but multiple EU MS without integrated systems for registration that need to be coordinated. The Commission appears to be aware of the issue, indicated especially by the first point in the 10-Point Plan, but does not propose a solid measure within the guidelines. It should be noted, however, that during the editing of this contribution, the Commission announced the launch of the ‘EU platform for registration’, as foreseen by the 10-Point Plan.
Based on the limited information available, the platform appears to be a tool for exchanging information between the MS, but it is not clear whether this tool will be able to ensure uniform registration by the MS or what safeguards it contains relating to data protection and vulnerabilities. Insights from the Turkish experience indicate that the shortcomings in coordinating registration among different national asylum institutions may result in a situation where the EU and the EU MS will need to deal with similar wide-spread inconsistencies and duplications in the registration data, as well as large numbers of unregistered refugees in the years to come.
Another hard-learned lesson from the Turkish experience is that detailed information on refugees’ vulnerabilities should be registered as early as possible. This is a prerequisite for the proper provision of protection services and for avoiding potential human rights violations that may arise due to barriers in accessing rights and services. The identification of vulnerable refugees is critical for prioritising the best procedures for them, ensuring their referrals to service providers, and planning future services provision. If not guaranteed from the outset, missing vulnerability data will cause immediate and long-term gaps in the protection framework.
Turkey has had to deal with the issue of inadequate vulnerability data five years after the beginning of the mass-influx and the process proved to be very costly in multiple aspects. The EU still has the chance to ensure the proper identification of vulnerable refugees during the current early stages of the crisis. However, the Commission’s guidance does not focus on the issue, with the exception of measures addressing unaccompanied minors and (potential) victims of human trafficking.
In fact, the guidelines limit the EU MS by explicitly stating that they ‘should not register any other personal data than that covered by Annex II of the Temporary Protection Directive. Annex II does not include any information related to vulnerabilities or special needs. Neither does the rest of the EU Temporary Protection Directive guarantee the proper registration of vulnerability data. It obliges the EU MS to ‘provide necessary medical or other assistance to persons enjoying temporary protection who have special needs’ but does not include any obligations, measures or tools relating to the identification and registration of these needs. To avoid challenges similar to the ones Turkey has faced concerning vulnerable refugees, the EU should revise its current guidance and adopt a more hands-on approach to ensure the proper and consistent identification and registration of vulnerabilities.
The final lesson is related to the congestion of Turkey’s asylum procedures during 2017-2018 when a substantial part of the institutional resources had to be allocated exclusively for the re-registration of Syrian refugees. If the abovementioned risks are realised, the EU and the EU MS may find themselves in a similar situation. Eastern, Central and Western Mediterranean, and the Western Balkans migration routes are still quite active. The ongoing situation in Afghanistan, Syria and northern Africa also do not give any reason to expect an improvement in the overall refugee situation in the short term.
The 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ showed how migratory pressures through these routes can cause critical bottlenecks in the EU MS asylum systems, even without a sudden mass-influx from a neighbouring country. Therefore, the EU and the EU MS should realistically estimate the actual cost of shortcomings in the registration of Ukrainian refugees, i.e. by factoring in the additional pressure of potential refugee movements they may face in future when they are trying to address these various shortcomings.
This contribution focused only on a single aspect of the Turkish temporary protection experience, namely the challenges faced in the process of registering Syrians under temporary protection. Due to the shortcomings in this registration process, it is crucial to note that the lessons covered in this contribution are generally connected to the processing of personal data which carries significant ‘inherent risks such as accidental or unauthorised loss or disclosure’.
Therefore, all lessons and recommendations in this contribution should be read in light of the fact that compliance with data protection legislation and the principle of confidentiality in the asylum procedures are crucial for the provision of effective protection. In addition to MS national legislation , the EU’s data protection legislation and international standards developed by the leading actors in the field of asylum offer the most importance guidance.
Overall, the specific recommendation of this piece is that the EU should approach the issue of registering Ukrainian refugees under temporary protection with the aim of ensuring a uniform and centralised registration practice with a specific focus on the early identification of vulnerable refugees. And of course, this must be in accordance with the principle of confidentiality and data protection standards as foreseen by international and EU law.
Turkey’s last decade is ripe with even more valuable lessons related to issues beyond registration and vulnerability screening, such as the challenges in providing public services, language barriers, and security and social tensions in the mass-influx context.
Therefore, the general recommendation of this contribution is that the EU and the EU MS should properly analyse the recent history of the Turkish refugee response and make good use of the lessons learned to avoid complex issues which can be, in many cases, easily prevented through early precautions and effective coordination.
 This article uses the term ‘refugee’ in a broad sense, including all persons who have fled Ukraine and Syria to find protection due to the war in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war. These persons have various legal statuses such as asylum seekers, refugees, beneficiaries of subsidiary protection or persons under temporary protection based on the national legislations of the countries they are in and the applicable standards in international refugee law.
 The number of removed duplicate entries is estimated to be around 100 000 based on the difference between 914 000 new registrations and the increase of 788 751 in the total Syrian refugee population in the same period.