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Iraqi Refugee Crisis: The Calm before the Storm?
Monday, April 28, 2008

By Marlene Kaufmann, General Counsel

and Lale M. Mamaux, Communications Director

Jordan

In March, staff of the United States Helsinki Commission travelled to Amman, Jordan, an OSCE partner State, and met with government officials and leading NGOs regarding the Iraqi refugee crisis. Helsinki Commission Chairman, Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, has introduced comprehensive legislation to address this crisis, and the Commission held a hearing on April 10, regarding the impact of Iraqi refugees on OSCE States and Partners, including Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

It was revealed during the visit in Jordan that the situation on the ground is becoming increasingly desperate. Government officials emphasized the economic and infrastructure strains caused by the refugees – soaring rents, inflation, and strains on educational and medical resources, as well as water. The NGO community sees an increase in desperation among the refugee population that they are attempting to serve. This increased desperation, combined with increasing resentment among host country populations, is becoming a recipe for disaster.

As a result of the widespread sectarian violence that erupted in Iraq in 2006, masses of Iraqis began fleeing to neighboring countries in the region for shelter. It is estimated that more than one million Iraqi refugees have fled to Jordan, Syria and other neighboring states, and approximately 2.2 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq itself.

Jordan, a small Arab nation with a population of six million, has accepted almost half a million Iraqi refugees. This amounts to an 8 percent increase in the population of Jordan in essentially a year and a half. This would be the equivalent of the United States enduring a stream of 24 million people across its borders in the same time frame. Poverty, unemployment, and inflation are on the rise in the country making it extremely difficult for the Jordanian government and society to cope with the influx of refugees. In 2007, Jordan effectively sealed its borders by imposing strict visa requirements on Iraqis seeking entry, documents that most fleeing Iraqis do not have or would be required to make a dangerous trip to Baghdad to try to obtain.

Jordan is not a party to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and does not have a domestic refugee law. The government does not, therefore, recognize Iraqis as residents of its country, but rather classifies them as “guests” or “visitors.”

The Jordanian government does not allow Iraqis to work, however some do find jobs in the “underground” economy, which at best pay barely enough to survive and for which the threat of exploitation is significant. In many situations, men, fearing arrest and deportation, remain in hiding and rely on whatever income their wives and children can generate. Iraqis are permitted to seek medical assistance at government clinics, where they are offered the same health care benefits as uninsured Jordanians.

In addition, as a result of pressure from the international community, Jordan opened its schools to Iraqi children. It is estimated that approximately 25,000 Iraqi students have enrolled for the 2007-2008 school year, a significantly smaller number than was expected. While the admission of Iraqi students is relatively low, it has nevertheless put a substantial strain on an already overburdened school system.

As a result, the day-to-day needs of Iraqis continue to increase as their resources are diminishing. Multiple families are sharing a single dwelling and those seeking medical attention frequently suffer from severe depression and stress related illnesses. Many of the NGOs offering services in Jordan are attempting to address this burgeoning medical crisis but lack the resources to provide comprehensive counseling – leaving increasingly large numbers of the vulnerable Iraqi refugee population simmering in a cauldron of stress and depression. This situation does not bode well for long-term societal stability.

Attempts to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees in Jordan are complicated by both the location and the mixed demographics of the population. Unlike the situation of the Palestinian refugees encamped in tent cities in the “no-man’s-land” on the Syrian border with Iraq, there are no Iraqi refugee camps in Jordan -- where the numbers and needs of the refugees could be easily identified, and to which humanitarian and other assistance could be quickly and efficiently delivered. Rather, Iraqi refugees in Jordan are dispersed throughout Amman and the surrounding areas. A number of refugees -- some of whom came to Jordan to escape the regime of Saddam Hussein, returned to Iraq after his fall, and now have taken up residence again in Jordan -- are quite wealthy, and are obviously able to fend for themselves. The bulk of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, however, arrived with few resources or have now, as is the case with those who were “middle class” when they fled, completely depleted whatever income they may have had from savings, or selling their homes and possessions.

The Jordanian government made it quite clear that they want Iraqi refugees to be treated humanely, yet they do not want Iraqis to permanently settle in Jordan. This fact was reinforced at an international conference hosted by Jordan on March 18, during which Foreign Minister Salah Al-Bashir remarked, “But the main challenge now is to find the right environment for a political settlement in Iraq that would restore security and stability, helping Iraqi refugees return home, because there is no other alternative.”

While the Jordanian government sees no alternative for Iraqis other than return, the reality is quite different. Many NGOs in Jordan are looking at this from a long-term perspective with some estimates of Iraqis staying for at least ten years, or perhaps permanently. Many Iraqis who fled have had a close family member or friend killed, threatened, kidnapped, or tortured, making return extremely difficult if not impossible.

As resources are depleted and Iraqis become more and more desperate to survive, the economy will not be the main source of worry for host countries. Increasingly desperate refugees interacting on a daily basis with increasingly resentful host country populations could sow the seeds of instability on the streets of Amman and Damascus – the current situation may just be the calm before the storm.

In Congress, Commission Chairman Hastings, who is also Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, has introduced comprehensive legislation to address this humanitarian and potential security crisis. In January, Chairman Hastings and Congressman John Dingell wrote to President Bush requesting an additional $1.5 billion in funding in the FY 2009 budget, and also called on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to layout a long-term plan to address the plight of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced populations (IDPs). In April, Chairman Hastings joined with Congressman Bill Delahunt and nine of his Congressional colleagues in sending a bipartisan letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urging the government of Iraq to use $1 billion (4 percent) of the expected $25 billion budget surplus to assist Iraqi refugees and IDPs.

Additionally, Commission Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin was successful in offering an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations bill last year. Co-Chairman Cardin’s amendment provides six months of eligibility for resettlement assistance to Iraq Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders when they arrive here in the United States, ensuring that Iraqis are able to make the transition to a productive life in the United States by providing preliminary housing, school enrollment and job assistance.

On April 10, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the Iraqi refugee crisis which focused on the impact of the massive displacement of Iraqi citizens on Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Turkey as well as other countries in the region; the security implications of this humanitarian crisis; and efforts by the United States and others to address the plight of Iraqi refugees, including humanitarian relief, resettlement of Iraqi refugees, host country commitments, and European cooperation as well as the development of a long-term plan to address this crisis.

Testifying before the Commission were Ambassador James Foley, Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees, U.S. Department of State; Ms. Lori Scialabba, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Homeland Security for Iraqi Refugees, Department of Homeland Security; Mr. Michel Gabaudan, Washington Director, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); Mr. Anders Lago, Mayor of Sodertalje, Sweden; and Mr. Noel Saleh, Member, Board of Directors, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).

During the hearing Ambassador Foley stated that the resettlement of Iraqi refugees to the United States “is turning around.” He added, “You are going to see in the coming months, especially in the late spring and summer, tremendous numbers of Iraqi refugees arriving in the United States.”

Mayor Lago of Sodertalje, Sweden whose town has a population of 83,000 and has taken in more than 5,000 Iraqi refugees noted “The millions of refugees in the world must be a concern for us all, not just for those areas bordering on the breeding grounds of war, or for a small number of countries and cities such as Sodertalje.” He further noted, “Despite the fact that we need immigrants, Sodertalje has become a town that must now say - STOP, STOP, STOP! Do not misunderstand me. We will always help others when we can. We must act when the lives of our brothers and sisters are in danger. It is imperative that we have a humane refugee policy worldwide. Our common agreement, that all people are equal, no matter what color religion or gender must become a reality.”

The hearing came on the heels of General David Petraeus’ and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker’s testimony before Congress about the Iraq war.

Turkey

Helsinki Commission staff also travelled to Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey and held meetings with leading NGOs as well as staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While the main focus of the trip was the Iraqi refugee crisis, staff also discussed U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations, human trafficking, migration, security threats posed to Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a known terrorist organization, as well as Turkey’s cooperation in Iraq.

It is estimated that Turkey is currently hosting 6,000-10,000 Iraqi refugees. Unlike Jordan and Syria, Turkey is a party to the 1951 UN refugee convention. Turkey, however, imposes a “geographical limitation” on its commitments under that agreement and only recognizes refugees arriving from Europe.

Iraqis entering Turkey from non-European countries are treated as asylum-seekers. UNHCR-Turkey has assumed responsibility for processing these individuals and it then submits its recommendations to the Turkish government. The Turkish government, however, ultimately determines the status of asylum-seekers making the registration process time-consuming and confusing. Those who have registered with UNHCR for asylum can wait up to nine months to be fully processed and are not entitled to any assistance during that period. In the interim, the refugees are reliant upon the charity of the communities in which they have settled or must fend for themselves on the streets.

Iraqi refugees entering Turkey are not permitted to reside in Ankara or Istanbul – where they may have relatives or access to an established Iraqi community – but are directed to a number of “satellite cities” in different locations throughout Turkey. In most instances, there is no Iraqi community or support system in these remote locations, making resettlement, access to services, and integration into the local community extremely difficult for the refugees.

The Turkish government has accepted in principle the establishment of seven ‘Reception Centers,’ to provide services to refugees from Iraq – planned in or near the satellite cities to which they are currently directed. These centers would be co-financed with the European Commission (EC). The EC would pay 75 percent of the project and the Turkish government would pay the remaining 25 percent. However, the day-to-day oversight and financial obligations would fall to the Turkish government. While the EC indicated that these centers would be used to house Iraqi refugees with a capacity of 750 per center, Turkish officials gave the impression that these centers would be for migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. In addition to the seven Reception Centers, the EC will finance two Removal Centers for those Iraqis eligible to be processed for resettlement.

The Helsinki Commission will monitor the development of these centers, their location, populations to be accepted, operation and services offered in view of concerns that they may become isolated “camps” where Iraqi refugees and other vulnerable populations are warehoused until they receive final status determinations or resettlement.

Sulukule

Helsinki Commission staff visited Sulukule in Istanbul, which has been home to a Roma community since 1054 and is one of the oldest Romani settlements in Europe. Sulukule is on the brink of total demolition, due in part to an urban transformation project developed by the Fatih and Greater Istanbul municipalities as part of Istanbul’s participation in the 2010 European Capital of Culture event. The outcome of this urban renewal plan will destroy an historical neighborhood and force 3,500 residents of Sulukule 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside of the city to the district of Tasoluk or, worse, onto the streets of Istanbul.

The Roma community in Sulukule is living on the fringes of society and continues to be treated unfairly. Instead of implementing an urban renewal project that would preserve this centuries-old neighborhood and allow the Roma there to remain together as a community, they will be dispersed and forced to migrate elsewhere.

The Romani residents of Sulukule have essentially been unable to work since 1992 when the municipality closed down the music and entertainment venues that had been the lifeblood of the community and a major tourist attraction. With this source of income gone, the Roma of Sulukule have found it increasingly difficult to earn a living.

The residents of Sulukule have been offered the opportunity to purchase the new homes that will be built as part of the project. However, the homes are quite expensive and, given the Romani community’s lack of employment and income, this is an empty gesture. The offer of housing in Tasoluk is also well beyond the means of the current residents of Sulukule, making it all the more likely that the majority of them will be forced to live on the streets.

On April 4, members of the Helsinki Commission sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan, expressing concern about the Sulukule transformation project. The Commissioners urged the Prime Minister to find a solution that would ensure that the residents of Sulukule are treated with dignity and respect, that their culture and contribution to the history of Istanbul are preserved, and that they are given the opportunity to work, provide shelter and education for their families and contribute fully to Turkish society. The letter was authored by Co-Chairmen of the Helsinki Commission Congressman Alcee L. Hastings and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, along with Commissioners Congressmen Joseph R. Pitts and G.K. Butterfield.

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Joe Wilson (SC-02) advocated for further military support for Ukraine so that Ukraine can reclaim its territory and refugees can return home safely. “Evicting the murderous Putin from Ukraine is the only way to help Ukrainian civilians and allow refugees to return to Ukraine,” he said.  Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE Parliamentary Special Representative on Human Trafficking issues, thanked the witnesses for their leadership in the fight against human trafficking and called for increased international cooperation in protecting women and children from traffickers. Senior Official and Principal Deputy Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department Dr. Kari Johnstone described the dire situation refugees face as they flee. Many are further endangered and exposed to human trafficking by extenuating circumstances, such as being unable to access information in their language or belonging to an already marginalized group such as Roma. Dr. Johnstone emphasized the need for trauma-informed, age-appropriate, gender-sensitive approaches to support refugees. Making sure refugees have access to appropriate work, housing, and schooling helps to keep refugees out of vulnerable situations and prevent trafficking. “While there’s no simple solution, working together…we are hopeful that we will be able to at least reduce the impact of this war,” Dr. Johnstone said. Tatiana Kotlyarenko, advisor on anti-trafficking issues at ODIHR, called for unity on all fronts to combat human trafficking and asked for continued support from Congress in strengthening ODIHR’s work on anti-human trafficking in Ukraine. She also stressed the importance of implementing strong national referral mechanisms to better identify and assist victims of human trafficking “If you want to prevent trafficking of Ukrainian women and children, we need to unite to address demand on policy, legislative, and practical levels,” she said. Mykola Kuleba, director of the NGO Save Ukraine, shared a firsthand account of the horrific conditions on the ground in Ukraine that he has witnessed while evacuating children from the war zone, emphasizing that the first step to protect Ukrainian refugees is to help Ukraine defend itself so its people don’t become refugees. He also highlighted the need for more humanitarian assistance, including food, water, and medicine. “Millions of Ukrainian children are now refugees wandering around the world.  The world must help this great democratic country that has faced unprecedented evil.  Each of you has the ability to aid in the rescue.  Each of you can resist this evil,” Kuleba said. Nic McKinley, founder and CEO of DeliverFund, described the importance of disrupting the human trafficking market on the demand side by deterring potential buyers and attacking traffickers’ ability to profit from the exploitation of vulnerable populations. He also discussed how traffickers use social media to lure victims through advertisements for housing and employment for refugees. “You cannot have a human trafficking victim,” he said, “without a human trafficker.” Members brought a number of concerns and questions to witnesses, ranging from how best to distribute information on preventing human trafficking to refugees, to how government and NGO efforts can be coordinated to most effectively deliver assistance and provide protection for vulnerable populations. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Protecting Ukrainian Refugees from Human Trafficking to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PROTECTING UKRAINIAN REFUGEES FROM HUMAN TRAFFICKING Thursday, April 7, 2022 10:30 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia’s massive invasion on February 24, the largest migration of people in Europe since the Second World War. Given Ukraine’s exit restrictions on males from 18-60, the vast majority of those leaving are women and children. Most cross the Ukrainian border without resources or a place to go, making them extremely vulnerable to human trafficking. Reports indicate that traffickers already are trolling border areas trying to lure refugees with promises of accommodation, onward transportation, or employment. Ukrainian orphans and unaccompanied minors are particularly susceptible to such predators, and they need not only to be safely evacuated from Ukraine, but also securely tracked and transferred into national child protection systems so they do not fall prey to human traffickers or otherwise disappear. Witnesses will examine efforts by frontline states, the international community, NGOs, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to prevent refugees from becoming victims of human traffickers, to coordinate the reception and transfer of unaccompanied minors, to conduct awareness-raising and prevention programs near the border, and to provide security to protect refugees. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Panel 1: Dr. Kari Johnstone, Senior Official, U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Panel 2: Ms. Tatiana Kotlyarenko, Anti-Trafficking Advisor, OSCE Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights Mr. Mykola Kuleba, Director of Save Ukraine and former Presidential Commissioner for Human Rights Mr. Nic McKinley, Founder and CEO, DeliverFund

  • Helsinki Commission Recognizes Key Contributions from Allies and Partners

    WASHINGTON—In light of Russia’s continued criminal war on the peaceful citizens of Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war against the Ukrainian people has inspired global outrage and condemnation. Many countries have risen to the moment, especially our Baltic Allies, Poland, and Romania. We also recognize those other OSCE participating States that have taken particular risks and stepped up during this moment of great danger and clear moral purpose.  “We thank the Government of Turkey for its significant and robust support for Ukraine. Turkey has long been among Ukraine’s most ardent and consistent advocates, and its closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to warships from Russia and Ukraine, consistent with the Montreux Convention, effectively supports Ukraine and the cause of European security. Turkey plays an indispensable role as a NATO Ally and strategic linchpin in Europe. We look forward to working closely with our Turkish allies on additional steps to support Ukraine. “We also recognize Moldova for serving as a safe haven for refugees and for its strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To date, on a per capita basis, Moldova has welcomed more refugees than any other country. Despite limited resources and the unlawful presence of Russian troops on its soil, President Maia Sandu and the Government and people of Moldova have shown their mettle. We congratulate Moldova on its European Union application. We see your heroic efforts and will continue to work diligently towards supporting Moldova’s transatlantic aspirations. “In addition, despite initially concerning and confusing statements, we applaud the Government of Georgia for its increasingly robust support for the people of Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s threats and occupation of Georgia’s territory. We are grateful for Georgia’s co-sponsorship of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its participation in a call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes, and the strong statements of support by Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in particular. We congratulate Georgia on its application to the European Union and look forward to doing our part to reinvigorate our bilateral partnership and deepening our transatlantic bond. “We are moving to limit Russia’s ability to wage war on its neighbors and will work closely with our friends to navigate this dangerous moment in history.” On February 28, the Turkish government exercised its authority as a custodian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, per the 1936 Montreux Convention, and closed their use to warring parties in the Black Sea. On March 2, Turkey provided the Ukrainian military with additional Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles. Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moldova was among the first to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees and hosts more refugees per capita compared to any other European state. Russia illegally maintains a garrison of approximately 1,500 troops on Moldovan territory in Transnistria and supports a separatist government. On March 2, the Government of Georgia co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine. On the same day, Georgia joined 37 other countries formally calling for an International Criminal Court investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. 

  • Conflict of Interest?

    Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.  The briefing, held on February 16, 2022, investigated the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also explored practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. During the briefing, attendees heard from Dr. Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for the Near East, and Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist with Amnesty International. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by remarking on the importance of Turkey and his personal history with Turkey.  He also emphasized that human rights abuses in Turkey have long been a subject of concern, particularly those brought about by President Erdogan’s empire-building attempts. “We need to do what we can to see that the whole world is fair for citizens to express themselves, for press to express themselves, and for people to get information, without which we will not have independent democracies,” he said. Mr. Nishanov explained in opening remarks that Turkey’s position is complex and multi-faceted—while Turkey has been making efforts to normalize relationships with Armenia, Israel, and Egypt as well as bearing a large refugee burden, recent years have been challenging as Turkey experienced economic pain, inflation, and governance issues. Additionally, Turkey’s record of human rights abuses, anti-immigrant sentiments, and other obstacles cast a pall on recent progress, and bring into question the future of Turkey’s democratic development. Dr. Soner Cagaptay spoke about President Erdogan’s declining domestic popularity and the looming threat of economic hardship in Turkey. He also remarked on President Erdogan’s attempts to restore ties with Turkey’s Gulf neighbors, as well as with the United States and Europe. Dr. Cagaptay asserted that as tensions heightened between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey would adopt a neutral public-facing identity, but support Kyiv militarily. While Russia and Turkey are often compared, he pointed out that Turkey has measures of democracy that Russia does not. “The lesson of Turkey under Erdogan is that it takes a long time to kill [democracy]. Turkish democracy is resilient, it is not dead,” he said. Deniz Yuksel spoke to Turkey’s human rights crisis and the dangers opposition politicians, journalists, and citizens face. Reports of torture and detention are common, and those calling out such abuses face persecution themselves. She recommended that U.S. officials raise human rights concerns in every engagement with Turkey. She emphasized, “From the record-breaking imprisonment of journalists to the persecution of LGBTI people, an ongoing crisis of gender-based violence, and the unlawful deportation of refugees, the failures of Turkey’s judicial system cut across societal lines and undermine the human rights of all.” During the question-and-answer segment of the briefing, panelists addressed a range of questions including how specific ethnic minorities are treated in Turkey, how human rights abuses may affect Turkey’s relationship with the United States, and what challenges will arise alongside Turkey’s 2023 elections. Related Information Panelist Biographies Will Turkey Help Washington If Russia Invades Ukraine? | The Washington Institute Human Rights in Turkey | Amnesty International – USA: Turkey Regional Action Network  Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia | Foreign Policy Research Institute 

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Intersection Between Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: CONFLICT OF INTEREST? Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey Wednesday, February 16, 2022 11:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3Je5Ck4 Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.   The briefing will investigate the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also will explore practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Soner Cagaptay, Director, Turkish Research Program, Washington Institute for the Near East Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist, Amnesty International  

  • Chairman Cardin Calls for Release of Osman Kavala, Welcomes Council of Europe Infringement Proceedings Against Turkey

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent ruling of a Turkish court that will keep philanthropist Osman Kavala jailed until his trial begins in January 2022 and the subsequent decision by the Council of Europe to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statement: “Justice has been denied, once again, for Osman Kavala, whose only apparent crime is being a Turkish patriot. Despite earlier rulings from a Turkish court and the European Court of Human Rights requiring the state to release Mr. Kavala, Turkish authorities have already jailed him for more than four years—in clear violation of Turkey’s OSCE commitments. “The ongoing injustice against Mr. Kavala is not unique. Thousands of Turkish citizens have been victims of the arbitrary court system. It is welcome news that the Council of Europe will start infringement proceedings against Turkey. Although Turkey is an important NATO ally, its leaders repeatedly have failed to uphold its commitments to respect human rights and the rule of law. "I urge the Turkish government to comply with its international obligations and release Mr. Kavala.” Turkey’s failure to comply with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, of which the country is a member, prompted the Council of Europe to start infringement proceedings. The process has been used only once before in more than seven decades of the organization’s history and may result in Turkey losing its voting rights or being excluded from the Council. Osman Kavala is a Turkish entrepreneur and philanthropist who has for decades supported civil society organizations in Turkey. In 1990, he contributed to the establishment of The Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a democracy and human rights non-profit inspired by the Helsinki Final Act. In November 2017, Turkish authorities arrested Mr. Kavala, alleging that he attempted to overthrow the Turkish government. Mr. Kavala was acquitted of these charges in February 2020, only to remain in detention and be charged with a new offense in March 2020. The same month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Mr. Kavala should be released from pre-trial detention.  Domestic and international human rights watchdogs consistently report that the charges against Mr. Kavala are unsubstantiated and politically motivated. Recently, ambassadors from ten Western countries, including the United States, advocated for his release. These demands were rejected by the Government of Turkey. Mr. Kavala is a recipient of the 2019 European Archaeological Heritage Prize and the Ayşenur Zarakolu Freedom of Thought and Expression Award from the Human Rights Association’s Istanbul branch.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest November 2021

  • Authoritarian Abuse of INTERPOL

    Mr. WICKER. On November 23, the International Criminal Police Organization, better known as INTERPOL, will begin its annual General Assembly in Istanbul. INTERPOL is a vital global law enforcement network that helps police from different countries cooperate with each other to control crime. Unfortunately, it has also become a tool in the hands of despots and crooks who seek to punish dissidents and political opponents in an effort to turn other countries’ law enforcement against the rule of law. Rooting out this sort of abuse should be the top priority going in to the INTERPOL General Assembly. These abuses make a mockery of Interpol and are threatening its continued existence. INTERPOL's constitution cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the basis for police cooperation. Importantly and significantly, Article 3 of that declaration forbids INTERPOL from engaging in any activities of a political, military, religious or racial character. All 194 member nations have committed to uphold Article 3 and the entire INTERPOL constitution, so it is troubling. As a matter of fact, it's even worse than troubling. It's egregious that INTERPOL chose to host this year's General Assembly in Turkey. A country that has become one of the worst abusers of INTERPOL’s Red Notice and Blue Notice systems. Turkey has repeatedly weaponized INTERPOL to persecute and arrest government critics on politically motivated charges. Journalist Can Dundar is a prime example. Mr. Dundar is one of Turkey's most prominent media personalities and has received international awards for defending freedom of the press. In 2018, Turkey demanded that INTERPOL issue a red notice for Mr. Dundar's arrest. What had he done? He simply criticized his government. He had reported on the Turkish government supplying arms to an Islamist group in Syria. He was charged by a Turkish court with espionage and aiding a terrorist group. The group was never named. And sentenced to 27.5 years in prison in absentia. Thankfully, Germany has refused to extradite Mr Dundar, but this is the sort of thing we see from this year's host of the conference in June of this year. Turkish media reported that INTERPOL had rejected nearly 800 red notices sent by the Turkish government. A Swedish human rights group reported in 2016 after the failed coup in Turkey, that the Turkish government filed tens of thousands of INTERPOL notifications targeting persons who were merely critics and political opponents of the government. Some of these people were stranded in international airports, detained and handed over to Turkey, where they ended up in prison. There are also alarming signs that Turkey is trying to leverage this year's General Assembly to further its own authoritarian goals. This past June, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Havel's Saleem Kiran openly asserted that the General Assembly in Istanbul “will be an important opportunity to explain in detail our rightful position regarding our fight against terrorist organizations and our rejected notices.” Translation: Turkey plans to use this high level event to mislead and lie to the international community. They will no doubt try to explain why President Erdogan should be able to hunt down his critics in foreign countries using foreign law enforcement through INTERPOL. This will be a travesty, one that indeed threatens the legitimacy and future viability of INTERPOL. And of course, Turkey is not the only offender we could talk about. Russia, China and Venezuela have routinely misused Interpol to oppress their critics. The case of Bill Browder, a free critic of the Putin regime and advocate for the Magnitsky Act, is probably the most well-known example of such abuse. Vladimir Putin has issued no fewer than eight INTERPOL diffusions seeking to have Bill Browder extradited, none of which thankfully have been obeyed. These abuses should not be allowed to go on. INTERPOL needs protection on behalf of countries that actually believe in human rights - they believe in open dissent and the rule of law. Providing that protection is why I have introduced the Transnational Repression, Accountability and Prevention Act or TRAP Act. This is a bipartisan effort, Mr. President, with four Republican co-sponsors and four Democratic co-sponsors. This bipartisan legislation would fortify U.S. systems against INTERPOL abuse and would require that we use our influence to push for due process and transparency reforms at INTERPOL, American law enforcement should never be doing the work of foreign crooks and dictators. I hope that I can count on my colleagues in this chamber to support this much needed legislation, and I invite my colleagues to be added to the co-sponsor list. Thank you, Mr. President.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS JOIN OSCE PA MEETING ON AFGHANISTAN, DEBATE POLICY RESPONSES

    On November 4, 2021, more than 40 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) met remotely to discuss the current security challenges posed by developments in Afghanistan and the future of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Since 2003, Afghanistan has been an OSCE Partner for Cooperation and shares a border with several OSCE countries. The debate, which was attended by seven members of the Helsinki Commission, took place as part of the OSCE PA’s annual Autumn Meeting. Each year, the Autumn Meeting focuses on debating one or more currently relevant issues confronting the OSCE region.  This year’s Autumn Meeting was originally planned to be in Dublin, Ireland, but a resurging COVID-19 pandemic forced the OSCE PA to rely on emergency procedures that allow for statutory meetings to be conducted remotely. OSCE PA Leaders Outline Challenges Posed by Afghanistan OSCE PA President Margaret Cederfelt opened the debate with an overview of the challenges presented by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While three OSCE countries—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—share a border with Afghanistan, developments there also have serious implications for the rest of the OSCE participating States. The worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s historical connections to terrorism, the negative economic fallout, the potential impact on neighboring countries, and deteriorating human rights, particularly for women and girls, were all of concern. “Those who will suffer most from this is, of course, the ordinary people,” President Cederfelt emphasized, while highlighting the impending economic turmoil Afghanistan faces. “It is essential that human security is protected by safeguarding the fundamental rights of all Afghans.” President Cederfelt also underscored the need for international cooperation while addressing this situation, given its global security implications. The three leaders of the PA General Committees highlighted aspects of the crisis related to their specific mandates. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan. He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes. “The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact." The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people. Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government. Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated.  “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.

  • Experts raise alarm bells in Congress over ‘Europe’s most contested domain’

    With a handful of frozen conflicts, hybrid warfare, rising autocracy, and political instability, the Black Sea region may be Europe’s most volatile and most overlooked. This week, policy experts are testifying in Congress and calling for the United States to step up its involvement in the Black Sea region, a critical geopolitical crossroads where U.S. allies and adversaries coexist. “The region is Europe’s most contested domain,” said Ian Brzezinski, a former deputy assistant Defense secretary for Europe and NATO who testified to Congress on Wednesday. “It’s where you have the most intense confrontation and the most violent conflict in Europe in the last decade and a half. It’s high time we start addressing what needs to be done to bring greater peace and stability to that region,” Brzezinski told National Journal. Last week, Russian fighter jets intercepted two U.S. bombers over the Black Sea while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Romania, a member of the European Union and a NATO ally that hosts nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemembers. During his trip, Austin also visited two other Black Sea countries, Georgia and Ukraine, a move many saw as a sign that the U.S. was beginning to focus on the region ahead of a key NATO ministerial meeting. High on the agenda during Wednesday’s congressional hearing, however, was the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the West. Despite being part of the Western military alliance, Turkey has consistently opposed strengthening NATO’s presence in the Black Sea and courted Russia, opting to purchase a Russian missile-defense system that military experts say poses a risk to NATO equipment. “We have got to repair our relationship with Turkey. It’s not impossible. Erdoğan is a deal-maker,” said Jim Townsend, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy assistant Defense secretary European and NATO policy, who also testified Wednesday. Over the weekend, Erdoğan ordered the country’s Foreign Ministry to declare 10 ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, persona non grata after they called for the release of an imprisoned civil-society leader named Osman Kavala. Erdoğan later walked back the statement, but the incident highlighted the volatility of Turkey’s relationship with the West. “Because Turkey is pursuing its own Russia-friendly policy and is often antagonistic towards the U.S., that makes our Black Sea policy so much more difficult,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who argues that NATO allies should be more active in the region. Sen. Ben Cardin, the chair of the Helsinki Commission, said the U.S. and Turkey share many interests in the Black Sea region but that shouldn’t stop Washington from speaking out on human rights. “Mr. Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist, has been in detention for four years despite being acquitted by a Turkish court," Cardin said in an email. "In their joint statement, the ambassadors simply asked that Turkey adhere to its international obligations and domestic law. “This kind of straight talk is important among NATO allies and did not warrant such a disproportionate response.” Despite the tensions with Turkey, Russia is the primary adversary in the region. Many lawmakers note that Moscow has trampled the rules-based international order by invading its neighbors and propping up separatists to prevent countries along the Black Sea from forming closer ties with the West. Russian forces currently occupy around 20 percent of Georgian territory and support separatists in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They also annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014—in large part to maintain access to the Black Sea—and support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, said she convened Wednesday’s hearing to learn how lawmakers can holistically approach the region to address patterns of Russian encroachment. “Over the last two decades, the Black Sea has become an increasingly important region for Russia, which has repeatedly disregarded international norms to expand control of the region, waging war and deploying illegal and belligerent tactics to secure these goals,” Shaheen told National Journal. “Russia has made it clear that it is willing to exert economic, military, and political power to thwart NATO expansion and expand its control in the Black Sea.” Experts are arriving in Congress with a laundry list of recommendations, including building up Bulgaria's and Romania’s navies, sending brigade combat teams to both countries, investing in initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, and providing Ukraine with more lethal weaponry. Some are advocating for the creation of a NATO readiness action plan for the Black Sea, and for moving forward with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries are angling to join the Western military alliance. Still, the alliance’s commitment to collective defense prevents countries already in a state of conflict from entering, a fact that Russia exploits. Because Georgia is not yet a NATO member, the U.S. recently renewed a six-year security pact with Tbilisi designed to bolster the defense capabilities of the country’s military. The U.S. is moving away from training battalions in Georgia and will focus instead on building sustainable institutional capabilities at the executive levels of the military. Still, experts warn that nearly all the countries in the region are dealing with political instability, Russian interference, or both. Georgia, heading for a second round of local elections on Saturday, has been accused of Democratic backsliding. Romania and Bulgaria, both EU members, are also in contentious election cycles and debates over government formation that will determine their future political trajectories. Ruslan Trad, an author researching Russian influence in Bulgaria, told National Journal there are several popular pro-Russian political movements in Bulgaria. Russian spies are active in the country and allegedly monitored European Union leaders during their visits. There’s also an urgent need to counter Russian disinformation and anti-NATO propaganda in the country, Trad said. What’s most important, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, is to have a robust strategy for the entire region. “Having a strategy for the region has to be the first priority because then you can develop the right policies for each of the countries in the region,” Hodges said. The Biden administration is now working on a global-force-posture review, which should shed light on U.S. policy towards the region, and the State Department is also developing a Black Sea strategy. Alina Polyakova, the president of CEPA and another witness in Wednesday’s hearing, said it would be important to pinpoint the specific areas in which each partner country in the region can contribute to broader security. “The Black Sea region is critical to broader transatlantic stability,” Polyakova told senators. “It is where Russia, Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus come together, and it’s also the locus of the Kremlin’s test of the alliance’s credibility and resolve.”

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