The catastrophic earthquake that hit southeastern Türkiye and neigbouring Syria on 6 February 2023, as well as the dozens of aftershocks that have hit the region since, have had a devastating impact on millions of people in the region and caused the death of more than 40,000 people. The Turkish government has declared a state of emergency in 10 southern provinces—Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep, Malatya, Diyarbakır, Kilis, Şanlıurfa, Adıyaman, Hatay, Osmaniye, and Adana—where some 120,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed, including schools, hospitals, and basic infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of people, including children and the elderly, have been left homeless in freezing temperatures, without basic shelter, food, water, clothing, or medical care.
The scale of the disaster has prompted an outpouring of humanitarian support from across the globe. On 16 February, the UN launched a one billion USD appeal to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of those worst affected by the earthquake in Türkiye. However, less well acknowledged in the response is the impact of the earthquake on the large population of refugees in the earthquake zone—and in particular, those who are locked inside detention centres.
One facility in Hatay was so damaged that all detainees were released or moved, and detainees were also transferred out of centres in Malatya into safer provinces. But as of 27 February, other detention facilities continue to detain non-nationals with no official confirmation of their structural stability—or the conditions that detainees face inside. Alarmingly, reports also indicate that Türkiye continues to deport non-nationals from the affected region and that people incarcerated in criminal prisons in the region are suffering a surge of human rights abuses since the earthquakes struck.
The Türkiye-based International Refugee Rights Association (IRRA) and the Geneva-based Global Detention Project (GDP) urge Turkish authorities and the international community to ensure that non-nationals, particularly those confined in detention facilities, are protected and assisted in the earthquake response.
“Turkish authorities should carefully re-assess the necessity of detaining migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in immigration detention facilities where their lives and safety could be endangered,” said Rachael Reilly, the Global Detention Project’s Senior Advocacy Coordinator.
“Just as the authorities have released detainees in Hatay,” said Attorney Enes Kafadar, a Board Member at the International Refugee Rights Association, “they should also consider releasing migrants and refugees detained elsewhere in the earthquake zone.”
Türkiye hosts the largest number of refugees in the world—a total of four million refugees. Importantly, 1.7 million refugees were living in the provinces directly affected by the earthquake. Operating 30 detention facilities, Türkiye also has one of the largest immigration detention systems in the world. As well as designated detention facilities, it also detains non-nationals in ad hoc detention sites along its borders, airport transit facilities, and police stations. As of May 2022, there were more than 20,000 migrants and refugees detained across the country. Seven detention centres are located in the earthquake affected area: two in Adana, two in Malatya, one in Şanlıurfa, one in Gaziantep, and one in Hatay.
The International Refugee Rights Association and Global Detention Project have been gathering information about the plight of migrant and refugee detainees in the earthquake zone’s seven detention centres. Information provided by International Refugee Rights Association’s regional representatives and lawyers working in the earthquake zone has given us a preliminary picture of conditions for immigration detainees affected by the earthquake.
In some places, detainees have been released or transferred to centres outside of the earthquake zone. In other affected areas, detention centres continue to hold non-nationals—although it remains unclear whether authorities have conducted structural assessments to confirm building safety. Some facilities have also taken in local families whose own homes had been destroyed or were unsafe to live in.
SITUATIONS IN DETENTION CENTRES
The International Refugee Rights Association and Global Detention Project have received evidence confirming that Hatay Removal Centre was heavily damaged in the earthquake. As a result, all detained migrants and refugees—apart from those who are classified as “Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF)” (YTS in Turkish)—were released, although it is unclear what, if any, assistance they have received since. Detainees classified as “Foreign Terrorist Fighters” were removed from the centre and placed in a separate camp.
Some detainees have also been transferred out of centres within the earthquake zone into detention facilities in safer parts of the country. Following repeated aftershocks, migrants detained in the two detention facilities in Malatya—Malatya Beydağı Detention Centre and Malatya Removal Centre (the latter having been partially damaged by the earthquake)—were transferred to detention centres in other provinces, primarily in Kayseri and Van. The International Refugee Rights Association reports that as of 27 February, no migrants awaiting removal were being detained in Malatya province.
Elsewhere, such as in Adana and Gaziantep, removal centres continue to detain non-nationals. However, it remains unclear whether authorities have conducted appropriate structural assessments to confirm whether the buildings remain stable and safe, potentially exposing non-nationals to danger. The conditions that detainees face within these centres—including the availability of drinking water, food, heating, and medicines—also remains unclear. In Gaziantep’s Oğuzeli Removal Centre, some detainees have demanded to be released, citing the example of detainees released from Hatay—but to date, no releases have been made.
Meanwhile, two facilities—Malatya Beydağı Detention Centre and Şanlıurfa Removal Centre—have been used as shelters for local residents whose homes have been damaged and who consider the detention centre buildings to be safer than their own. In Malatya Beydağı Detention Centre, although migrants detained prior to removal from Türkiye have been moved to detention facilities in other provinces, 500 local residents are reported to be sheltering in the facility, including Migration Management staff who were working at the detention centre and their families, as well as some Syrian refugee families. This facility was previously a refugee camp and is made up of containers where it is safe to stay temporarily.
In Şanlıurfa, local residents have taken shelter in the centre alongside migrant detainees, and the two communities have been observed to be co-existing harmoniously. Detainees’ basic needs are also reported to have been met following the earthquake. However, it is unclear if the facility has been properly assessed to ensure that it is not structurally vulnerable.
In an alarming development, the International Refugee Rights Association has also received information from one of its immigration lawyers that two Afghan refugees detained in Malatya were deported to Iran after the earthquake, despite the lawyer having filed a lawsuit to prevent their deportation.
The International Refugee Rights Association and the Global Detention Project call on the Turkish government and all humanitarian actors to ensure that migrants and refugees, especially those detained in immigration detention facilities who are not free to move and seek shelter elsewhere, are protected and assisted in the earthquake response. Specifically:
- Turkish authorities and humanitarian relief actors should assess the structural safety of all immigration detention facilities.
- Where immigration detention buildings are damaged or compromised as a result of the earthquake, immediate arrangements should be made to find alternative, safe, accommodation for the detainees.
- Turkish authorities should carefully re-assess the necessity to detain individuals in immigration detention facilities where their lives and safety could be endangered as a result of earthquake damage and the lack of humanitarian assistance. Wherever possible authorities should consider releasing detainees, as was done in Hatay.
- Turkish authorities and humanitarian relief agencies must ensure that migrants and refugees, including those in detention, are included in humanitarian relief efforts, including distribution of food, water, blankets, clothing, and medical supplies.
- Appropriate emergency and follow-up medical care must be provided to detainees who sustained injuries during the earthquake.
- Deportations from the earthquake-affected areas should cease during the emergency phase of relief efforts. Removal proceedings should take place only when judicial and administrative safeguards are fully operational to prevent potential violations of fundamental rights.
- As has already happened in several cities, the authorities should consider repurposing inspected undamaged immigration detention facilities as emergency shelters for the affected local community. The experience of migrant detainees and local communities living together harmoniously during a crisis can also help foster greater understanding and social cohesion between local communities and migrants and refugees in the future.