By Cigdem Bugdayci
Festus Okey, a Nigerian migrant, was shot to death at Beyoglu police station in Istanbul on August 20th 2007, after being taken into custody for allegedly carrying drugs. The police headquarters claimed Okey was shot after he attempted to grab the gun of policeman Cengiz Yıldız, and that the gun fired in the ensuing fight. However, Yildiz’s trial has not taken place as the court is awaiting confirmation from Nigeria of the victim’s identification.
Since the beginning of the case, individuals and human rights organisations — including The Helsinki Citizens’ Association, the Freedom on Earth Association and the Human Rights Foundation — have signed petitions to intervene in the case, claiming Okey’s identity was officially confirmed when his body was transported to Nigeria.
Burcu Ozaydin, one of the volunteer lawyers for Okey and member of the Migrant Solidarity Network, told SETimes the accused police officer was never arrested and continues to work. “This troubles our consciousness a lot,” she added.
The case has drawn renewed criticism of Turkey’s refugee policy and treatment of migrants.
“The death of Festus Okey is not another murder as a result of police violence, but rather it has attracted visibility to migrants’ problems and become an emblem with the posthumous problems around his identity,” a member of the Migrant Solidarity Network, Ufuk Ahıska, told SETimes.
Turkey is a signatory to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, but with one important reservation: refugee status can only be given to those coming from Europe.
Refugee and asylum seekers must register with the Foreigners Department and the UNHCR in order to get temporary asylum-seeker status, after which many are sent to satellite cities in Anatolia. Asylum-seekers hold the right to apply to become a refugee in a third country other than their origin or Turkey, and receive a small monthly allowance as well as an identity card issued by the UNHCR.
According to UNHCR, there are 6,232 asylum seekers and 12,327 refugees, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Somalia. However, the unofficial number of migrants is said to be 500,000 – 1.5 million, due to Turkey’s lax visa policy, geography, porous borders, and proximity to Europe, the destination of many illegal migrants.
Both legal and illegal migrants face discrimination and difficult living conditions in Turkey –waiting in limbo on the fringes of society with limited access to employment, health care, education, and suitable housing.
“In everyday life, they do not have a work permit or any social insurance. … They live a very precarious life,” Begum Ozden Firat, one of the petitioners intervening in the ongoing Okey case, told SETimes.
“Turkey seriously needs a programme for refugee protection,” Murat Cekic of Amnesty International Turkey told SETimes, while adding that the EU assesses its refugee policy in the framework of their border protection policy, not as a of human rights issue.
Indeed, illegal immigration – including human trafficking and drug smuggling — to the EU from Turkey is a major concern. The Home Affairs Committee of Britain recently declared that Turkey needs to improve its border controls before it can join the EU.
However, the poor conditions and state of limbo faced by migrants in Turkey only adds further incentive for illegal immigrants to attempt to enter the EU illegally.
In this context, the government has written a draft law on foreigners, which aims to relieve the plight of legal refugees through access to employment, health care, education, and housing.
According to Cekic, this draft, prepared with the participation of human rights and refugee rights organisations, would be a significant improvement to existing laws.