Early Saturday morning we flew to our final and most exciting destination, the city of Van in the far east of Turkey. This is about as far as you can go before you hit the snow-capped peaks of the mountains that separate Turkey from Iran and the many conflicts of the Middle East. It is across these very mountains that desperate and terrified refugees walk every year in the hope of finding protection with the UNHCR in Turkey. Our first stop was the UNHCR field office based on the outskirts of Van city. Every morning a long queue forms outside the front gate. Some are recognised refugees looking for help finding accommodation or seeking transferral to another city. Others are waiting for a decision on their claim or appeal, a process that can last many years. Many have just arrived, having walked for hours or hidden in the back of smugglers´ lorries. Positioned at a key entry point for refugees from Iran and Afghanistan, and with only a handful of staff members, UNHCR is working furiously to ensure that everyone who enters Turkey within this crucial gateway region has access to their refugee status determination (RSD) procedure. This means liaising with Turkish authorities including the Jandarma (the rural police), the aliens police and the military who patrol the borders to ensure that refugees are not lost within the system.
We were interested to find out how particularly vulnerable communities, such as women, children and homosexuals experienced the journey across the border and life as a refugee in Turkey. We were referred to an NGO that provides support and assistance to all vulnerable women in Van, including refugees. For women, the challenges of being a refugee are often compounded by experiences of social isolation, domestic violence and threats to their personal security. Many have arrived alone, fleeing forced marriage or abusive husbands, or widowed by conflict and responsible for young children. Faced with poverty and homelessness, many refugee women are forced into prostitution or exploitative sexual relationships. This organisation provides temporary shelter, counselling and assistance with accessing healthcare and accommodation. They also provide support to gay, lesbian and trans-gender refugees in the region. Eastern Turkey is a conservative place and there is little tolerance for homosexuals – including within the refugee community. While a gay community is developing in cities such as Van, the only safe option for many homosexuals ıs speedy resettlement. This meeting made me realise my own tendency to consider refugees as a homogenous mass, all experiencing difficulties in the same way. In reality, there is no one ´refugee community´and it is vital to recognise the complicated, diverse and multi-faceted needs of refugee individuals, some of whom continue to experience persecution after they have fled their country of origin.