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Thursday 9th of July 2020

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IJJO Interviews- Göktan Koçyildirim, Justice for Children and Child Rights Monitoring Specialist for UNICEF - Turkey

Tuesday 30th of September 2014 | Europe, Turkey

In this interview, Göktan Koçyildirim describes the existing child protection system and the resources devoted to the care and the best interest of the child in Turkey. He recalls the progress that has been made on those matters, but he also points out the main existing flaws in the juvenile justice system in Turkey, as well as the related challenges in the protection and justice for children, specifying the measures that UNICEF Turkey is taking in these areas. Considering the present situation in Syria, he addresses a current issue which has an impact on Turkey, namely explaining how Turkey deals with the problem of Syrian refugees, especially child refugees. As the Justice for Children and Child Rights Monitoring Specialist for UNICEF Turkey, he explains the key priorities of the 2011-2015 Country Programme Action Plan and specifies the main improvements observed since its beginning two years ago. Mr Göktan Koçyildirim concludes that there will always be new challenges to be addressed in the fields of child protection and juvenile justice, and this why efforts should be made in the long run in those areas.

1. What kind of national child protection system exists in Turkey and what resources are devoted to the care and best interest of the child?

Turkey has a strong historical and institutional background on child protection which takes its roots from the early 20th Century, with the establishment of “Child Protection Organization” (Himaye-i Etfal Cemiyeti). In addition, protection of children and child care has a significant cultural importance amongst the society. Within this context, since the first years of the Republic, various systems and institutions were established in this area. However, they have often been criticized for being slow and non-specialized in terms of responding to the needs of the child.

Having said that, since 2005, when a comprehensive “Child Protection Law” (CPL) was enacted as part of the EU accession legislative reform series, there have been greater structural developments and increasing momentum in the field of child rights and child protection. In short, the law anticipates a comprehensive child protection system with a specialized judiciary (with child prosecutors, child courts and social workers) able to take necessary protective/supportive measures and a strong, well-coordinated administration able to apply these measures both for juvenile offenders and children in need of protection.  The law and its by-laws clearly identified the responsibilities of various institutions (such as the judiciary, Ministry of Education (MoNE), Ministry of Health (MoH), Ministry of Labor (MoL) municipalities etc.) but also underlined that all public institutions and even NGOs have at least an informatory obligation when faced with a child who is in need of protection. To this end, child protection coordination bodies have been established at the central and provincial levels to better coordinate the services foreseen in the law. In line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the best interest of the child should be the primary concern during any kind of transaction regarding the child.

According to the Turkish system, a protective and supportive measure for a child should be taken through a judicial order (by a child judge) and in principle this order should be based on a social inquiry (by the child court's social worker). In some exceptional and urgent cases, the welfare administration is also authorized to take a protective measure which the has to be submitted before the child judge in five days for approval. The reason for this is that, theoretically when 'a measure' is taken against somebody, even if it has been taken for the best interest of that person, it is still a deprivation of liberty and therefore should be taken by a judicial body as per the right to freedom and liberty.

Considering the multi-sectoral structure, and the fact that the system is generally triggered by a court order, the law identified the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as the leading stakeholder for implementation of the law. However, this responsibility was transferred to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies (MoFSP) after establishment of this Ministry in 2011.

Therefore, since 2011 MoFSP is the top administration which is in charge of the coordination of the implementation of  five main protective and supportive measures - shelter, care,  counselling, education and health - envisaged in the CPL. Some of these, namely care, shelter and counselling, are fulfilled by the MoFSP through various institutions and service models.

Along with MoFSP, other agencies have various services targeting children as well. For instance, law enforcement bodies, the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of National Education and the Ministry of Health implement different child protection services in their particular areas of work. 

The MoFSP is also in charge of the general child rights policy of the country. The MoFSP spared a total of 625 Million Turkish Liras (appx. USD 280 Million) for child services in its 2014 budget.

2. Considering the current political context, how does Turkey deal with the problem of Syrian refugees at a regional level, especially children?

Since the start of the unrest in Syria, and more particularly the start of an influx of Syrians in June 2011, the Government of Turkey has formally declared and maintained an open border policy. As in the other countries neighboring  Syria, refugee arrivals increased significantly in 2012, despite some returns, and grew further over the summer with the intensification of the conflict. 

Children are paying an ever higher price for this escalating crisis. In addition to hundreds of deaths, children have been subjected to torture, sexual abuse, arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearances.

Then, there is the impact on the much larger numbers of children who have witnessed the death or injury of relatives and friends, or been exposed to harrowing scenes of violence and destruction. This has a severe impact on their physical and psychological well-being.

The Turkish authorities’ emergency response since the outset of the influx has been of a consistently high standard, new arrivals being swiftly settled in camps specially set up in conjunction with the Turkish Red Crescent Society (TRCS). Camp populations have been provided with food, shelter and medical assistance without interruption.  There is recognition that numbers are even higher outside the camps.

In 2013, UNICEF Turkey was able to increase its contribution to relief and recovery efforts for Syrians living in Turkey due to the violence in their country, strengthening children’s resilience and upholding their education and protection rights through teacher training and coaching, supply of schools, clothing and other items, as well as polio vaccines, language classes, child-friendly spaces and activities for young people. Cooperation with the Government, which was initially reluctant to involve international organisations, became closer at headquarters and in the field.

3 Considering your experience in UNICEF in Turkey, could you please tell us which do you think are the main flaws in juvenile justice in your country?

Despite the efforts made since 2005, there are still some issues within the Juvenile Justice system. These were also underlined by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in its latest Concluding Observations for Turkey in July 2012.

In the light of these observations, some of the outstanding issues can be listed as follows:

- Insufficient number of professionals working in the juvenile justice system,

- Poor quality of legal assistance,

- Long duration of trials involving children, resulting in large numbers of children in pretrial detention, compared to children serving sentences,

- Unduly heavy penalties against children and lack of alternative measures,

- Long detention periods and poor conditions in some prisons,

- Allegations of ill treatment against children staying in prisons.

In addition to these issues, the low use of preventative and divertive measures and means to keep children away from justice system should also be stressed here. In 2012, Turkey reached the highest rate of juvenile offending in its history with 160,000 juvenile cases opened in the courts. Moreover, more than 40% of these cases were for crimes against property, pointing to economic deprivation and poor social conditions. This of course is also related with the lack of good coordination among the various stakeholders which we’ve already discussed.

Another issue is the perception of the juvenile justice within the judiciary. According to the CPL, the child courts, along with their welfare-oriented/protective duties, are in charge of handling the criminal cases concerning children. Unfortunately, in practice, the criminal court role of the courts is more dominant (due to traditional perceptions and workload). This sometimes causes the welfare/protection mandate and procedures to be ignored whilst nurturing the punitive approach within the system. 

Despite all the efforts at specialization, more than 50% of children still come before a non-specialized court. Similarly, almost 60% of the children who are deprived of their liberty are staying in non-child-specific prisons. This has a direct impact on the high number of children under pre-trial detention and low usage of the alternative measures.  In this connection, the role of the social workers needs to be strengthened in terms of status, numbers and training.

Concerning the measures for child victims and witnesses of crime, the legislation brings some measures (such as recording of statements and the company of an expert during testimony), but it is hard to speak of widespread, standardized implementation.

Moreover, lack of disaggregated data collection and access to data are major issues which negatively affect better distribution and coordination of services. More analytical data collection, transparency, independent monitoring and cooperation with civil society in all aspects of the system, especially for the penitentiaries, are essential in order to understand and resolve the flaws.

Last but not least, along with the traditional punitive attitude mentioned above, the dispersed nature of the juvenile justice administration in Turkey seems to obstruct the creation of concrete policies for the entire system. Therefore there is a strong need for a permanent inter-sectoral juvenile justice agency.

4 UNICEF Turkey is operating on the basis of the ‘2011-2015 Country Programme Action Plan’ – a plan discussed, agreed and signed together with the Country Government - in order to cooperate with its goals for child and juvenile protection. Could you please inform us on what are the key priorities of this programme and what do they involve?

The main goal of the 2011-2015 country programme is to support the efforts of Turkey to achieve disparity reduction, social inclusion and protection along with youth empowerment and protection.

To this end, the Country Programme has two main components. The first component is on disparity reduction, social inclusion and protection. It applies the equity perspective to children’s well-being and access to child rights. This component anticipates that by the end of 2015 disparities in well-being and opportunity among children of different geographical and social backgrounds, and between boys and girls, will be reduced in a sustainable manner; national policies and strategies to combat child poverty will be in place; and fiscal resources for social protection will be increased. The focus is on social protection policies analysis, public finance review and monitoring of budget allocation and expenditure for children. The goal is to generate evidence leading to the adoption of more effective policies to ensure the social inclusion of disadvantaged children and families.

This component targets the most disadvantaged girls and boys. Its primary result areas are the development of social policies favouring children, the provision of diversified and quality day care and pre-school education services and programmes, the implementation of policies addressing the enrolment and completion of quality primary education, the strengthening of Early Child Development services, and the development of an increasingly integrated and functional protection and prevention system, including alternative care for children who are at risk of discrimination, violence and abuse, are Simultaneously, it also covers efforts to strengthen child rights monitoring systems.

The second component involves building a broad partnership to generate knowledge and evidence-based models for improving policies, systems and behaviour to enhance the life and livelihood skills of young people, whether in or out of school, and their opportunities for participation in society. This component of the country programme also anticipates ensuring that children in contact with the law are treated in a manner that is fully compliant with international standards. This involves identifying and combating barriers to the implementation of child-specific judicial procedures and monitoring the introduction and implementation of institutional care standards for children deprived of their liberty.

The main areas covered within this component are increased access to and completion of secondary education, especially for out-of-school girls and most disadvantaged adolescents, and opportunities for youth. In the juvenile justice system, it foresees an increase in the use of alternative measures and probation services along with the full adoption of institutional care standards for children deprived of their liberty .

5 An important part of 2011-2015 CPAP presents a strong concern with the protection and justice for children. Which specific measures is UNICEF Turkey taking in this field?

For more than a decade, UNICEF has been advocating and collaborating with the Government of Turkey for the establishment of a specialized juvenile justice system which operates in line with the international standards. The latest step of this collaboration is the “Justice for Children Project”.

The Project is financed by the European Union and technical support is provided by UNICEF. The project partners are the Ministry of Justice DG Prisons and Detention Houses, the Ministry of Justice Training Department, the Ministry of Family and Social Policies DG Child Services, the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors and the Justice Academy of Turkey.

The Project aims to reach judges, public prosecutors, attorneys, social workers, local and supreme judicial bodies, prison and detention houses' personnel, parliament groups, non- governmental organizations and other relevant bodies. The final beneficiaries of the Project are children and families.

The project has 3 main targets:

1.         To ensure fair trial, prevent children's secondary victimization, prevent deprivation of liberty, prevent unfair treatment towards children, and protect their rights in the juvenile justice system.

This includes upscaling inter-agency coordination through a nation-wide Strategy and training, conducting research on different areas of the Juvenile Justice system (protective and supportive measures, public custody, child prosecutor offices), and strengthening child-specific procedures by establishing child-friendly interview standards and rooms etc.

2.         To prepare an in-house training programme for professional groups in the juvenile justice system.

Along with preparation of a case-based training model with a particular focus on multi-disciplinary cooperation, this also includes updating the situation analysis of the Turkish JJ system and awareness raising and knowledge generation activities such as an International Symposium.

3.         To provide rehabilitation services through BISIS (Individualized Rehabilitation System for children deprived of their liberty).

BISIS –which was developed under a former EU funded project - aims to institutionalize previous work further by improving institutional care standards and providing individual treatment for each inmate based on his/her needs. The Project seeks to ensure effective implementation of BISIS and aims to establish linkages between this system and probation mechanisms. Moreover, in order to ensure that deprivation of liberty is used for the shortest period of time and as a last resort, linkages will be established between BISIS and the conditional release system, through development of the conditional release report format, and relevant training will be conducted to for prison/detention centre staff.

For more information regarding the project please visit http://www.cocuklaricinadalet.org/

Also, as UNICEF we are in close cooperation with the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, academia and some other civil society actors to enhance advocacy for realizing the rights of children coming into contact with the justice system.

In addition to these intensive efforts in the area of juvenile justice, UNICEF is also collaborating primarily with the MoFSP and civil society to prevent and put an end to violence against children by developing a national strategy and strengthening local capacities for addressing the issue.

Setting the minimum standards for child care institutions and improving the foster care services are also primary focus areas of UNICEF’s child protection programme in Turkey.

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