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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey passed a long-awaited asylum law on Friday that will enhance protection for people seeking refuge, but retained restrictions on applications from those from outside Europe.
Turkey's position as a bridge from Asia to Europe, as well as its wealth compared with neighboring states, has long made it both a destination and a transit point for migrants from the Middle East and as far afield as Africa and South Asia.
But Turkey, a candidate to join the EU, has long been under international pressure to regulate its asylum laws, demands that have mounted in the past two years with the arrival of some 400,000 refugees fleeing civil war in neighboring Syria.
The new legislation, which was signed into law by Turkey's president on Friday after being passed by parliament the previous day, provides the first legal framework for the protection of asylum seekers and refugees in Turkey.
The law now grants full refugee status to those coming to Turkey from Europe, and provides for the establishment of a new civilian body to oversee refugee applications, a process currently handled by the police, who are often untrained.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), said it had "supported" the drafting process and welcomed the law as an "important advancement for international protection", while the EU said it was a "clear commitment to build an effective migration management system in line with EU and international standards".
However, the new law stops short of lifting a geographical limitation widely criticized by rights groups. People arriving in Turkey "as a result of events from outside European countries" will only be given "conditional refugee" status.
While Turkey is one of the original signatories to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it is one of only a small number of countries to maintain a limitation on where it will accept them from.
Apart from a wave of refugees fleeing the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s, it is thought the numbers seeking asylum in Turkey from Europe have been very small in recent years.
Lifting its geographical limitation on asylum is a major condition for Turkey to join the European Union. Ankara has been in formal accession talks with the bloc since 2005, but those negotiations have stalled.
Rights groups have criticized the limitation because it leaves non-European refugees in a legal limbo while they wait to be settled in a third country by the UNHCR, which can often take many years.
With most of the attention on the tens of thousands of Syrians flowing into Turkey over the past two years, the growing number of refugees from other countries, particularly Afghanistan, often goes unreported.
While the numbers are much lower than those arriving from Syria, asylum applications from other countries in Turkey rose by 50 percent between June 2011 and June 2012, the UNHCR says.
Editing by Nick Tattersall and Jon Hemming