By Arja Oomkens -
With the conflict in Syria entering its fifth year of ongoing atrocities and destruction, it has come to epitomize one of the most challenging humanitarian crises of our era. Nearly 4 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries and North Africa, and over 200,000 Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Europe. Consequently, the need to address issues of unprecedented displacement and refugee protection has become ever more pressing.
Across Syria’s borders, the mass influx of refugees imposes a heavy burden on mainly Turkey, but also Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Of these countries, Turkey has received by far the most refugees. According to UNHCR estimates, more than 1,7 million Syrians are believed to have crossed Turkey’s borders. While some of them are accommodated in refugee camps, most of the refugees are currently living in urban areas in the southeast provinces of Turkey such as Hatay, Gaziantep, and Kilis.
In host communities, cultural and religious differences between locals and Syrian refugees, combined with competition for healthcare, shelter, water, jobs, and school placements are causing serious social tensions. The violent anti-Syrian protests in the Turkish city Gaziantep in August 2014 have undoubtedly demonstrated that such tensions can easily deteriorate. These protests were triggered by the responsibility of a Syrian tenant for the murder of a Turkish landlord. After the murder, protesters gathered and started shouting anti-Syrian slogans all over the city, attacked Syrians whom they encountered in the streets, destroyed workplaces owned by Syrians, and set cars on fire with Syrian license plates. In the same month, more violent outbreaks against Syrians were reported elsewhere in Turkey.
It is evident that there is no easy answer to such a complex and fragile situation. Yet, bearing in mind that Syrian displacement will most likely become protracted (since there is no prospect for the conflict in Syria to abate in the near future), it is of the utmost importance to address the increased social tensions and seek a clear, future-oriented, and durable solution to ensure safe living conditions for both locals and Syrian refugees.
In searching for solutions to refugeehood, reference is often made to the possibility of local integration. The UNHCR has also identified the practice of voluntary return and resettlement as possible durable solutions. However, since the possibility of repatriation is remote and resettlement into a third country is an option only available to a small minority, integration into host communities is the most viable option with regard to the Syrian refugee crisis. Local integration essentially means that the host state grants a refugee a durable legal status that would allow him or her to remain in the country of first asylum and participate in the social, economic, and cultural life of the host community. The UNHCR has indicated that this form of integration would require a preparedness of the refugee to adapt to the host community without having to forego his or her own cultural identity. This formulation thus requires both a social and legal form of integration before it becomes a durable solution.
In light of the social tensions between locals of Turkish host communities and Syrians, adequate local integration would directly support the protection of both groups. In order to create a stable social order (in the form of equal participation of Syrians and locals), the goodwill of local residents of the host communities will be a prerequisite. Turkey therefore needs to find an effective way to mitigate the fear towards refugees that is present in host communities. Strains of fear, in the form of competition, can be alleviated through the construction of new schools or health clinics for the local population and refugees. Furthermore, to move beyond the status of Syrians as refugees and to show Turkey’s acceptance of Syrians, integration through naturalization (acquisition of citizenship) must be made available. To do so, Turkey needs the cooperation of the international community to ensure effective burden-sharing methods. Without sharing the burden of local integration, to which international assistance and funding are imperative, Turkey would be confronted with an impossible task.
Even though social and legal integration into Turkish host communities can be an effective solution to the ever-increasing tensions in the country, the option to do so remains left to the discretion of the government of Turkey. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter remains that neither general international law nor treaty obliges states to grant durable solutions.
Still, since Turkey is a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention (CRSR), it is relevant to shortly discuss the state’s obligation under article 34 CSCR. This article does provide access to citizenship through integration (formulated as naturalization) and is predicated on a recognition that a refugee required to remain outside his or her country of origin should be able to benefit from “a series of privileges, including political rights.” However, as renowned academic and refugee lawyer James Hathaway has rightly indicated, article 34 cannot be deemed a strong obligation as it does not require state parties to grant citizenship to refugees. Moreover, the already weak obligation of article 34 towards Syrians is further undermined by the geographical limitation Turkey has retained to its ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention – which means that only those fleeing as a consequence of “events occurring in Europe” will be regarded as “refugees” for the purposes of the Convention. For this reason, Turkey can uphold that it has no obligations under the 1951 Convention to grant privileges towards Syrian refugees.
Consequently, Turkey is under no obligation to accord local integration to Syrian refugees. However, for the protection of Syrians and residents of host communities – and therefore Turkey’s national security – it is essential to take into account that increased social tensions may have a deteriorating effect. As prominent sociologist Abram de Swaan has phrased in his latest book, mounting tensions in the form of strong identification with one’s own group combined with eminent disidentification towards another group over a longer period of time may evoke murderous hatred. As disidentifying sentiments in Turkish host communities regarding cultural and religious differences (and various forms of competition) are rising towards Syrians, the likelihood for hostilities to erupt increases. What must be stressed is that even though there is no legal obligation for Turkey to integrate Syrians into their host communities, the government – in cooperation with the international community – should feel the responsibility to work towards local integration. This may be the only durable solution to the Syrian refugee crisis in their country.
See for more information: Hathaway J.C., The Rights of Refugees under International Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.