IA-Forum: You’ve stated that a historical perspective is key to understanding the Middle East’s current handling of the Syrian refugee crisis. Would you briefly highlight key historical points to help provide context?
Professor Dawn Chatty: Twice in modern history, Syria and its peoples have experienced massive displacement. In the 100 years between 1850 and 1950, Syria received several million forced migrants from the contested borderlands with the Imperial Russian and Ottoman Empires. At the close of the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the following Ottoman- Russian Wars in the 1860s and 1880s, an excess of 3 million forced migrants from the Crimea, Caucasus and the Balkans entered the Ottoman provinces of Anatolia; many continued on their journeys to the Arab regions of Bilad al Sham (Greater Syria). The Ottoman administration had to deal with the aftermath of what many historians labelled as the first genocide in modern history. It established a special commission to address the needs of these forcibly displaced Tatars, Circassians, Chechnyans, Abkhaza, Abaza, and other related ethnic groups. This‘Refugee’ Commission – the first of its kind in contemporary European history - offered incoming forced migrants agricultural land, draught animals, seeds, and other support in the form of tax relief for a decade, and exemptions from military service (Chatty, 2010). Integration into numerous ethnically –mixed settlements of Greater Syria was encouraged in order to promote and preserve the cosmopolitan and convivial nature of urban and rural communities in the late Ottoman Empire.
As World War I drew to a close, as many as half a million Armenians found refuge in Syria, settling among with their co-religionists in Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut. When the modern Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, 10,000 Kurds from Turkey fled across the border into Syria choosing to escape from the forced secularism of Kemal Ataturk’s new Turkey. The Inter War French mandate over Syria saw a continuation of these processes, with waves of Assyrian Christians entering the country in the 1930s seeking asylum and safety from deplorable conditions in Iraq with the return by the British of their mandate to the League of Nations. All these forced migrants were granted citizenship in the new Syrian state. And then in the late 1940s, Syria was the safe harbor for over 100,000 Palestinians fleeing the ‘Nakba’ and the creation of the state of Israel. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the modern ‘truncated’ Syrian state, carved out of Greater Syria by the League of Nations in 1920 and granted full independence in 1946, was a place of refuge for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ethno-religious minorities uprooted from their homelands near and far as a result of war, of arbitrary lines drawn across maps, and ethno-sectarian strife.
Even in the early 21st century, Syria admitted over a million Iraqi refugees into its country hosting them as ‘temporary guests’ and brother Arabs. As long as they and other refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea conducted their business without crossing any ‘red lines’ they were tolerated by the Syrian Ba’thi state. The Arab and Syrian institution of hospitality and refuge meant that, until 2011, the humanitarian aid regime did not have to deal with a mass influx
into Europe of Iraqi or other refugees from the Arab world into Europe.
IA-Forum: Middle Eastern countries that have been highly impacted by the crisis include Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. How would you characterize management of Syrian refugees for each of these countries?
Professor Dawn Chatty: Both Lebanon and Jordan have been assisted by the UN Agency for Refugees and have benefited from an international donor response of nearly £2 billion in aid. This, however, is far short of the sums pledged and represents a shortfall of 60 % of required financing in order to provide meaningful assistance to the most needy. Syrians in both Jordan and Lebanon have great trouble managing to survive with dignity. They are not allowed to work and must depend
whole wholly on UN assistance or work illegally and risk being caught and deported or sent to one of the UN refugee camps – which many Syrians regard as nothing more than open air prisons. Turkey, on the other hand – the only country to have signed the 1951 Convention on the status of Refugees – has provided assistance to Syrians both in 5* refugee camps and among the rural and urban areas where they have self-settled. This has been managed by AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency), the special department for emergency relief, which is part of the office of the Turkish Prime Minister.
IA-Forum: What measures have been taken – and are lacking – in the development Syrian refugee youth in host countries?
Professor Dawn Chatty: Although ‘No Lost Generation’ is a United Nations initiative le
ad by UNICEF and includes important international and national non-government organizations such as Save the Children, USAID UKAID, Mercy Corps and SIDA, the main focus is, surprisingly is on the children up to about age 12. Refugee youth are largely ignored in this initiative.
Read this rest of the interview and more in the latest issue of International Affairs Forum, focusing on migration and statelessness by clicking HERE.