Part I of the series: Invisible

Part II Geographical Limitation

In 1951, following World War II, the concentration camps, the genocide and a mass exodus of people, the newly formed United Nations (former League of Nations) would come together and pen what will today be known as “the 1951 Refugee Convention“.

The Convention would define the term “refugee”, and shed light to the protection of peoples running from persecution due to their race, language, religion, political opinion in their land of origin. Drawn out of dire necessity in the aftermath of WWII, the Convention was an important step towards the protection of civilians in armed conflict. But there was a problem. As it was written in the days following the Nazi concentration camps and the forced migration of people primarily of European origin, the wording of the Convention soon became extremely limiting in determining who could get refugee status. The mention of “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951” needed to be defined further, otherwise it could be misconstrued as to mean that only unarmed civilians who were effected by the events of and before 1951 could earn refugee status. 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol went like this:

(2) As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-
founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, national-
ity, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is out-
side the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear,
is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who,
not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former
habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such
fear, is unwilling to return to it.
(1) For the purposes of this Convention, the words “events occurring before
1 January 1951” in article 1, section A, shall be understood to mean either:
(a) “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951”; or
(b) “events occurring in Europe or elsewhere before 1 January 1951”,
and each Contracting State shall make a declaration at the time
of signature, ratification or accession, specifying which of these
meanings it applies for the purpose of its obligations under this

Turkey signed the 1951 Geneva Convention. But then, in 1967, the United Nations realized that the way the Convention defined the refugee was leading to more problems than it was solving. World history did not end with WWII. Wars and conflicts, persecution of peoples continued at an ever increasing rate. First there was Korea, later Vietnam and several other regional wars in central Asia, Middle East and Africa. Not to mention the cold war. Forced migration was an imminent issue, and the number of people who should be granted refugee status were piling up.

In 1967, the UN issued a protocol to the Refugee Convention. The historical and geographical limitation signed into force in the 1951 Convention was lifted with these words:


(2) For the purpose of the present Protocol, the term “refugee” shall, except
as regards the application of paragraph 3 of this article, mean any person
within the definition of article 1 of the Convention as if the words “As a result
of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and …” “and the words”…
“a result of such events”, in article 1 A (2) were omitted.
(3) The present Protocol shall be applied by the States Parties hereto
withoutany geographic limitation, save that existing declarations made
by States already Parties to the Convention in accordance with article 1 B
(1) (a) of the Convention, shall, unless extended under article 1 B (2) thereof, apply also under
the present Protocol.

Turkey, along with a few other UN member countries signed the protocol opting out for a geographical limitation. This limitation would soon grow into a hurdle too big and too scary for each government in power to demolish. This elusive white elephant would also effect the lives of millions of people who, fleeing wars in three continents, were trying to find refuge on its shores, along its borders and in its cities.

With possibility of an ascension to the European Union, several countries who originally opted out for a geographical limitation in the 1967 Protocol later lifted this provision and ratified the 1967 Protocol in full. Yet Turkey continued to uphold its excuses and hung on strong to the limitation. Practice showed the lifting of the limitation did not have a dramatic effect on the number of refugees taking shelter at a given country. There would not be a sudden “boom” just because now they could grant refugee status to those seeking a safe haven in their country. Wars created refugees, repressive regimes did, not conventions and protocols. Yet Turkey did not budge.

Thus, Turkey’s original argument, that it is “a country of strategic geographical importance, a bridge between continents, a historical and natural passage for peoples could become a disadvantage should the geographical limitation be lifted,” and that the country could become flooded with refugees fleeing wars in all its neighboring countries once they start granting refugee status to people, stayed.

Fear of loss of control. Fear that the people who were to seek temporary refuge would come to stay for good.

This fear also dictated Turkey’s legal framework when it came to founding or opening NGOs. The subject is worthy of its own discussion topic, but  in short: foreign NGOs and foreign humanitarian aid agencies were subtlety barred from opening national chapters in Turkey. Legal loopholes, lengthy application procedures, bureaucracy all translated into an indirect dismissal, and several NGOs who tried soon gave up and turned their operation headquarters to neighboring countries instead. There was no MSF, no IRC, no Save the Children. The only foreign/international aid actors were a small group of people, missionaries mostly, who were operating under the roof of local churches and a handful of UN Agencies with limited agendas.

The Syrian influx today seems to be changing a whole lot of things including how Turkey deals with international aid. Before the June 7 general elections, according to this report by IRIN, away from the limelight and press coverage, without a welcoming committee and ribbon cutting, big players in the world of international humanitarian aid finally started entering the country.

However, MSF, no MSF, the country still has “asylum seekers,” and “guest-houses”  to place them in. The camps along the border towns in the southeast of the country are government run with the Turkish Red Cross so far being the only aid provider. There are an alien registration bureaus, operational as part of the police force and commissioned by the Interior Ministry, and they do what Turkish security forces do best, keep records of people.

Once refugees are “identified” and registered by the officials, they are given a fixed amount of time to stay as “guests” during which a resettlement plan can be worked out for them. As for Syrians, they have a special status. Once they enter the country they are automatically granted a form of temporary residency for a fixed amount of time. Most registration cards expire sometime in 2017. As for other nationalities, resettlement is often a nightmare. UNHCR, with its limited jurisdiction comes into play and tries to match the numbers of “eligible” refugees and the quotas that are offered by a third country.

I photographed/wrote a book about this impasse in 2006. Yasadisi (Illegal) was an attempt to tell how the complex legal system in Turkey was hurting the people it were to protect. The book told the story of two African women, both single mothers, trying to survive in the jungle we call Istanbul, and among the legal loopholes of this country’s protection laws. As I followed Suad and Zimbabwe around for close to three years, photographing their everyday lives, I often came across refugees from different geographies who would refer to UNHCR’s role in the country as one of a travel agency. If you fit into the profile of a refugee, and if there was a quota available in, say, Canada, your travel arrangements were by the courtesy of the UN. But a joke it was. Life as a refugee in Turkey was never easy. Often the vulnerable groups -women and children- washed on the doorsteps of the few refugee organizations, traumatized. Most had serious psychological problems. Some were raped in war, or abused at the hands of the human traffickers. Few carried communicable diseases as a result, which in and of itself was a source of shame. They didn’t trust anybody, they did not feel safe. They certainly didn’t trust the Turkish government who only kept records of them in huge archives, but did little in terms of protection or tangible aid. The bureaucracy blew them to smithereens. And some merely slipped through the cracks, unable to take it anymore, took their own lives instead.

Despite a recent loosening of its policy in granting international NGOs legal status during the Syrian refugee crisis, Turkey still holds dear the geographical limitation it opted out for in the 1967 Protocol. And there is no light at the end of the tunnel about lifting it anytime soon. It simply is not a priority. Giving control of the situation to international somebodies is a cautionary nightmare, a last option, a desperate move for the ruling parties. Even as refugee populations swell along the border, as refugee families, fearing for their lives, try to travel away from the border areas and try to lose themselves, be invisible, in the hub of the big cities, Turkey seems to want as little change as possible in its mediocre refugee policies. However one thing it has not accounted for is the fact that this refugee crisis, now, is not like any other. Invisible tectonic plates seem to have shifted and people are fleeing wars and armed conflicts at a mind blowing rate and at any cost. Short term legislative maneuvers by countries are like drops of water on a sizzling hot pan: they will leave an ugly mark before evaporating into thin air. But more on them later.


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