Humanitarianism as Foreign Policy: The Case of Syrian Refugees in Turkey; by Jill Boyd

The uprising turned civil war in Syria has displaced millions of Syrians and created one of the grimmest humanitarian disasters in history. As the war continues, the refugee situation and implications for neighboring countries receiving floods of fleeing Syrians created by the displacement should be analyzed and evaluated. This paper will explore the political significance, liability, and challenges of the Syrian refugee population in the context of Turkey. I argue that Turkey’s humanitarian response towards incoming Syrians is a flexing of its foreign policy, and is in its best interest to keep acting accordingly if it wishes to attain regional and international prestige. Despite criticisms from Western politicians and prominent NGO’s on Turkey’s tight grip on the reins of a humanitarian response, its actions grant legitimacy to its own criticisms against the structure of multilateral institutions. As Turkey acts on the situation, it is simultaneously being tested on its absorption capacity and its consistency on defining its own narrative.

The timeliness and political relevance of this study is justified for a number of reasons. Turkey as a host country has been widely praised for its benevolence towards its Syrian neighbors seeking refuge it in its borders, however, it has been criticized for tight restrictions on NGO’s and humanitarian agencies that seek to offer supplemental services. In recent history, control of refugee populations has been directed under the auspices of organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR); in this case, however, the Government of Turkey has assumed almost complete control of administering services and providing shelter to incoming Syrians. This strategy of state humanitarianism in Turkey offers an ideal case of the institution versus state tension, luring an international audience on whether its success, or failure, to effectively meet the needs of refugees will occur. A coherent analysis of Turkey’s response to the humanitarian crisis posed by Syria will take into account Turkey’s guiding foreign policy principles, past criticisms towards international institutions, and services provided to refugees. It is the position of this paper that Turkey’s ability to generate and sustain the livelihoods of destitute Syrians that will determine its internal and foreign capabilities in times of international crisis.

The broad purposes of this research are 1) to analyze and evaluate the role of Turkey as a receiving host country for fleeing Syrians and 2) to create awareness on how refugees and state humanitarianism fit into interior and foreign policy systems. This comprehensive analysis will be broken into several sections. First, this report will review existing literature and legal instruments on the relationship between international institutions and state sovereignty in order to construct a basic framework in which the creation and necessary response to a refugee crisis is conditioned. Since this paper locates Turkey as the state actor in the humanitarian crisis, this section will likewise review an institutional actor: the United Nations Refugee Agency, the world’s central refugee coordination and regulating body. This will include a presentation of official documents as it applies to state and non-state actors, including Turkey’s official foreign policy vision and the UNHCR’s international refugee legal instruments that define and classify those who follow under its protection and the rights guaranteed under its jurisdiction. Next, this paper will utilize the Syrian civil war’s refugee crisis as a case in which the state versus institution interaction will be materialized and evaluated in terms of services, motivations, and sustainability. The last section will present a rational evaluation on the overall performance of the Turkish government, including points of highlights gained from this research.


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