Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories. The Syrian Kurdish Exodus and the Lebanese Akkaris.
Migrants are definable as people who spontaneously choose to leave their country and build a better life elsewhere. Before their departure, migrants are therefore able to ask for information about their destination and what opportunities they may have there. Moreover, they remain free to go back to their home country whenever needed or desired. The United Nations defines a ‘migrant’ as an individual who has resided in a foreign country for longer than one year regardless of the causes, voluntary or involuntary, and the means, regular or irregular. Nevertheless, at the international level, no universally accepted definition for “migrant” exists.
Conversely, refugees have no other choice but leaving their country because they are persecuted, tortured, being their life somehow jeopardised if they remained in their home country. In specific, Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. In such cases, the very reasons behind refugee influxes are political and human rights, safety and security, rather than individual and collective economic upgrading. People’s departure is mostly unexpected and unplanned due to warfare or natural disaster. Their journey towards the so-called “host-countries” is full of risks, yet in relentless search for protection and safety. In most cases, refugees, unlike migrants, cannot return unless the political and social scenario back home changes in their favour.
If those described above are the de facto and legal defining conditions according to which we are supposed to distinguish a migrant from a refugee, the latest flows of people on the move throughout the Middle East point to a less clear-cut category of mobile populations. In the cases of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, and Lebanon, which will be discussed later, the 1951 Geneva’s Refugee Convention has not been ratified by the governments: thus, until the time individuals seeking refuge do not receive their official status from UNHCR (or UNRWA in the case of Palestinians), they are to be legally considered asylum seekers or forced migrants. Even once they obtain the official documentation, refugees fear repatriation and detention, in that UNHCR and UNRWA simply clinched bilateral agreements with most of the Middle Eastern governments hosting the newcomers, as they are not signatories to the 1951 Convention. This explains the chronic indoor life that many refugees, other than the Palestinians, lead to be able to reside in the Middle East.
Yet, international law’s regulations and the orthodox language of the human rights campaigns seem to create more confusion in addressing changing and blurred mobile groups of people, by engendering a gap between real needs, rights’ achievement, and programs meant to addressing social and political issues on the basis of forced and non-forced migrations. It is how “forced” such migration flows are which increasingly become ungraspable. As mentioned above, international law does not contemplate cases in which people who are not subjected to persecution are eligible for such a legal status. However, it became evident that people, even when not directly persecuted or personally endangered, still find themselves in the condition to have no other choice than leaving, as the Syrian exodus is currently proving. Consequently, speaking of and tackling migrants as a different category from refugees – and vice versa – becomes misleading on a pragmatic and a legal level, rather than ensuring rights and meeting needs appropriately.
For instance, in the first instance, UNHCR did not consider external compelling reasons for migration as mandatory criteria for registering refugees from Syria. In Lebanon, the rash policy of considering anyone coming out of Syria as aprioristically eligible – as potentially subjected to persecution by one of the warring parties – led to a daunting and premature shortage of aid which the humanitarian agencies were supposed to provide, as well as to an unbelievable number of registered refugees (now 1,172,753) until the January 2015 tightening of the new Lebanese immigration laws.
Therefore, to make up for resources’ waste, UNHCR subsequently introduced refugee status cancellation policies in accordance with the Lebanese government when registered families or individuals did not collect their assigned aid packages more than three times in a row. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that Syrian refugees often reported the lack of successful communication between them and aid providers. Many of them therefore found themselves in extreme need of assistance after being cancelled from the UNHCR list. In a nutshell, the random registration of refugees at the outset of the refugee crisis, and the consequent UN compensation policy to make aid suffice for all, have unavoidably been perceived as aggressive policies by the refugees, for whom such measures were standing for the carelessness of the international community.
A further example is provided by the paradox that defining an individual as ‘economic migrant’ rather than ‘refugee’ can mean denying her/him access to the process of applying for asylum. Likewise, those who do not have the status of asylum seeker can legally be returned to their country of origin whenever the latter is considered safe. The distinction inevitably leads legal institutions to introduce a list of countries from which either only asylum seekers or economic migrants can come. For example, countries ridden by longstanding conflict like Syria are viewed as merely producing influxes of refugees and not economic migrants. The complexity and differentiation of the types of mobility that the Syrian political crisis has gradually given birth to goes here unheeded.
It is of use to recall that many Syrians were undergoing political harassment and persecution from the side of state institutions in the 1970s and later, who were therefore fleeing to neighbouring and western countries in the capacity of ‘economic migrants’ rather than ‘political refugees’. The lack of officially declared emergencies, and the unwillingness to deal with the Hafez al-Asad regime at an international level at that time, influenced the definition and the management of Syrian people’s mobility in those years, in a bid to depoliticise or simply undercut the matter for the sake of regional and international stability.
A further suitable example nowadays is offered by the North-Eastern region of Syria, the semi-independent area which is co-ruled in practice by Bashar al-Asad’s regime and the Syrian Kurdish Party PYD (Democratic Union Party), despite the highly controversial relationship that these two political actors have intertwined.
Especially in 2013, two years after the outset of the Syrian uprisings taking place across the whole country, Syrian Kurdistan produced big flows of ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ altogether towards the neighbouring Turkey and Iraq. A large number of those who fled into Iraqi Kurdistan (where over 90% of Syrian refugees are now Syrians Kurds) and Turkey – where segments of their families were already living – should properly be defined as ‘economic migrants’, if the very reasons for their migration were considered. Indeed, the traditional inhabitants of Syrian Kurdistan had long been neglected by the central state’s services, and the regime’s politics of meeting the Kurds’ needs and granting Syrian citizenship to many of them only at the beginnings of the Syrian revolution (April 2011), were primarily aimed at averting a greater turmoil, therefore limiting the use of force to curb the popular protests in these areas. Similarly, the regime’s aviation has never bombed the Kurdish-majority areas since 2011, except for the territories presently held by the so-called Islamic State (mainly al-Hasake’s governorate).
Aside from chronic poverty, hence, longstanding lack of social services, schools, and roads, and the decreasing presence of basic goods, electricity, and clean water during the ongoing conflict, Syrian Kurdistan mostly became a region of spontaneous migration rather than refugehood caused by indiscriminate political persecution and bombing against the local population (i.e. the Hama governorate in central Syria). Nonetheless, the life conditions of the average Kurdish Syrian citizen were dire to the extent at which migrations towards an unknown future and a refugee-camp life in Turkey or Iraq were still considered as a better option.
In sum, the Syrian Kurdistan region, called in Arabic “Rojavà”, has long been neglected by the Syrian central state as well as by international media before the Syrian crisis. The mechanic and aprioristic association of Syrians with refugee influxes in the Middle East and elsewhere, operated from outside, has also induced many Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds living in this region to abandon their homes and look for a better life outside of the country. The use of the refugees’ label and the livelihoods at their disposal – the emergency aid supposedly destined only to the war-stricken – have turned out to be great assets for disadvantaged people desiring to find a job and a higher economic status far away from home.
Likewise, many among the older date Syrian migrants in Lebanon decided to leave their previous life of exploitation and social marginalisation to opt for a more hopeful life in Europe or elsewhere. Their Syrian passports have helped them to pursue their mobility purposes and concretely move towards an economic betterment and a “life of dignity” only in times of regional emergency.
The typical phenomenon of viewing refugee status as opportunity, whenever the international community legally acknowledges an emergency and its political consequences, also appeared in recent times with chronically poor Lebanese citizens, especially from the Akkar region, which is deemed as the poorest in Lebanon. Akkar’s residents started “capitalising” the miserable status of Syrian refugees to comply with their own very needs and legitimate desires of migration. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the drowning of seventeen Akkaris from the village of Fneideq who had bought fake Syrian passports in order to be shipped towards the Australian coasts. After the tragic episode, Akkar’s roads were blocked as a sign of “protest and solidarity, to express our frustration… When will we redeem ourselves from chronic poverty and deprivation?!”.
Neither the status of economic migrant nor that of refugee seems to be able, per se, to redeem diversely needy people, as long as such international labels remain embedded in the increasingly laborious applicability of legal definitions, the way in which the latter discipline the material management of people’s mobility, and the predominant political order which is strategically upheld by these labels.
While law should sort out social issues on the basis of social justice and overall security, its recurrent submission to international politics keeps on labeling departures, resettlements, continuous movements, personal decisions, and human lives at its will. Nothing more ungraspable. Nothing more fruitlessly ambitious.
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
 United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
 Quotations taken from in-depth interviews undertaken 13 October 2013, in Lebanon.