- In earlier times, both the Ottoman and Persian empires deported large numbers of Kurds from their historic homelands in an attempt to control them better. More recently, the modern Republic of Turkey has also internally displaced many ethnic Kurds in an attempt to assimilate them. Thus, today more Kurds in Turkey might live outside their historic homeland in eastern Anatolia than those who remain there. Iraq and Syria have also displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds during the 20th century. This situation remained little known, however, until the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991.The tragic flight of more than 1.8 million Iraqi Kurdish refugees from Saddam Hussein's vengeance following the Gulf War in April 1991 brought the long-standing Kurdish question to the forefront of international concern. Eventually it led to the creation of a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) behind the protection of the no-fly zone enforced by the United States. Because of continuing upheavals in Turkey and Iraq, however, Kurdish refugees remain a major problem both in the Middle East and Europe. Indeed, a sizable Kurdish diaspora has now arisen in Europe in particular.It is important to note that the term refugee has a much more precise and narrow definition in international law than its everyday reference to persons fleeing from their homes in times of war or because of political or religious persecution. The difference between the precise international legal meaning of the term and its common everyday usage no doubt helps explain frequent frustration with the inability to solve refugee problems more readily. Moreover, as with most difficulties involving international law, state sovereignty plays a major role in inhibiting the progressive development of the international law of refugees. Municipal (national) administrative and judicial decisions interpret and apply many of the international legal rules involving refugees on a daily basis.The modern international legal definition of refugee stems from the statute of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), adopted by the UN General Assembly on 14 December 1950, and the 1951 Convention (Treaty) Relating to the Status of Refugees, as modified by the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Thus, under international law, a refugee is any person 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 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, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."This international legal definition accords important protections and economic and social benefits only to those narrowly defined as refugees and only in states party to the Refugee Convention and/or Protocol to which the refugee has been lawfully admitted under that state's municipal (national) laws. Most displaced Kurds have great difficulties in meeting these strict requirements for being classified as refugees. For example, Kurds who remain within the borders of their country of origin are simply internally displaced persons (IDPs), not refugees with internationally recognized rights. Many displaced Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria suffer from this problem. Furthermore, even Kurds who cross international borders often fail to meet the strict legal requirements of being refugees as interpreted by the host country where they have arrived, often because such host countries do not want to burden themselves with additional problems and expenses. Many Kurds who arrive in Europe are faced with this situation and are subject to being deported back to the country from which they originated.Although it is a party to both the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, Turkey has made important reservations to them that severely limit refugees from the Middle East. This, of course, largely refers to the Kurds. In addition, neither Iraq nor Syria is even a party to either refugee treaty. Iran, on the other hand, has often offered generous aid to Kurdish refugees and others.Non-refoulement, or the right not to be expelled or returned to a territory where one's life would be threatened, remains one legal right that a Kurd or anybody else has who cannot meet the legal definition of refugee. Unfortunately, the United States itself seriously challenged this right of non-refoulement in 1993 when it intercepted Haitian refugees on the high seas who were fleeing their homeland and returned them to Haiti without first determining whether they might qualify as refugees under international law. In 1998, however, the U.S. Congress gave renewed life to the concept of non-refoulement when it enacted an appropriations rider forbidding the use of appropriated funds for extraterritorial refoulement of refugees and also establishing the policy of applying the non-refoulement requirements of the 1984 Convention against Torture without regard to geographic location.
Historical Dictionary of the Kurds. Michael M. Gunter.
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