Politics of Transnational Humanitarianism: International NGOs Assisting Syrian Refugees in Turkey

By Dolunay Ugur
Submitted to Session P4980 (Humanitarianism and the Syrian Crisis, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ethnography; Human Rights; Minorities; Transnationalism; Turkish Studies;
Turkey as the top host country for Syrian refugees, also hosts dozens of international NGOs assisting them, mostly in the Southeast Anatolia Region of Turkey. However, Syrian refugees are not the only population who have been suffering in the region. The region, where Kurdish people constitute the predominant ethnic group, has recently witnessed state violence, curfews, civilian deaths, and human rights violations since the June 2015 general election. The co-existence of historically ‘less-than-citizens’ Kurdish people and relatively recently ‘less-than-human’ Syrian refugees in the same region constitutes the perfect setting to explore the complex dynamics of transnational humanitarianism with politics, law, and morality, more specifically with nation states, supranational decision making bodies (e.g. the EU), international law, and humanitarian ethics. In the presence of these complicated dynamics and two “possible” beneficiaries of the humanitarian aid in the region, namely Syrian refugees and Kurdish people, this paper analyzes the humanitarian claim of neutrality in determining who can be the “subject” of its assistance. Three-month ethnography in the region and in-depth semi-structured and open-ended interviews with international NGO workers show that while human rights organizations document all human rights violations in the region, humanitarian relief organizations almost never provides assistance to Kurdish people. The research reveals that this morally and legally driven international assistance intersects with national and international politics in various ways. At the end, the paper claims that transnational humanitarianism constitutes a type of governance in the region where the political, the legal, and the moral motivations and decisions of international NGOs contradict, interpenetrate, and sometimes substitute for each other.