Promoting the Cultural Rights of Refugees in the Context of the Syrian Crisis: the case of the Ideas Box.

Author:Gursoy, Deniz
Position:Cultural Rights and Global Development


It has been frequently stated that the multidimensional characteristic of human rights is all too easily ignored in the face of the natural, political, economic or social forces that cause refugee outflows. Most particularly, during a protracted refugee situation (PRS), the full character of cultural rights is not immediately clear, but in relation to refugees and displaced people--consequently resident in either urban centres or refugee camps--it is significant and should be underlined. As the Syrian conflict (commencing in the Spring of 2011) became a refugee crisis, the crisis became a recognised 'PRS' during 2016, a condition that this article will explore; an exploration of the concept of PRS will then be followed by a focus on the characteristics and the changes of the definition of PRS (in a historical perspective), articulating an understanding on the importance of promoting cultural rights. Specifically regarding social cohesion between refugee and host communities, the article will attempt to develop a new perspective on the refugee population both in camps and urban centres pertinent to the socioeconomic contexts of the host countries.

As a result of the refugee influx to neighbouring countries of Turkey, Northern Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, the socioeconomic challenges of a refugee influx, as much as the political attitudes of the relevant governments, are currently generating the conditions for a lack of permanent and durable solutions. In more concrete terms, the refugees in the aforementioned countries are faced with a lack of durable options themselves because of a broad political unwillingness and/or a socioeconomic incapability on the part of host countries.

It is clear that the access to information plays a crucial role in providing a basis for the exercise of cultural rights. This article argues that conceptualising the access to information as a fundamental human right is a precondition for developing a long-term perspective and responding to the various needs of subjects like refugees in PRS comprehensively.

The Goethe-Institut--as the international representative cultural institution of the Federal Republic of Germany--is conducting various cultural and educational projects with its local, regional and international partners for refugees in primary receiving countries. One project is the 'Ideas Box', launched by Libraries Without Borders (LWB) in 2014 and aims to extent the benefits of libraries to isolated communities, providing access to information in post-disaster contexts. The project Ideas Box is conducted in cooperation with local partners, LWB and the financial support of German Federal Foreign Office. The focus of this article is the Goethe-Institut's response to the Syrian refugee crisis, where the Ideas Box project is an effect object of evaluation. The criteria of evaluation is simply how this project articulates the importance of promoting the cultural rights of refugees in the context of the Syrian crisis. (1)

Protracted Refugee Situation (PRS): definition, approaches and features

Definitions can be problematic as well as explanatory: but it is clear, that a critical-historical understanding of how the changes in a definition occur can effectively lead us to understand which tendencies have been dominated and what conditions, and what enables such a definition (if by definition we mean a consensus of understanding).

In defining PRS, UNHCR indicates that it is "a crude measure of refugee populations of 25,000 persons or more who have been in exile for five or more years in developing countries" (UNHCR, 2004: 2). The quantitative, temporal and territorial criteria of this definition are three conditions of understanding a PRS at a given time. However, in their 2009 publication, Global Trends 2008, UNHCR made two considerable changes in the quantitative and territorial criteria, defining a PRS as "one in which 25,000 or more refugees of the same nationality have been in exile for five or more years in a given asylum country' (UNHCR, 2009a: 7). According to the new definition, the refugees in question must belong to the same nationality, and not only in a developing country but a protracted refugee situation in a given asylum country, and as long as they last five years or more. These two revised criteria had a two-sided effect on the conceptual framework of PRS: the scope of the definition of PRS was limited by a "same nationality" regulation as it was extended by the new territorial criterion. In a 2017 publication UNHCR added an adjective to this definition: "Traditionally, a protracted refugee situation has been defined by UNHCR as one in which 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality have been in exile for five consecutive years or more in a given asylum country" (UNHCR, 2017: 22, my italics).

However, regardless of the differences between the aforementioned definitions, a characteristic of PRS was described by UNHCR in 2004 (as Milner emphasized: Milner, 2014: 152) as "one in which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo". UNHCR described the situation of refugees in "a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo" as follows:

Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile. A refugee in this situation is often unable to break free from enforced reliance on external assistance (UNHCR, 2004: 1). A state of limbo can be considered as "a state of uncertainty" that makes it impossible for refugees in this situation to begin developing a new life or new perspectives on their life. Characterised by uncertainty, PRS may continue for many years without durable solutions that are developed by host countries and/or the international community. The primary reasons for the lack of durable solutions are recognised as a political unwillingness and/or the incapability of host countries to fully recognise the human rights of refugees. In this sense, PRS was defined by UNHCR once again in a document dated 2009 as a situation that millions of refugees are trapped in for 5 years or more after their initial displacement, without immediate prospects for implementation of durable solutions (UNHCR, 2009b).

The time that refugees spend in PRS depends on essentially political decisions and socioeconomic circumstances of the host countries, and it has a tendency to increase because of this dependency. As a commentator stated (Schall, 2013), indeed, not only has the percentage of refugees affected by PRSs increased, the average time they spend in exile has too. UNHCR estimates that the average duration of major refugee situations, protracted or not, has increased from 9 years in 1993 to 17 years in 2003 (UNHCR, 2004). In 2015, U.S. Department of State notified that UNHCR estimated that the average length of a major protracted refugee situations is 26 years. (2) According to UNHCR Report Global Trends 2016, in which it is stated that the definition of PRS has limitations as displacement situations are dynamic, there are several situations lasting 20 years or more:

Based on the existing definition, 11.6 million refugees, representing some two-third of all refugees, were in protracted refugee situations at the end of 2016. Of this number, 4.1 million were in a situation lasting 20 years or more. The situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran has involved large numbers of people--combined, more than 2 million - and has lasted more than 30 years. There were 5.6 million people in protracted situations of shorter duration (between five and nine years), most of them Syrian refugees. (UNHCR, 2017: 22). At this point, it should be noted that Palestinian refugees in Egypt are the longest protracted situation under UNHCR's mandate (UNHCR, 2017) and Palestinian refugees as a whole, who fall under the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), represent the world's oldest and largest protracted refugee situation (UNHCR, 2006: 106).

Despite the fact that most PRSs are in Africa, particularly in North and sub-Saharan Africa, PRSs...

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