Not My Word, Not My Problem

By Logos Consulting Group
October 21st, 2015


By Michelle Cioffoletti


“Words matter. Words shape worldviews. Words provoke action and reaction, which in turn provoke more words. Getting the words right is critically important. Getting the action right is also critically important. And aligning the words and actions is even more important.” –Helio Fred Garcia (The Power of Communication)

Migrants or refugees? Does the distinction matter? It does to Doha-based news network Al-Jazeera. The network stirred up a fiery semantic debate over the millions of people fleeing the conflict in Syria. The news agency adamantly dismissed the use of the word migrant, citing the word as dehumanizing.

So what is the proper language surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis? Perhaps the real question is what does the language convey about the framing? While the media often refers to the influx of Syrians as a ‘migrant crisis’, there is a clear differentiation between the terms refugee and migrant. A refugee implies a forced fleeing based on persecution or violence. A migrant may have multiple factors that influenced their decision to move from one country to another. Unlike migrants, refugees are entitled to basic protection under international law.

Both terms carry serious implications beyond legality. The words trigger a frame, which in turn has the ability to shape the way we view the crisis for Syrians fleeing, host countries and the international arena.

Words & Water

Words carry immense power but what is the true extent of the power they possess? In the world of crisis, words give companies, groups and individuals the opportunity to sink or swim. Yet, how do words go beyond the reputation of a company or individual? How do words truly shape the world? Words can save people.

Much like word choice plays a pivotal role of the reputation of a company or individual, word choice can also have a profound impact on humanitarian crises. Water, food, shelter…words? Perhaps words do not just have an ability to provide basic needs but are in fact a basic need.

Examining humanitarian affairs through the lens of communication provides important insights. Since words have the ability to provoke action and reaction, words have the potential to reveal policy, and can cause advancement or shift. In refugee crises, conflict is often viewed as a humanitarian issue contingent upon political and cultural factors. While the correlation is valid, it is important to note a humanitarian crisis from a communication standpoint.

Chaos in Syria

Istanbul and Aleppo; cities that once held tremendous prestige as the centers of Ottoman trade and represented the cultural wealth of not just an Empire, but of a region. Today, the connection between the two is undeniable, as one of the worst humanitarian crises of modern day continues to unfold at a devastating rate.

The refugee crisis as a result of violent conflict in Syria is a prime example of the power of communication in refugee crises. Millions of refugees have fled an ongoing violent civil war between oppressive Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and hundreds of rebel group factions, most notably the group that refers to themselves as the Islamic State (IS). The conflict has origins in the Arab Spring but is now an international crisis.

As the situation continues, the outside military involvement of Russia and Iran aiding Al-Assad is playing an integral role, displaying the very real prospect of the conflict continuing and intensifying. The conflict affects not just the countries bordering Syria but also international politics, humanitarian affairs, and global security.

With horrific images of the refugee crisis spread across newspapers, the media has just now begun to focus on the refugees. The crisis, which has been ongoing for nearly five years, is now front-page news as the refugees flee to Europe. Neighboring Lebanon and Jordan have limited infrastructure to continue to support the millions of refugees already present. Cities such as Istanbul, Gaziantep, and Ankara, as well as the entire state of Turkey, are continuing to see changes due to the influx of Syrians. Turkey is sustaining a tremendous amount of refugees, nearly 2.1 million and is now host to 11 percent of the world’s refugees.

Question of Law

From a legal framework, the Turkish government is reluctant to grant Syrians official refugee status. This lack of status hinders Syrians from receiving health care, housing, education and other social services outside refugee camps. The legal definition of the term refugee is straightforward and outlined in international law. In 1951, the United Nations held a convention in Geneva, which resulted in a multilateral treaty defining a refugee. This convention was later revised in the 1967 protocol. The UNHCR states, “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” Turkey signed and ratified both the convention and protocol. So why are Syrians not considered refugees under Turkish law?

Turkey is a party to the convention, but has an exemption and is only obliged to grant refugee status to those fleeing Europe. While the exemption has prevented Syrians from gaining refugee rights, the international community has praised Turkey for its tremendous support of Syrian refugees. In Turkey, the Law on Foreigners and International Protection prevents the deportation of refugees.

Recent Turkish law has given Syrians the ability to apply for legal status but has neglected the option to receive refugee status. While legal status allows refugees to work, the legal definition does not give refugees access to Turkish social services such as public relief.

Turkey must align its actions with its words. If Turkey grants refugee status, the government must deliver all of the necessary actions that go along with the word. While the legal framework is powerful, it reveals the cultural and political motives behind the Turkish government’s use of language.

Refugees: Stigmas & Stereotypes

While the resistance to use to word refugee may seem trivial, the Turkish government is aware of not just the legal power of the word, but of the millions of refugees subjected to the repercussions of the word. The power of words is displayed in the ability of the word to carry not just a legal definition, but also a cultural and political dimension.

The tremendous influx of a distinct ethnic, cultural and religious population provokes challenges for Turkey. The majority of refugee camps are concentrated in the southern provinces in Turkey. However, only 14 percent of the refugees living in Turkey currently reside in refugee camps hindering their access to camp services.

Turkey has long suffered political ailments of secular and religious tensions, notably visible in the protests at Taksim Square in Istanbul in 2013. Following IS attacks against Kurdish villages in September 2014, Turkey has seen a huge inflow of Kurdish people. The arrival of Kurdish refugees plays a vital political role in Turkey, testing the country’s historic and ongoing conflict with the Kurdish people.

As a result of the influx, ethnic and cultural tensions have become prevalent. Unlike the majority of Turks, Syrians are predominately Arab. The large numbers of Syrians entering Turkey is having a drastic impact on demographics. The growing Turkish public discontent with the volume of refugees contributed to multiple incidents, some violent. While legal status may grant work rights, Syrians often encounter stigmas. The cultural and ethnic differences between Turks and Syrians can perpetuate stereotypes and racism, further raising challenges for Syrians.

If the refugees living in Turkey were granted official refugee status, Turkey would be granting a predominantly Arab population access to many of the benefits of Turkish society. It is plausible that the Turkish government maintains the legal terminology currently in use to resist such integration. The power of changing legal terms essentially would permit a shift in demographics, further displaying the power of framing.

Politics as Usual

Turkey may not be ready to endure the repercussions of a change in frame. While Turkey poured nearly 6 billion (USD) into 25 government run refugee camps, most Syrians living in Turkey are not yet registered under legal status. The majority of registered Syrians are still operating under temporary protection as guests, which hinders the full integration of Syrians into Turkish society.

The key to understanding the role of communication in the Syrian refugee crisis is not solely in the legal terms or cultural implications of words, but in the power of framing. The government frames the refugees in a temporary and immediate humanitarian response angle, which in turn neglects the discussion of granting refugee status. Why has Turkey been so reluctant to use the legal term refugee; opposition to incorporate a new demographic?  Rising political tensions towards an increased religious population? Or perhaps, all of the above.

The recent twin suicide attacks in the Turkish capital of Ankara, suspected to be linked to IS, are still under investigation, and only further display the security shortcomings and growing political unrest in the country; begging the question as to whether Turkey can truly support a refugee population amidst its own internal political tensions. With cultural and political tensions rising in Turkey, the influx of refugees will continue to have an undeniable effect on the country, especially as the world watches the upcoming Turkish election in November 2015 to elect the country’s 26th Parliament.

The Turkish government’s resistance to granting full refugee status reveals that the government is holding onto policies that are driven by emergency and temporary humanitarian assistance. The reality of the situation in Syria is grave and ongoing. For Turkey, the continuation of the conflict in Syria means the continuation of the refugee crisis. Unless Turkish policy addresses the refugee crisis as a continuing crisis, the policies will fall short of addressing the base issues at hand.

The Turkish government has framed the crisis in a multidimensional way, giving weight to the legal, cultural and political situations present in Turkey. The framing of the refugee crisis is complex, multifaceted, and unfortunately for Turkey presents the very real potential of unrest.



Michelle Cioffoletti serves as a Research Analyst at Logos Consulting Group and Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership. She earned her B.A. in International Affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, with a concentration in conflict resolution. She has a keen interest in human rights, international law, and international security studies and has been closely following the changing political and cultural paradigms present in Southern Turkey as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis. 

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  • toni muzi falconi says:

    This is an excellent post and reveals a thorough and intelligent thinking process.
    The discussion on the use of the two terms is highly relevant in Europe today.
    Not only for the many reasons argued by the author but also because, at least in Southern Europe, migrants precede the refugees.
    The first are more likely to be very poor, with elementary education and are often easy subjects of discrimination and outright slavery practices.
    Also, their presence contributes the rise of right wing and extremist political groups thus contributing to destabilise political landscapes.
    Refugees instead are likely to dispose of higher incomes and much better education.
    Besides all the other very valid points argued in this post, the risk is now that the two typologies enter into adversary positions in a ‘war amongst the poor’ that is one of the worst things that can happen.