By Nina Egger
Multiple refugee regulatory regimes exist around the globe. Sometimes local Refugee regimes in the Middle Eastern region coordinate their actions with the international refugee regime, sometimes they overlap, sometimes they stand in contradiction to one another. The various refugee regimes govern the lives of refugees in different ways (Bauer-Amin, Schiocchet and Six-Hohenbalken et al. in press). If international actors such as UNHCR that promote secular values in the refugee governance want to operate in the Middle East region, they need the approval of local governments. Therefore, the local authorities’ policy priorities play into the management* of refugees there.
The administration of refugees within a humanitarian setting may comprise such factors as housing allocation, access to food aid, de-politicization, repatriation, stereotypes etc. (Zetter, 1991). However, fewer scholars of forced migration have discussed the importance of religion as a factor for refugee management (Horstmann and Jung, 2015). In what follows, I demonstrate how religion is important, if not essential, for refugee management in the Middle East.
My first argument is that depending on the political parties in power or the institutional arrangement of a nation-state, religion continues to structure the political life in many Post-Ottoman states officially or unofficially. In various Middle Eastern states, the whole concept of minorities is still based on the millet system, a law introduced in the time of the Ottoman Empire. This legal system was formulated in the contracts Islamic conquerors made with the leaders of the non-Muslim religious groups of the territories they conquered. This legal system based on religion still lays the base for politics and minority politics in many but not all Middle Eastern States (Braude and Lewis, 1982).
In Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the millet system lays the base for the country’s politics of exclusion of non-Jews and their categorization into different ethno-religious groups. In other words, Israeli authorities have adapted and appropriated it to achieve the preservation of Israeli Jewish identity and the differentiation of non-Jewish identities. Thus, the country’s ruling elites use the millet system for their politics to exclude non-Jewish groups from power and equal citizenship in their country (Sezgin, 2010).
A second example of an ME country in which the millet system influences political and social life is Lebanon. In this country, the millet system has even been institutionalized in consociational political power-sharing agreements, and sectarianism continues to structure societal life on the ground (Bauer, 2012). A further example is Jordan, where a re-configured version of the millet system still influences political life, at least on the level of formal politics. The political life on the ground, particularly in the peripheral regions, is structured more strongly by tribalism and such criteria as group numbers (Maggiolini, 2021). But on the whole, due to the influence of the League of Nations and the British Mandate for Palestine on the level of formal politics, millets have been re-framed as religious minorities with particular cultural and religious rights since the foundation of the Jordanian nation-state. Owing to these administrative amendments, the members of the former millets have been integrated into the state as equal citizens and have ceased to be bound to the authorities of their faith.
My second argument is that the continued strength of identity and power politics in the Middle East has a great bearing on refugee policies. Local governments are not keen to accept displaced people that do not demonstrate the preferred religious or ethnic identity features and do not fit the prescribed vision of community. For this reason, as refugees, they are often marginalized within the polities’ and societies. In Turkey, since 2014, Arab- Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees have received preferential treatment when it comes to access to political advantages and humanitarian assistance as compared with refugee groups of other religious backgrounds. Afeef-Fathimath (2009) provides further evidence for Israel, where refugees from countries considered enemy states, that is, almost all majority Muslim states, are not allowed to claim asylum. However, the question is not only religious even in Sunni-majority countries, but also in many cases ethnic, for example, concerning the Kurds in Syria and Turkey.
The third argument supporting my claim that religion is relevant for refugee management in the Middle East is that many governments of the region equate religion, ethnicity, and nationhood with the political loyalties of individual subjects. Israel, for example, considers all refugees from so-called enemy states (Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Joran, Iraq and Yemen, Iran, and Afghanistan) as not eligible for seeking asylum in their country (Afeef-Fathimath 2009). In Turkey, only Syrian refugees are allowed to apply for temporary protection, which entails that nationhood is in practice still a vital factor for refugee management. Through nationhood, the Turkish refugee regime is purposely determining access to humanitarian services on the grounds of religion and ethnicity. This point is further illustrated by Danis (2011), who has demonstrated that Kurdish refugees from Iraq in 1988 and Kurds and Shia refugees from Iraq in 1991 have been ignored by Turkish authorities and have no access to any humanitarian support. I have illustrated elsewhere how Ezidi refugees were provided with adequate access to humanitarian services in Tukey in 2014 and afterwards, owing in large part to ethnicity and religion as the Turkish refugee regime’ policy criteria (Egger 2016).
My fourth argument is that authorities worry that the presence of religious minorities may allow the international community to interfere with their domestic political affairs. A case in point is the Vatican involvement on behalf of the Christians in Iraq (Pullela, 2014). Furthermore, there is the angst that non-Muslim faith groups and Muslim minority confessional groups may organize politically and form political opposition in countries that are mostly governed by Sunni Muslim autocratic leaders and religious clans. The Ezidis and Syriacs in Turkey joining the opposition party HDP may be considered one such example (Toksabay, 2015).
My fifth and final argument is that Civil Society Organisations (CSO) as well as Civil Society and International Organisations such as UNHCR have very limited influence when it comes to challenging the power of governments regarding their criteria for refugee management in all Middle Eastern countries. For this reason, exclusive criteria such as religion and ethnicity continue to be important for refugee management. There are several reasons for this.
First, many civil society organizations in the Middle East are not secular but religious. Hence, in the ME, religion is often an essential component within CS, which in turn affects the management of forced migrants.
Second, CSOs are considered as a threat by many ME governments. This particularly applies to those that are secular and offer services beyond humanitarianism. CSOs often have different interpretations of political problems and of how to solve them. Consequently, some ME countries design legal frameworks to restrict their influence, for example by monitoring their operations and funding (Kuzmanovic, 2012). Therefore, even secular CSOs are often not capable of maintaining their standards of ethnic and religious neutrality in the field of refugee assistance.
Third, because of the sheer power and often brutality of regional governments, CS is not capable of challenging them regarding the criteria they apply for refugee management, including religion, ethnicity, and race. Aware of the risks involved, many Middle Easterners do not actively speak out on exclusionary refugee politics.
Fourth, international organizations such as the UNHCR have limited influence on the criteria according to which local governments implement the administration of refugees. They need to collaborate with local governments and respect national legislations. Hence, even though the UNHCR is conducting Refugee Status Determination Procedures in some Middle Eastern countries according to mandate definition, its influence is still limited. It can only provide RSD services to a limited number of refugees considered eligible for resettlement by local governments and governments around the globe that are willing to take them in. In Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, UNHCR was and is conducting RSD services only for people of Syrian nationality and a few other refugee groups considered eligible (UNHCR Lebanon 2018; Oktay, D and Tumer, Ö and Veysel, E 2015; UNHCR Iraq 2015). In other countries such as Jordan, by contrast, UNHCR can only provide humanitarian protection services to refugees (UNHCR, 2006). Thus, despite UNHCR’s presence in the Middle East, its overall ability to challenge local criteria for refugee management remains minimal.
In many but not all Middle Eastern countries, long established traditional institutions such as the millet system, which is based on religion, continue to structure political and often social life. Religion is associated with political loyalties and is therefore still vital for the governments in most of these states. For this reason, religion, along with ethnicity, remains relevant for the administration of displaced people in the region. I have also demonstrated that citizen-led political organizations and non-organized civil society and international organizations operating in the field of refugee management such as UNHCR only have very limited influence on government and their handling of challenges relating to refugees. They have hardly any impact on local governments' policy priorities regarding refugee administration.
Governments in the ME are very protective of their sovereignty and their own political sensitivities. Hence, even if not the sole relevant factor, religion continues to play a relevant role in refugee management. What I have argued here paves the way for further relevant questions, for example, of the impact of the long-term instability in the region and its correlation with the relevance of religion for refugee management. One also needs to probe into the question of what other factors in addition to religion and ethnicity, such as race, poverty, illness, visions of community, traditions, etc., are relevant for refugee management in the region.
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[*] By “refugee management,” I refer to institutionalized refugee management.
 Among the exceptions are Leonardo Schiocchet, Janet Hoskins, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, and Elisabeth Mac Allister. Overall, Building Noah’s Ark for Migrants, Refugees, and Religious Communities sheds light on the insipient topic of the centrality of religion for navigating the internal and external worlds of people in displacement.
 This does not mean at all that Arab-Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees are not marginalized and disenfranchised in Turkey, only that other groups are even more marginalized.
 Afeef-Fathimath also speaks of strong ideological preferences for Jewish immigration and reveals that the authorities in Israel distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish immigration and only encourage the latter. Moreover, she shows that non-Jews are not encouraged to enter the state, as their presence is perceived to challenge and undermine the state’s ethno-national foundation. Non-ethnics are considered a serious threat to the survival and integrity of the nation state due to demographic and other reasons.
 They fled to Turkey due to the chemical weapon attack targeting Iraqi Kurds, especially in Halabja in 1998 under the government of Saddam Hussein.
 They entered Turkey as refugees due to the Iraqi Gulf War.
 Funds are especially monitored by governments in this region if they originate from abroad.
 UNHCR is obviously not the only international organisation operating in the field of refugee legal and humanitarian assistance in the region. Nevertheless, it remains the only international organisation conducting RSD procedures for non-Palestinian refugees.
 Meaning, according to religious and ethnic secular criteria.
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