Dehumanization: How the Most Needy Bear the Ignorance of the Powerful in the Syrian Refugee Crisis

This comment is a continuation of the YIRA Winter 2016 International Trip Group’s Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, Turkey Trip Summary.

“The terrorists, they took her… my wife, the love of my life. You know, she’s a simple trusting woman my wife—she can’t discern who to trust or not, you know—she is simple, innocent. She always needed me. My own cousin helped them… they came to the house and put these little tablets in her drink… the child in the house told me she saw it… and they took her. I paid everything to just get a bit of information about her. I sold everything I had and worked day and night just to pay the ransoms for information.

And then, when I finally heard she might be in x prison, so that I can finally go pay whatever was necessary to get her out, they told everybody that I cheated on her and she ran away. They made up a dirty rumor and just like that… after slaving away to pay for my life back, they had to take her from me. My own family wouldn’t trust me… you know, to be accused of such a vile act against the person you love most and have been doing the unthinkable to yourself out of love for…

You have no idea the depression that overtook me. I couldn’t even describe it to you. I had to sleep away from my family because I would scream and cry like a baby at night. I am their only support and they see strength in me. That’s why I asked you not to make me tell the story in front of my father. Every once in a while I would go into dark thoughts and something would tell me to end my life but I all I had was Allah, and I knew that He would get them through. By Allah, I tell you, I would not be sitting in front of you if it was not for Him.”

Dehumanization describes the denial of “humanness” to other people. It lessens the human being to a category—to an actor in a larger strategy game. It reduces and often eliminates the complexity that comes with every individual as a human being—lowering the significance of diversity within a group and attributing easily-identifiable traits as the problem. In other words, it blinds the observer from realizing the complexities within each human being and among the human beings of the group. In addition, it leads the observer to identify the attributes that are least in common with the subject as the problem. Dehumanization turns the human being into a categorical variable that fits under a larger, often simplistic, narrative to provide an explanation for a set of events that are too complex to equitably analyze in that way.

I would like to provide the disclaimer that this is mostly a reflective piece. While it is supported by qualitative (and some quantitative) information from our trip, it makes its own analysis of categories of dehumanization and goes beyond the empirical concept as it appears in psychology. This piece suggests new considerations for the extent of dehumanization studies and for the evaluation of any sociopolitical matter in a unique way that demonstrates the importance of the social sciences in evaluating the world. It is also important to mention that some information in this piece comes from a source that requested not to be quoted.

It is important to point out is that dehumanization is a natural human response. This piece will of course also assume the goodwill of actors involved in the response to the crisis. What I mean by this is that while there are actors involved only for their selfish and self-serving interests, this article may only be useful to those who wish to do good and be self-critical. Nonetheless, it will point to areas where those with goodwill and those who are self-interested make factors worse inadvertently

It is a subconscious inherent othering that we do not realize is occurring This is why it is so important to consider, and why I attempt to demonstrate how it has hurt and complicated the situation for Syrian refugees.

It is also important to recognize that because this is a human response (to events, to different populations, to the news, etc.), it is a tendency in all of us. It manifests itself in small, subtle doses that shape each single observation one has on a subject. Observations, factual or not but likely tarnished by dehumanization, become the basis of thoughts, opinions, ideas. As these develop and build on each other, the distorting effect of dehumanization is magnified in the end result—delivering a toxic outcome. It is because it is in the subtleties of our thinking that the first step to constructive is recognition, and remembering that recognition. I will be the first to state that I cannot distance myself from it. It is simply on us to consider, deeply and sincerely, so that we prevent our inherent biases from complicating a situation that cannot afford further meddling with.

Dehumanization is often raised to explain genocide, crime, etc. Through the exploration of dehumanization in the case of Syrian refugees in Turkey, I hope to illustrate how dehumanization can be detected even more subtly and how its effects, whilst perhaps mild to the ear, are further and more deeply-reaching than we would like to believe.

This is clear in the Syrian conflict- dehumanization has led to tremendously diverse responses in cases where the responses of different actors, on moral grounds, should have been more consistent.

The dehumanization associated with the Syrian refugee crisis can come about in different ways.

Overall, it is widely accepted that dehumanization results in an ‘othering’ that can justify lesser treatment towards the other.

First, there is the traditional way of thinking about dehumanization—that individuals are less worthy of help, or that they somehow caused or deserved the dire circumstances that we find them in. This originates in a subconscious but early distancing of the observer from the refugees. It can be the result of an inherent bias that one may call a type of racism born out of years of negative exposure and misinformation about the region, its people, and their value systems and traditions. It can also come from an ignorance of a particular region and the complexities that exist among its many nations and states. This makes it easier to hold countries to different standards in their responses and to prefer containment, or even exclusion (dehumanization as xenophobia or othering) to integration. This can be called negative dehumanization.

Another form of dehumanization that affects Syrian refugees is a form of agency bias. This may also be associated with infantilization. While one may argue that this form of dehumanization originates in compassion, the pity involved with the desire to sympathize leads one to think about the refugee as a needy, incapable actor. This makes it easier to justify exporting authority over their fate (in other words, giving it to entities other than themselves) and to fall into a short-term solution planning rather than long-term solution planning process. This can be called positive dehumanization.

There are two primary directions the dehumanization has taken—the first is of the general public towards the refugees—in separating them from their agency, in viewing them as causing or deserving of their circumstances, or in othering them in such a way as to distance them enough so that they do not matter. The second direction is of the European Union (and perhaps the so-called Western world) towards Turkey, where the dehumanization prevents one from seeing the subcategories within a given category of individuals with respect to their diversity and complexity, and where countries take other others in a way resembling xenophobia.

In writing this essay, I tried to think—as a refugee, what are the different systems that I would have to interact with and in what cases will dehumanization play a role? I originally wanted to organize the essay through the journey of a refugee, pointing to the various systems that would dehumanize him/her along the way. I quickly realized that I would never be able to do these experiences justice, and that anything I write may be read and understood in a way that severely undermines the direct and tangible effects of dehumanization in refugee lives. I decided instead to identify five key examples that emerge from dehumanization and to then elaborate on how they are in fact counterproductive and even harmful to the Syrian refugee crisis.

It is also important to note that critiques in this essay are ones of policy or directly-articulated attitude and cannot be comprehensive of all perspectives within a particular entity—if we believed that they could be we would be dehumanizing them ourselves. This piece is also the beginning of this conversation—it is meant to challenge initial assumptions so that further analysis and evaluation can be made on how to properly approach any international crisis, especially of a group we are susceptible to dehumanizing.

While this preface may be long, and while my reflections may actually be more about how I approached this paper rather than what I actually think, I wanted to be sure that you, as a reader, could experience that. I find it tremendously important not to overlook the various considerations that are necessarily a part of framing the conversation around refugees. I cringe every time I write (type, rather) the word because the word itself—refugee—can connote and denote so many different meanings depending on how we approach it despite knowing, in reality, that a refugee is a human being. A human being that has struggled, that has gone to great lengths and made tremendous sacrifices, that has risked his or her life for the promise of a better tomorrow. To remember that refugees are heroes—whether it be to their families, their countries, to history, or even to the systems that will challenge their rights as they challenge our own minds.


“And I know you know—everybody is just coming in to play around and meddle for what they can get out of it. By Allah, this conflict has been a litmus test. God allowed this on the Syrian people so that now everybody can watch and see which countries are righteous and which are just talk. America and all those Western nations say they care about human rights, look where we are now… all they care about is daesh, or not daesh. This conflict showed us which countries are with the people, which countries fear God. I’m here in Turkey and am honored even to kiss the soil that is beneath my feet of this nation.”

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate forms that dehumanization takes in the refugee crisis is securitization. Distance—literal and figurative—between actors and victims, complex politics in the region, states being the main actors to determine the future of the crisis (as opposed to organizations or the people themselves), strategy delineating the very circumstances and experiences surrounding refugee lives, and many other factors contribute to the politicization of a human conflict so that geopolitical interests are prioritized over humanitarian ones, turning a human-centric conflict into a security issue to be dealt with. Ibrahim Kalin, spokesperson and key official in the Turkish executive branch, articulated it in saying that “we’re talking about real people, you know… men, women, children with names… our children, our neighbors.”

This is harmful first and foremost because the misdiagnosis of the situation (as a geopolitical rather than human one, for example) leads to an incorrect antidote. This has manifested itself in the mislabeling of priorities. For example, attention given to more directly security-related aspects of the crisis like border security and terrorism has shifted the focus away from ensuring the thoroughness of refugee response programs. Many officials working on the crisis in Turkey, including those of UNHCR, the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), the US Embassy, and the Izmir Mayor, identified implementation of policies as the main obstacle in tackling the crisis. Even though many legal rights exist for refugees in Turkey, according to the legal group Multeci, realizing these rights and receiving the promised services is a huge challenge with many barriers. There is asymmetric information between the donor entity and recipients. There is also a significant language barrier. Refugees are not aware of the full extent of services provided for them. They are also not fully versed in their rights, making it easy for them to be exploited or underserved. While the law requires every hospital to have an Arabic-speaking doctor, this is rarely the case and, according to Support to Life has sometimes been accompanied with illegally raised prices. In some cases, these practical issues made it so difficult to integrate that UNHCR resettled people to other countries. All of these law-implementation gaps may have been addressed had it been a priority. In this case, by shifting the priority so that a humanitarian crisis becomes a geopolitical one (securitization), a version of dehumanization, refugees receive less organized and lower quality services.

Another way in which this mislabeling of priorities as a result of securitization has been harmful is that it has allowed for a situation in which there is very little information on the refugees themselves. Support to Life, one of the key non-profit organizations working with refugees in Turkey, says that this mis-prioritization can be seen when evaluating the available information related to the Syrian conflict as well. Global discussions, particularly coming from the United States and European countries, primarily focus on security-related aspects of the crisis. Very little data exists on the refugees themselves despite the fact that, according to presidential advisor Ibrahim Kalin, there has been no modern crisis at this scale since the end of WWII. The lack of information about refugees in turn leads to implementation failures. For example, according to the United States embassy and to the Alliance of International Doctors (AID) in Turkey, the overwhelming majority of Turkish funds for refugees have gone into developing the refugee camps. However, according to USAK, about 80 percent of refugees have left the camps and moved to Turkish cities. If such data was collected or understood earlier, perhaps funding could have gone in a different direction. It may have even been the case that authorities would have considered what the Mayor of Izmir considered the sustainable solution—ending the conflict and not spending all attention on the symptom—managing refugees. The inaccurate prioritization of security concerns over humanitarian ones has resulted in information biases that have undermined the conditions of the refugees themselves.

Dehumanization in the form of securitization can also lead to overlooking the complexity and diversity within refugees as a group. This is even easier to do when there is the lack of information discussed above. This undermining of complexity can be a result of the lumping and categorization of actors within the conflict that occurs in an effort to simplify it for political understanding and analysis (from securitization). According to Support to Life, Syrian families in Turkey have a very diverse profile—they represent a variety of ethnicities, family sizes, and living styles (urban/rural). Cengiz Çandar, a high-ranking Turkish journalist, mentioned that subgroups are so varied that there are even Syrians (Kurds) serving as key actors in the fight against ISIS at the border. Overlooking these difference can lead to ineffective approaches to the crisis. Mayor Kaymakam of Istanbul mentioned that not knowing about conflicts among various ethnic groups has been a key challenge within the Syrian population. These obstacles have arisen in part because the complexity and diversity within the Syrian refugee population was not considered. This can be attributed to considering the Syrian refugee population one unit as a result of securitization, a kind of dehumanization in this topic.

In addition to the miscategorization of priorities and to the overlooking of complexity, securitization (as a form of dehumanization) can be evaluated as a factor that makes integration more difficult for refugees. According to USAK, Syrians themselves don’t want the migration issues to become a political topic because it raises tensions against them. The more people attribute the geopolitical troubles in the region to the Syrian conflict, the more Turkish citizens attribute these troubles to refugees. According to UNHCR, bullying of Syrians was a significant enough issue that in some cases it served as a barrier to social integration. The researchers at USAK identified this as a sociological concept— that when matters become political (i.e. securitization), their societal impact is undermined or ignored. Politicians and pundits speak on the security-related aspects of the Syrian conflict without realizing the direct effects these discourses have on the victims whose interests we should keep most mind.

Overall, securitization is a form of dehumanization that has a tangible impact on the quality of life for Syrian refugees. The above discussion demonstrates how it leads to mis-prioritization—through law-implementation gaps and lack of information–, underestimating complexity, and raising tensions. Some approaches that take into account the humanness of the victims (and even the oppressors) may be more successful than others, but it is worth noting that an example of humanization can be taken from the Turkish government reaching out to Syrian officials before categorizing them as the enemy. Ibrahim Kalin, USAK, and Head of the Koc University Migration Research Center Ahmet Icduygu all mentioned that the Turkish government attempted to negotiate with Assad and his colleagues to urge them to stop the bloodshed before terminating relations. Once this occurred, Turkish borders were opened to an estimated three million refugees (according to USAK). European and American responses, on the other hand, which seem to dehumanize the refugees in the responses’ securitization of membership, are explained best through the way that the American embassy views it—that “Syria is not the only refugee crisis we’re dealing with in the world” and that the refugee crisis is only one of many other complicated aspects to everything happening in the region. Ibrahim Kalin, advisor to the president, said of such responses: “[They say] should we take 100, 200, maybe 1,000…? Like it’s an auction… it’s unbelievable… these are human beings fleeing war.”

USAK warns that having such discussions in RealPolitik terms, where the Syrian crisis is securitized in such a way that refugees are handled as a categorical variable in a larger strategy or sequence of events, is not suitable or appropriate for the democracies engaging in such discourse. In the ways discussed in this essay and in many more, such approaches lead to the gradual dehumanization of Syrians and do not bring officials to the real solution. These effects lead to a media sensationalization that manifests in direct impacts on the victims, in this case the refugees, and raises normative barriers to social integration. The sensationalization can also lessen accountability of the regime, leading to additional failed policy and ineffective oversight. Such a conclusion would also make it easier for regional actors meddling with all of the variables in the crisis to maximize their own interests with no regard for those of the refugees.

Standing out

“You know, by Allah, I love this country. I love its people. They have done so much for us—the Turkish people are ‘on my eye and on my head’ they have done what no other Western power- champions of human rights, I thought- has done—but I can’t say it’s not without its challenges. I used to own a bakery in Syria, I was independent, I didn’t need to lower myself in humiliation for survival. You know… I am a dish washer now, for some restaurants.”

“They let you work?”

“No, no—all of us do these… they’re just menial jobs… illegally of course, but the Turks themselves won’t even take these jobs. Sometimes the managers feel bad for us and come up with tasks to pay us for.

So when I’m there some of the employees hand you things with their noses high and from the corner of their eye… a lot of times they don’t even look at you. Or they’ll just throw the trash bag toward you condescendingly and figure you’ll get the cue… sometimes they’ll just kick it towards me…

Am I a dog that they just kick things to me? Why don’t you just kick me while you’re at it? We are good people, we had our heads high, we had livelihoods and homes… we didn’t need this, we didn’t need to beg and lower ourselves… we work hard for our own earning, I’m not asking for your sympathy, but please treat me like a human being! And I know it’s the employees who are simple people, the managers treat us very well and sometimes even give us additional sums… but it’s hard!

I can’t even share these stories with my family… I absorb and God is The Rewarder, The Blesser. By Allah, you need to know—nothing has gotten me through him but Him. I told you—I had dark thoughts… but Allah has had my back.

And the Turkish people, again, you need to know, I am indebted to them. No other nation has welcomed us or made the sacrifices they have for us.”

Another form of dehumanization complicating the Syrian refugee crisis is the type that occurs from Turkish citizens to the Syrian refugees. This more clearly falls under the two categories described earlier. The first is a dehumanization that, from feelings of resentment, distances the refugees in a way that manifests itself in racism, xenophobia, or othering. This suggests that different standards apply to the victim because s/he is lesser in some way and is the more common of the two. At the other extreme is a dehumanization that, from feelings of pity (perhaps exaggerated sympathy), dissociates refugees from their agency. This suggests that different standards apply to the victim because of his/her extreme need or vulnerability. Both are harmful, sometimes even in the same way. This section will first explore ways in which Turkish citizens and civil society have dehumanized the Syrian refugees in Turkish society. It will then discuss some of the attempts to work against dehumanization of the Syrian refugees to Turkish citizens and others (will refer to as humanization). It is striking to see how the Alliance of International Doctors defines success in terms of both kinds of de/humanization: that success is when Syrians are “able to live comfortable lives while they are here and that their children are healthy and capable to rebuild Syria.”

The dehumanization that Turkish citizens have towards Syrian refugees is subtle, as dehumanization is, and primarily falls under the dehumanization that manifests itself as racism, xenophobia, or othering. In other words, negative dehumanization. When an individual sees the Syrian refugee as distant from him/herself, it is easier to ignore his/her pain. This reaction then makes it acceptable to treat the refugees differently than one would treat a member of his/her “in group,” in this case—fellow Turkish citizen. Perhaps this has origins in a broader way of thinking that is shown in the 1934 settlement law (renewed in 2006) which, according to Ahmet Icduygu of Koc University, defined immigrants as foreigners with Turkish origins or descent. In other words, he argues, there was no other formally-accepted conception of immigrants.

One of the ways that this has taken form is an othering that leads to the failed realization of services existing in the law. This was also discussed in the previous category (securitization) where, for example, according to UNHCR, Syrians do not receive equally-priced health services and wait longer in lines (though this is nowhere in the law). Certain procedures are not even done for Syrian refugees. This can be linked to a sense of urgency or importance that is not there that may have been had the affected group been more similar to the host population.

Another area in which the dehumanization affects refugees is in othering that leads to separation. As a result of linguistic and cultural barriers that led to this othering, Turkish and Syrian leadership have found a need to facilitate separate spaces for Syrians. This one is not as clearly negative dehumanization but similarly exacerbates problems of integration. According to UNHCR, most Syrian children attend Syrian or Libyan schools in Turkey.  Furthermore, Syrians attend clinics that are fully-staffed by Syrians. Housing is also a major issue that had led to majority-Syrian neighborhoods. According to UNHCR, about 1,000 Syrians in Istanbul are homeless. According to the International Alliance of Doctors, some areas that were not previously inhabited have been put up for rent to refugees. Some of these areas are labeled as ‘suitable for Syrians’ because they are understood to be below the quality of life standard that Turkish citizens would accept. UNHCR reports that they have had to resettle people to other countries because not all have not been able to integrate past these dehumanization-induced barriers. These are all examples of how barriers that make it easier to dehumanize the Syrian refugees have resulted in less effective services to those who need them. Had the refugees been humanized to a majority of Turkish citizenry, perhaps different services would exist to prevent these challenges.

Dehumanization has also manifested itself in a xenophobia that, until recently with the law allowing Syrians to obtain work permits, has made it so that Syrian refugees are tremendously abused in the illegal labor market. According to the Alliance of International Doctors and UNHCR, the overwhelming majority of Syrian laborers make incomes significantly below the minimum wage of 300 dollars per month. Many are required to work long hours without pay under the threat that they will not be allowed to continue working. AID pointed out that there are some who partner with a Turkish national so that s/he can even be offered a job. The distancing of Syrian refugees as outsiders or as deserving of lesser services is what makes this acceptable n most minds. This is an example of dehumanization that led to what one could argue are human rights abuses and exploitation.

Finally, in the relationship between Syrian refugees and Turkish citizens, dehumanization has also taken shape in the form of racism. According to the Alliance of International Doctors, there are clear signs of resentment towards Syrian refugees among the Turkish population. Many Turkish citizens do not like living next to Syrians. UNHCR also points out that bullying is a significant issue hindering social integration. Verbal assaults are common and, because of the homogeneous understanding of culture, there is tension around this refugee identity that is ‘very much Syrian.’ According to UNHCR, the Turkish unemployment rate is three million, about the same number as Syrian refugees in the country. Although the Director General is adamant that the unemployment rate is not due to Syrian presence, according to USAK, 77 percent of the Turkish population says that refugees are harmful to the economy and 66 percent says that they are stealing their jobs. The International Strategic Research Organization also reports that intermarriage has become a hot topic, especially in Killis and in other areas with significant Syrian populations. Many Turkish men are marrying Syrian women, causing rifts and social tension among Turkish citizens. The distancing or condescending view of Syrians by Turkish citizens has led to a figurative separation that many are uncomfortable with. This discomfort with a group that is different has had tangible effects on Syrian lives and gives reason to explore counter dehumanization efforts.

Her nose was bleeding and it wouldn’t stop. She was carrying blooded tissues and holding her nose, making it evident that it had been ongoing. We explained that the bleeding hadn’t stopped for hours. We explained that clots had come out. That it obstructed her breathing, and that she coughed blood.

No matter though, we waited. We were asked to stand in line… a wait time of no less than two hours.

“She’s not Syrian,” he said.

And suddenly, standing in the queue was not requisite.


Turkish citizens and civil society have demonstrated efforts to promote both of the aforementioned kinds of humanization, or counter dehumanization measures (agency-related and distancing). To address the dehumanization that takes shape in the form of racism, xenophobia, or othering, Turks have developed rhetoric that is different than the usual homogenizing one that politicians have used. The Alliance of International Doctors pointed out that the Turkish people had historically defined their sense of identity around politics of ‘one language, one religion, one people,’ posing a challenge to social integration for Syrian refugees who neither spoke the language nor shared the culture.

However, USAK, Ahmet Icduygu, Cengiz Çandar, Volkan Bozkır, the Turkish EU Minister, Sema Ramazanoglu, Turkish Minister of Family and Cultural Affairs, and Atilla Toros, Director of General of Migration Management, pointed out that the narrative around the shaping of the Turkish people has changed. History has been explained in a way to suggest the argument that accepting different peoples is not new for Turkey and is a part of its tradition and values. They discussed how there was unique refugee space for various nationalities and religions under the Ottoman Empire (this example is different only in magnitude), and how Turkey is itself made up of numerous countries. They mentioned Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Sephardic Jewry, the Balkans, Iraq after 1990, Bosnia, and Iran as examples of past welcomed asylum-seekers.  Such transitions in Turkish understanding of self demonstrate a wider acceptance of refugees and a force against the dehumanization that can take form as racism, xenophobia, and othering. This improves the quality of life for the Syrian refugees in that cultural acceptance allows them to integrate more easily.

The Director General of Migration Management also mentioned that migration has been removed from the agenda for political candidates in an effort to prevent dehumanization in the form of racism, xenophobia, and othering. While some who are more skeptical say that this could be because the politicians themselves do not have answers to migration questions, the counter-dehumanization effects on the people remain the same. Less discussion around the problems and politics of the issue and a new way of thinking about Turkish identity make it easier for refugee-friendly norms to surface. Organizations like the Alliance of International Doctors also mentioned efforts deliberately organized to integrate Syrian refugees. These included joint play groups, community visits, and other programs that allow Turkish and Syrian refugee children to interact in safe and friendly ways. All of these efforts work directly to reduce the chances of dehumanization through racism, xenophobia, or othering and make it easier for the Syrian refugees to integrate well.

There have also been efforts to address the dehumanization related to the dissociation of agency, which often intersects with the results of dehumanization as distancing anyway. These are especially important because, according to the Sema Ramazanoglu, 85 percent of Syrians in Turkey say that they want to stay in Turkey long-term. Two of the agency-projecting steps that have clear parallels are those of communication and personal stability According to the Alliance of International Doctors, one of the key challenges Syrian refugees face as soon as they arrive is that of accessing language and culture. Turkish organizations and schools have prepared themselves to provide Turkish language-learning programs so that refugees are not viewed as and do not remain a vulnerable subset of society. Throughout Turkey, mosques have been turned into language-learning schools to foster integration. Language and cultural literacy are seen as great ways to bring about understanding between the two groups so that the Syrians are able to integrate and so that they and the Turks can interact. This is especially important because, according to the Alliance of International Doctors, Syrian refugees come from the war with trust complexes that serve as hindrances to human interaction. As a result, the AID has also worked to provide extensive psycho-social support so that Syrian refugees regain personal stability. This is critical for Syrian refugees, especially adults, to exhibit the strength needed for their children and to feel confident to interact with others and build a livelihood. Not only do such enterprises minimize the likelihood of victim (pity) dehumanization, they in turn minimize resentment dehumanization (racism/xenophobia/othering) as a result of communication and development of genuine connections.

In addition to Turkish language learning for the refugees, Turkish officials emphasize refugee agency (humanize) though Arabic language learning. According to AID, there is a recognition of the importance of retaining culture and language among the refugee population. This empowers refugees to promote development within their heritage (but is not exclusive/alienating because it is coupled with the integrative policies mentioned above). It also implies an understanding of Syrian refugees with full agency, will, and capability to rebuild Syria. It gives Syrian refugees the framework with which to think about a future in their country.

Furthermore, Turkish society and authorities discourage the dehumanization of refugees through the promotion of agency by allowing them to make livelihoods for themselves. According to UNHCR, urban Syrians are entered into the public education system. There is an 80 percent schooling rate within camps, of which there are 24 in 10 Turkish cities. There are also set quotas for Syrian students in public Turkish universities. Most significantly, the recent decision to allow Syrians to obtain work permits allows Syrian families to sustain themselves without the exploitation that previously existed throughout the labor market. This was instituted in spite of a three million unemployment rate in Turkey. Even before, norms were set in a way that government officials and law enforcement turned a blind eye to illegal behavior that helped Syrians produce better lives for themselves. Education and employment promotion are perhaps the most important ways to allow the Syrian refugees to realize their full agency and to allow this demonstration of capability to transform norms. While these changes are intrinsically valuable, they also hold instrumental value in lessening pity-induced dehumanization so that even more initiatives that improve refugee quality of life are considered. Rather than viewing refugees as a consistently needy faction of society that does nothing but consume resources (justified because of that neediness), refugees are independent actors that contribute to the economy and have full agency over their lives.

Inconsistent Standards

“We’ve been kicked out of our homes, we’ve had to walk kilometers upon kilometers like you’d never believe. This mother of mine, that you saw sitting there, you saw her—she can’t walk. By the grace of God it was a miracle that she somehow managed to crawl her way up an incline and get through to the border”

“How long was that?”

“Seven kilometers! Well… maybe six? Something like that. The sacrifices that people made to get here are tremendous, you wouldn’t believe… and then they say that we are daesh? Allahu Akbar!”

Dehumanization with respect to allowing (or not) refugees into a country exists in both of its positive and negative forms. It is a dehumanization that is coming from the international community towards the refugees (and their background) themselves. It is often associated with how much of a threat—cultural, political, security, etc.—incomers are perceived to pose (negative dehumanization) and how much of a country’s resources they are expected to take (positive dehumanization). Dehumanization is also enhanced the further apart the observer and subject are in linguistic, cultural, and geographic proximity. The higher the dehumanization of the refugees (and securitization of the crisis), the less likely they will be allowed into any given country. This section will examine instances of humanization and dehumanization alongside each other to distinguish between the different approaches and will mostly do this by contrasting the Turkish response to the response of other European countries and of the United States. As one of the UNHCR representatives said, “you can’t stop migration, you can only manage it.” The essential idea of this section is to state that dehumanization is harmful in its ability to build up enough fear and distance that it justifies not allowing refugees to enter countries and offers Turkey as an example of trying to move away from that.

The Director General of Migration Management (DGMM) outlined that in international protection literature, there are three main principles refuge countries are requested to achieve: an open door policy, a system of ensuring refugees are not returned, and a structure to provide necessary services. The DGMM explained that Turkey has achieved all three of these to an above average level. This was in large part because, according to UNHCR, there is no clear rhetoric from the Turkish government about holding back services to refugees. There have been deliberate efforts to encourage a warm reception and the government continues to embrace the shift in understanding of Turkish identity where Turkey is a refuge for many nationalities and holds a tradition of Ottoman inclusivity. These normative developments help humanize Syrian refugees to the population and its officials so that they desired to meet the principles outlined in international protection literature.

This is a remarkable achievement when compared to the responses of most other European countries. A distancing as a result of dehumanization of Syrian refugees has resulted in an impressively low acceptance rate despite European Union policy to provide asylum. The next section will highlight additional examples of this stark contrast. The DGMM mentioned that when these countries praise and claim appreciation for the amenities that the Turkish government has provided but do not open their own borders, it reveals their subconscious preferences. These countries provide ‘proxy explanations’ for why they have not taken similar steps that are only revealing of deeper sentiments stemming from dehumanization. This is a classic way that dehumanization complicates human crises and ultimately prevents necessary services from reaching the most vulnerable. The DGMM explained that this dehumanization led to practical problems as well. Around 500,000 migrants left Turkey for Europe since the summer of 2015. Despite efforts to work with the receiving end, according to the DGMM, the situation there is not well-managed and most European countries attempted to implement strict border controls. Many even published notices saying they will no longer accept Syrians. According to Ahmet Icduygu of Koc Univeristy, European countries had discussed requesting that Turkey stop allowing refugees in in exchange for a financial amount claimed to be for existing refugees as part of the EU deal. Not only has dehumanization allowed these countries to reject refugees, it has put them in a situation where they considered asking Turkey not to support them.

So that this portion of the essay is clearly outlined, it will first address potential threat-related aspects of de/humanization and will break the analysis into cultural and geopolitical threats. It will then discuss potential resource-related aspects of de/humanization and will divide this into economic and political ones.

Regarding potential threat-related aspects of de/humanization, potential cultural threats are where Turkish and European countries particularly differ. Despite traditions of prioritizing citizenship to Turks with the geographic limitations for Turkey in the 1951 convention according to Ahmet Icduygu, the government has been proactive, according to UNHCR, in disseminating an attitude that is welcoming of refugees and that attempts to humanize them using terms like “brothers and sisters.” The Director General of Migration Management mentioned that “protecting victims of violence is a part of [Turkish] tradition… it has been done in Turkey even before the Geneva convention.” He also stated that “the key word here is empathy” and believes this is the main difference between Turkey and other European countries—that they lack the ability to see the refugees in a way that honors that human connection. This is the very de/humanization that has been discussed throughout this essay and that can be pointed to in identifying reasons for inconsistent responses. Sema Ramazanoglu, Minister of Family and Cultural Affairs, said of the crisis that a “sense of service that is centered around the human is the basis of the [AK] party” and that “the idea is to be servants, not rulers” to the Turkish people and to the refugees. The ministry has even set aside a directorate to prepare and plan for demographic shifts. The lack of efforts like these in most other European countries is the symptom of dehumanization in its various forms throughout the culture and government. This is not to make a judgement about either county as much as it is to point out how harmful dehumanization is in stifling the potential for such cultural and intentional development.

The other side of the threat-related aspect of dehumanization is with respect to geopolitics. This has manifested itself in accusations of criminal activity and more significantly, in false perceptions about terrorism. Regarding crime—it is a classic symptom of dehumanization in the form of xenophobia to accuse the outsider of bringing crime with him/her. Generally, sense of safety among the public goes down, which data from USAK confirms. When refugees are dehumanized, it is easy for pundits, as it was for those in Europe, to convince the people that refugees should not be allowed in because they are a public safety concern. This is to tergiversate or to obfuscate the matter so that the less palatable racism or xenophobia is euphemized. According to the DGMM, crimes by (and against) Syrians are very low and can be considered insignificant.

Shaping entry policies around this fear is harmful in that it encourages the growth of the illegal crossing market. According to Volkan Bozkır, Turkish minister on the European Union, about 26,000 illegal migrants attempted entry in 2014 and just over a million did in 2015, a growth rate of about 400 percent in just one year. About 3,500 smugglers were caught and arrested for helping them. Keeping borders closed and policing them in such a way expends resources that could be used in allowing them to enter and providing services. Many of those who attempt to cross die, a disservice to humanity that is a result of border policies shaped by dehumanization. According to the Mayor of Izmir, in 2015 90,000 Syrians who otherwise would have died were saved escaping at sea. Individuals who are not necessarily criminals but who are desperately fleeing war enter a disciplinary process that is a waste of time for both sides. According to UNHCR, border patrol capitalize on the vulnerabilities of these refugees and exploit them for their money. The dehumanization of European officials that has led to policies preventing legal entry and the security-centered understanding of the crisis has created a whole market for very real and unfortunate exploitation that only promises a small chance of survival for the victims with the most need.

Perceptions of terrorism are another important aspect of threat-related dehumanization. This is a result of dehumanization that leads to lumping and overlooking real complexities within the Syrian population. It also comes from the much larger problem of dehumanization by Europe towards the region that will be discussed in the next section. According to Ibrahim Kalin, there is no real way to know if refugees are threats without intelligence from other countries. This means that intelligence must be shared across countries. This also means that countries throughout the spectrum of de/humanization share intelligence. Unfortunately, because Turkey has no codified process for filtering through refugees, they must trust other government decisions on these matters—namely the United States, Egypt, and Russia.

According to Multeci, the refugee-rights-defending legal group, the overwhelming number of refugees ‘flagged’ for investigation are nothing but devout Muslims. There is a tremendous racism as dehumanization problem in selecting who is a potential threat and who is not. Lawyers at Multeci point out that it is arbitrary and uses indicators like having a beard or praying five times a day, basic Islamic tenets, and violates the 1951 refugee convention. In this case, one of the lawyers says, “safety destroyed justice.” This interplay of policies that dehumanize asylum-seekers by overlooking their complexity and by distancing them enough to assume unjustified threat has led to an unjust categorization system. Many refugees who are deemed ‘unfit’ have been returned and executed in their countries. Multeci also mentioned that in cases where there may be a legal loophole to save the victim, ‘informal, confidential laws’ are claimed to bias the system even further.

Both threat-related and resource-related dehumanization result in narratives that encourage closing borders to refugees. With resource-related dehumanization, though, it less clearly obfuscation as it is perhaps legitimate grievances from the citizenry. A clear way this is shown is in discourse surrounding the distribution of wealth in a country. Citizens dehumanize the refugees by seeing them as less worthy recipients of state services. They see them as non-members. In Turkey, however, this is much less the case. According to the US embassy in Turkey, refugees have cost the Turkish government between eight and nine billion dollars (keeping in mind that the Turkish economy is between 850 and 900 billion dollars). This support has come from Turkish tax money. Global actors, on the other hand, who have not had equal exposure to the refugees and who may therefore experience a distance with respect to these refugees, have contributed 260,000 million through UNHCR. The Turkish DGMM mentioned that other countries would not make these sacrifices because of the taxpayer burden. Seeing a national acceptance of such action and continued government support indicates that the humanization efforts discussed in earlier sections of this essay have had an impact. This can also be understood conversely to say that dehumanization in other countries has posed a barrier to reaching such levels of humanitarian sacrifice.

In addition to financial support, which demonstrates a counter to negative dehumanization, the Turkish government, in contrast to most European countries, has worked to institute counters to positive dehumanization as well. There is a recognition of refugee agency. The DGMM stated that the official government position supposes that migration can contribute to the economy and that it will not pose significant challenges. Ibrahim Kalin, presidential advisor, mentioned that work permits and integration—which require the recognition of refugee agency as capable authors of their own futures and not a categorized victim group—are very important. He continued to say that this is because they give Syrians self-sufficiency and in fact gradually lower the financial burden of service provision on the state. He also mentioned that this will help dehumanize various cultures to each other because these Syrians will serve in a capacity like that of a cultural ambassador—whether through international business, skilled work in Turkey, or even through diplomacy work with the Arab world. His argument is that the more interaction they have with Turkish citizens, the more of a cooperative appreciation the two groups will have for each other. In other words, they will become humanized to each other. According to Support to Life and AID, the government is also switching Syrian refugee ID cards to ones closer to citizen status (from “99” to “98”). The dehumanization that other states have demonstrated in closing their borders directly makes the lives of Syrian refugees more difficult and eliminates the chance for such exchange, understanding, and benefit in their own countries.

The other aspect of resource-related dehumanization is that of political resources. The Turkish government has demonstrated humanization in its handling of this aspect in contrast to most governments of European countries. One significant different is that, according to the major of Izmir, registering a refugee is based on that refugee’s word. In other words, no form of legal documentation such as a passport or identification card is required because, according to the mayor, the understanding is that the refugee has endured enough to simply arrive. Whether this is wise or not is debatable, but having not had a single large-scale incident despite three million refugees entering (until the very recent Istanbul attack) seems to suggest that humanizing the refugees by not lumping them into a threatening category has helped shift priority away from unessential processes (e.g. filtering for threat). This has avoided the misuse and waste of political resources for the state. This is in stark contrast to most European countries and to the United States who have very rigorous and prolonged screening processes if borders are open at all.

This contrast is also evident in the main tension that exists between the US and Turkish governments. According to the American embassy in Turkey, the main area of contention between the two is that they are not in alignment on what the regional priorities are. While Turkey is more concerned with the refugee crisis and with containing the PKK within it, the United States puts more attention towards containing the Islamic State. Furthermore, according to the US embassy, the two entities disagree on what to consider a threat. These could be disagreements as a result of deeper normative priorities. In other words, it appears that the US approach is more security-focused whereas the Turkish one is attempting to offer a more human-centric view. This is because t and is an example of the dangers of dehumanization.


The way that the European Union views the Turkish response to the Syrian refugee crisis is another area in which dehumanization takes place and complicates the situation. According to the International Strategic Research Organization, the European view of the Syrian refugee crisis is that it is ultimately one group dealing with its own larger problems because of the shared Islamic history. In other words, that the Syrian refugee crisis makes sense to be a Turkish problem more than it does any other European country’s problem. This dehumanizes the region in underestimating the diversity within it by lumping and overlooking the tremendous cultural (and linguistic) differences between the two nations. Turkey is just as different with respect to Syria as any other European nation would be. There is also a narrative in EU discussions that suggests that Turkey has always accepted refugees and that this, therefore, does not pose a new or unique challenge for Turkey. According to Ahmet Icduygu of Koc University, the reality is that in the past only Turkish entry was allowed and the narrative switch to Turkey being a land of migrants is very new. He argues that this is proxy rhetoric attempting to excuse European countries for not responding as Turkey has or for explaining why Turkey will remain a non-member. All in all, this dehumanization in the form of lumping has left Turkey largely handling the refugee crisis on its own. This dehumanization has forced Turkey to utilize significant amounts of resources from the government and has led to an international burden-sharing problem, providing a worse experience for the refugees.

The dehumanization that led most EU countries and the United States to assume that Turkey is the most suited to handle the crisis led to a major problem. According to USAK, migration issues should be handled with international cooperation and cannot be the issue of one country alone because they involve more than one and are far beyond the capacity of a single actor. In this case, there was no balance in international burden-sharing. The United States embassy In Turkey shares this position in saying that there was a lack of support to Turkey from the international community on this and that there should have been more attention from the outset. This is harmful in a number of ways—to both Turkey and the refugees. The Turkish government allowed an open door policy because they did not realize the scale that the crisis would reach. The embassy added that where this is most harmful to Turkey is in the opportunity cost in services to Turkish citizens. The Turkish government has spent eight to nine billion dollars in three years. As for the refugees themselves, according to USAK, because expectations of international actors fell short, preparation was not as needed. Turkey built over 24 refugee camps with full services but continues to work to accommodate the approximate 80 percent who are in urban areas. The mayor of Izmir mentioned that many refugees in Izmir express that another location for them is necessary. Because they have become global citizens moving around to various nations, they are the world’s problem and not Turkey’s alone.

The dehumanization in lumping Syria and Turkey does not only expect that Turkey is to predominantly handle the refugee crisis, but it also expects Turkey to be a transit country for the European Union. According to Ahmet Icduygu of Koc University, the readmission agreement says that if any illegal migrants are apprehended in an EU-member state, they will be sent to Turkey to send back to their countries. At the same time, so-called western countries, according to UNHCR, are only accepting a particular type of migrant. They are not signatories under the refugee resettlement project and are accepting migrants whose skills can benefit their respective economies. While this shows an understanding of positive humanization it seems to grossly categorize people and disregard their humanness if they are not useful (negative dehumanization). An official in the US embassy said, that “Syria is not the only refugee crisis we’re dealing with in the world” and that “Turkey’s generosity on the Syrian crisis is allowing the US to focus on other conflicts.” This dehumanization that has distanced most European countries and the United States from the problem has led them ignore and claim no responsibility over the greatest crisis in modern history.

This dehumanization that overlooks the diversity in the region and lumps Syria and Turkey together, according to USAK, has led to another dehumanization-induced challenge (discussed more in the following section). Researchers at USAK refer to this as the “Middle-Easternization” of EU-Turkey relations. In other words, EU negotiations with Turkey are no longer about economic reforms or social welfare, but primarily about refugees and Middle East-related issues. This same dehumanization that lumps Syria and Turkey together is what makes it so that the EU only uses Turkey in reference to their needs. Another researcher at USAK refers to this as an “axis shift” in EU-Turkey negotiations from more comprehensive discussion to refugee-specific concerns.


Finally, one of the most prominent and widely-recognized forms of dehumanization that complicates the Syrian refugee crisis is the refusal of the European Union to accept Turkey as a member state. European Union member states dehumanize Turkey when they distance it from them in this way. Despite the diversity among European countries, they see Turkey as different in another way. They equivocate by attributing the proxy explanations of women’s rights and undermined democracy even though non-profit organizations like Support to Life attest to the fact that most households are female-led. As discussed in the previous section, USAK sees this as “Middle-Easternization” of Turkey—the lumping of a country with other distant states so that it is defined in those terms. This is dehumanization of the state of Turkey by European leadership. This example of dehumanization, in not allowing Turkey to be a member-state in the European Union, has negative effects on Turkey and is counterproductive in the handling of the Syrian refugee crisis.

As for Turkey, it has to handle the tremendous burden it has adopted without receiving the appropriate support or benefits that would be granted to an EU member for such initiative. This leads to a heavy tax burden on its citizens and leaves implementation gaps because of the sheer size of the crisis being too much for one country. The mayor of Izmir articulates it in saying that “the EU continues to test our ability to respect human dignity and they think that they provide a lot of services and have absorbed many refugees but they continue to pass it along to Turkey. It’s sad because Turkey had nothing to do with the war but they now have to shoulder the responsibility.” One of the researchers at USAK describes the dehumanization in saying that “the EU sees Turkey as a part of its remote-control policy and just uses it as a dumping ground for their problems.” According to Ahmet Icduygu, European countries began discussions with Turkey when they realized the scale of the issue after receiving 500,000 refugees last year. The DGMM believes that the EU “rediscovered Turkey” after the migration crisis when Europe could not manage it well and that they are currently work to find middle point between the wishes of the EU and Turkey. Ahmet Icduygu is more skeptical and says that migration has always been a bargaining point between them. This is even worse to the Turkish people when desire to become a part of the EU pushes Turkish policy more into the international realm than the domestic one, neglecting its impoverished and unemployed populations, for example.

This confusion, partially because, according to USAK, Europe itself is confused on a number of issues and does not have one coherent perspective on membership, puts Turkey in a strange position where it has to make concessions to the EU despite having the most power over the refugee crisis. The dehumanization that put Turkey on the edge is most harmful to the refugees themselves. For example, according to the Turkish minister on the EU, there has been pressure on Turkey to reduce its acceptance numbers because of the pressure on Europe to put quotas in place to allow refugees in. As stated by Ahmet Icduygu of Koc University, controls on the Turkish open door policy for immigration have been put in place and will soon take effect. The inability of the EU to accept Turkey due to dehumanization led to pressure enough to revise Turkey’s open door policy.

The strange EU-Turkey relationship has also led Turkey to focus more on quantity than quality of the refugee projects. A researcher at USAK estimates that the Turkish desire to be accepted by the EU has a 90 percent effect on its response. Because of this, Turkish officials may be more concerned with having projects in place and not as much with how they function. According to Multeci, although rights exist for refugees on paper, many of these rights are not realized because of challenges in implementation. For example, according to Support to Life, only five pharmacies in Istanbul issue medication to Syrians because they are supposed to be reimbursed but they are not being, likely because of bureaucracy. Additionally, according to UNHCR, some of the soft barriers to receiving services have been overlooked. For example, the biggest barrier, poverty, remains a challenge for families whose children need to purchase uniforms, books and materials to go to school. Not receiving the support that would have otherwise come to Turkey from the EU and having to shape policy in a way that impresses the EU have undermined the quality of these programs.

Not being an EU member further affects Syrian refugees because it does not offer them the services that could have existed had it been one. Being an EU member could have offered Syrian refugees a much wider variety of educational and career opportunities. It could have guaranteed them different opportunities to social mobility and integration by opening them to a variety of cultures with different languages including English (which many of them speak and understand). It may have also helped European countries treat refugees more respectfully as a result of mutual understanding. The Turkish minister on the EU mentioned that the EU could benefit from gaining a good understanding of Islam that would bring the two worlds together and help with the ‘othering problem.’ He said it “would introduce the colors that would eliminate the other.” This could have fostered a connection that helped humanize the Syrian refugees to European authorities and European citizens through would-have-been interactions.


Dehumanization is a subtle but deeply-entrenched phenomenon that can have great effects on the outcomes of world events. Dehumanization can be understood on a scale, where there is positive and negative dehumanization, both of which can be equally harmful. Positive dehumanization dissociates actors from their agency and can take the form of infantilization. Negative dehumanization distances actors and takes the forms of racism, xenophobia, and othering. Because it is a scale, different groups can have varying degrees of dehumanization towards each other.

In the case of Syrian refugees, five key examples of how dehumanization has complicated the situation and made it more difficult for those needing services most, the refugees, to receive them are securitization of the conflict, prejudice for and against Syrian refugees in Turkish society, inconsistency among various countries in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis, European Union understanding of Turkish responsibility, and European Union rejection of Turkey as a member state.

These examples suggest the need for honest self-critique, more integration and interaction with those we are susceptible to dehumanizing, and a serious investigation into counter dehumanization/humanization mechanisms.

“I want to tell you that I am very grateful you came, and please tell these Americans with you that they can’t lose this sense of concern for people. Please tell them. That they care for other human beings and would come on this trip to learn more about our plight… the whole world is just watching, and people assume, and people forget us. People forget the story of the human beings involved. We don’t need pity… we came with our honor and had built lives for ourselves with God’s permission, and we will continue to struggle and work hard as all people do. They forget us and the world has forgotten what we have left behind… what has been destroyed. For you to care… that is a beautiful thing not many people have. Please tell them to keep that.”



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