Refugee Lives: Trauma, Celebrations, and Limbo

Photo by Alex Gunn showing graffiti art by refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp.
By Michael Murphy
Staff Writer

In 2011, the Syrian Civil War placed refugees on the global stage. Amid al-Assad’s barrel bombs, The Syrian Refugee Crisis was born. Videos depicting thousands of people fleeing their homes filled the airwaves. It wasn’t the first case of forced displacement, but European countries reeled from the sudden surge of humanitarian need all the same, with each country giving a kneejerk reaction on how to handle the hundreds of thousands of newcomers fleeing violence. Meanwhile, millions fled to neighboring countries–Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan—each already struggling with the refugees of the wars in the previous century. Before long, attention turned to North Africa. Images of rubber boats filled to the brim with desperate souls being tossed on the waves of the Mediterranean became unavoidable. Finally, in 2015, the image of Alan Kurdi, a young boy whose body lay on the beach after having drowned on the journey from Turkey to Europe, drew virulent international outrage.

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IS TURKEY MOVING AWAY FROM IRAN ?

By Sultan Alkhulaifi
Staff Writer 

Turkey shares a 560 km border with Iran that has not changed for 400 years. The two states share growing economic interests with each other, but different ideological and political backgrounds. Iran is a theocratic republic that was established after a revolution in 1979 that brought Shi’ite religious clergy to power. On the other hand, Turkey is a secular state that looked towards the West since its creation until the election of the Justice and Development Party in November 2002. Although Turkey and Iran have strong economic relations, they have different views on solving crises in places such as Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Despite stark political differences, both countries are pragmatic and are strengthening their economic relations.

The Houthis are considered an Iranian proxy group by Saudi Arabia as well as by its allies in the region. Saudi Arabia formed an alliance after the Houthis took over the capital of Yemen and were very close to taking over Aden, which became the new capital until the retake of Sana’a. In response to this, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered unpredictable support for the air campaign on the Houthis, condemning Iran for supporting terrorist organizations in the region. However, Iran responded by inviting Turkey’s charge d’affaires to express Iran’s objections to the Turkish president’s comments. The foreign ministry spokeswoman said that Iran demands an explanation from Turkey for these comments. Although Turkey supported the Arab alliance against the Houthis, Ankara is not ready to risk its delicate relationship with Tehran in the short run for regional competition that could complicate its internal politics and economy. Turkey has strong economic ties with Iran in sectors such as oil and gas, which gives Tehran leverage over Ankara because Ankara needs the Iranian supply of fossil fuels to continue its strong economic growth it has experienced over the last few years.

Moreover, Iran’s leverage over Turkey in oil and gas supplies affects Turkey’s economic growth and restrains its political maneuvers in the region. Turkey’s president visited Iran on April 7 and prioritized economics over politics. According to the Turkish foreign ministry, “Crude and natural gas dominate Iranian exports to Turkey with 90%.” It also notes that both governments have vowed to double the trade volume that has already reached more than $15 billion. Iran is the second largest gas and oil importer to Turkey after Russia. If Turkey aims to become an energy transportation hub, it will be forced to seek better relations with Iran and Russia. That means Europe may benefit from getting Iranian oil through Turkey, in turn causing it to decrease its dependence on Russian oil by diversifying its oil imports. This option will not be realized until relations are normalized between the West and Iran, which is contingent on signing a deal by June 2015. Iran is also dependent on Turkey since it was hit by sanctions and needs the flow of Turkish money to bolster its economy. Although both countries are interdependent in their relationship, Turkey has the lower hand since it relies on Iranian supplies of oil and gas to meet its domestic demand. The Iranian leverage can will be seen if Turkey is hit by electricity shortages in summer, which could cause domestic unrest. Also, the Syrian refugee crisis, in which Turkey hosts two million out of three million refugees, shows Turkey’s need to engage with Iran to solve the Syrian civil war.

Turkey has disagreed with the U.S. in its approach to the Iranian nuclear program. The U.S. was heavy handed in its dealings with Iran, an approach stemmed from Israeli lobbying efforts on Congress and the administration to stop Iran from developing a nuclear program. Due to this heavy handedness, Iran distrusted the U.S. and a new impartial mediator was needed to facilitate communication between world powers and Iran. As a result, Turkey engaged with Iran and convinced Iran to accept negotiations offered by the international community in 2002. The bargaining continued until 2006 after the U.S. imposed harsher sanctions on Iran. Iran conceded to Western demands after the U.S. sanctions, and the U.S. joined the negotiations in 2008. Turkey believes that a nuclear Iran would irreversibly create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. That would pressure Turkey to acquire nuclear capabilities and pose more concerns to the stability of the region. Moreover, Turkey signaled a turn towards the East in 2009 after a statement by then Prime Minister Erdogan in his visit to Tehran, that Turkey has turned its face to the East. The statement comes after relentless efforts by Turkey to join the European Union (EU), but having its effort are blocked by European resistance. As a result, Turkey needs to offset what it would lose from disengaging from the EU politically by forging better relations with Iran.

Despite historical rivalries between Turkey and Iran, present-day Turkey does not perceive Iran as an existential threat as Saudi Arabia does. While it views the Iranian support to Assad’s regime as destabilizing to the region, it has still cooperated with Iran to keep the Kurds at bay. Iran has a history of supporting Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, which affects Turkey’s Kurdish population and fuels separatist sentiments. In the 1980s and 1990s Iran sponsored Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is designated a terrorist organization in Turkey. Since the Justice and Development Party’s election in Turkey, Iran cooperated with Turkey and it stopped meddling in Turkey’s Kurdish population, allowing Turkey to start a peace process with Kurdistan Worker’s Party. The Kurdish separatist movements gave leverage to Iran since it allowed Iran to meddle in Turkey’s internal affairs and support Kurdish adversaries against the Turkish state.

In conclusion, Turkey is not pivoting away from Iran to the Sunni alliance because it needs Iran for help in the Syrian civil war that is on its borders. Moreover, Iran supports Turkish adversaries inside and around Turkey, as well as the Assad regime against Turkish backed Syrian rebels, creating a refugee crisis on the Turkish border. It could potentially destabilize Kurdish areas by supporting the Kurdish Worker’s Party. Turkey is going to manage its relationship with Iran delicately until it retains leverage in its economic ties with Iran, and prevent Iran from influencing the Kurds in case the peace talks fail.

Image By:  United Nations Photo

Whose Lives Matter?: A Conversation on Police Brutality Across Borders

By Carla Diot
Staff Writer

In recent response to the social unrest over the mysterious circumstances of 25-year old Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei published several tweets expressing solidarity to protesters, all while attacking the United States for its inadequate responses to the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. Using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, Khamenei tweeted “It’s ridiculous that even though US President is black, still such crimes against US blacks continue to occur.” The additional tweets, which can be found on Khamenei’s Twitter page, are not the first time that Iran has used such incidents as a platform to attack the United States. During the height of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Ayatollah Khamenei attacked the United States, calling it the “biggest violator of #HumanRights,” committing not only international crimes, but crimes against its own citizens.

The perspective of the conversation on police brutality in the United States has been focused domestically. President Obama recently declared the allocation of $20million to local police departments across the United States to be used specifically for purchasing body cameras to monitor police behavior towards citizens. However, the nationwide issue has also had international repercussions. The United States has received criticism from the international community, including countries such as Egypt, Russia, and Iran, as well as in forums such as the United Nations. This has provoked an international conversation on police brutality, with the United States serving as the principle violator. Yet, many of the countries who saw the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore as an opportunity to attack the United States have also been responsible for police brutality against their own citizens, and have, ironically, been criticized by the United States for doing so.

After the death of 18-year old Mike Brown, the town of Ferguson, Missouri erupted into a series of protests, and were met with escalated responses by St. Louis county police and the National Guard. In Ferguson, images of the high tensions between the protestors, the police, and the media were broadcast around the world. The images provided an opportunity for international political leaders and media to highlight the United States’ unsolved racial tensions. In Russia, government-controlled channels such as Russia Today and Rossiya 24 reported on the unrest, calling the scene a war zone. The conversation in Russia also focused on comparisons of the unrest in Missouri to the current unrest in Ukraine, even referring to the protests in Ferguson “Afromaidan.” The term gained significant ground and has also been used in describing the current ongoing protests in Baltimore. Russian politicians also got involved in attacking the United States, with the Russian Foreign Ministry’s representative for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, Konstantin Dolgov commenting that, “While urging other countries to guarantee freedom of speech and not to suppress anti-government protests, the U.S. authorities at home are none too soft on those actively expressing discontent over persistent inequalities, actual discrimination and the situation of ‘second class’ citizens.” While preaching these values, the Russian government eclipses their own treatment of second-class citizens.

In fact, Russia is not exempt from condoning brutality against its own citizens. In 2014, Human Rights Watch published License to Harm: Violence and Harassment against LGBT People and Activists in Russia. The report was scathing, accusing Russia of treating LGBT citizens as second-class citizens after the passage of a law banning “the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships.” While the language behind the law was noted for its vagueness, its intention was clearly seen as attacking LGBT citizens. Since the passage of the law, Human Rights Watch noted a rise in brutality against LGBT citizens. Most of the subjects interviewed for Human Rights Watch claimed that while the attacks were from vigilante groups such as Occupy Pedophilia, police officers often sided with the attackers, with one officer even claiming he would have done the same thing to the victim. Police officers both sided with, and participated in violence against LGBT citizens and activists. For such reasons, brutality against LGBT citizens went unreported, leaving them without any rights to justice.

In Egypt, the foreign ministry called on the United States to show restraint towards demonstrators in Ferguson over the summer. The Foreign Ministry claimed that it was “closely following the escalation of protests” and urged the U.S. government to find answers to Mike Brown’s death. The Egyptian government’s call had come at a time when tensions between the two countries were strained after the Egyptian government arrested and convicted forty-three non-governmental (NGO) workers under charges of operating without a license. The case was controversial, as critics argued that the law was vague and used to control NGOs. Several months after the conviction of the workers, President Obama announced the suspension of military aid to the Egyptian government, only releasing it under conditions that Egypt show credible steps towards free and fair elections. The withholding of military aid was used to show displeasure with Egypt’s violation of human rights at the time. Thus, when instability struck Ferguson, it was an opportunity for Egypt to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the United States in its policing of human rights.

Yet in calling for restraint, Egypt conveniently clouds its recent history of violence against dissidents. One of the most notable cases of violence against protesters was the Raba’a massacre, whose two year anniversary will be commemorated in August 2015. The massacre occurred after supporters of the ousted Mohammad Morsi gathered around the Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque to protest the coup against Morsi. The group consisted mostly of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, a group that would continue to be targeted by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration after the massacre. The demonstrations began peacefully, with supporters establishing camps around the mosque, but when it came time to disperse the camps, supporters were met with violence from the police. Though the death toll of the massacre is still unknown, it is estimated to range from 600 to 1,000 deaths. The crackdown was met with heavy criticism from the international community, with many groups such as the United Nations calling it a violation of human rights law. The United States immediately addressed the massacre, with President Obama responding through sharp words and the cancellation of a joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercise, known as Bright Star. In his address, Obama noted that “the Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days.” The incident was seen as another step in the deterioration of U.S.-Egypt relations. However, even more notably, the incident failed to create real dialogues in addressing violence against citizens.

The time for the United States to address police brutality may have finally arrived. After the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Darrien Hunt, and Freddie Gray, the United States has begun to move towards repairing race relations, and ensuring equity in human rights. Countries such as Russia, Iran, and Egypt are justified in criticizing the human rights abuses of the United States, and their words should be taken seriously. Yet it is their intentions that are lacking and should be criticized. For these countries, including the United States, human rights goes from being a goal for countries to aspire towards, to a back-and-forth game in an international political arena. Countries should reconsider their use of human rights discourse as a propaganda tool, as it results in empty words and fear-mongering. Instead, criticisms of another country’s human rights violation should be used to conduct thoughtful self-reflection and as an initiative to address the abuses seen in a productive way domestically.

Photo by Light Brigading