The visa machine was broken at Istanbul Atatürk Airport when I arrived in winter 2016. After having my passport stamped by a customs agent, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I had permission to step foot on Turkish soil. I had come to work with Fatmanur Aydin of Volunteers United, an organization providing education to Syrian refugees.
This was my first time traveling abroad as an American citizen and the first use of my American passport. I was resettled as a political refugee from Vietnam in 2001 and naturalized in 2012. Natural-born citizens view the passport as a mere formal travel document because they have never had to question their political belonging in America. But for me, my passport was a secure confirmation of my national identity. I was no longer a permanent resident alien but an American with the assurance that I could leave my nation and still be protected outside of its borders.
My sense of safety is a relatively modern phenomenon. Historically, passports served a less symbolic, but equally important purpose as a guarantor of mobility. In the wake of World War I, which fundamentally reshaped the world’s borders and conceptions of nationalism, the League of Nations issued the Nansen passport to stateless individuals. This identity document served as a safeguard against repatriation. During World War II, Hannah Arendt — a Jew, Holocaust survivor, refugee, stateless individual — was only able to safely arrive in New York City after acquiring an affidavit of identity in lieu of passport. And today, with the international legal infrastructure of individual human rights discourse, the conversation about stateless individuals should be over. The Syrian refugee crisis proves otherwise.
Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and hosts over 3 million Syrian refugees — the largest number in the world. However, it has been reluctant to become a true home for refugees, granting Syrians within its borders neither refugee status nor pathways to citizenship.
There is only one option for Syrian refugees in Turkey: temporary protected status, allowing a temporary stay with access to health care, education and employment. This status offers a semipermanent sense of security to individuals living stateless in an international order of nations. The caveat is that Turkey expects other nations to permanently resettle these individuals.
Syrians unable to qualify for temporary protection are rendered legally nonexistent. They are de jure refugees and de facto stateless, in a precarious position of being both unable to stay and unable to leave. For some students I met, this meant crushed dreams of attending overseas universities to which they had been accepted. For others, this meant uprooting their lives and criminalizing themselves in attempts to enter a nation that would grant them rights.
Again, I thought about passports. What value does the passport of a Syrian refugee retain? Little distinction is made between those with and those without. Both are unable to legally anchor themselves in political communities native and foreign.
Reflecting on the consequences of Jewish statelessness during the postwar period, Arendt chillingly declared: “The condition of rightlessness existed before the right to live was challenged.” She thus formulated the “right to have rights,” or the right to political belonging. States are the only entities to guarantee this right but paradoxically are responsible for producing situations of legal rightlessness without the protection of a state.
Responses by European and Asian nations bear a stark contrast to Turkey’s well-intentioned but insufficient attempts to find a legal place for Syrian refugees. Counties have enacted policies contrary to the spirit of human rights in order to avoid bearing the responsibility of legally recognizing Syrian refugees. Refugee camps have been razed, borders closed and refugee resettlement halted.
The United States has resettled about 18,000 Syrian refugees within its borders since 2016, a number that pales in comparison to the 800,000 refugees resettled after the Vietnam War. Hundreds of these individuals have come to New Haven by way of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, a nonprofit creating legal and social buttresses to welcome refugees into the Elm City. IRIS’s efforts represent the ideal option for Syrian refugees: protection from statelessness through permanent resettlement. Someday these individuals will become citizens and passport holders. I hope these pieces of paper that anchor political belonging can grant them the sense of security they are searching for.
Every nation has a responsibility to offer refugees within their borders resettlement or other forms of legal recognition and protection. Syrian refugees can no longer be relegated to statelessness; it is an exclusionary act of political violence that ignores their existence and decries their humanity. States cannot change their past complicity in producing refugee situations, but can seek redemption by giving every refugee a politically significant place in this world.
The visa machine at Atatürk is fixed by now. The next thing that needs fixing is the international legal framework for stateless individuals. Until then, the least we can do is work to ensure that New Haven can stay true to its name.
Trinh Truong is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .