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REFUGEES. In a Muslim context, the term “refugee” is related to formal concepts of migration and flight that are central to the history of Islam. When the prophet Muhammed and his followers fled from hostile Mecca to friendly Medina (622 CE), they undertook what became known as the Hijrah (migration). This event constitutes the genesis of Muslim society and marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Thus hijrah, a generic Arabic term for migration, came to symbolize an exodus from a land of infidelity or oppression to the land of Islam. Later, the influential Wahhab! school of thought traced its own genesis to the hijrah of its founder, Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab, in the mid-eighteenth century.

Hijrah was prominent in early Islamic writings. Some Muslim scholars perceived Hijrah as a singular historical event; others, especially in the late medieval period, held that all Muslims who lived under conditions where Islam could not be practiced must migrate to the Muslim realm. Commonly understood as a collective, physical movement, hijrah was also interpreted, mainly by Sufi scholars, as spiritual withdrawal from a hostile society.

As long as the Islamic realm was expanding, hijrah was of secondary importance. When Christian states started to conquer Muslim lands, however, the doctrinal obligation to flee appeared in stark terms. When Granada fell in 1492, many Muslims left the Iberian peninsula for North Africa, either in obedience to Islamic doctrine or because of persecution and eventual expulsion by the Christians. In the early nineteenth century thousands of Algerians left before the advancing French colonialists to settle in nearby Libya, in some cases after failed uprisings. Simultaneously, the Russians pressed against the Ottoman Empire from the North, generating a flood of Muslim refugees heading toward the interior regions of Ottoman rule. Some left their ancestral homes in accordance with hijrah precepts to live under the Ottoman Muslims rather than the Russian Orthodox czars; economic opportunity also beckoned. After 1812, Russian authorities increasingly sought to rid themselves of the Muslim population in colonized lands by encouraging or forcing emigration.

Elsewhere in the Islamic world, hijrah was infrequently undertaken despite growing conflict with non Muslims. In the late eighteenth century the legendary founder of the West African Sokoto caliphate, Usuman dan Fodio, rallied Muslims against the “infidel” Hausa king by raising the twin banners of withdrawal and attack-hijrah and jihad. Later Sokoto leaders invoked similar concepts when fighting the British.

Hopes that the Ottoman Empire could roll back European colonialism took on a concrete and extreme form only in India. The Khilafat movement, started after World War I by nontraditional Islamic scholars, was essentially a protest against the British power that weighed heavily on the Muslim world. Calling for selfdetermination for Indian Muslims and, simultaneously, the preservation of the Ottoman sultan as the temporal and spiritual head of the entire Islamic world, some 18,000 Muslims proclaimed a hijrah and started marching to neighboring Afghanistan. Hundreds died from exhaustion on the way, and when turned back at the border by Afghan militia, more succumbed on the return journey. While no friend of the British, the Afghan king Amanullah declined the invitation to spearhead a jihad in India, nor would he give the marchers land in Afghanistan, as the Khilafat leaders had led their destitute followers to believe. [See Khilafat Movement.]

By the early twentieth century, the steady retrenchment of Muslim power had left millions of Muslims under Christian or Buddhist rule. For most, the formal obligation to migrate was not a realistic option. Instead, as the century progressed Muslims started to migrate into the Christian, industrialized states in search of economic advancement. At the same time, wars or oppression in the Middle East led many to seek asylum in Europe and North America.

The term hijrah remained in use for refugee situations from South Asia to the Balkans. The Central Asian Muslims who settled in Afghanistan during the 19206 after their failed rebellion against Russian, later Soviet, power in Turkestan were known locally as muhajirun, those who perform hijrah. Indian Muslims who moved to Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947 called themselves muhdjir, and their descendants in Karachi still use it as self-identification. Many Afghans who fled to neighboring countries following the Marxist revolution in 1978 and Soviet intervention in 1979 did the same. As in the case of the Prophet, flight was seen as a precondition for struggle; hence the Afghans used the terms muhajirin and mujahidin (holy warriors) equally. The Islamic model for granting asylum to refugees is the unreserved welcome that the people of Medina accorded the Prophet and his followers. The obligations of the hosts (ansdr) are stated in the Qur’an, surah 4.100: “He who emigrates in the path of God will find frequent refuge and abundance.”

The principal Islamic political entity in contemporary history, the Ottoman Empire, held liberal standards. Early Muslim migrants were accepted from a sense of religious duty, but this reflected also a traditional Ottoman practice of granting asylum freely to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This was codified in the 1857 immigration law (Muhacirin Kanunnamesi), which made no distinction between migrants and refugees but used the muhdjir-derived term for both. New arrivals were given plots of state land and were partially exempt from tax and military service. A commission (Muhacirin Komisyonu) was established to receive them. Between five and seven million arrived between 1860 and 1940; in 1860-1878 alone, the Ottoman population rose by about 40 percent.

The basis of the liberal immigration policy was partly economic. The Turkish heartland was thinly populated, and new arrivals provided needed labor. In some areas, Muslim settlers were especially welcome. The religious element in the policy became more pronounced toward the end of the century. Claiming that the lives of Muslims under foreign rule had become intolerable, the sultan’s religious advisers persuaded him to declare the empire open to all Muslims who wanted to come and settle. The decree enhanced the position of the Ottoman Empire as a haven for all Muslims and the sultan as its center. The religious elites, notably from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus, brought the hijrah to its ultimate conclusion by immigrating instead to Mecca and Medina.

For the contemporary Islamic world, the fate of the Palestinians became a defining element of the refugee concept. The Arab exodus from the parts of Palestine that came under the control of Jewish forces in 19481949 numbered about 700,000 persons. Another quarter of a million were displaced by the war of 1967. The Gulf War of 1990-1991 produced further displacements as most of the 350,000 to 400,000 Palestinians working in Kuwait fled or were expelled to Jordan.

By 1990-1991 the Palestinian population of nearly six million fell into three major categories. Israel proper had about 730,000 Palestinians of whom 150,000 were displaced persons, but none had refugee status under the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the special UN agency mandated to help the Palestinian refugees. In the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza the Palestinian population was about 1.6 million, of whom 900,000 had UNRWA status and one-third were in refugee camps, especially in Gaza. In the diaspora, Jordan had the largest concentration, with 1.8 million Palestinians. Half of them had UNRWA status, and about one-third of those lived in camps. Syria and Lebanon had a combined population of 600,000; most were UNRWA-registered, and more than half lived in refugee camps. Smaller numbers were found in other Arab states and the West.

To skirt the intractable political issues that had produced Palestinian refugees in the first place, UNRWA adopted a need-oriented criterion to define refugees. Despite their material dependence on UNRWA, the Palestinians viewed it with suspicion. The agency was part of the system whose decision for the partition of Palestine was at the root of their tragedy, and the United States used it to promote resettlement.

The Palestinians have in principle rejected resettlement and local integration in exile-two standard solutions to international refugee problems. Instead, they have upheld the right to return, as initially stated in UN Resolution 194 (1948) The continued prevalence of refugee camps has served to underscore this claim, and the symbolism of the refugee camp may also be seen elsewhere. For example, during the war in Afghanistan after 1978, both Afghan refugees and their Pakistani hosts refused local integration on grounds that it would compromise the right to return. Many Palestinians in the diaspora have not been locally integrated. Only Jordan, originally an underpopulated state, readily issued passports to all Palestinians in its territory.

As the Palestine refugee question entered a new phase with the Israel-PLO agreement in 1993, another Muslim refugee population moved to the forefront of international attention. War in the republics of the former Yugoslavia led to large-scale and forcible expulsion of ethnic minorities. In 1992, the Muslims of Bosnia became the principal target as Serbian, and later Croatian, forces sought to create ethnic homogeneity within their respective and enlarged domains. In pre-war BosniaHerzegovina, Muslims had constituted 44 percent of the population, or 1.89 million people. By the end of 1993, slightly more than one million were left; the others had been driven into exile, mainly to neighboring Croatia and western European states, or killed. As the war continued during 1993, Bosnia’s remaining Muslims had become concentrated in small enclaves, besieged by Serbian and Croatian forces although nominally under UN protection. Unlike Serbs and Croats who also were subjected to “ethnic cleansing,” the Muslims had no equivalent of a “homeland” and hence were sometimes called “the new Palestinians.”

At the beginning of the 1990s there were about 18 million international refugees worldwide, of whom perhaps two-thirds were Muslims. Africa had the largest share, including sizable concentrations in the heavily Muslim Horn. From the 1970s onward, war, drought, and environmental damage had turned millions into refugees. In many cases Muslim refugees sought asylum in Muslim areas, but cross-border ethnic ties, politics, and geographic proximity were also important in determining patterns of flight and protection. In the Sudan, for instance, the Islamist government equally received Christian and Muslim refugees from Ethiopia; Kenya, with only a small Muslim population, gave liberal asylum to Muslims from neighboring Somalia.

African Muslim states, like African states generally, have signed the UN legal instruments for protecting refugees (notably the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol). Additionally, African states have separate and stronger legal instruments to protect refugees (the 1969 Convention of the Organization of African Unity, OAU), and the special OAU administrative apparatus for dealing with refugees. To provide supplies to mass inflows of refugees, however, African states are heavily dependent on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Individual states, including the Islamistruled Sudan, generally work closely with UNHCR and western aid organizations to receive and distribute relief supplies.

The Middle East had by the early 1990s several groups of refugees besides the Palestinians. Two groups were numerically small. An older and gradually disappearing generation of refugees and stateless persons of European origin (mainly White Russians and Armenians) were scattered from Egypt to Morocco; most were assisted by the UNHCR, and their legal status was often precarious. A limited number of Islamic militants in exile, often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared throughout the region, usually protected and supported through Islamic organizational links or by friendly states (notably Saudi Arabia).

Refugees from war or violent social upheavals typically appeared in large numbers to seek protection in friendly neighboring states. In the Middle East, this often meant that Muslim refugees sought asylum in Muslim states. Because of their numbers, these flows constituted the greatest challenge and potentially the heaviest burden. Yet, in contrast to the industrialized north, but in common with most of Africa, asylum was rarely refused except in the traditionally restrictive Arab Gulf states. Yemen, facing the Horn of Africa, took in thousands of Ethiopians and Somalis before they moved on. Algeria accommodated for more than a decade about 200,000 Sahrawis, partly to express its support for the Polisario Liberation Movement in the western Sahara. Thousands of victims of war and drought in Mali and Niger were also allowed entry. Demonstrating Tehran’s interest in Afghan affairs, Iran accepted 2.3 million Afghan refugees after 1978. These were mainly fellow Persian-speaking Shi’i Muslims who were permitted to settle, work, and utilize social services on an equal footing with Iranian citizens.

Geographic location and political aspirations made the Kurdish refugees more problematic. In Iraq alone, their persistent autonomy struggle generated large, cross-border flows in 1974-1975 1987-1988, and in the aftermath of the Gulf War in April 1991. The Kurds of Iraq are mainly Shafi’i Sunnis or members of Naqshbandi orders, and thus distinct from the Hanafi Sunni Turks, the Shi’i Iranians, and the Hanafi Sunni Arabs who are their neighbors. Politics and not religion, however, determined the asylum policy of neighboring states: Turkey had rebellious Kurds of its own, and Iran was pursuing a long-standing rivalry with Iraq. Both governments initially sought to limit foreign aid organizations, including UNHCR, in order to implement an independent refugee policy.

Iran first opened, then closed the border to Kurdish refugees and militia in 1975. The border was reopened for refugees in 1987-1988, but foreign aid organizations were excluded. When a new emergency arose in 1991 as about one million Kurds fled into Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran reversed its previous policy and worked closely with UN agencies to provide emergency relief. Economic constraints had similarly led the government reluctantly to approach UNHCR for assistance to Afghan refugees in 1984.

Turkey was consistently restrictive toward Kurdish refugees, closing the border in 1975 and permitting only temporary safe haven in 1988. UNHCR and foreign aid organizations were kept out. In 1991 Turkey successfully insisted that about 400,000 Kurds who crossed be given asylum on the Iraqi side of the border.

The Arab Middle East has been weakly tied to the international refugee regime. Except for Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco in the west, and Sudan in the eastwhich had all benefited from UN support for refugeesnone of the Arab states signed the 1951 UN Convention on refugees or its 1967 Protocol. Rich Arab Gulf states gave only symbolic contributions to the global operations of UNHCR. Signs of change in the late 1980s were accelerated by the Gulf War. UN agencies played a prominent role in helping the huge refugee flows generated by the war in and from Iraq and Kuwait. As a result, the Saudi-initiated Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) resolved to strengthen its cooperation with UNHCR in all matters concerning refugee assistance within the Muslim world. Two OIC-related agencies, the Islamic Development Bank and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, concluded agreements of cooperation with UNHCR.

Refugees from the Middle East have also moved out of the region because of war (Lebanon, 1975-1976 and in the 1980s or revolution (Iran). An estimated two million Iranians fled or remained abroad as the fall of the shah (1979) ushered in revolution and war with Iraq. Mostly secularized or Western-oriented, these Iranians generally sought asylum in western Europe and North America. Only a few (perhaps one-fourth) were given formal refugee status, but Western states rarely returned asylum-seekers to the Islamic Republic of Iran, which they viewed as hostile and oppressive. Many Iranians (estimated to be about 800,000 in 1987) were in Turkey, where they were tolerated but not recognized as refugees.

Turkey was also a source of refugees. Both Turkish Kurds and other Turkish dissidents constituted a principal category of asylum-seekers in western Europe throughout the 1980s. As antiforeign sentiments hit Muslims and other groups in western Europe, asylum was tightened. By 1992 European states were very reluctant to accept refugees from the war in former Yugoslavia, including Muslims driven out by Serbs.

In Asia, on the outer rim of the Islamic world, Muslim refugees appeared as oppressed or rebellious minorities confronted by centralized state power (e.g., the Arakanese Muslims in Burma, the Moro in the Southern Philippines, or the Kazakhs in China). Closer to the Muslim heartland, in South and West Asia, refugees were generated as Muslim states were created (Pakistan)  or experienced major social upheaval (Afghanistan). Established as a homeland for India’s Muslims in 1947, Pakistan remained open to all Muslims in the Indian subcontinent until 1952. After that, the door was closed, even to the oppressed Bihari Muslims who wished to leave the former East Pakistan after it seceded to become Bangladesh in 1971. Pakistan did, however, provide exceptionally liberal asylum to more than three million Afghan refugees. The asylum decision reflected political interest in the Afghan jihad as well as deep sympathy for fellow Muslims in need. Iranian refugees who simultaneously asked for protection in Pakistan received an official cold shoulder. To aid the Afghan refugees, Pakistan worked closely with UNHCR, other UN agencies, and numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from both Western states and the Muslim world.

National Red Crescent societies have worked actively throughout the Muslim world to aid refugees, sometimes alongside NGOs run by Christian churches. Among the Red Crescent organizations, only the Saudi has a reputation for prosyletizing.

[See also Hijrah; and International Relations and Diplomacy.]


Eickehnan, Dale F., and J. P. Piscatori, eds. Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990. Principal source on the origins and evolution of Islamic concepts of refugee and migration. See especially Kemal Karpat, “The hijra from Russia and the Balkans: The Process of SelfDefinition in the Late Ottoman State” (pp. tat-152), on refugee migration to the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century; and Muhammad Khalid Masud, “The Obligation to Migrate: The Doctrine of hijra in Islamic Law” (pp. 29-49), on the theological discourse on refugee migration from its inception to the present.

Holt, P. M., et al. The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 2A. Cambridge, 198o. Contains a good section on the Khilafat movement. Meier, Fritz. “Uber die umstrittene Pflicht des Muslims, bei nichtmuslimischer Besetzung seines Landes auszuwandern.” Der Islam 68.1 (199i): 65-86. Definitive study of Muslim “religious refugees” by a leading scholar.

Shaw, Stanford J., and Ezel Kural Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. 2. Cambridge, 1977. Contains a good section on a classic pattern of receiving refugees in the nineteenthcentury Muslim world.

There is no separate literature dealing with refugees in the contemporary Muslim world. Information must be culled from general sources or case study material:

Brand, Laurie A. Palestinians in the Arab World. New York, 1988. Outstanding analysis of Palestinians in the diaspora.

Bruinessen, Martin van. “Kurdish Society, Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Refugee Problems.” In The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview, edited by Philip G. Kreyenbroek and Stefan Spearl, pp. 33-67. London, 1992. Balanced overview of a major, intractable refugee problem in the Muslim world.

Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, Washington, D.C. Facts and Figures about the Palestinians. Washington, D.C., 1992. Updates figures on population distributions.

Holborn, Louise W. Refugees: A Problem of Our Time. 2 vols. Metuchen, N.J., 1975. Classic compilation of data about global refugee populations after World War II, including many in the Muslim world.

Marchal, Roland. “Production sociale et recomposition politique dans l’exil: Le cas erythreen.” Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 27.3-4 (1987): 393-41o. Exceptionally fine case study on asylum practices for Muslim and non-Muslim refugees in a contemporary African Muslim state, Eritrea.

Olcott, Martha. “The Basmachi or Freeman’s Revolt in Turkestan, 1918-24.” Soviet Studies 33 (July 1981): 352-369. Early modern refugee movements in Central Asia.

United Nations, General Assembly, Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme. Overview of UNHCR Activities. Annual report, published in Geneva, with detailed information on refugee flows and conditions in particular countries.

United States Committee on Refugees. World Refugee Survey. New York, 1980-. Annual report, with aggregate data and descriptive material on global refugee flows.

Viorst, Milton. Reaching for the Olive Branch: UNRWA and Peace in the Middle East. Washington, D.C., 1989. Analytical overview of the functions and politics of UNRWA.

Zolberg, Aristide, Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo. Escape from Violence. New York, 1989. Comprehensive analysis of contemporary refugee movements, with sections on refugees in Muslim Africa, West Asia, and South and Southeast Asia.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/refugees/

  • writerPosted On: July 14, 2017
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