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How Human Rights Cross-Pollinate and Take Root: Local Governments and Refugees in Turkey



The human rights regime—as law, institutions and practice—has been facing criticism for decades regarding its effectiveness, particularly in terms of unsatisfactory overall implementation and the failure to protect the most vulnerable who do not enjoy the protection of their States: refugees. Turkey is the country hosting the largest refugee population, with around four million at the end of May 2020 (https://www.unhcr.org/tr/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2020/06/UNHCR-Turkey-Operational-Update-May-2020.pdf). As an administratively centralised country, Turkey’s migration policy is implemented by central government agencies, but this has not proved sufficient to guarantee the human rights of refugees on the ground. Meanwhile, in connection with urbanisation, decentralisation and globalisation, local governments around the world are receiving increasing attention from migration studies, political science, law, sociology and anthropology. In human rights scholarship, the localisation of human rights and the potential role of local governments have been presented as ways to counter the shortcomings in the effectiveness of the human rights regime and discourse. While local governments may have much untapped potential, a thorough analysis of the inequalities between local governments in terms of access to resources and opportunities is essential. The Turkish local governments which form the basis of this research, operate in a context of legal ambiguity concerning their competences and obligations in the area of migration. They also have to deal with large differences when it comes to resources and workload. In practice, therefore, there is extreme divergence amongst municipalities in the extent to which they engage with refugee policies. This chapter seeks to answer the question why and how certain local governments in Turkey come to proactively engage in policy-making that improves the realisation of refugees’ rights. Exploratory grounded field research among Turkish local governments reveals four main factors that enable and facilitate the engagement of local governments in refugee policies: (1) the capacity of and institutionalisation in local governments; (2) the dissemination of practices and norms surrounding good local migration and rights-based governance through networks; (3) the availability of cooperation and coordination with other actors in the field, and (4) political will. Collectively, these factors illustrate how a new norm—the norm that local governments can and ought to engage in policy-making improving the rights of refugees—is cross-pollinating and taking root among Turkish local governments. This understanding will provide valuable insights into how norms are developed, travel and are institutionalised within social and institutional networks, and how differences in access, capacity, political and cooperative opportunities may facilitate and obscure the path to policies improving human rights on the ground.


  • Human rights
  • Integration
  • Refuge