Refugees in Unrecognized Countries

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

By: Matisse de Rivières

Unrecognized countries are contemporary geopolitical entities that are not recognized by the international community. These entities claim the independence of a territory, which they partly or entirely control, but are recognized by only a few or no other states.

These entities often have their own government, military, police force, legal systems and even currencies.

Unrecognized countries are much better known for the emigration of their inhabitants, rather than for being a destination for global refugees. Although an issue hardly discussed, this phenomenon does in fact take place in unrecognized countries. But how can a migrant claim asylum in a country that doesn't actually exist?

Refugees in unrecognized countries are generally not a priority for local authorities and largely go unnoticed by the international community. This is largely because of the international isolation, economic sanctions and their general inability to cooperate with international organizations.

However, migration towards unrecognized countries has increased in recent years, seemingly because of historical ties, or because of greater stability and legal rights.

The United Nations defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence…Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.” People are considered as refugees if their fundamental human rights are threatened or violated, and if they are left without any protection from the state or authority.

The term refugee is used for people who have been granted official refuge by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The problem lies in the fact that requesting official refuge to the United Nations is not possible in countries unrecognised by the international community (Bierzaneck, 1962).

Under international law, the populations of these unrecognized countries are already stateless, assuming they do not hold other citizenship. This begs the question; how can individuals seek refuge in countries that don't officially exist?

Unrecognized countries are in constant struggle with the international community to obtain legitimacy and a determined political and legal status. External limitations imposed on these territories have led to the multiplication of economic and social crises.

Tensions between the self-proclaimed independent territory and the former state to which they belonged are omnipresent. In turn, economic, political and military pressures from former states weaken unrecognized ones and their ability to offer social services to citizens and migrants alike.

Yemeni Refugees in Somaliland

Somaliland is an unrecognized country internationally recognized as part of Somalia. The country declared its independence on May 18th, 1991; it is the territory of the previous British protectorate of Somalia, which merged in 1960 with Italian Somalia to form the independent state of Somalia.

Even in its current state, Somaliland maintains diplomatic and commercial relations with its neighbours (Ethiopia and Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda), but none of them, as of yet, have officially recognized its sovereignty.

Although unrecognized, the country is relatively stable and democratic - leading it to become a destination for refugees from neighboring countries. Out of its refugee population, citizens of Yemen have become the largest group.

The current war in Yemen began in 2004 with a conflict between its internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels. The conflict intensified in March 2015 with the intervention of a Gulf coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Since 2015, more than 3.5 million Yemenis have been displaced. Today, the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula is a battleground: and 77 % of the population suffer from food insecurity and need humanitarian assistance (United Nations 2018).

During the Somali civil war, many Somalis fled to Yemen as refugees. When the war in Yemen broke out, Yemenis were granted refugee status in Somaliland because of their intertwined history and culture; many of them being ethnic Somalis themselves. As a result, the UN refugee agency doesn’t consider the majority of Yemenis in Somaliland as refugees, but as 'returnees'.

The arrival of Yemeni refugees in Somaliland is not associated with any UN financial aid (United nations, 2006). It is in fact, a reminder of the unrecognized status of Somaliland, still considered by the international community as an autonomous part of Somalia and not recognized by the UN (Lindley, 2010).

Even though the country is unable to seek official aid, Somaliland hosts 6,000 refugees despite its inability to cooperate outside of the framework of internationally recognized Somalia.

Syrian Refugees in Abkhazia

Abkhazia is an unrecognized country located in the Caucasus between Russia, Georgia and the Black Sea. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Abkhazia proclaimed its independence and entered into direct conflict with Georgia, which planned to grant it only partial autonomy.

In the 19th century, as populations living in North Caucasus were forced to leave their homeland, many settled in the territories of modern Syria, Jordan, and Turkey: about 1,000 ethnic Abkhazians settled in Syria.

As such, many Syrians considered Abkhazia as a coherent choice for place of refuge, knowing that the Abkhazian law on citizenship automatically recognizes people belonging to the Abkhaz ethnic group as citizens (United Nations General assembly, 2017).

Under this law, Syrian migrants of Abkhaz ethnic origin would be granted citizenship of the unrecognized country upon arrival from Syria.

Moreover, Russia was able to facilitate much of this through its influence over both Abkhazia and Syria (Merle 2018).

Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan has long been a shining beacon of stability within Iraq. Since the 1990s, the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan) has been recognized by the Iraqi constitution, equipped with its own government, legal system and even military.

As ISIS swept its way across Iraq and Syria, many Iraqis, including various ethnic minority groups, were forced to flee north, to what was the only safe region of Iraq - Iraqi Kurdistan. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish military, was able to successfully keep its borders secure during this period of turmoil in other parts of the country and region.

As the region is in fact a recognized autonomous region of Iraq, and not an unrecognized country, they have worked closely with foreign governments, the United Nations and other international organizations to properly care for the influx of migrants into its territory.

Refugees in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh)

Nagorno-Karabakh, or the Republic of Artsakh, is a self-proclaimed republic in the Caucasus region. Predominantly populated by ethnic-Armenians, the country declared its independence in September 1991, and is not recognised by any UN Member State, including Armenia.

During the Soviet period, this historically Armenian land was integrated into the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic as an autonomous region in the name of Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh has been fighting for either independence or unification with Armenia, refusing to be a part of Azerbaijan.

​Armenia and Syria have diplomatic relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union and around 130 000 people from Armenian descent live in Syria. In 2015, the Syrian regime recognized the Armenian genocide - opening displaying the relations between these two countries.

When the civil war in Syria broke out, Armenia was proactive in helping Syrian refugees. As many ethnic-Armenian Syrians fled the country, many of them have settled in the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh.

Refugees in Northern Cyprus

North Cyprus (TRNC: Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), is an unrecognized country, located in the north of the island of Cyprus, which represents 38% of the island’s territory. The only UN member state to recognize its independence is Turkey.

It declared its independence on November 15th, 1983, nine years after Turkey's military intervention in Cyprus.  

The massive immigration toward North Cyprus is explained by its geography - it is close to mainland Europe, Lebanon and Turkey which are saturated by the overflow of migrants.

Although, during the peak of the European migrant crisis, North Cyprus received relatively few asylum seekers, refugees were heading toward central Europe directly (Beacháin, Comai & Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili, 2015).

Syrians fleeing war represent 80% of the total asylum seekers in Northern Cyprus as of 2019 (Aydin, 2014). The complex History and legal status of the De Facto state makes it harder to regulate the arrivals of refugees.

In addition, North Cyprus has received many other migrants from Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Palestine, and other Asian and African countries.

The territory has become an open door to enter Europe because of its political fragility and proximity to the EU - a walking distance. The main route towards North Cyprus is via Turkey (in the cities of Mersin, Adana, and Hatay) by commercial boat or even a flight.

From Northern Cyprus the entrance to the official Republic of Cyprus, a member of the EU since 2004, is easily accessible with very few borders control. Scholars Baldwin-Edwards explained in 2005 “For the new EU members, such as Malta and Cyprus, inclusion in the EU regime has made them attractive for illegal migrants and/or asylum-seekers not so much in their own right, but as transit stages to northern Europe.”

Refugees in Northern Cyprus are deprived of UN refugee status, because of its unrecognized status and no existing asylum process in North Cyprus. In addition, North Cyprus does not have the financial resources to enforce immigration laws, or to feed and provide decent accommodations to refugees.

Despite these clear issues, non-state actors (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other human rights organizations) have a very limited role, if any, concerning these matters in unrecognized countries.


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#Abkhazia #NagornoKarabakh #Artsakh #NorthCyprus #Somaliland #UnrecognizedCountries #UnrecognizedStates #Refugees #Migrants #IraqiKurdistan

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