Lausanne Treaty: From Statelessness to Citizenshipless Kurds

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

The Lausanne treaty resulted in catastrophic consequences for the Kurds, the most obvious of which was statelessness. However, long after the imposition of the treaty, the Kurds continued to suffer a range of state imposed policies and consequences that affected their capacity to live with basic human rights and dignity. One such repercussion was the ongoing questioning of Kurdish citizenship and loyalty to the newly formed states that emerged in the early 20th century, including in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. This issue was to have disastrous outcomes for a specific group of Kurds in Western Kurdistan (Rojava), Northern Syria.

As the newly formed regimes attempted to consolidate their vision of a unified nation-state, progressively violent and oppressive policies and decrees were imposed on minorities such as the Kurds in order to pressure them into towing the official state identity lines. This process often included severely repressive measures that curbed Kurdish identity, culture and linguistic rights. Often such policies bordered on linguicide and culturicide. One of the most unjust impact of the Lausanne Treaty was the revoking of hundreds of thousands of citizenship and national identity of Kurds in Syria, resulting in a state of inhumane existence devoid of basic rights such as access to education, healthcare, employment, marriage, property and more.

From Turkey to Iraq

In Turkey, pogroms, ethnic cleansings, forced migrations, executions and arbitrary murder and disappearances from the 1920’s onward were the norm. Kurdish culture and language were barred until the 1990s, and a range of systemic Turkification policies were implemented for decades to permanently change the Kurdish demographic in the country. This process involved the methodical destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages, with estimates close to half a million in some reports. Subsequently, the previously rural and agrarian nature of Kurdish society was irrevocably altered with millions forced to relocate in cramped urban regions. Poverty, low literacy rates, high birth rates, early marriages and a range of ongoing flow on effects characterized the majority of the Kurdish population in the region. Other repressive measures such as the village guard system was utilized to foment a sense of fear and terror as well as mistrust within Kurdish society. This policy was designed to slowly but surely disintegrate the social fabric of Kurdish society.

In Iraq, while the cultural and linguistic repression were not on par with that of Turkey’s chauvinistic approach, increasing policies of Arabization, assimilation and ethnic cleansing became the norm as the century drew to a close. The horrific policies of the genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign resulted in thousands of disappeared men and boys, hundreds of thousands of widowed women, thousands killed through the use of illegal chemical weapons, and many more permanently displaced and forced to flee to relative safety across the border to Iran and Turkey. Feyli Kurds were systematically round up and summarily shoved across the Iranian border on accusations of them being Iranian in origin. Similar to Turkey, the Ba’athist regime also eliminated close to half a million villages, corralling the Kurds into urban locations and thereby producing the same systemic approach of underdevelopment, poverty and discrimination against the Kurds as Turkey had implemented. Additionally, following Saddam’s 1991 attempt at invading Kuwait sanctions and the disastrous ‘Oil for Food’ program was implemented. The Iraqi regime immediately applied an internal sanction on the Kurdish dominated regions of the North resulting in the Kurds reaching starvation level poverty and economic deprivation which remained in effect until the 2003 US invasion of the country.

The Kurds in Syria

Like Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, the Syrian regime consistently violated international human rights laws, including ones it was signatory to with impunity when it came to the Kurds. From introducing arbitrary discriminatory directives and laws, including demographic engineering, the objective of which was consistently to limit, erase and outright eradicate Kurdish presence and identity. Yet, despite the clear and obvious presence and implementation of these discriminatory laws, the international community has historically shown a distinct lack of interest in the plight of the Kurds, empowering these regimes to implement increasingly repressive laws and redistrict the basic rights of the Kurds.

While the situation was slightly better for the Kurds in Syria since the Kurdish population was relatively miniscule in comparison to those in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, by 1962, an exceptional census was imposed on the Kurdish dominated region of Hasaka (al-Hasakah) in the north of the country which overnight stripped the citizenship and basic human rights of over 200,000 Kurds. These Kurds, amounting to about 20% of the total Kurdish population in 1962, immediately became stateless and identityless.

The census was conducted in a single day and only in the Hasaka region, which contained the highest concentration of Syria’s Kurdish population. The region also contained Assyrians, Armenians, Chechens and other ethno-religious minorities. However, the fact that the census was only conducted in the Kurdish heavy populated region and that few other ethno-religious communities were so systemically stripped of citizenship, indicated that this was a policy directed primarily at the Kurds. The Decree No. 93 of August 23, or the so called “Supreme Arab Revolutionary Command of the Armed Forces”, which formed shortly after the collapse of the United Arab Republic ordered the urgent implementation of a census. The Republic was a political union between Syria and Egypt which existed from 1958-1961. It was the first step implemented towards establishing a pan-Arab state in the Middle East. It’s ultimate failure, however, resulted in the consolidation of power and authority within Syria which had found itself and its Arab identity weakened as a result of the union. Soon after, based on Decree No. 1 of April 30, 1962 and the ministerial decision No. 106 of August 23, 1962, a general census was conducted, only to be held in ‘one single day.’

According to a special report published in 1996 by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the decree was also “one component of a comprehensive plan to Arabize the resources-rich northeast of Syria, an area with the largest concentration of non-Arabs in the country.” According to others, such laws were introduced in line of “a broader backdrop of government-led discrimination and demographic engineering policies aimed at Syria’s Kurdish minority.” Ethnic cleansing and demographic change were the key objective of this policy.

To avoid losing their citizenship, the Kurds of Hasaka were required to prove not only their continued residency in Syria since 1945, but also provide a range of documentations and evidence which were near impossible to collect in such a short time frame. Many lacked the understanding of what was occurring, or failed to collect the appropriate documents in time. Others were not even aware of the census until the date, as government authorities did not dispense adequate information about the census and its effects to the population.

According to the reports by human rights organizations, the arbitrary nature of the census was beyond disastrous for the Kurds affected. Individuals from the same families and residing in the same villages were categorized as foreigners or as citizens. Siblings of the same families lost their citizenship while the parents retained theirs. In other cases, parents living with children in the same villages were stripped of their status. Families who were capable of bribing officials managed to escape the loss of their citizenship. Others who had served in the Syrian military were suddenly stripped of their documentations. Consequently, entire families, villages, tribes and communities were now separated and categorized now as ajanib (foreigners).

The Ministry of Interior proceeded to provide the affected Kurds with a special red identity cards marking them even further apart. These Kurds were stripped of a number of essential basic rights including the right to own and sell property, the right to vote in elections or referendums, and they could not run for public office. The immense difficulty facing these Kurds did not end there. They were ineligible to request government food subsidies or be admitted to public hospitals, further causing long term poverty, harm and indignity. They were not able to find employment at government institutions or any state-owned enterprises, therefore they could not become teachers, engineers, doctors, military personnel, judges or prosecutors. They were also not legally allowed to marry individuals with citizenship. If they did, their marriage was not legally recognized for both parties involved. Both individuals were legally deemed as ‘unmarried’ on their identity cards. They could not request a passport to legally travel internationally and return to Syria. This prevented many of the undocumented to attempt to leave and to escape the repressive situation. They were essentially imprisoned and trapped within the country, rendered voiceless and dehumanized, erased and non-existent.

The dehumanization of the 1962 Decree did not end there. Since the citizenshipless status of the Kurds was hereditary, the children of those stripped of their identity were also affected. The offspring of these people became known as maktoumeen (“unregistered,” or “not appearing in the records”) because they lacked any documentation. They essentially were non-humans, lacking any documentary evidence of their existence. Subsequently, by 1962-2011, the original number of 200,000 had exploded to over 517,000 people affected. The children of these families were allowed access to education only following much struggle and institutional prejudices and all were barred from gaining an education beyond the ninth grade.

These discriminatory policies were run in conjunction with a wider range of anti-Kurdish policies and laws including bans on the use of Kurdish language, and Kurdish children’s names were not registered for those still having citizenship status. All Kurdish names of cities, regions and villages were replaced with Arabic alternatives. Businesses could not have Kurdish names at risk of de-registration and closure. Privately run and owned Kurdish schools were banned to prevent the Kurds from filling the educational and linguistic gaps that were emerging. All books and material written in Kurdish were banned. Cultural dates and festivities such as Newroz were also banned from being practiced. Those daring to celebrate were beaten, shot at, arrested, or killed by regime forces. Kurdish activists were often harassed and arrested, dismissed from their jobs or studies. Additionally, discriminatory property laws deliberate prevented or heavily discriminated against the Kurds. Many of these racially discriminatory laws were enshrined in the Syrian constitution. According to the organization The Syrians for Truth and Justice: “With the unfair implementation of these legislations, the government exacerbated social fractures on the basis of national and area-based discrimination for decades.” The collective of these policies, but especially the status of the maktoumeen and the ajanib served as a state established and promoted instrument of marginalization and terror against the Kurds.

By 2011, following a number of conciliatory efforts by the Assad regime to address rising Kurdish dissent the regime implemented a new law that allowed the ‘foreigners’ to gain citizenship. By late 2013, allegedly 104, 000 had managed to regain their citizenship. By 2018, according to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number had shrunk to just around 20,000. The maktoumeen, however, as of the last census in 2011 and numbering around 150,000 continue to remain undocumented.

A century after Lausanne 

As a result of the post-Lausanne geopolitical terrain the Kurds were rendered permanently stateless, a status which has resulted in horrendous human rights violations including multiple genocides and ethnic cleansing programs, demographic changes, linguicides and culturicide- some of which are still ongoing and imposed on the Kurds. For a small group of Kurds, these policies went further. While other Kurds were rendered stateless, the ajanib Kurds and their offsprings in Syria, were conferred to a non-existing, non-being status where they lacked all citizenship and nationality of any form in contravention to a number of international human rights laws. They were seen as an example of how far the Syrian regime was willing to go to ensure the erasure of Kurdish identity and culture, and effectively served to terrorize and abort Kurdish nationalist efforts.

By 2011 as the Syrian Civil War gained ground and became increasingly bloody, the Kurds were the first to attempt to develop military and civic practices and institutions to safeguard their basic rights. The emergence of the legendary People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in the historic fight against ISIS, the establishment of democratic and confederal system of self-governance, democracy, multiculturalism and gender equality were all means implemented to counter the repressive and unjust policies that the regime had imposed on the Kurds and other minorities in the country for decades. Yet, almost a century since the signing of Lausanne the Kurds in Syria remain in an incredibly precarious position. Invaded and targeted by Turkey on the one hand, surrounded by a range of jihadist and extremist groups on the other, while retaining a precarious relationship with the regime which is increasingly regaining and consolidating its power, and an apathetic international community who only see the Kurds as cannon fodder in the fight against extremism- the Kurds in Syria walk a tight rope of insecurity, imperialism, regional geopolitics and global apathy. Lausanne may be a document signed by the powers over a century ago, but for the Kurds it continues to be a fiend that hunts them.


  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

You might also like

Comments are closed.