The Politics of Reception in Syria’s Neighbourhood

Dr Estella Carpi from Southern Responses to Displacement participated in the ERC-funded conference “The Politics of Reception: The Syrian Neighbourhood as a Social Field” in November 2017.  Her blog examines the social implications of displacement from Syria. 

The Politics of Reception in Syria’s Neighbourhood.

By Dr Estella Carpi, Southern Responses to Displacement Project

The conference was organised by the Lebanese American University (LAU)–Byblos and the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), and held in Byblos (Lebanon).

The conference convened scholars working on the social implications of displacement from Syria, with particular attention to the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. In an effort to examine the politics of reception in the neighbouring countries, the conference panels discussed legal, humanitarian, governmental, and social fields and the way these have been changing since 2011, the beginning of mass displacement from Syria.

The way the social, practice, and policy fields have been changing in the region after the outbreak of the Syrian crisis is particularly relevant to the Southern Responses to Displacement project, which aims to enhance an understanding of how Southern-led humanitarian responses to displacement from Syria have interacted with other actors providing assistance and protection to refugees in formal or informal ways. In mapping this scenario, Northern-led responses not only have received greater attention in the international community, but have also defined the deontology of humanitarian work while often discarding other models and ideologies of care. Against this backdrop, the conference meeting primarily helped to rigorously map diverse understandings of aid and security provision, policy-making, peacemaking, and national and community belongings. Only an inquiry into the latter is able to inform how refugees, local residents, and Northern providers conceptualise and approach Southern-led responses.

The main themes discussed by the participants revolved around the effect of the international humanitarian apparatus on local and regional systems of governance, and the nature of national responses to Syrian displacement.

In this regard, Dr Tamirace Fakhoury from LAU-Byblos underscored the fragmented nature of the Lebanese response to the Syrian crisis. To this end, Fakhoury discussed Lebanon’s model of sectarian power sharing to unravel the polity’s response to mass displacement, largely relying on an élite fractured model. Emphasising the further politicisation that the Syrian crisis generated in the Lebanese domestic scenario, Fakhoury’s account exemplifies how states lacking a legal asylum framework are more likely to draw on the peculiar repertoire of their political regime to deal with displacement. In this sense, she highlighted the frictions that international funding gave rise to among Lebanese political élites.

In turn, Dr Andre’ Bank from GIGA traced a genealogy of the Jordanian response to Syrian displacement, contending that deliberate institutional ambiguity has been shaping the politics of encampment – meant to preserve national security and local economic interests – and the work permits regime, lately implemented in the region and purported, with not much success, to enhance formal Syrian labour (i.e. in Jordan 35,000 out of 50,000 planned work permits have been granted thus far). Bank however pointed out the moral implications of the recently enacted labour regime, dealing with the refugees as temporary migrant workers rather than forced migrants with scarce possibilities of return to Syria.

Similarly, Dr Christiane Froelich from GIGA pointed out the same weakness of the formal labour regime in the framework of Turkey, in addition to an inflexible registration system, which forced Syrian refugees to go back to the cities where they originally registered in order to access aid. Many of them, indeed, tend to move across the host country in the pursuit of job opportunities. Froelich thus raised the issue of how we should approach future citizenship for Syrian refugees in Turkey in a context of continuous mobility.

In this framework, responses have likewise been defined as fragmented, irregular, and ambiguous in the three countries neighbouring Syria, despite their diverse domestic modalities of governance. In Lebanon, the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) has been forwarded only in 2015, asking for greater involvement of local authorities in the official response to the Syrian crisis. Jordan, with an intermediate state capacity, through the so-called February 2016 ‘Jordanian compact’ is still largely dependent on external actors, while sponsoring self-reliance as a sustainable strategy to end the crisis (with the motto “Help Syrians help themselves”). Turkey has also implemented ambiguous measures, swinging in reflection to the currently volatile domestic politics and Turkish foreign policy. Such responses changeably relate to the rhetoric of Turkish national belonging and governmental promises of citizenship to educated Syrian refugees.

The conference participants also addressed the necessity to look at the everyday workings of security in the neighbouring countries after the arrival of the Syrian refugees. By this token, I discussed the nexus between local perceptions of security and safety in everyday life and a changing sense of territorial ownership and community belonging. In this sense, security is like an inter-subjective moment, a prism through which it is possible to read the social encounter in Lebanon between local populations and refugees, who often inhabit the same areas where they used to reside before the Syrian crisis in the capacity of migrant workers. I underlined how such layered understandings of security – and its mostly informal implementation in Lebanon – are rarely captured by Northern-led humanitarian responses. Drawing on Mark Duffield’s discussion of South Sudan and constrained contemporary knowledge, she noticed how the humanitarian protection mandate is currently in crisis as drastically ineffective. Against this backdrop, academic and humanitarian lifeworlds are increasingly protected through the ‘bunkerisation’ of physical and intellectual lives (i.e. humanitarian actors living in compounds in unsafe countries and ethical clearance processes in western universities practically discouraging researchers to go to the field).

With the same purpose of deconstructing normative accounts of forced migration, Dr Yazan Doughan from GIGA discussed how the closure of the national borders – rather than the Syrian refugee influx per se – has been changing local perceptions of security and ways to guarantee everyday livelihoods for local and refugee populations residing in the neighbouring countries. An up-close look at sister cities across the Syrian-Jordanian border (such as Azaz and Gaziantep, or Ramtha and Daraa), reveals what is locally experienced as the impossibility to reconstruct normality according to Doughan.

Further drawing local meanings of security, Rana Khoury from Northwestern University stressed how domestic security in Turkey is increasingly implemented through humanitarian assistance provision. Khoury also mentioned how security politics is not only a governmental and military discourse, but also humanitarian. The effects of this primary national concern in Turkey can be noticed in the increasing weakness of Syrian peace initiatives and political collectives, as often hit by cross-border violence, especially in the southern border city of Gaziantep.

The way in which Syrian forced migration has been changing national and sectarian identities has also been object of analysis during the conference. In this regard, Prof. Paul Tabar from LAU stressed how war and displacement had been affecting sectarian, gender, and class relationships before and after the Ta’ef Agreement ending the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. With the same intent to understand the heterogeneity of local responses and refugee mobility, Ann-Christine Wagner from the University of Edinburgh stressed the fictitious nature of the host-guest relationships in Mafraq, a northern Jordanian city, pointing out how locals and refugees have been adopting different ways of ‘waiting’ for the end of the crisis and the return to normality. Dr Evrim Görmüş from MEF University-Istanbul similarly brought the example of an emerging Syrian business class, who complexly intertwine with the Syrian war economy, often circumventing the closure of borders to continue smuggling activities. She emphasised how Syrian businessmen are often conceived of as diaspora groups, living aloof from the reality of their refugee co-nationals in Turkey, but not necessarily mingling with Turkish nationals.

The fractionalisation and the emergence of social classes in the present displacement-shaped scenario therefore make refugee-host relations as well as feelings of community or national belonging particularly muddled. The Arab Levant, largely hosting Syrian refugees nowadays, is however not an exceptional case. In this regard, Houda Mzioudet from Carnegie in Tunisia, Dr Stefanie Wodrig from the University of Kiel, and Dr Sabine Kurtenbach from GIGA have provided accounts from Tunisia, East Africa, and Southern America respectively, in order to highlight commonalities with and dissimilarities from the Middle Eastern region. While the Tunisian response to the Libyan crisis also emerged as relatively fragmented, Wodrig pointed out how the local will to enhance international accountability and funding often homogenised the Burundian, Ugandan, and Tanzanian responses to regional displacement, due to the importance of external recognition. Although not classifiable as monolithic responses tout court, Kurtenbach similarly argued that Southern American responses to displacement could easily be compared to each other in managing regional displacement.

In the same vein of Dr Yazid Sayyegh’s keynote speech “Refugees or hosts? Institutions, politics, identity, and community and the role of violence in shaping them”, which opened the conference, the speakers expressed the intellectual urgency to emphasise accounts of class and individual status in the framework of displacement from Syria. Indeed, the way locals and refugees are positioned within their original and “host” socio-economic class systems, not only determines the inclusion/exclusion of the newcomers within the receiving society, but also shapes the way local populations are publicly depicted as welcoming or resentful. In light of these considerations, the participants agreed on the necessity to recognise the multiscalar dimension of displacement, ranging from family to community and individual experiences; to trace different histories of displacement and social and economic participation in societies neighbouring crisis; and to therefore define (increasingly hybrid) social memberships along transnational, intergenerational, and extra-confessional lines.

Featured Photo Credit: Boys flying pigeons on the outskirts of Baddawi camp, N. Lebanon. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2017

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