Gendered resilience among Syrian women in Amman, Jordan

Alia Fakhry

CMES – Lund Univ. (Sweden)


While women face greater difficulties throughout migration due to their gender, gender can be a tool for resilience. Syrian forced migrant women in Amman indeed renegotiate gender hierarchies with agency and demonstrate a form of gendered resilience. Their experience highlights the potential resourcefulness of gender in the experience, as well as in the study of, forced exile. This research is based on an ethnographic fieldwork conducted between September and December 2015 in Jordan. Using the concept of gendered geographies of power in transnational spaces, it intends to bring forward a rather dynamic vision of both migration and gender in which both processes intertwine.

Keywords: gender, resilience, forced migration, gendered geographies of power, refugeeness


Sitting on one of the couches of her mismatched living room, between two sips of extra sweetened black tea, Ghadir admits it: the mother of four has many more responsibilities than she used to and her social life significantly expanded. Despite the flight from Syria, the uprooting exile in Amman and the daily difficulties, “life goes on” as Ghadir says with a timid smile. Now that her husband works twice as much as in Syria for a ridiculous pay, she has to handle the groceries and other errands he or her mother-in-law used to manage. That is why she got rid of the niqab she wore in her neighbourhood of Al Midan in Damascus, “a very conservative area” adds Ghadir. Another respondent confirmed later that “it was not normal to not wear the niqab in Al Midan”. Today Ghadir goes about her day in Amman with a simple hijab as “it is easier to talk to people, shopkeepers and taxis”. She is looking for a job and already worked for a charity last summer during the month of Ramadan. She also made a good friend, a Jordanian neighbour, with whom she spends a lot of time and takes religious classes in a local centre.

Ghadir’s life has been greatly disrupted since she fled Damascus. As she accommodates urban exile with resilience and agency, she renegotiates the social structures shaping her daily life, one of them being gender hierarchies within the household. Indeed, while it is argued women face greater difficulties throughout the migration process due to their gender (Giles 2012, Alsaba and Kapilashrami 2016), my fieldwork demonstrates that gender can also be a tool for resilience in exile. Expanding “agency despite constraints” (Gren 2015, 4) through the renegotiation of gender hierarchies, Ghadir and other forced migrant women[1] could uphold resilience[2] in exile.

Since the mid-1990s a growing number of scholars incorporate transnationalism in the study of refugee communities (Al-Ali et al. 2001, Al-Ali and Koser 2002, Shami 1996, Wahlbeck 2002) that often develop “transnational identities” (Koser 2003), thus bringing forward people’s connectedness and agency in and beyond migration. Simply put, transnationalism is “the process by which immigrants forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (Glick Schiller, Basch and Szanton Blanc 1995, 48). Yet Mahler and Pessar (2001), acknowledging that gender has rarely been the focus of transnational migration studies, argue that “bringing a gendered optic to transnational studies benefits both the study of transnational processes and the study of gender” (441). This paper intends to show how transnational migration and gender hierarchies are both dynamic processes operating over time and space, evolving symbiotically in Syrian women’s lives.

Gender in (forced) migration

Women experience specific violence and potential trauma before, during and after their flight, yet their experience of migration is not limited to suffering and pain. Feminist scholars have underscored the problematics of humanitarian discourse and of the representation of refugee women, and have emphasized women’s agentic capacities (Corbet 2012, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2010, 2016, Hyndman 2000, Hajdukowski-Ahmed, Khanlon and Moussa 2008). Hence Hyndman argues that “women, whose bodies, families, and communities bear the violent inscriptions of war and displacement are neither universal subjects nor essentialized subjects in distinct locations” (2000, 86). In this way, this paper takes a close look at the gender hierarchies shaping Syrian women’s daily routine in order to unravel these structures.

Within the household unit, the sudden transformation of gender hierarchies and roles ensuing from migration often leads to diminishing men’s self-esteem, which in turn can increase risks of domestic violence (Buscher forthcoming 2017, Lutz 2010). The redistribution of labour and care often puts forward women and mothers who tend to become breadwinners while other female family members take over housework (Ibid.). Besides, women and female heads of households face greater difficulties to support themselves and their family, yet women’s livelihoods proved to be more adaptive to new environments than men’s, since childcare and housework can easily translate into service oriented work (Buscher forthcoming 2017, 5). Thus, gender and kinship undergo significant changes in exile.

However, Thorleifsson argues that women taking on new responsibilities and the changing of social relations and networks “does not constitute a reversal of traditional gendered roles” (2016, 1076). Kopytoff (1990) confirms that “an apparently radical transformation of women’s roles can occur by what is in fact a slight variation in role shedding and role acquisition” (90). Gender roles and hierarchies are only rearranged in order to secure a certain livelihood and matters of security and dependency are at the basis of these renegotiations. According to Barnes “a subtle shift takes place when women do not have to depend on others, but instead use other people to who depend on them in order to meet their needs for security” (Barnes 1990, 257). Thus, how do gender and kinship relations morph through forced migration?

Transnational feminist theoretical framework

More than an attibute of definition of the self, gender is a process, a set of relations “among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts” (Butler 1999 [1990], 13). Therefore, while gender is a contextualized and specified relation, this relation varies and evolves according to the given setting and the subjects involved. Hence, gender is a social construct and a discursive practice (Butler 1999 [1990], de Beauvoir 1949). Because it carries power distinctions and social difference, gender becomes a meaningful concept in transnational studies to unravel these structures. In this way, gender evolves across borders and is reshaped in situations of transnationalism (Mahler and Pessar 2001).

In her overview of the state of scholarship on Gender in the Migratory Process (2010), Lutz pleads for a study of the “gender-specific (transnational) migration patterns” through a multi-scaled analysis. Scholars have indeed acknowledged the role of nation-states projects and households on gender roles (e.g. Fouron and Glick Schiller 2001, Pessar 1999), yet they have lacked to take into account the various layers of power affecting migrants’ lives. She brings forward “the need to integrate gender aspects into theories based on transnational migration, labour market and network approaches” (Lutz 2010, 1658-1659).

Linking the concept of social words to the study of transnationalism, and bringing in the role of gender, Mahler and Pessar (2001) introduce the conceptual model of Gendered Geographies of Power in transnational spaces (GGP). Their framework articulates geographic scales, social locations and power geometries, as well as the role of personal resourcefulness and social imaginaries in the (re)definition of gender through migration (2001, 2003, 2006). Following Lutz’s argumentation, each element of their concept provides a wide and in-depth analysis of gender in transnational contexts, taking into account the various scales impacting gendered aspects of people’ lives across borders. They understand it as a framework to analyse “people’s social agency – corporal and cognitive – given their own initiative as well as their positioning within multiple layers of power operative within and across many terrains” (2001, 447). They articulate gender, transnationalism[3] and transnational spaces[4] to craft a concept that acknowledges power hierarchies and degrees of agency (power geometries) on multiple spatial (geographic scales) and social scales (social locations). Although convenient to the study of transnational forced migration, the concept of GGP has been little used in this context so far. While the concept of GGP is not explicitly designed for the study of refugee communities, Mahler and Pessar argue (2006, 51) that:

as agency is more interrogated the commonplace poles ‘voluntary’ (immigrant) versus ‘involuntary’ or ‘forced’ (refugee, slave?) migration should be rightfully seen as endpoints in a long continuum with many intermediary measures and sites where gendered ideologies and processes operate.

The concept of GGP serves the overall aim of this research, which is to explore the facets of Syrian women’s resilience in transnational exile. Besides, it allows a multiscale and multilevel analysis simultanely looking at the transnational social spaces in which women are embedded (geographic scales), the spaces in which they inscribe themselves (social locations) and the gender roles (power geometries) that define their daily lives.

I chose to use qualitative methods of research as they suited the needs of my fieldwork for several reasons. On the one hand, feminist critique has argued that qualitative small scale research methods in social sciences are suited best to women studying women, as it increases intersubjectivity with the research participants (McDowell 1992). Besides, Vargas argues that “the delicate condition of refugee families […] means that service providers and scholars […] encounter a variety of thorny ethical dilemmas” (1998, 35). Conducting research with forced migrants, it was primordial to preserve and anonymize their information. Indeed, most of them worked or resided in Jordan illegally, some had escaped camps and risked to be taken back. Thus the names of all my respondents, as well as my interpreters’ have been modified.

During a three-month fieldwork in Jordan, I interviewed 18 Syrian women, aged between 17 and 60. All of them lived on the outskirts of Amman at the time of the study, or in peripheral areas. Most of them used to live in, or on the peripheries of, large Syrian cities. Some came from rural areas in the North and South West of Syria. They arrived in Jordan between the summer of 2011 and August 2014, mostly coming by road. In general, they first ended up in other Jordanian cities or passed by refugee camps before reaching Amman. Most of them lived in a male headed household, where the male main figure was often their husband.

In Syria, they were mostly housewives (sitt beit) or students. While only one of them had already a paid activity back in Syria[5], seven were working at the time of the study. Indeed, widow since 2013, Um Amer started selling accessories back in Syria and cumulated side jobs in Amman. The others were working in factories, as secretaries, housekeepers, language teachers, in beauty salons or with charities and NGOs. While most of my respondents are registered as refugees, four of them are not, either because they are married to, or children of, Jordanians or because they made the choice not to register. All of my research participants had relatives, friends or business connections in Jordan, who sometimes moved to Jordan long before the conflict in Syria, and who generally eased their arrival and settlement in the country. Their quality of life and living conditions in Amman varied. While Leila dwells in a two-room basement with her four children in the shabby neighbourhood of Jabal al Taj, Ghazal lives in a spacious and bright flat with her family by the university of Jordan, where her brother studies. Yet, they all faced precariousness on a daily basis.

The modification of women’s social worlds after forced migration implied in almost all cases a renegotiation of gender roles in the household unit, reshaping gender roles and household patterns. In order to comprehend the multiplicity of forces operating on gender roles across transnational terrains, I will use here the concept of Gendered Geographies of Power (GGP) developed by Mahler and Pessar (2001, 2003, 2006). It allows a multi-scaled analysis, encompassing different geographies, integrates social locations reflecting the different power hierarchies in which one can be embedded, and acknowledges various degrees of agency. Using this concept in the study of forced migrant women in urban settings, I have identified three household patterns. They involve various uses of the city and rates of activity, translating diverse levels of agency : the sitt beit (1), the collaborative household (2) and the awaiting wife (3). These patterns highlight questions of sexual (un)availability that are at the heart of the renegotiations of gender hierarchies, and which are perhaps exacerbated in urban contexts. Indeed, feminist scholars such as Wilson (1990) have emphasized the ambivalence of urban spaces for women, being both exclusionary and potentially emancipatory. Besides, Jackson (2005) argues that cities and public spaces are the stage of normative violence engendering shame people tend to escape, often retreating in specific areas of the city, or avoiding it at all. Finally, the three different roles I have identified are not explicitely communicated, but transpire from data analysis and coding.

First, the sitt beit’s activities are traditionally restricted to housework and caregiving. Many of my respondents presented themselves as sitt beit (house wife). Yet, for the purposes of this study I use the term to refer to women living in male headed households and who do not engage in any type of paid activity besides housework. That was the case of Noor, who quit her job at Jabal al Nasser hospital when she got married to another Syrian refugee. Since then, she lives at her in-laws, also in Jabal Al Nasser. Her husband works in a fabrics factory and provides the only salary of the household. Noor spends her day with her mother-in-law Salma and helps her with the housework. She has a rather limited experience of Amman:

N: I go shopping with Salma to the mokhayiam. Every week we go there.

A: And what other neighbourhoods, or places do you go to?

N: Only the mokhayiam. That and the hospital, when I was working there. But that was before [I got married]. And also the UNHCR.

On the other hand, in collaborative households women often invest the city on a daily basis and have a rather diversified experience of it. Collaborative patters often occur in male headed households, in which women’s activity can be renegotiated with the main male figure. It is typically the situation of Lina:

When we left Syria, I told my mom we had to go to Amman, because I knew I could give classes to foreigners. Some of them I knew from Damascus already, when I was at university. So when we came to Amman, I started working like this [as an Arabic tutor] and after one year I had like a salary with like six to ten students. I go everyday to West Amman to meet them. Also my husband teaches Arabic. Now he has three students, but they are all from my contacts. But because I could not teach more, I gave them to my husband. He teaches on top of his job.

In this way, both of them collaboratively contribute to support the household. It is precisely because both the woman and the main male figure (who is not necessarily her husband) can contribute to the household economy that Lina and others are able to perform activities outside the household and can navigate in the city. In such situation, the head of the household is shared as much as the financial burden is. Moreover, in this configuration former sitt beit begun experiencing the city in new ways as they started working or taking care of the household economy and hence, had to leave the house during daytime. Rabiyah, for instance, lived in a conservative area in Homs where she used to wear a niqab when going outdoors:

I used to wear the niqab in Syria […] Why? Well, it is the just the way it was there.

Similarly, since she started having activities outside the house, such as grocery shopping or working as a cook for a local Islamic charity, Ghadir changed her outfit for a simple hijab as “it is much more practical when you have to talk to people, shop sellers and taxi drivers”.

Within collaborative households, women seem to experience the city as an emancipatory space. Thus the city becomes “as a shifting space that can be appropriated by women” who can explore the interstices of urban anonymity (Wilson 1990, quoted by Bondi and Rose 2003, 230). However, they do not completely escape normative expectations contrary to what Wilson argues. Though free to come and go according to their daily activities, women living in collaborative households still pay attention to matters of honour and shame, such as neighbourhood monitoring. Thus, Lina makes sure that:

when I come back home and it is already dark, I always ask the taxi to drive in front of the gates of my building. It’s better. Not that the area is dangerous, really it is safe here. You know, I am married, people speak. And also you see, I am not veiled [laughs].

Contrary to women in collaborative households, awaiting wives have the lowest activity rates, barely leave the house and rather experience the normativity and uncertainty of urban space. Though their husbands are “unavailable”, their shadows remain and hover over the family. Samia is one of them, married and yet, de facto head of the household. Her husband left Jordan a year ago to reach Sweden. Today the family is hoping to be granted asylum there to obtain family reunification. Since her husband left the house, she remains at home with her 5 children and her mother:

I go out once a month with my mother to [the Palestinian camp of] Wardat for grocery shopping, because it is very cheap there. We take everything we need, flour, sugar, oil and we take a lot, like this we don’t have to go back. Taxi drivers always make fun of us when they see all our bags. Sometimes I also buy fresh fruits and vegetables from a hawker. That is it. I don’t like to go out. Before with my husband we visited our relatives in the North, now I feel like I am dying in Jordan, doing nothing.

Besides Samia started wearing the niqab upon her husband’s departure from Amman. Her limited experience of the city and the change of dress she operated highlight her sexual unavailability and comply with matters of honours. Avoiding public spaces, she makes sure to display her unavailability: her husband left Jordan, yet he is still part of the gender equation and becomes visible, through Samia’s urban invisibility. Thus awaiting wives might experience the city as a rather constraining and disadvantaging stage (Bondi and Rose 2003). Looking at gender as a social construct, a shifting set of relations, it is important to acknowledge the content of this relation, the term of exchange. As Strathern (1988) argues in her study of Melanesian societies, gender should be seen in terms of what men and women do to define it. In the case of Syrian forced migrant women, and especially awaiting wives, men are traditionally financially accountable to women while the latter are maritally accountable to men.

Samia, Leila and Rahf, all awaiting wives are in the complicated situation where their husband has left the household and is (believed to be) alive. Samia’s family hoped to obtain asylum in Sweden, while Rahf’s hoped for Germany. Leila’s husband was captured by the Syrian regime at the beginning of the war. I do not include in this category the two 2 women whose husbands divorced them or who left the household, because they have definitely left the family and hence, are not part of the gender equation anymore. To these three women, I would add women such as Salma and Rabiyah, whose husbands are present with them in Amman, but are unable to work due to health issues. In all these cases, women cannot take over men’s provisioning duty, as they are supposed to find it back some day (after a knee operation, once they will be reunited in Sweden or when he will be freed from Syria). Thus, depending on people who cannot support them, awaiting wives find help from the people who depend on them. Indeed, Barnes argues that “a subtle shift takes place when women do not have to depend on others, but instead use other people who depend on them in order to meet their needs for security” (1990, 257). Most of the time, women who found themselves in these situations relied on their children, as Rabiyah and her husband relied on their 15 years old son:

He goes to school here in Jabal al Nasser. At two o’clock he comes back because then the school is for Jordanians[6]. He makes his homework until five and he sleeps until eight and then he goes to the shawarma restaurant that is around the corner. And he works until two in the morning. And really you know, his boss loves him, he loves his little employee [proudly smiles]!

Similarly, Leila put at work her two oldest children, two young men (17 and 21 years old). The two of them work in a shop selling plastic containers located nearby their flat:

They work a lot, from eight to eight, everyday even on Fridays. Like this they make 250 JOD [together]. Before they used to do deliveries in the neighbourhood for another shop. But I told them to stop, I was too afraid for them [because they work illegally and are undocumented in Jordan]. You know my brother once he was controlled by the police in a bus. He could give the name of our brother, because he is registered but my sons, maybe they take them back to Syria. So now, it is better that they stay in the shop.

The situation of uncertainty in which awaiting wives find themselves is often reinforced by their thorny legal situation: Leila and Samia are both undocumented as they respectively escaped the camps of Azraq and Zaatari. I further elaborate on the role of the refugee label and experience in women’s lives in the following section.

Exploring gender roles that have arisen from forced migration, with the help of the concept of gendered geographies of power, my concern here was to highlight the ways in which gender can morph in exile. As a discursive social construct, gender evolves in various forms and hierarchies, translating different household patterns. These new gender hierarchies involve specific uses of the city, emphasizing the versatility of urban space. Either emancipating or restricting, the experiences Syrian women have of the city of Amman tend to reflect the ratio of power impinging on them. They also underscore the fact that the city is not defined in its essence, but is rather a stage exacerbating specific social configurations. As Lutz rightfully puts it, “in everyday life practices, gender-specific characteristics are mirrored and, simultaneously, the individual migrant’s position in transnational spaces is marked by intersections of life-cycle, class and ethnicity that can turn out to be (more or less) resourceful” (2010, 1658). Thus, I argue that gender is not only a powerful tool in the study of forced migration, but that it is a tool in the process of forced migration itself. It becomes a social hierarchy to (re)negotiate, in order to manage the sudden changes that have occurred in women’s life, from their flight and their resettlement. This research also shows how the use of transnationalism in the study of refugee communities widens the scope of analysis and replace them in larger time/space continuum, highlighting further agency. It goes beyond the extraordinary in their lives and takes a look at their daily routines and mundane rituals. It shows how forced migrants place themselves in dense and complex sets of relations they use as resourceful tools. Looking at gender and migration as dynamic processes, evolving in time and space and morphing into a variety of social situations and household patterns, this research also questions refugeeness, as a legal concept and as an experience of exile. It looks beyond matters of violence and suffering and overtakes the mainstream representation of refugees framed by helplessness.


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[1] I rather use the expression ‘forced migrants’ rather than the term ‘refugees’, as some of my respondents have not or could not register as such. They do not all qualify as refugees, yet they do all experience forced exile. Some are Jordanian citizens, from their husband or from their father, many others benefit from the help of extended family who emigrated prior to the conflict and/or have long established connections in Jordan, and others decided to not register as refugees due to different rumours about the registration.

[2] Here and throughout this paper, the term resilience refers to the capacity to cope and “adapt existing resources and skills to new situations and operating conditions” (Comfort 1999, 21).

[3] Mahler and Pessar use here Glick Schiller’s (1999) definition of transnationalism, adding to Kerney’s distinction (1995) of global and transnational non-state actors in transnational practices, the role of transnational actors’ agency.

[4] Transnational spaces are a form of transnational social world, however more inclusive and broader not only geographically but also in terms of depth (Mahler and Pessar 2001).

[5] I use the expression ‘paid activity’ instead of differentiating between working and non-working women. Indeed, some have side activities, such as cooking for Rakiah, that cannot be compared to an full-time office job. As DeVault (1991) suggested certain aspects of people’ (and specifically women’)s lives cannot be addressed by analytical divides created by Western sociology.

[6] Schools in Jordan have implemented shifts to provide education to both Jordanians and Syrian refugees and to avoid overcrowded classrooms.

Valentina Napolitano

Chercheuse associée

Associate research fellow

Ifpo – Amman, Jordanie

Personal page




Valentina Napolitano is an associate researcher at IFPO, where she was formerly a doctoral fellow (2010-2012). She taught at the Institute of Political Science in Aix-en-Provence (2014-2016) and obtained a Phd in Political Studies from the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. Her dissertation “Engaging in Yarmuk : the sociology of Palestinian activism in Syria” is based on fieldwork carried out between 2008 and 2011 in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk in the southern suburbs of Damascus. It examines the evolution of political engagement among different generations of Palestinians in Syria (between 1960 and 2014). Her current researches deal with the issue of mobilizations among refugee populations and more generally in context of violence and uncertainty.

Research project

In the frame of the ANR Lajeh, she explores political and social mobilization of refugees issued from the Syrian conflict (both Syrians and Palestinians) and actually resident in Turkey and Lebanon. This research follows the axes 2 and 3, and focus more precisely on the role of “militant networks” in both migratory trajectories and the reconstruction of a Syrian society in exile. This research will outline how the militant networks formed during the Syrian uprising, and even before for Palestinians engaged for their national issue, impacted or not the migratory choices and provided refugees with a first network of relationship in exile. For this research she will carry out fieldwork in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, which become one of the main centre for the Syrian activism; and in Beyrouth, which host many Palestinians refugees coming from Syria and would allow to observe the role of political ties with Palestinians community in Lebanon.


Engagements, Mobilizations, Violence, Uncertainty, Militant networks, Militant trajectories

Regional Mobilities in the Middle East from the fall of the Ottomans

Philippe Bourmaud (IFEA/Lon 3 University) & Norig Neveu (Ifpo)

Photograph: Armenian refugees, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

I- Migration in the historiography of the Middle East

Forced migration in or out of historiography

Among those often treated as losers and repeatedly forgotten are forced migrants –people whose absence from most historical writing is so marked that it constitutes a systematic exclusion” (Marfleet, 2007). For Refugee Studies, this absence presents a major difficulty – how are we to develop an understanding of the past when we receive so little help from history? Moreover, research on Refugee Studies and forced migration rarely includes historical analyses.

More precisely, historians have been attracted to the eventful dimension of forced migrations – the departure. A reliance on ex-post narratives and on institutional sources and on conflicts per se has made the refugees next to invisible. For one thing, historians have often tried to present articulated chronologies, events and causal factors as over-arching narratives, while leaving the study of individual experiences and memories to anthropologists and oral historians. Hence a tendency to focus on the circumstances leading to mass departures and on the moment of departure.

This kind of articulated historical narrative is what Jihane Sfeir, writing on the 1948 war in Palestine and the expulsion of the Palestinians, has analysed as the construction of a learned, academic and politically accepted discourse on the Nakba (the Catastrophe, capital c), as opposed to individuals hijra-s, individual exiles (Sfeir, 2008).

Additionally, historians tend to feel at home with institutional categories, even when they only take them into account in order to undermine them. Once they are reterritorialised, reinserted into institutional categories, given a welfare card, an ID and a travel document, refugees fade from the perspective of historians. They have, if not a nationality, at least a residency – a category which, as underlined by Paul-André Rosental (1999), produces the illusion of fixity, of geographical determination.

Historians have usually been more interested in the dynamics of conflict than in the flows of population they entail. Again, the Palestinians and their expulsion are a case in point: Benny Morris (1987), Ilan Pappé (1992), Nur Masaslha (1992) and others focus on the causes and intent ahead of forced migration, as ways of making sense of the war during which it happened.

Historicizing forced migrations in the age of Refugee studies

The prevalence of narrative in the writing of history and the atomicity of the trajectories of refugees have created a long vacuum: refugees seemed a reality too nebulous for historical writing. Two factors may have helped change this since the 1990s, though.

The first one is the upsurge of the notion of diaspora, in the late 1980s. Following communities and networks dovetailed with the habits of historians. The notion of community could be seen as a way of reterritorialising groups. Situating actors in a network is an old trick of historians to overcome the dialectics between individual choice and social facts. The attraction of the notion of diaspora had probably less to do with the actual political and theoretical value of the term, than with a methodological habitus.

The second factor is the multiplication of refugees in the post-Cold War order, and more generally the international appeal of refugee issues. The latter elicited interest not just because funds were made available for their study, but because refugeehood seemed progressively to become a lasting condition.

Refugee Studies is a new field which has, since its emergence, drawn on insights from a remarkably wide range of disciplines, but History has long been conspicuous by its absence among them. Over the last ten years, historical works have underlined that, beyond the enforcement of social and political engineering policies by nation-states through forced migration, the prohibition of return is a long-term politicy (Altuğ & White, 2009; Boeckh & Rutar, 2016).

Repeated refugee crises such as those in Iraq speak of the past. They are the outcome of complex colonial legacies, global developments, external interventions, local tensions and conflicts. None can be understood without history, yet they are mostly approached on an ahistorical basis.

II- Migrations at the fall of the Ottoman Empire

Forced migrations in the late Ottoman order (late 19th century)

Moving populations by force was a common practice within the Ottoman Empire. One aspect of these policies is well known: the migrations of Muslims from Anatolia to the Balkans to Islamize the newly conquered territory. Groups of population were ordered or made to move if needed, as a punishment or a duty to the Empire. These mobility policies were systematized from the late 17th century onwards (Kasaba, 2009). This was a way to deal with mobile populations and make them settle down. It also induced controlling their new neighbors.

From the second half of the 19th century onwards, in the Ottoman Empire, social conflicts led to significant migrations, deportations or population redistributions. In the Middle East, those migrants actively contributed to the economic, cultural and political life of the regions where they settled. During this period, many tribes and families settled in the new cities and economical centers (Beirut, Izmir, Salt, etc.), or in more suitable places for agriculture or livestock activities (Rogan, 1999). These migrants of a different kind established new solidarity networks—tribal, familial, religious or ethnic—which made possible the extension of migratory patterns possible during regional conflicts (Chatty, 2010; Karpat, 1985). That period was also characterized by an intensification and a massification of mobility in the Middle East.

New borders and new national dynamics: mobility and networks

The establishment of post-Ottoman states had very contrasted effects, neither confining populations within state borders nor producing more than the illusion of territorialization. On the one hand, territorial disputes arose, highlighting issues of ethnic / national settlement, with several further forced migrations. On the other hand, the new borders were not always actively, enforced. There was a degree of abstraction in the new borders management, when compared to effective space control. Progressively attempts were made to administer mobility within a national space or inside the framework of controlled patterns of international circulation. The common Ottoman citizenship was replaced by a spate of citizenships, which excluded few stateless persons, especially among forced migrants of the 1911-1925 period.

What was to be done with refugees? The question nagged the new states from the beginning, and come back over and over again. The answers to the question were multidimensional, beyond the work of relief institutions at their behest. « Normalizing » refugees was part and parcel of State-building and of the making of the international organizations: this involved health and social issues linked with the impoverishment of the refugees. These communal issues were not only of cultural, but also of political import, directly linked with economic issues which, together with the condition of losing the home country, affected the relationships between the refugees and their new neighbors. Countries that could afford it, relocated refugees in the stead of other expelled populations.

Yet host states and international organizations did not only stabilize refugees. Forced migrations also induced a stronger control on the borders, sometimes even a complete closure. Economic and geopolitical asymmetries have played an essential part in the history of border control regimes. This did not necessarily indicate a confinement of populations within national borders but rather induces the existence of transnational networks. The latter can be more or less loose in character, depending on the characteristics of the border between two states, as well as the reshuffling of earlier practices of mobility in the face of border pass system. This, of course, came at a cost for travelers. Not all networks were equally solid and resilient. This depended on family-, village-, tribe- and religion-based connections.

New migration, old paths: pilgrimage roads, visits to local saints.

Since the 16th century, the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina was an important time for mobility in the region. It gathered thousands of pilgrims every year (Faroqhi, 2014). Between 1908 and 1914, the newly opened Hejaz railway allowed an intensification of the pilgrim flow. This new path was also used in Ottoman forced migration policies. Many pilgrims never returned home, settling instead in one of the cities on their way. In addition, many studies have shown the importance of local holy places—those located in Jerusalem but also smaller places of worship (mausoleums, cenotaphs, Sufi lodges)—in the distribution of regional flows and the organization of trans-regional solidarity networks (Aubin-Boltanski, 2007; Andézian, 2010). These networks have been used by migrants during subsequent conflicts, structuring regional circulation paths. Through these different aspects of mobility, one can establish a genealogy of migrations in the Middle East.

III – Nation-building and migration

Controlling mobility: a colonial issue (mandate period)

Several types of interactions between nation-building and migration can be distinguished. Yet first it should be first remembered that post-Ottoman states did not emerge out of the blue. They were carved out of an imperial structure that was not egalitarian, but left hierarchized communities an autonomous space that was defined by religious lines, yet was not necessarily confined within a determined physical space. Moreover, the new states were under European influence, as in the case of Turkey, or direct colonization elsewhere. This meant that models of sovereignty had to be appropriated. Sovereignty, in colonial states, was not a simple illusion but a construed and negotiated fact. Citizenship and refugees were such negotiated issues: e.g. Who should become Lebanese, among the many refugees (Armenians, Syrian Christians from southern Anatolia, Assyrians, Kurds) who came to settle in Lebanon? Nor were borders a fiction; they had to be negotiated with neighboring states / colonial powers, and other local actors, rather than enforced. Bedouins, for instance attribute little importance to the borders of the mandates, but the enforcement of those borders was negotiated with them; and this process of cooptation was part of making the border effective.

Cyrus Schayegh has argued that the making of the new borders was channeling, organizing and thus intensifying mobility and circulations, not only for formal but also informal traffic (Schayegh, 2014). The regional was becoming transnationalized.  Yet transnationalization did not require mobility, nor formal conditions of border crossing: refugees could see their mobility impaired, e.g. if they were refused national status, and yet bank on the geographical dissemination of communal contacts to survive and strive.

In any case, for colonial states, refugees were just one mobility issue among others. Among these were pilgrims, with their political views and their health; Bedouins, straddled across the borders; as well as informal trafficks, not just by the underworld but also by local tradespeople in the new border areas, unconcerned by the custom apparatus in the making. These were occasions for a bit of state-building, or could be instrumentalized to maintain a colonial order. The predicament of Armenians in French Syria is a good illustration of those processes. In this context, the agency of the refugees was taken for granted by the colonial power in what Keith Watenpaugh has called « the survivors’ bargain »: resettlement against de facto communal autonomy (Watenpaugh, 2004).

Migration and nation-building: the parallel making of the state of Israel and of Palestinian refugeehood

The most outstanding link between state-building and forced migration was the foundation of the state of Israel upon the ruins of the Arab Palestinian population. The link was doubled by the Israeli policy of attracting 700 000 Jews from the Arab world, in the following three years (1948-1951). Various features of the new State were dictated by the necessities of formalizing the conditions of a post-forced-migration.

Yet the connection between Palestinian refugees and State-building was proliferating, as neighboring states appropriated in different ways the Palestinian refugee presence, from exclusion, to strategic inclusion in Jordan, to recruitment as tools of state-building. Arafat was supposed to have said, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: « Kuwait? But I built Kuwait! »

Yet the relations between state institutions and refugees were not without ambiguities, especially once the latter turned to armed struggle: this entailed a civil war in Jordan in 1970-1971, and was a significant element leading to the one Lebanon knew after April 1975. Refugees took part in national construction, but could become suspected of building their own state-within-the-state, and of inviting conflict in the host country. This was what happened in Lebanon, due to the military operations between the PLO and Israel.

IV – Managing refugees

The refugee count issue

It is a daunting task to manage refugees following bureaucratic criteria – a task not dissimilar to the difficulties met by historians in writing refugee history. How to count refugees? The possibility depends on a definition of their exodus, often enough based on international criteria or nationality. Refugees no more have a monolithic past that would define them as refugees, than a common scripted future.

Attempts by Justin McCarthy – with an ax to grind – to count Muslim refugees in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century have underlined the weaknesses of the census as a starting base (Karpat, 1985; McCarthy, 1983). The same goes for Armenians, who were deported and killed, but did not change status: depending on how many Armenians one assumes to have lived in the pre-1915 Ottoman Empire, the number of killed may oscillate between 600 000 and 1,5 million; and the number of refugees varies in proportion.

Also, not all expelled people share the same nationality: does that make them the less of a refugee group than others? UNRWA, the UN Relief and Welfare Agency for Refugees of Palestine and the Near East, came into being in late 1949, several months after the end of the fighting caused by the 1948 war. One of its first tasks was to identify and count Palestinian refugees; among them were many citizens of neighboring countries who used to live Palestine before the war. The dispersion of refugees between several states was another major counting issue. « Serious » evaluations, in the case of the Palestinians, vary between 600 000 and a million.

The same problems occurred, with a vengeance, with Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Over the years, the states have grown accustomed to counting refugees, and become aware of the advantage of being able to present high estimates. In Jordan, this approach was learned when dealing with Iraqis, put into policy with the Syrian civil war. The state of Jordan has instrumentalized the number of Syrian refugees, i.e. deliberately attempted to inflate it, so as to justify an increase in international aid, and attract investments, political leverage, etc.

Short of a clear definition of a group of refugees at the time when forced migration occurs, what exists is, ex-post, the recognition of the status of refugee by UNRWA or UNHCR. However, not all refugees aspire to that status.

Nationality, work and network insertion

This instrumentalization notwithstanding, a bigger concern is what happens when refugees remain refugees. How to work, how to go to school, how to make a living? International organizations (IO) are there to coordinate relief, resettlement, or repatriation operations, not to provide jobs and services in the host states’ stead. IO-state cooperation can be a factor of development, through the investments of the UN system and other institutions. But for all that refugees may well end up out of work, especially if the main job providers close their borders or hire foreign workers according to quotas: in the 1960s, Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun illustrated the efforts made by Palestinian to get to the Gulf states. Yet most of them stayed stuck in densely populated countries without oil resources, and could be ejected from work, as was often the case in Lebanon.

The question of refugee status is one that affects their economic perspectives, their mobility and their social prospects (e.g. through marriage). And so it is a contentious one: how to transmit a nationality, to acquire a useful one? This is made all the more problematic as nationalist states, in the 1950s-1970s, have used nationality laws to include and to exclude. Post-forced migration nationality laws, inspired by the Lausanne treaty, were used to exclude the national Others. Hence the importance of the network, as a tool to re-migrate, and get a job.

Work migration and mobility

The Middle East is indeed a competitive job market, in part due to the competition between high numbers of migrants and refugees for the same jobs. Some nationalities are cornered into a next-to-automatic status of foreign worker: as has been noted in several Gulf states, the individual’s nationality carries an implicit bias regarding their job position and social environment.

Following that logic, whole populations get directed towards domestic work and poorly paid, less qualified jobs. This has been the lot of the Egyptians in the Levant since the 1920s. At the time, the government of Palestine and the British army in Palestine, needing workers for the major projects of the mandate, started hiring them from nearby colonially-occupied Egypt. Later, they were hired as subalterns in the service sector, for instance as restaurant waiters. Today, Filipino immigrant workers occupy roughly the same kind of jobs.

It is a significant lacuna, for historical writing in the Middle East as well as Refugee studies that it took so long for a critical mass of historians to get interested in the post-migration life and social environment of refugees. Disciplinary habits go a long way to explain the fact: but recent works by historians, catching up with the growth of Refugee studies and its impact on other social sciences, could shift the focus from wars, a frequent event in the Middle East in the 20th and 21st century, to the history of humanitarianism, to the economics of refugeehood, or to the similarities of position and competition between refugees and migrants. Studying the historical development of categories of migrants and the genealogy of international practices regarding refugees invites us to question the frequent dilution of terminology in the media (should one say the 2015 migrant crisis or refugee crisis?) without trying to replace media catchphrase with similarly misleading, well-delimited notions.


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