Laws, Policies and Politics of Forced Displacement in Lebanon

National and Municipal Approaches: Complementarity or Autonomy?


Shirine ARAB

Ph.D. Candidate

Public International Law (ILF-GERJC) at Aix-Marseille University


The armed conflicts currently underway in Syria, with its flurry of deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and ensuing large-scale displacement of populations have been a consistent feature of the Syrian conflict since its inception. The level of violence has generated a massive population of 6.3 million Internally Displaced Persons and 4.8 million refugees in the region and beyond[1].

“Despite the magnitude and almost continuous nature of the flows of displacement over several decades in the Middle East, the region has also been characterised by having largely informal, sometimes ad hoc, systems of dealing with refugee issues, which raises concerns among analysts and practitioners […] in providing effective protection and assistance to those who need it most’’[2]. Some of the questions that arise include the influence of the current (Arab Spring linked) uprisings on policies and laws on protection, sovereignty and Nation-State building and Nation-Identity, and citizenship and border controls, which are challenged by the increasing numbers of people currently fleeing the conflicts, as well as the respect of Fundamental Rights. In dealing with forced displacement, politics are referred to informal and formal political factors that impact policies making.

In Lebanon, the response to the Syrian refugee crisis has from the outset faced many challenges including the lack of an adequate national response strategy due to weak local governance capacities, the lack of effective protection agenda and poor coordination amongst the main stakeholders: International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and Local NGO’s, United Nations Agencies, State Actors, Informal and Formal Local Authorities, Human Rights, Development Actors, etc.

As the Syrian Non-International Armed conflict[3] (NIAC) prolonged, the government of Lebanon nevertheless took on its own measures to respond to the refugee crisis. Although lacking official responsibility municipalities considered addressing the issue of displacement at local level, based on moral and legal imperatives. In fact, there was a need to focus on humanitarian relief and development aid while maintaining stability as stipulated by the Lebanese Constitution, including through the Lebanese government and municipalities. Some discussions focused on whether aid should be limited to Syrian refugees or extended to local communities, for whom the crisis was posing serious challenges, especially in those municipalities hosting large numbers of refugees.

A number of factors help explain the increasing number of Syrians at the beginning of the conflict, including the 1993 Bilateral Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination[4]. This policy remained de facto in place until January 2015. As the Syrian Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) forced civilians to flee to Lebanon, they settled primarily in the North – and later in the Bekaa, given the proximity of the border to the main zones of conflict and to historic and familial links or trade relations between the two populations, in addition to the migrant workers who used to work in either seasonal or low-skilled field activities.

In this context, this working paper seeks to discuss the collaboration mechanisms amongst central and local Lebanese authorities and international humanitarian actors in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, in light of the recent regulatory changes. This report will also focus on the situation in the urban district of Zgharta-Ehden in North Lebanon, as an illustration of national and municipal responses: do they intermesh?

National Policies and Politics

In the early stages of the Syrian refugee influx in Lebanon, which ran from March 2011 through the beginning of 2012, the border remained de facto open, which eased humanitarian assistance, despite the fact that Lebanon is not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. As such, Lebanon “won significant praise from Human Rights groups and UNHCR for its open borders and non-encampment policy”, which appeared as an ad hoc response rather than a commitment to International Law within a policy framework[5]. The non-encampment policy was accompanied with the rejection of permanent settlement of Syrian refugees based on widely shared feeling amongst Lebanese stakeholders that such settlement would be negative for the country’s political and economic interests.

The negative feelings is geared to factors including thirty years of Syrian military presence in Lebanon and the country’s previous experience with Palestinians, have disabled public policy, including the major opposed political lines towards the conflict in Syria who read the crisis differently. In addition the Syrian refugee crisis has divided the Lebanese political arena[6] to the current rupture point: either the State implements more integration policies, or the Syrian refugee crisis will lead to more internal political rifts.

In 2012, as no agreement among political parties was set up by the Ba’abda Declaration[7] vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, and the use of “displaced persons or groups[8] (a less legally constraining and binding term) as a legitimate phrasing by the Lebanese Government rather than “refugees” (a more loaded term with reference to the obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention), all emphasise that Lebanon is not a country of asylum nor it does integrate refugees in their social fabric. In addition to the absence of a clear vision and national strategy to cope with the crisis, the focus of the discussion of the Lebanese National Dialogue Committee was also on the nature of the assistance, whether it should focus more on development or humanitarian relief. The declaration, as said, did not refer to the refugee context but underlined the “right to humanitarian solidarity” as “guaranteed under the constitution and the law”[9]. Besides, the discussions resulted in consensus that “measures should then be taken to control the situation on the Lebanese-Syrian border”, and that the country “should seek to avoid the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crisis in order to preserve its own paramount interest, national unity and civil peace, except where the matter concerns resolutions of international legitimacy, Arab consensus or the rightful Palestinian cause, including the right of Palestinian refugees return to their land and homes rather than being integrated.’’[10]

All the while, different Lebanese political actors have been involved in the Syria civil war, such as Hezbollah who have backed the regime – the Syrian NIAC was turning into a protracted one. In Lebanon, the political dynamic is divided into pro and anti-Assad supports. The Syrian refugee crisis triggered new concerns about the confessional balance in Lebanon, especially within the Christian community, and the possibility of increasing sectarian tension in the country. Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese President at that time defined the Syrian refugee presence as an existential crisis when voicing concerns to the UN General Assembly in 2013. Indeed, Hezbollah pointed out the humanitarian duty to prove their hospitality towards Syrians referring to the 2006 Lebanon-Israel War where many Lebanese from Shi’a areas took refuge in Syria. In parallel, in the first phase, representatives of the March 14 Coalition[11] called for a hospitable approach as a moral humanitarian duty, which was also perceived as a political asset in the light of their political ideas. However, throughout the evolving nature of the war in Syria and the flows of refugees in Lebanon, the debate on sectarianism, politicisation, confessional structures and the magnitude and uncertainty of the crisis and borders’ matters, the Syrian refugee crisis was rather defined as an existential threat.

Then, a “political controversy over what was to be done with displaced people’’ began between the two main political camps in Lebanon: the first camp advocated a do nothing policy whereas the second one suggested the construction of refugee camps[12]. The idea of establishing camps was abandoned as it may turn into long-term settlement, and correlated risk of that Syrian similarly to the Palestinians reorganize into political and extra-territorial entities and armed groups and further erode the security situation in Lebanon.

With the change of the Lebanese government in 2014 breaking a ten-month political deadlock during which the Syrian conflict worsened internal instability, more regulations were taken. The government conducted discussions with international organisations involved in, the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan[13] such as the World Bank and the United Nations. Among the response points was ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance primarily to Syrian de facto refugees and the poorest Lebanese, with a view to developing a constructive relationship between the two communities. By the last quarter of 2014, a “policy on Syrian displacement” was proposed and approved by the Lebanese Government. The final policy paper, which became effective in January 2015, focuses more on development than humanitarian aid, and aims at reducing the number of Syrian registered refugees with the UNHCR by reducing access of Syrian refugees to the national territory and encouraging returns to Syria. Finally, the paper addresses security concerns and economic burdens, notably at the institutional and local community levels. K. GEBARA, Lebanon’s Interior Ministry Advisor, explains “there were cooperation initiatives with the UNHCR aimed at producing policies based on identifying the displaced, and distinguishing them from the Syrians present in Lebanon for economic reasons. The aim was to distinguish between the two groups on the basis that the displaced would get more protection mechanisms. Some of the measures at the end of 2014 therefore appear illogical or inconsistent with international standards. […]”[14]. Indeed, the political and legal approach of the Lebanese Government towards the UNHCR and other NGOs became relevant.

As many other States in the Middle East, Lebanon does not have formal domestic refugee legislation. Rather, with the 2015 regulations, the Lebanese authorities have underlined the Syrian refugee crisis not to be governed by law, but by governmental decisions, which means that domestic law and bilateral agreements are dismissed. As such, many refugees are in a deeply precarious legal position, as they have no status other than that afforded to Syrian nationals in general. As with previous refugee populations such as the Palestinians and the Iraqis, the legal status of Syrians in Lebanon currently sits in a vague area between aliens, displaced, and de facto refugees[15]. The internationally acknowledged notion of refugee was consequently abandoned. The related-problems extended to lacking legal registration[16] or personal legal records – and therefore stateless, invalid resident permits, and the loss of legal information and documentation, which all pose serious humanitarian (such as resettlement for Syrians), security, and political impacts on both Lebanese and Syrian communities.

Municipal Regulation of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Under such conditions, municipalities have been coping with the social and economic consequences of inflow of Syrian refugees with limited human and material resources. In administrative language, municipal governance is the third local-level of public administration. First come governorate that are, in turn, divided into districts. In fact, the governorates are not of importance due to the fact that the Governor (Al Muhafez) does not have defined authority, except he is the representative of the central government. The second reason lies in the fact that the political authority and power are centralised and exclusive to the central government, which monopolises all authority in the country.

According to the 1977 Decree-Law[17], any work having a public character or utility within the area of the municipality falls under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Council. Yet, many municipalities have formed municipal unions, which have become important actors in the context of decentralisation, as they represent the front line in dealing with refugees and are aware of community needs, alongside local and international organisations. This same commitment to decentralisation was reflected in the 1989 Ta’if Agreement of National Reconciliation to empower municipal public work. However, municipalities remain constrained administratively and fiscally and the central government still monopolises regional and local powers. Their resources are insufficient to cover the needs of both their constituents and the refugees under their jurisdiction, despite the support from international organizations.

Due to the lack of a national policy for the management of the Syrian refugees, local-level municipalities were actually left alone to regulate the latter’s presence and integration. In turn, this led to varying and sometimes contradictory responses within government agencies and municipalities. Indeed, with the lack of a coherent national plan, many informal tented settlements and camps were established. Moreover, “misinterpretation of governmental decisions[18]” drove them to lead actions that were not always in line with national law or the municipalities’ legal authority. The imposition by municipalities of local curfews on Syrians, which reduced freedom of movement and blocked access to small businesses, and access to justice, in the purpose of addressing insecurity and “general social fatigue” perceptions, is a case in point,[19]. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW)[20], Municipal Council and others imposed some curfews by Mayors. The autonomy conveyed to municipalities has also led to a fragmented-management of the crisis. Central authorities, at the State and Municipal levels, are selective in their commitment to the laws and the Lebanese Constitution when dealing with refugees, and the absence of centralised policies has created various different levels of measures [21]. Yet, on a short-term, local-level initiatives conducted by municipalities’ units filled gaps in services provision. However, on a longer-term, the question remains whether, options should be gathered and unified to provide central support policies and manage the large-scale refugee crisis in Lebanon.

Moreover, while “municipalities were required to determine the Syrian refugees qualified for different forms of aid based on their varying needs and vulnerabilities, their Lebanese hosts that live in similar conditions were excluded from the exercise”[22]. In this context, municipalities voiced concerns over the challenges of needs classification and transferred the task to the central government and donors, who later included the Lebanese host communities as beneficiaries of their assistance schemes.

Since 2014, a number of municipalities in Lebanon have established new procedures to regulate the presence of Syrian refugees within their jurisdiction. The majority of municipalities considered these new options to address security concerns and complaints from their Lebanese counterparts. These procedures were adopted based on instructions announced by the Interior Ministry starting in 2014, including security matters.

The Municipality of Zgharta-Ehden: towards regulatory options?

In the district of Zgharta-Ehden, numerous Syrian refugees wait to receive the voucher for the purchase of food, hygiene and childhood kit, distributed by the municipality through a partnership with international NGOs, including Oxfam.

In the Maronite Christian district of Zgharta, in which Ehden lies, residents believe that Syrian newcomers in the town brought instability, took off their jobs, and paralysed tourism (competing with nationals, existential and demographic dimension, etc.). In order to improve the municipality’s ability to reduce the conflict between Syrian refugees and the hosting communities, the Municipality of Zgharta-Ehden is, first, “collecting information about the presence of Syrian refugees and issuing cards to them[23], for the sake of creating a lawful and orderly situation”[24]. Going forward, the municipality intends to map refugees scattered in the various neighbourhoods of the town, including informal settlements, schools or urban localities. In practice, the main measure is checking the sponsorship for each Syrian individual in order to help the latter regularise his/her status. In parallel to the field surveys, the municipality aims at developing a more pragmatic approach to address the flows of displacement, in the absence of central policies, while the Municipal Council has enjoyed more autonomy. In the longer run, the Ehden local initiative calls for facilitating repatriation and return to their homes when the conflict in Syria ends, as stressed the Mayor of Zgharta-Ehden. In this context, the option of regularising is legal-oriented and seeks to address refugees’ temporary presence in the district, their access to job market, and the need of social cohesion and integration for the on-going period of time.

In developing collaborations with neighbouring municipalities to cope with refugee matters, and through discussions with State authorities regarding a possible return to home, the municipality appears to put forward local binding regulatory options within its jurisdiction. In the case of Zgharta’s district, the municipality’s involvement in managing the Syrian refugee displacement crisis has reduced the impact of restricting the issue to the central authorities.


Despite being a country hosting a high number of refugees, and despite the remarkable generosity in receiving a large proportion of refugees, the refugees’ protection regime in Lebanon remains fragile. In fact, in addition to the fears of the country’s long term Palestinian refugee presence and the lack of refugee protection legal regulations, the security approach to governance takes precedence over the rights based approach. Furthermore, as discussed above, policies towards large-scale displacement, throughout its contemporary history, remain ad hoc and emergency-based, despite the development assistance approach. It may be said that, for all it shortcomings, Lebanon’s governance offers “a certain degree of flexibility”. However, operational challenges remain acute: aid agencies struggle to reach all refugees due to the urban nature of today’s displacement, which all contribute to more marginalisation and vulnerability. In the midst of on-going conflicts, the new waves of displacement, in Lebanon, took place “in or to areas already struggling with previous waves, leading to multi-layered and complex crises[25]”.

The initial hope of strengthening the existing fragile protection regime is challenged by the evolving situation on the ground on political and policies’ changes levels.

Looking forward to the end of the Syrian conflicts, it is indeed more likely that Syrian refugees will return to Syria than resettling in a third country by the UNHCR. Not least the refugees themselves agree that the main solution will be to return home when violations of their rights cease and to voluntary repatriate in safety and dignity. Integration in the host country, such as Lebanon, seems to face numerous obstacles and existing barriers, including the regulatory forms placed on their socio-economic rights and livelihoods opportunities, and notably during the protracted previous Iraqi and Palestinian refugee crises.

To conclude, despite all challenges discussed above, there is indeed on the long term a new sense of justice among both populations and policy-makers, and the curious and significant resilience of refugees themselves throughout the country and the region. Such factors could help temper transitional phases, which are often disturbed, to address the effects of past or on-going violations and failures to protect individuals. Transitional Justice phases also presuppose that sustainable goal protection requires the achievement of accountable forms of democratic systems of governance, which concludes normative development in related fields[26]. For that purpose, policies should be developed, differentiating between the medium and longer run needs, taking into account formal and informal practices and structures. Engaging hosting communities and refugees is very much in demand and the activities led by international organisations and local NGOs shall take part of policies in emergencies relief. Historic connections and international law are only one part of the whole massive displacement questions; they are indeed socio-political and economic angles that should be in.

[1] Mapping the Law That Applies to War Crimes in Syria, by Beth VAN SCHAACK, in Just Security, February 2016

[2] Displacement in the Middle East and North Africa: Between an Arab Winter and the Arab Spring, Working Paper by Shaden KHALLAF, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut Policy Institute, August 2013

[3] Under Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, non-international armed conflicts are armed conflicts in which one or more non-State armed groups are involved. Depending on the situation, hostilities may occur between governmental armed forces and non-State armed groups or between such groups only. International Committee of the Red Cross definition of NIAC under International Humanitarian Law.

[4] Article 1 of the 1993 Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination between the Lebanese Republic and the Syrian Arab Republic ensures the Freedom of persons’ movement between both countries’ and Freedom to stay, work, employ and practice economic activity in conformity with the laws and regulations in force in each country (Available at:

[5] The Legal Status of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, Working Paper by Maja JANMYR, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut Policy Institute, March 2016

[6] The Lebanese political landscape is a system of power sharing where all members of government have to agree on major decisions. The government is considered unconstitutional when a third of the Lebanese cabinet resigns: the Blocking Third Mechanism is based on an interpretation of the Lebanese Constitution. See Articles 65, 69, and Article 95 of the Constitution. This model aims at maintaining stability.

[7] Baabda Declaration issued by the National Dialogue Committee on 11 June 2012

[8] International law and Soft Law frameworks on displaced persons refer to Internally Displaced Persons according to Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, they are “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border. » Unlike refugees, these internally displaced persons do not have a special status in international law with rights specific to their situation. The term « internally displaced person » is merely descriptive (Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, OHCHR).

[9] National Dialogue, Presidency of the Republic of Lebanon, 2012

[10] Identical Letters Dated 13 June 2012 from the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Lebanon to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council, United Nations General Assembly Security Council A/66/849-S/2012/477, 21 June 2012

[11] The March 14 Alliance, named after the date of the Cedar Revolution, is a coalition of political parties and independents in Lebanon formed in 2005 that are united by their anti-Syrian regime stance and their opposition to the March 8 Alliance.

[12] The Repercussions of the Syrian Refugee Crisis on Lebanon: The Challenges of Providing Services and Creating Jobs, The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), Roundtable Report Series, January 2016

[13] The LCPR aims at ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance primarily to Syrian de facto refugees and the poorest Lebanese, strengthening the capacity of national and local public delivery systems to accommodate the basic needs of the aforementioned peoples, and supporting Lebanon’s economic, social, institutional and environmental stability.

[14] Interior Ministry Advisor: Lebanon Refugee Policy Based on Set of “Nos”, Interview with Khalil GEBARA, by Ghida FRANGIEH and Elham BARJAS, The Legal Agenda, 2016

[15] De facto refugee was a temporary solution to the grey area the legal status of Syrians lies in – referring to Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon. Even if the Government of Lebanon does not legally recognise the UNHCR document as resident permit, the latter shall guarantee protection, namely the Non-Refoulement Principle as stated in the 1962 Regulation of the Status of Foreign Nationals in Lebanon in its Article 31 (Appendix 1).

[16] Gebara explains that the Ministry of Interior’s ‘’does not oppose registering the birth of Syrians so they are not separated from their families, but it can not break the laws that stipulate that residence is needed to obtain a birth certificate”, in Interior Ministry Advisor: Lebanon Refugee Policy Based on Set of “Nos”, Interview with Khalil GEBARA, by Ghida FRANGIEH and Elham BARJAS, The Legal Agenda, 2016

[17] Decree-Law No. 118 Dated 30/6/1977& Its Amendments Municipal Act, Government of Lebanon Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, 2009

[18] Supporting Municipalities in Responding to the Refugee Crisis, The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), May 2016

[19] The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon, State Fragility and Social Resilience, Filippo DIONIGI, LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series, LSE Middle East Centre, February 2016

[20] Lebanon: At least 45 Local Curfews Imposed on Syrian Refugees, Human Rights Watch, 2014

[21] Interior Ministry Advisor: Lebanon Refugee Policy Based on Set of “Nos”, Interview with Khalil GEBARA, by Ghida FRANGIEH and Elham BARJAS, The Legal Agenda, 2016

[22] Supporting Municipalities in Responding to the Refugee Crisis, Ibid.

[23] Temporary and Identification Cards seek to address mainly the freedom of movement but does not replace a residence permit

[24] These information were collected during a meeting with the Mayor of Zgharta-Ehden, Dr. Cesar BASSIM, in January 2017 in Ehden, North Lebanon

[25] Displacement in the Middle East and North Africa: Between an Arab Winter and the Arab Spring, Working Paper by Shaden KHALLAF, Ibid.

[26] Protection in the Past Tense: Restitution at the Juncture of Humanitarian Response to Displacement and Transitional Justice, by Rhodri C.WILLIAMS, in Transitional Justice and Displacement, Edited by Roger DUTHIE, ICTJ Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2012

Jordan and Syrian refugees – K. Doraï

A translation in English of an article published in the on-line journal La vie des idées (first published June 7, 2016) on Syrian Refugees in Jordan.

The online version of the article can be found here


While the spotlight is focused on the arrival of Syrian refugees in Europe, researcher Kamel Doraï reminds us that the main countries concerned are primarily those in the region. Jordan is among the countries that has received the highest number of Syrians, sharpening economic and social tensions in a country already gripped by the presence of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.

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.