Mapping Migration and Social Networks

David Lagarde [1]

From open doors to barbed wire, the impact of individual state’s responses to refugee crises remains poorly understood. How do such diverse policies influence migrants’ access to resources, coping strategies and itineraries? Drawing on my previous work as a cartographer, I’m analyzing the role of social networks in Syrian refugees’ journeys to and from Jordan. Through visualizations of the conditions of movement at different spatial scales, my research shows how today’s migratory paths are shaped by cross-border trade going back as far as the Ottoman era. While a growing literature focuses on the role of social networks in migrants’ decision-making and settlement in host societies, few studies have questioned their influence on itineraries. And even though most refugees stay in their region of origin, few research has been devoted to forced migration in regions beyond Europe and North America.


At the beginning of summer of 2014, the UN estimated that around 3 million people had fled the Syrian conflict, mainly towards Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Faced with this population influx and fear of the jihadist threat, in June 2014 Jordan decided to close and increase surveillance of its border with Syria. Since then, only a few dozen Syrians each day have been allowed to enter the country. Based on cross-interviews conducted from 2014 to 2015 in Northern Jordan, I have reconstructed migratory histories for 24 people from the Syrian village of Deir Mqaren. My case studies illustrate the impact of the closure of the Jordanian borders and the changing characteristics of social ties migrants relied on to circumvent this new border regulations.


Before the Syrian conflict, the main source of income for Deir Mqaren villagers was from dried fruits, nuts and ‘traditional’ sweet products, bought in Damascus and sold in the main Jordanian cities and surrounding villages.

Fighting in Syria disrupted this trade. From 2012 onwards, a growing number of traders moved to Jordan on a more permanent basis. Their wives and children soon joined them as the Syrian regime increased its bombing of the Deir Mqaren area.

“Refugee movements are often influenced by previous migration flows and networks that are re-mobilized during a humanitarian crisis”

My fieldwork shows that the social networks that Syrian asylum seekers relied on to access resources (such as transportation, border crossing, information about employment, housing, and healthcare), were directly affected by the progressive closure of Jordanian borders, together with the government’s encampment policy. Refugees were increasingly forced to rely on weaker social ties. These security measures also ultimately modified migrants’ itineraries into the Hashemite Kingdom. They became more dependent on migration management professionals (such as the International Organization for Migration, UNHCR, Jordanian border guards, and NGOs) as well as on smugglers, with profound impacts on migratory itineraries and coping strategies. As it can be seen in the two figures below, representing Yasmin’s journey from Deir Mqaren to Amman, refugees are now forced to follow much longer and more dangerous routes through the Syrian desert, and transit via several camps located in remote areas of Jordan.


While most studies on Syrian migration focus on the post-2011 refugee crisis, I argue that a continuum exists between what is considered voluntary migration, before 2011, and the current forced migration. Refugee movements resulting from conflicts are often influenced by previous migration flows and correlated networks that are re-mobilized during a humanitarian crisis. Mapping long-term mobility can help better understand the current forced migration processes and their connections with commercial and family strategies and other forms of social organization built over time.

“Information circulates rapidly within networks, with telephone numbers of ‘reliable’ people smugglers exchanged between relations and friends”

As Jordan’s attitude toward Syrian refugees settled in the country continued to harden in 2014, following a significant reduction in refugee aid from foreign governments, an increasing number of exiles chose to continue their journey to more distant destinations, particularly Germany. The overwhelming majority of refugees were forced to turn to ‘illegal’ channels. Migratory channels to Europe from Jordan soon ran alongside routes operated by networks of seasoned ‘people smugglers’. As information circulates rapidly within the networks, with the telephone numbers of ‘reliable’ smugglers being exchanged between relatives and friends, in the space of several months, demand increased. The price of the journey from Turkey to Greece dropped considerably.


Thanks to remote communication tools like WhatsApp and Facebook, I have kept in contact with some of the refugees I interviewed in Jordan in 2014 and 2015. In July 2016, I travelled to Dortmund in Germany to find out more about the new lives of Yasmin’s family members, using participant observation methods. The idea was to shed new light on the settling of a population from a rural area in an urban environment. You can find out more about this part of my research by reading my paper entitled Syrian refugees’ journeys from Jordan to Germany.

[1] David Lagarde is a Phd candidate in geography at Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire Solidarités, Sociétés, territoires, UT2. Co-authored with Kamel Doraï, his paper ‘Host state policies and the changing role of social networks for Syrian refugees in Jordan’ (2017) is published in Espace, Populations, Sociétés.