Reflections on the categories and genealogy of migration in the Middle East

Jalal Al Husseini

This document synthetises the work I have carried out within the third axis of the Lajeh program since its start in 2015.

My main interest has revolved around the integration policies elaborated by the Jordanian state to accommodate the various waves of refugees hosted in the country since 1948 within its nation-building endeavour. These include Palestinians (since 1948, 1967 and 2011), Iraqis (since 2003) and Syrians (since 2011).

My research has first sought to understand the making of “refugee policies”: how state authorities have responded to these different refugee crises in terms of admission and the granting of social, economic and political rights. To identify common patterns across these responses, I looked closely at various key humanitarian, socioeconomic and political criteria. These include: the tradition of hospitality and humanitarian concerns, short- and long-term economic and political opportunity cost analyses, and the official and unofficial positions of stakeholders on solutions to the refugee crises (on issues regarding return to the country/place of origin, and long-term integration in the host country or resettlement in a third country).

Through the analysis of the legal status and labelling procedures, as well as related issues like access to education and to the local labour market, it has also endeavoured to grasp the long-term, compounded, impacts of the refugee inflows on Jordan society. In so doing, it has attempted to uncover the Jordanian state’s relation to society, the way it understands and manipulates such notions as national identity, citizenship, nationality and nation-building.

One methodological concern has been to open the “black box” of Jordan’s decision-making process by identifying its various state and non-state actors. These involve internal actors such as the King and its Court, the government, its ministries and departments, the parliament, and civil society at large. External actors such as Jordan’s donor countries (mainly the USA and the EU) and international organisations (mainly UNRWA for Palestine refugees and the UNHCR and UN sister organisations for other refugee groups) have also shaped Jordan’s refugee policies, at both elaboration and implementation levels. Finally, the collective behaviour of refugees towards the policies and their coping strategies has also contributed to shape state agendas.

Jordan’s experience with refugees illustrates how refugee policies are ultimately the result of the confrontation of various internal and external interests, including geopolitical, that often surface during negotiations between the different stakeholders during the elaboration, the implementation and the evaluation of policies.

In particular, my research has addressed three key, and correlated, areas of refugee integration policies and politics alongside their discriminatory aspects:

  • Admission policies and the granting of specific legal status (documentation).
  • Access to primary, secondary and higher education, with a focus on the quality of the education provided to Syrian refugees in various governorates.
  • Access to the informal and formal labour markets. This field of research best illustrates the shift from the relief to the developmental paradigm.

The fieldworks I have carried out since 2015 have targeted various refugee groups:

  • 2015: The Syrian refugees- Education: Qualitative study on the education provided to Syrian children in Mafraq governorate, which is now inhabited by a majority of Syrian refugees; interviews and focus groups with parents and children.
  • 2015-2016: The Palestinian refugees from Syria: living conditions (within the framework of a quantitative survey organised by UNRWA).
  • 2016: The Syrian refugees: training and labour market issues; interview with the main institutional stakeholders.
  • 2017: The ex-Gazans – legal regime with focus on the analysis of the “ex-Gazan regime” in Jordan, including interviews with stakeholders and refugees and focus groups in Jerash (“Gaza”) and Marqa refugee camps, which are the main ex-Gazan gatherings.
  • 2017: Jordan-EU cooperation about the integration of the Syrian refugees in Jordan’s formal labour market. Meetings with EU and Jordanian stakeholders.

While focusing on Jordan, my research has also gained insight from looking at the experience of other Middle Eastern countries, like Lebanon, that have hosted similar refugee groups.

NRC Shelter Innovative Program in Irbid Governorate (2013-2015)

Myriam Ababsa

In July 2013, NRC launched an innovative program aiming at reducing housing tensions in Jordanian communities by providing financial support to landlords willing to accommodate Syrian refugees in new housing units. The Urban Shelter Project supports both refugees and host communities affected by the Syrian crisis. The program targets vulnerable Syrians who reside in inadequate housing, responding to their needs of basic shelter and protection. By providing new extra housing units, the program aims to appease the tensions surrounding housing and contribute to the reduction of high rental prices. This program is one of the key schemes outlined in the Syria Crisis Regional Response Plan (RRP) and highlighted in the Government of Jordan’s National Resilience Plan (2014-2016).

NRC is the only organization currently implementing this shelter methodology in Jordan and across the region. NRC Shelter and Counseling departments follow each step of the program, mediating between the refugees and the Jordanian landlords. This original shelter program allows the Syrian refugees to gain much more than a roof and four walls, but “adequate housing” defined as the right to live in security, peace and dignity. NRC manages to give Syrian refugees a simple but clean house, in a quiet environment, whilst being given extra protection as a result of proper contracts signed between landlords and refugees. After six months, refugees have managed to send their children to school, and most important of all, child labor has decreased fourfold (from 21% to 5% of cases). Along with psychological relief, the reduction of child labor is the major benefit of rent-free accommodation. As rent is secured, Syrian refugees have had more money to spend on medication and food. While benefiting from free shelter over a period of one year to eighteen months, a third of the Syrian beneficiaries said they felt more secure, two thirds of them managing to pay back their debts. But this shelter program does not shield them from the high level of vulnerability they are exposed to; such as difficulties to make a living, to renew their ID papers, to protect their children from the various forms of violence they are exposed to, and to preserve their dignity.

The NRC Shelter program was implemented mainly in the Irbid governorate on a very large scale. Out of 966 contracts signed and delivered, 936 were in the Irbid Governorate. It is a direct contribution to the housing stock of 936 new apartments, or a fifth of the housing units built by the private market (5,529 in 2013). As a comparison, the governmental housing schemes from 2008 to 2013 created a total of 1,143 new housing units, 204 apartments in the King’s Initiative framework, 392 plots of land with subsidized loans by HUDC and 547 plots of land with additional support of 5000 JD  (on the King’s Initiative).

Source : Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), “In Search of a Home“, 2015

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.