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by Umut Ozkaleli

Syrian refugees wait at the offices of ASAM, (Association for Solidarity with Asylum seekers and Migrants) a local charity in Izmir, Turkey. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Refugees go through various journeys; some leave the home country with their whole family while others leave by themselves. Some find financial and educational opportunities in the host community while others have very little access to resources that satisfy their basic needs. The growing literature on refugee resilience requires close analysis of the different positionalities that refugees embody.

How do we locate the agency of pious and widowed refugee women within the broader changes in their family and social structures? Do we consider their everyday survival, strength to endure adverse situations, and hopes for returning to Syria as resilient agency? The etymology of “resilience” is “to rebound, recoil; to jump (leap) back.” In this sense, the experiences of losing loved ones, seeing one’s home destroyed, and being displaced for an indefinite time, are not easy to ‘rebound’ from. Resilience is also defined as “good psychological functioning or outcome despite suffering risk experiences or stress that would be expected to threaten adaptation or development or cause future psychological distress.”

I interviewed twelve Syrian refugee women who had lost their husbands to the Syrian civil war. After being displaced, they lived in Gaziantep, Turkey, just an hour drive from their former Aleppian homes. Gaziantep hosts close to 400.000 Syrian refugees who make up 20% of the city’s population. The families of the twelve interviewed women were fragmented; they had relatives still living in Syria, some across Turkey and in other countries. I interviewed most of them during the holy month of Ramadan while they were fasting. They almost unanimously agreed that their losses were more acutely felt during this time, as it was difficult to celebrate the holy month without their loved ones and their husbands in particular. The women all had children and were adjusting to being a single parent.

Surviving in a host community where the language and the cultural practices were different required resilience. The women found it challenging to meaningfully communicate with the host community. Najlaa had never left Aleppo before becoming a refugee, considered Turkish a difficult language, and claimed she did not know how to deal with people. There were also tensions between the host society and refugee populations over issues of resource distribution. While claiming that many people within the host community were kind, Yasemin, another Syrian refugee woman, expressed difficulty in dealing with locals as well, noting that some of them treated Syrians poorly and name-called them. The women also highlighted differences between everyday Islamic practices in Gaziantep (including the dress code) and the home culture they were accustomed to. Salwa, another interviewee, explained that witnessing the discriminatory attitudes towards women who wear the niqab made her want to return to Syria even more. On the other hand, Malak, who wore her hijab the way Turkish women did, described a more pleasant experience in adapting to the new social setting; she liked learning Turkish, was happy putting the language to use while shopping, and enjoyed the host community’s positive feedback on her efforts to do so. Still, she mentioned how she deeply missed home.

Despite the grief they endured, the interviewed women explained how their strength stemmed from their religious beliefs and their responsibility towards their children. However, we must question whether we romanticise the concept of resilience by overlooking the women’s own psychological wellbeing and focusing predominantly on their ability to create better outcomes for their children. When they do not manage to successfully break the poverty cycle, are they no longer considered resilient? We must reflect on the dangers of constantly boxing women in positions of victimhood, while expecting them to “bounce back” despite the impossibility of going back to their life before displacement and widowhood.

Communal and institutional support mechanisms that create freedom from violence and structural inequalities are integrated into the concept of resilience. Through the recognition of the role of community and policy making, resilience is not seen as a personal trait whereby individuals are pressured to demonstrate personal strength when facing adversity. While women’s personal narratives in my fieldwork show the importance of community resilience (due to their belonging to religious communal networks), their personal experiences vis-à-vis their networks vary. Although the interviewed women and their children were provided with housing, they lacked the necessary support mechanisms to address the structural inequalities and everyday hardships they faced. Some interviewees wished for job opportunities to afford rent, experience more freedom, and lead more independent lives with their children in Turkey. Yet, the lack of financial opportunities to provide for themselves and their families remained a daily challenge. For some, it was not about where or with whom they lived in Turkey. Even though Salwa lived amongst many Syrians in Gaziantep for example, she argued that “homesickness is sad and difficult. Despite being surrounded by a lot of Syrians [in Turkey], you miss your country, your land, memories, and the love stories that you lived.”

Women’s agency needs to be understood in a way that not only takes women’s own positionality into account but also their spatial and temporal experiences in relation to the social context they live in. Relational pragmatics considers the dynamic nature of human agency, paying attention to how past experiences and future expectations inform and shape judgment in the present moment. This dynamic process of past, future and present moves us away from thinking of agency as only transformative, subversive, resilient or resistant but rather a dynamic process that could involve one or all elements simultaneously or at different times.  For the interviewed Syrian refugee women, their interactions, the meanings they attribute to their past, and their expectations of the future, define the ways in which their agency manifests in the present.

Umut Ozkaleli is Assistant Professor at ADA University, Baku-Azerbaijan. Her latest work focuses on Syrian refugees who were living in Gaziantep, Turkey during 2015 and 2016. It looks at the transborder re-making of social interactions, the everyday becoming of refugees, and their articulations of agency in the host country.  Her other works include a critical engagement with gender mainstreaming in different cultural settings through the use of intersectionality as a framework. Umut’s work also explores the ways in which patriarchal nationalisms are perpetuated through the silencing of Turkish Cypriot women’s war memories. She tweets at @umutozkaleli

This blog post and others in the series are based on presentations during a conference organised by the LSE Middle East Centre on 7–8 March 2019, titled ‘Between Institutional Resilience to the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Resilience of Syrian Refugees’.

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by Jouni Häkli and Kirsi Pauliina Kallio

Syrian refugee children look outside their family’s apartment window in the lower income Masaken Osman neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. August 2014, © UNHCR/Scott Nelson.

Due to protracted conflict in Syria, 6.2 million people have been internally displaced and over 5.6 million people have sought refuge abroad. The overwhelming majority of these forcibly displaced people live outside camps, in countries neighbouring Syria, where the dominant discourse about asylum seekers and refugees emphasises their social and economic forms of self-reliance. Together with Dr Elisa Pascucci, we studied the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in Cairo, mainly through thematic interviews. Aiming to understand refugeeness as a subjective life situation, our research identifies significant controversies within the dominant discourse, which aligns itself with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) policies that support refugee self-settlement.

In effect, forcibly displaced Syrians face contradictory expectations to demonstrate their deservingness as a refugee. According to UNHCR materials directed at asylum seekers and refugees, such as the leaflet titled Services for Syrians Registered in Greater Cairo, they are instructed to simultaneously demonstrate their resilience and show vulnerability. In particular, the latter may be used as way to facilitate access to better social services and possibly the permission to resettle in a third country. Through our interviews, we found that these contradicting expectations encouraged the development of ambiguous forms of subjectivity and positionality (people’s sense of self as asylum seekers and refugees).

What it means to be a forcibly displaced Syrian does not form univocally but rather gains meaning and significance contextually. There are notable differences in the ways in which refugeeness is negotiated in different contexts. Both formal and informal encounters contribute to defining an individual’s sense of self as an asylum seeker or a refugee. For instance, more formalised contexts include refugee encounters with UNHCR officers who expect to see signs of self-reliance and vulnerability. Less formal settings may look like refugees negotiating membership in a local community.

Often, there is an emphasis on the negative consequences asylum seekers face due to a pressure to internalise the refugee identity promoted by the international refugee regime. As such, people become the self-reliant and vulnerable subjects proposed by current international humanitarian policies, which frame the refugee-subject as a dependent, passive, subordinate, and voiceless individual.

The overemphasis of such aspects conceals the agency of asylum seekers and refugees, and reinforces the predominant view that they are passive recipients of humanitarian support. When approached from the experiential perspective of asylum seekers and refugees themselves, refugeeness can be seen as a more complex situation. Focus on people’s capacities to experience the identities construed by the humanitarian regime is key here. Dealing with contradictory expectations about what it means to be a deserving asylum seeker, we argue, means that refugeeness remains an open-ended subjectivity.

Hence, refugeeness allows for different possibilities to demonstrate political agency. Refugeeness as political subjectivity is not about being governed by internalised identities but rather about the ways in which refugees form their personal stances in response to different and at times highly challenging life situations, as was the case with the forcibly displaced Syrian family interviewed in Cairo.

Our research traces experiences of refugeeness through attention to situations in which our interviewees had something at stake in their implicit or explicit self-definition as an asylum seeker or a refugee. These events are instances during which they come to experience contradictory expectations from humanitarian agencies. In particular, asylum seekers and refugees are expected to demonstrate their ability to support themselves and their family, while also portraying themselves as exceptionally vulnerable people. In this regard, key elements in our engagements with our research participants have been their expressions of emotions, whether for example feelings of fear when recalling past events, distressing experiences related to challenging situations during an asylum interview, tacit awareness of critical moments when gaining refugee status, or learning about new possibilities for resettlement. Such emotion-laden situations are important because they foreground the political subjectivities of asylum seekers and refugees, and reveal how refugeeness arises from their encounters with the humanitarian regime.

Our engagement with an asylum-seeking Syrian family in Cairo illustrated ways in which ambivalences towards practices of migration control and humanitarian provisions are expressed through emotion. We interviewed the family six months following their illegal arrival in Cairo, after Egypt issued visa restrictions to Syrians in 2013. Because of their precarious situation, both economically and legally, the family was distressed and uncomfortable; the mother and father were ambivalent about their future plans, at times demonstrating their resilience, while also showing vulnerability. Their refugeeness was also enacted in gendered ways. On one hand, the mother expressed vulnerability by pleading for help in various aspects of the family’s everyday life, ranging from winter clothes for children, to cooking oil to electric heating for their home. On the other hand, the father highlighted the family’s resilience by stressing that he did not have any problems, and that all he wanted was to find a job. What began as a tense interview, ended with a quarrel about the family’s future plans. The mother hoped to find opportunities for resettlement while the father asserted that they would not move anywhere.

There is no doubt that many forcibly displaced people, such as the underprivileged Syrian asylum seekers and refugees who currently live in the urban fabric of Lebanese, Jordanian, Egyptian, Turkish cities, and beyond, are in particularly vulnerable positions. However, their circumstances do not mean an end to their agency. Asylum seekers and refugees constantly negotiate their identities in relation to the state, humanitarian actors, and the host communities they encounter, as both deserving and self-serving receivers of aid.

Jouni Häkli is Professor of Regional Studies and directs the Space and Political Agency Reseach Group (SPARG) in Tampere University, as part of the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence (RELATE). His research lies at the intersection of political geography and global and transnational studies, with focus on political subjectivity and agency, forced migration and transnationalisation.

Kirsi Pauliina Kallio works as Professor of Regional Studies at Tampere University, Finland. She develops her research as part of the RELATE Centre of Excellence and the Space and Political Agency Research Group. Her current research focuses on the relational spatiality of the humanitarian border, which she approaches from the perspective of experienced refugeeness.

This blog post and others in the series are based on presentations during a conference organised by the LSE Middle East Centre on 7–8 March 2019, titled ‘Between Institutional Resilience to the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Resilience of Syrian Refugees’.

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by Lewis Turner 

Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan. January 2018 © UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

The Jordan Compact was meant to be a “new paradigm” for a refugee response. In bringing together humanitarian and development approaches, it aimed to turn “the Syrian refugee crisis into a development opportunity” – to provide jobs for Syrian refugees in Jordan and to aid the development of the Jordanian economy, benefiting refugees and host communities alike. But three years on, we can clearly see the challenges it has encountered, many of which are centred on questions of gender.

The Compact envisaged that by now 200,000 Syrians would be working legally (i.e. with work permits) in Jordan. The latest figures show that in fact 135,000 permits have been issued since early 2016, most of them for a period of 12 months. Therefore, this figure of 135,000 tells us nothing about the number of Syrians who currently have work permits or jobs, and will include several permits that went to the same individuals. Current figures are harder to come by, although last August, for example, only around 40,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan held valid work permits Compared to expectations then, the numbers have been low.

According to Syrians who hold work permits, the main benefit they derive from the latter is a more secure legal status, and less fear of arrest and deportation. While this added security is important, Syrians’ working conditions have otherwise changed very little. In the quest to ensure they hold work permits, the agenda to secure decent work has been lost. Through a predominant focus on the scheme’s targets, its underlying goals have been side-lined.

The gender distribution of these permits has been a source of controversy since the beginning of the Compact. Some organisations working on the refugee response proposed that the release and allocation of donor funds should not merely be based on the overall number of work permits issued, and must also take into consideration the proportion of permits issued to Syrian women. While this particular proposal was widely rejected by some organisations, for different reasons, there has still been sustained interest, at least on a rhetorical level, in increasing the number of work permits for women.

Yet, figures that are released regularly by the Livelihoods Working Group show that Syrian women typically hold about 5 percent of the work permits issued to Syrians. The reasons for this are varied and complex. One of the main reasons why many Syrian women are not conducting work in the paid labour market is due to their engagement in domestic work already, namely childcare and housework. Other reasons cited by Syrian women include: a lack of opportunities to work in specific sectors, no interest in working, and a preference for doing paid labour from home. In light of this last reason, the recent government regulation that opens up the possibility of Syrians running home-based businesses in certain sectors might be seen as a positive development. At the same time, however, these attempts to regulate informal home-based businesses, and to channel relevant donor funds to Jordanians as well, may have “adverse effects on the livelihood of Syrian refugee families.”

At the same time, my PhD research indicates that many humanitarian actors assume Syrian women really want to do paid work outside the home (even if they say they do not), or at least that they should want to. If humanitarian actors want to respect Syrian women’s preferences, their focus surely has to be on finding ways to provide paid labour market opportunities for Syrian women who want them (whether inside or outside the home), without imposing an agenda that claims they should want them. That is to say, in discussions on ways to facilitate Syrian women’s labour market participation, Syrian women’s voices should be centred. Unfortunately, this has not been typically the case so far.

As Katharina Lenner and I have explored in depth, at the beginning of the Compact, there was a major pilot project that attempted to get Syrian women to work in the garment sector, which is one of Jordan’s most successful export sectors. Yet this pilot project failed, with only 30 women employed by the end of 2016, rather than the envisaged 2,000. One of the key reasons behind this failure was that Syrian women themselves mostly did not want to work in these factories. This was due to a variety of reasons, including the cost of transport, long distance to factories, lack of childcare facilities, poor wages, bad working conditions, and long hours. While humanitarian organisations are attempting to find new ways to facilitate Syrian women’s work in these factories (such as providing support for training and transport), we must also question whether facilitating Syrian women’s work in an exploitative labour regime should count as a ‘success’ or be a humanitarian target in the first place.

Another gender-related challenge is that Syrian refugees are, informally, often responsible for paying the necessary fees to get work permits. While there are few formal fees, informal fees, including payments to employers and brokers, can amount to $500. When faced with such high costs, many families have to make difficult choices, which include prioritising one family member for a work permit over others.

The fact that many Syrian families have prioritised men for these permits reflects prevailing understandings of gendered roles and responsibilities, but also reflects the fact that Syrian men are disproportionately likely to be perceived as a ‘security threat’, and disproportionately likely to face the risk of arrest, forced encampment, or deportation for working without a permit. These are some important factors that Syrian families take into account in their decisions regarding work permits, and therefore need to be integrated in humanitarian planning too.

The challenges that the Compact has faced, in terms of overall numbers and in relation to gender, have resulted in large part from the fact the refugees’ voices, as they so often are, have not been prioritised. If initiatives such as the Jordan Compact are going to succeed, the perspectives of refugees of all genders need to be taken seriously. Refugees’ voices should not merely be “included,” but centred. Refugees are the experts on their own lives.

Lewis Turner is a Senior Researcher at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute in Freiburg, Germany. His research focuses on the humanitarian response for Syrian refugees in Jordan, especially questions of gender (particularly men and masculinities), race, work, labour markets and encampment. His work has appeared in journals including Middle East Critique and Mediterranean Politics. He tweets at: @lewiseturner

This post and others in the series are based on presentations held during a conference organised by the LSE Middle East Centre on 7–8 March 2019, titled ‘Between Institutional Resilience to the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Resilience of Syrian Refugees’.

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by Valeria Cetorelli & Sareta Ashraph

An aerial view of Kocho after ISIS were forced from the village. Source: Sareta Ashraph

On 3 August 2014, the armed group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), attacked the Yazidi community of Sinjar, in northwest Iraq. Within days of the attack, reports emerged of men and boys being executed; of women and girls, some as young as nine, being kidnapped, sold, sexually enslaved, beaten, and forced to work; and of boys ripped from their families and forced into ISIS training camps. In 2015 and 2016, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria released separate reports determining that ISIS was committing genocide, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes, in its coordinated assault on the Yazidis of Sinjar.

The recognition of the crimes and the continuing push for justice flow directly from the bravery and sacrifice of the survivors. Some have spoken out publicly while many others have given their accounts confidentially to a range of statement-based documentation entities. Yet, almost five years later, a full understanding of the scale of the ISIS crimes against the Yazidis, and the identity of all the victims, remain unknown.

We established the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project with the objective of identifying every victim of ISIS’s attack on the Yazidi community of Sinjar. Our first paper is a demographic documentation of ISIS’s attack on the Yazidi village of Kocho and seeks to answer the following questions:

  • How many victims can be identified by name, and what is the likely number of victims who remain uncounted?
  • What gender and age are the identified victims, and what types of violations have they suffered?
  • Do the results of the demographic documentation confirm the findings of testimony-based documentation?

The paper analysed data from two independent sources. The first was a list of victims gathered by trained Yazidi enumerators, primarily from close family members and occasionally from more distant relatives, friends and neighbours, in camps for internally displaced persons in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The second source was a list of victims compiled by one of the few Kocho community leaders who survived the attack. Information on victims’ status – dead, missing, or rescued – is updated to August 2018. The data was, as detailed in the paper, screened, merged and validated. A dual system estimation was applied to determine the likely number of victims who remain uncounted.

Portraits of victims exhibited in the village school. Source: Sareta Ashraph

The consolidated list of victims contains the names of 1161 people. The dual system estimation indicated that the total number of victims, including those who remain uncounted, is likely to be 1170. This accords with various testimony-based estimates of there being approximately 1200 people in Kocho at the time that ISIS entered. Kocho’s population appeared to be almost equally split along gender lines, with 579 (50%) of the identified victims being male and 582 (50%) female. The age of the identified victims confirmed Kocho’s young population age structure, with 301 (26%) being under 10 years and 558 (48%) under 20 years.

While Kocho’s entire population was targeted by ISIS, the violations suffered varied depending on the gender and age of the victims. Among the 157 boys and 144 girls under 10 years who were captured by ISIS, respectively 22 (14%) and 25 (17%) were reported as dead or missing. Among the 135 boys and 122 girls between 10 and 19 years at the time of the attack, 79 (59%) and 38 (31%) were reported as dead or missing. Of the 287 men aged 20 years and above, 259 (90%) were reported as dead or missing. Far fewer women were reported as dead or missing – 26 (14%) among the 187 women in the age range 20–39. However, the number of those reported as dead or missing was 42 (52%) among the 81 women aged 40–59, and 42 (88%) among the 48 women aged 60 years and above. The demographic documentation accords survivors’ accounts which described ISIS executing men and adolescent boys in and around Kocho on 15 August 2014, while women deemed to be past childbearing age were executed hours later at Solagh, a few kilometres away. Exhumations of multiple mass grave sites of Kocho’s victims are ongoing.

A demographic analysis of those who were rescued from captivity – a catch-all term governing a diverse range of situations through which abductees have been returned to their families – also revealed important insights into the diverse ways in which ISIS targeted Kocho’s Yazidis. The number of boys and girls under 10 years who were reported as rescued is 135 (86%) and 119 (83%) respectively. Among those aged between 10 and 19 years, 56 (41%) and 84 (69%) were rescued. Only 28 (10%) of the men aged 20 years and above were rescued. The number of those rescued was 161 (86%) among women in the age group 20–39; 39 (48%) among those aged 40–59. As one might expect, given the number of older women reported dead or missing, only 6 (12%) among those aged 60 years and above were reported as having been rescued.

The upper floor of the school, to which Yazidi women and children were forced while ISIS held the males downstairs. Source: Sareta Ashraph

Children and women of childbearing age were much more likely to have been kept alive in ISIS captivity and, consequently, to have the possibility of rescue. Following ISIS’s loss of territorial control in Iraq and Syria, the fate and whereabouts of the still-missing women and girls (as well as boys under the age of 7 who are more likely to have been allowed to remain with their mothers) remains a painful and largely unanswered question. Hope still remains, with reports of Yazidi women being rescued during raids on private houses in areas now liberated from ISIS. Recently, several Yazidi boys forced to fight with ISIS have also been rescued. Precisely how many survived the training and/or the battlefield remains unknown. Nevertheless, the data gathered by the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project indicates that more boys who were trained and made to fight as part of ISIS have survived than testimonial evidence has previously suggested.

The consolidated database resulting from the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project will assist in the identification of remains in mass graves as well as in the planning for and prioritisation of gender and youth-specific needs of members of the Yazidi community. It is also envisaged, and is an integral aspect of the methodological planning, that the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project will play a significant role in achieving accountability for the crimes ISIS has committed against the Yazidis. The paper’s demographic analysis and the underlying data provide reliable information of high probative value for use in criminal prosecutions before national, regional, and international courts and tribunals. The documentation project’s data is also capable of informing broader understandings of transitional justice, including material and symbolic reparations.

Read the full paper here.

Valeria Cetorelli holds a PhD in Demography from the LSE and has extensive experience in population data collection, management and analysis. She is currently Head of Refugee Registration and Eligibility Services at UNRWA.

Sareta Ashraph is a barrister specialising in international criminal law and is currently the Senior Analyst with the UN Investigative Team to promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD). She tweets at @SaretaAshraph

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by Tamirace Fakhoury

A UNHCR staff member enters a makeshift home during the emergency response to Storm Norma at Bar Elias settlement, Lebanon. © UNHCR/Diego Ibarra Sánchez.

Today, Lebanon hosts more than one million Syrian refugees. Despite this, they are considered temporary guests (Nazihin) rather than refugees. In this context, the Lebanese government has delegated key responsibilities in refugee assistance to supranational organisations.

The European Union (EU) has been the leading donor in Lebanon in the context of Syrians’ displacement, and has increased its cooperation on refugee governance with the Lebanese government since 2012. Still, people within Lebanese policy spheres have disputed some narratives and practices that lie at the heart of the EU’s approach towards external refugee governance.

Crucial to this approach is the politics of resilience building that is refined in several policy documents;  the EU frames “resilience” as the core “objective” underlying “its development and humanitarian assistance.” It defines resilience as the capacity of individuals, communities and regions to recover from shocks without threatening “long-term development.”

For both displaced and host communities in Lebanon, the EU connected its resilience building strategy with stabilisation and allocated more than €1 billion to help the country bounce back. The EU also increased cooperation with the Lebanese government through a partnership in which the logic of mutual benefits and incentives is key.  High-level meetings stress the mutual benefits that the EU and Lebanon garner in their cooperation across different policy fields, namely refugee aid, counter-terrorism and trade facilitation. By 2016, this cooperation led to the adoption of the EU-Lebanon compact, which integrates refugee aid with the country’s development agenda. The idea here is that the refugee issue can evolve into an opportunity to tackle domestic challenges.

Narratives of contestation

Notwithstanding this partnership, Lebanese policy makers have questioned certain aspects of the EU’s approach to refugee governance. Some Lebanese officials have criticised the EU’s resilience building approach for placing a disproportionate burden on Syria’s neighbouring states (Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey), claiming that the latter have taken in about 5.5 million Syrian refugees whereas EU member states have been reluctant to accept their fair share of migrants and refugees. In the project I have conducted on the EU’s role in the governance of displacement [1] I mapped how the Lebanese government has contested the EU’s policy solutions for Lebanon’s refugee challenge, doubting in some cases their relevance to the Lebanese context. While the EU portrays its actions as resilience building, some Lebanese policy makers claim this approach shifts the burden from the broader international community to Syria’s neighbouring states in particular, through the provision of development aid.  According to some of my interviewees, the EU-Turkish agreement negotiated at the peak of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe set the tone for the EU’s policy solutions that address the refugee challenges in Syria’s neighbouring states.

Recently, the issue of Syrian refugees’ return home has brought these competing narratives of resilience building to the forefront of the debate. Since 2016, political factions in Lebanon have come together to call for refugees’ prompt return to Syria. In response to this, the EU has stressed the importance of refugees’ voluntary return when conditions in Syria are conducive to such a scenario. As an interim solution for Lebanon, the EU emphasises the strategies of economic stabilisation and resilience building through development aid, which have been the source of some policy clashes between EU and Lebanese officials in high-level meetings. In some instances, Lebanese policy makers criticised the EU’s search for more sustainable solutions to support refugee communities “close to home”, such as creating more employment opportunities. According to some, this strategy undermines Lebanon’s national employment laws and its sovereignty.

Broader implications

What implications do these competing policy approaches have on resilience building? Do they matter? What functions do these approaches serve in the broader field of refugee politics?

In the context of Syrian refugees’ displacement, looking at competing framings of resilience building between Lebanon and the EU highlights the ways in which refugee politics is a conflictual terrain that feeds on disputed spatialities, meanings, and manifestations of power. Though this piece only addresses the Lebanese case, contested narratives hold wider implications.  In the Middle East, the EU has played a key role in trade reform and migration management.  Still, before the outbreak of armed conflict in Syria, the EU had not given enough importance to refugee aid and protection, even though the region has been a key host to many refugee populations long before the organisation’s inception.  Displacement from Syria has been pivotal for refugee governance insofar as it challenged the balance of power in negotiations that take place between key Arab host states and the EU.

Looking at refugee governance as a field of contested meanings helps us understand the ways in which the EU’s emphasis on aid as an external strategy to tackle the refugee challenge may clash with local interpretations of resilience and burden sharing. It also challenges the assumption that Arab host states are merely recipients of policy prescriptions and lack agency. Rather, the illustrated cases demonstrate ways in which Lebanon disputes the EU’s approach. While the EU proposes forms of refugee assistance as a pragmatic solution to displacement, some local policy makers portray these solutions as a mismatch to their realities on the ground.

Moreover, contestation is used as a foreign policy tool in states that have yet to develop a rights-based refugee regime. Even though such states are reliant on external refugee aid, they may draw on contestatory narratives to downplay their obligations vis-à-vis refugee rights in the global refugee regime. Amid broader disputes on refugee burden sharing, some officials in Syria’s neighbouring states have questioned their obligations towards refugee law, referring to limited global solidarity, including the EU’s stance. In that regard, the argument “enough is enough”, to some extent eclipsed the discourse on refugee rights. It exemplifies the ways in which questioning the EU’s politics of resilience building is a strategy used to advance state-centric goals at the expense of refugee protection needs.

[1] The European Union’s (EU) Role in the Multi-Level Governance (MLG) of Large-Scale Displacement, Kaete Hamburger Kolleg, University of Duisburg, Germany.

The title of this blog post is inspired by Jeffrey L. Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky’s book title Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland (Berkeley, University of California Press), 1973. 

This post and others in the series are based on presentations held during a conference organised by the LSE Middle East Centre on 7–8 March 2019, titled ‘Between Institutional Resilience to the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Resilience of Syrian Refugees’.

Tamirace Fakhoury is is Associate Professor of political science at the Lebanese American University (LAU), and the director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution (ISJCR). She is working on a project that tackles the European Union’s role in the polycentric governance of displacement at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research, Germany. She tweets at @tamyfakhoury

In this series:
  • Questioning Dominant Refugee Narratives and Research Methodologies by Yasmine Kherfi
  • Three Years of the Jordan Compact: The (Gendered) Challenges of Providing Work Permits for Syrian Refugees by Lewis Turner
  • Between Vulnerability and Resilience – ‘Refugeeness’ as Political Subjectivity by Jouni Häkli and Kirsi Pauliina Kallio
  • Resilience and Relationality: the Agency of Pious Syrian Refugee Women by Umut Ozkaleli
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by Yasmine Kherfi

Participants at the LSE Middle East Centre conference, 7 March 2019.

This is the introduction to a series of memos presented as part of a conference organised by the LSE Middle East Centre on 7–8 March 2019, titled ‘Between Institutional Resilience to the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Resilience of Syrian Refugees’.

The term ‘refugee crisis’ is often critiqued within the refugee discourse for being embedded within a larger crisis narrative in which Europe is seen “as a continent under siege” and refugees are depicted as simultaneously a threat to order and victims of conflict. Similarly, terms such as ‘resilience’ has become buzzword used to refer to the humanitarian response to the Syrian ‘refugee crisis’, as well as the subsequent development efforts that host countries implement to tackle refugee-related challenges alongside other domestic concerns. However, there is no consensus on what ‘resilience’ actually means or how it can be put into practice.

In the spirit of challenging hegemonic refugee narratives and questioning common refugee-related research methodologies, a two-day conference was organised by the Middle East Centre to bring together scholars and practitioners and critically explore how ‘resilience’ is conceptualised and enacted by different stakeholders in the humanitarian–development nexus. The conference questioned how key institutional actors responded to the massive influx of forcibly displaced people seeking refuge in Syria’s neighbouring countries. In particular, it addressed the shifting trends in ‘resilience-building’ approaches adopted by international organisations (like the United Nations) and different levels of government in host countries (such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon). Conference participants questioned the durability of suggested solutions for refugees, who often find themselves in situations of ‘permanent temporariness’ in which they are unable to safely return home, while frequently struggling to guarantee a stable and effective long-term plan in their new place of settlement.

Refugees’ experiences are largely shaped by regimes that regulate and restrict their mobility, as well as their access to labour market opportunities and health care. However, they should not be treated as a monolith or passive recipients of humanitarian assistance. When framing and conducting refugee-related research, there is a pressing need to shift the dominant discourse away from victimhood narratives. The conference served as an opportunity to raise the importance of revisiting the ways in which refugee-related research is conducted. These include the need to centre refugees’ voices in research that involves them, highlight their agency, and adopt an intersectional framework, not in its tokenised and depoliticised form, but rather as an effective means to understand the overlapping systems of oppression that shape refugees’ lives, based on factors such as class, sexuality, gender and race. Conference participants also identified common research practices that perpetuate problematic assumptions about refugees, and addressed the limitations of existing codes of ethics when conducting this type of research.

This series of blog posts serves as an overview of some of the discussions about ‘resilience’ in the context of forced displacement, as well as about research methodologies in refugee-related work. It highlights some of the main topics that emerged from the conference presentations and participants’ research. Pieces range from discussions on competing policy approaches for refugee resilience building in Lebanon, to the gendered challenges of refugees’ labour market participation in the context of the Jordan Compact, and raises questions on the dynamic nature of refugee agency and positionality in different contexts, based on interviews carried out with Syrian refugees in Gaziantep and Cairo respectively.

Yasmine Kherfi is Projects Assistant at the Middle East Centre, working on the administration of different projects and providing research support. Yasmine is interested in feminist theory and praxis, transnational solidarity movements, and development planning in (post)conflict settings.

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by Guy Burton

An ambitious new book seeks to compare the conditions that led to Europe’s treaties of Westphalia, which ushered in relative peace and heralded the beginning of the modern international system, with the current situation in the Middle East, asking whether a similar grand treaty can be sought.

Over the past decade the Middle East has descended into conflict. Some of those have been bloody and violent, as in the case of Syria. Others have been colder, without direct confrontation, such as the hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or the Saudi Arabia and UAE-led blockade against Qatar. In both cases, verbal jousting has combined with proxy conflicts in places like Libya and Yemen.

Beyond these conflicts have been other forms of foreign interference, including financing of different groups abroad, as happened in the years following the uprising in Egypt and eventual coup in 2013. Most recently, the fingerprints of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have appeared in Sudan, where the regime massacred a sit in protest.

Several of these conflicts can be traced back to the Arab uprisings in 2011, although in some of the rivalries – for example, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or between Saudi Arabia and Qatar – they preceded them.

Regardless of whether their causes were proximate or previously established, following the initial wave of protests which unseated dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, they then hit resistance in Libya, then Bahrain and Syria. From that point on, media attention and commentary arguably began to focus more on individual cases of conflict—and none more so than Syria. The country slipped from uprising and rebellion to revolution and eventually civil war. The results so far have been catastrophic: over half a million people dead, half the population displaced and a constantly rising reconstruction bill, from $250bn in 2017 to $350–400bn a year later.

But the Arab uprisings were a regional event, with several events bringing this dimension back into focus. One was the rise of the extremist Islamic State and its armed expansion across Syria’s border into Iraq in 2014. Another was the transnational threat that Islamic State posed to the wider world, by attracting foreign fighters to join it while also inviting disaffected individuals and groups to carry out attacks in their home countries. A third was the arrival of the refugee crisis on Europe’s doorstep in the summer of 2015—and the media attention which looked back to the Syrian war which caused it.

The refugee crisis was strongly felt among European policy makers and publics. It prompted renewed discussion and urgency over how best to resolve the war in Syria. But to do that meant picking up the different strands of the conflict, which all led off in different directions. One response to this came from Germany and a partnership between the Korber Foundation and the Policy Planning Unit of the Federal Foreign Office, along with Cambridge University. Their project proposed to draw lessons for the future of the Middle East by looking to Europe’s past: by comparing the experience of the Thirty Years’ War to today’s Middle East, parallels and analogies would be found that could be used to develop effective peace initiatives.

Both to articulate the parallels and gain ‘buy in,’ scholars of that early modern war as well as practitioners from the Middle East, Europe and the US were brought together in a series of workshops. The resulting book, Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East (Hurst & Co., 2018) by Patrick Milton, the late Michael Axworthy and Brendan Simms, is the fruit of that labour.

In the book’s three parts—outlining, respectively, the relevance of the project and the state of the Middle East today (including a crisis of legitimacy; the overarching Saudi-Iranian rivalry and sectarianism), the origins and development of the Thirty Years’ War and its eventual settlement; and solutions based on parallels between the two regional conflicts—the authors highlight several themes which link the two conflicts, despite the 400 years that separate them.

The authors point out that the regional conflicts in central Europe and the Middle East are both extremely complex, with multiple causes and various forms of conflicts taking place at the same time. They observe that in both instances the reasons for the wars had longstanding causes, but that the outbreak of violence was initially concentrated at the local level and space. Subsequently, they escalated via proxy conflict to direct interventions dominated by great power rivals. The authors also note that during this process, the conflicts often lacked any formal declaration of war, even as they usually entailed strong sectarian animosity.

Had the book left it there, it would have been an interesting account and point of comparison. But the project and the authors chose to go beyond these thematic similarities and suggest some aspects of the Westphalian experience that might be useful in the search for a peaceful settlement. In doing this, the participants make it clear that neither do they see Westphalia as a European model or blueprint for a future Middle East peace, or that piecemeal solutions are the answer. As the representatives from the Federal Foreign Office point out in their preface: ‘History does not lay down any rules for the future. what it does, however, is to illustrate options for taking action.’ (p. xvii)

To illustrate this, in the third part of the book, the authors highlight aspects of the negotiations and peace congresses at Munster and Osnabrück, which together formed the single Peace of Westphalia. An important consideration was that those deliberations were inclusive from the outset. No group or party was left out; nor was a ceasefire called before talks began. Furthermore, when negotiations took place, they combined elements of conflict containment and resolution at the same time. They included simultaneous and overlapping talks at different levels and between different parties.

Of course, trust and transparency (in the form of actors’ bottom lines) between the conflict parties was low to begin with. But the book points out how that challenge was overcome: both in the process of negotiations as well as the final outcome. It helped that those negotiating for the conflict parties had strong plenipotentiary powers to make binding decisions on the spot.

Many of those individuals found themselves living alongside negotiating teams from the other states. Because of the difficulty of travel at the time, they not only lived and worked together, but socialised with each other too. That helped smooth away initial distrust and made each other’s red lines clearer. The interactions helped create a cross-confessional ‘Third Party’ that was willing to compromise, including on religious matters.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the deliberations was the settlement that resulted. The authors argue that the conventional interpretation associated with Westphalia is wrong. Rather than putting in place a system of sovereign states and a norm not to interfere in their domestic affairs, the treaties signed in Germany in the mid-seventeenth century actually encouraged a more limited and conditional form of sovereignty, with mechanisms beyond the state to settle disputes and intervention by guarantor powers. Moreover, it was through these measures, which ran through and above the states, that peace was ensured.

Such a vision would be extremely challenging to achieve in the Middle East. Typically, the region is one where governments have emphasised their independence and been loath to see other countries interfere in their sovereignty. Since its inception, the Arab League has done little to knit together its members or to challenge the often repressive treatment of states against their societies, for example. Only once, in 2011, did it choose to act in this way, when Syria was thrown out.

At the same time though, states’ public statements are contradicted by their actions, especially since 2011. As the conflicts that have unfolded since have shown, state actors in the Middle East have been willing to intervene, usually in other, weaker and fragile states. An unspoken question therefore posed by the book is whether today’s regimes and other actors are willing to change their behaviour in this regard. But in order for that to happen, a first step must be taken. The region’s regimes must realise that a peaceful settlement requires a collective solution, not one that is based on self-interest alone. And for that to happen, they need to realise that the status quo is neither sustainable nor productive for themselves. How to achieve that though, will be a challenge and require persuasion—hence the involvement of politicians and officials from inside and outside the region in the conceptualisation and production of this book.

Guy Burton is Visiting Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre and Adjunct Professor at Vesalius College, Brussels. He is the author of Rising Powers and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1947 (Lexington, 2018) and he tweets at @guyjsburton

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by Dylan O’Driscoll and Irene Costantini

IDPs in Jadah camp, near Qayyarah in Nineveh Province. Source: IOM

Internal displacement has received growing attention as a significant phenomenon that demonstrates the protracted nature of contemporary conflict. In addition to being a consequence and a potential driver of conflict, internal displacement strongly affects the construct of the state, particularly with regards to citizenship. IDPs do not cross international borders and thus their citizenship and the rights that come with it remain intact formally, however, in practice there is often a stark difference between citizens and IDPs.

Iraq witnessed more than three million IDPs as a consequence of the advancement of the Islamic State (IS), which has had a considerable impact on already strained intercommunity relations. Ethnic and religious minorities in northern Iraq – particularly Christians, Shabaks and Yazidis – were caught in the wave of violence as a result of IS and many escaped to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) due to its proximity and relative stability. These minorities were left at the crossroad between citizenship and the competition for power in Iraq. Due to its status as a quasi-state, entering the KRI meant entering an altogether differently defined territory within Iraq, where IDPs have been subject to bureaucratic and administrative procedures in many ways similar to those faced by refugees. The existence of a tiered understanding of citizenship in the KRI, and Iraq, meant that citizenship discourses and practices had to adapt to a complex formulation of who is included in and who is excluded from the political community. As a result, there is a difference between the top-down narrative of citizenship formulated by KRI and Iraqi officials and the actual practices of citizenship as experienced by IDPs themselves.

In Iraq, where the internal boundaries are contested and struggled for, citizenship, at least as a practice, becomes contested. With the mass displacement as a result of IS, ethnosectarian considerations have influenced the movement of displaced people, with communities fleeing and clustering in specific parts of the country. As a result, displacement has changed the demographical composition of many parts of the country. For instance, Yazidis concentrated in the Duhok governorate, where they represented 62 percent of IDPs, and Erbil (Ainkawa) hosted a significant share of Christians from Nineveh. Additionally, the homogenisation of people’s movement extended to humanitarian assistance to IDPs, with the creation of ethnosectarian uniformed camps or areas within them. Checkpoints also became borders, drawing new lines between communities and representing selective, arbitrary, or discriminatory practices impeding the movements of some over others.

In the political spaces created by mass displacement, practices of citizenship emerged that reflected the precarious position of IDPs in the construction of the Iraqi state. IDPs associate displacement with being a second-class citizen due to the limits it has on their inclusion in the political community as well as the obstacles it imposes on daily life, such as extra bureaucratic procedures and limited economic opportunities. For example, in the KRI, IDPs have to apply for residency just as any international would do based on a thorough security screening and decision by the Kurdish security apparatus. They also have issues registering land, and to obtain lost legal documents IDPs often have to travel to their governorate of origin or Baghdad, which can be a significant financial burden as well as a security risk. This is even more pronounced when considering that Syrian Kurdish refugees find easier access to the labour market in the KRI than Iraqi IDPs. These practices of exclusion originate from a very different understanding of what Iraqi citizenship means in the KRI, given its aspiration for independence.

From a Kurdish perspective, the inflow of IDPs created concerns over it altering the social fabric of the region. As a result, the Kurdish leadership developed political narratives that catered to different audiences. Towards ethnic and religious minorities, they repeatedly stressed their role as ‘protectors’ with equal citizenship and attempted to set themselves apart from the rest of Iraq. For instance, in 2015 the prime minister at the time, Nechirvan Barzani, stated that ‘we do not consider Christians as minorities, but rather they have deep roots in this region. Majority and minority – it is not a matter of numbers’. However, Erbil is also attempting to extend control over the territories from where these minorities originated, most of which are disputed. For instance, a referendum for Kurdish independence held on 25 September 2017 included some of the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil, such as Sinjar, Kirkuk, Khanaqin and Makhmour. In this respect the citizenship of displaced minorities was connected to the expansion of a territorial entity seeking independence. Thus, there is a marked difference between a narrative of inclusion giving minorities the right to decide their own future and a practice of exclusion based on a zero-sum-game between Erbil and Baghdad.

To gain the support of the international community, these issues then entered a narrative justifying the quest for independence based on the invocation of democratic principles and the KRI as a civic force in drastic opposition to Baghdad, depicted as an entity unconcerned with protecting its population. In contrast, the message to the Kurdish community was very different. The Kurdish leadership included the question of IDPs, and the cost associated with them, in their rhetoric to excuse not paying, and drastically reducing, government salaries. The notion of civic nationalism and the related openness of the KRI was quickly replaced with ethnic nationalism, particularly in the campaigning for the independence referendum with talk of a Kurdish homeland, shared Kurdish suffering, and the feeling that the Kurds’ time had come. Although this language was used to get the Kurdish population behind the referendum, it was exclusionary in nature and defined citizenship as connected to Kurdish identity. As a result, ethnic and religious minorities residing in the KRI expressed concern as the referendum approached.

To summarise, what we demonstrate is that displacement in Iraq has been accompanied by practices and narratives meant to include IDPs in a particularistic articulation of belonging rather than to ensure a substantive participation as Iraqi or KRI citizens. Rhetoric around citizenship in Iraq changes between civic and ethnosectarian belonging based on conflict dynamics and the competition for power, whilst remaining ethnosectarian in reality. In other words, minorities are ethnicised or de-ethnicised depending on the aim of the elites and their audience at the time.

Thus, IDPs and their citizenship have become entangled in wider ethnosectarian competition in Iraq and narratives and practices of citizenship change to fit the objectives of these wider actors, mainly Baghdad and Erbil, rather than being based on inclusiveness and civic identity. In conclusion, displacement becomes an important lens in the study of nation building, citizenship, territorial control, and most importantly the cyclical nature of violence in Iraq.

This post is developed from the new article ‘Practices of exclusion, narratives of inclusion: Violence, population movements and identity politics in post-2014 northern Iraq’, published in Ethnicities (June 2019).

Dylan O’Driscoll is a researcher in the Governance and Society Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). His work focuses on broadly defined inclusion and his main research area is ethnosectarian conflict in the Middle East, particularly Iraq where he has spent two years conducting fieldwork. Dylan is also currently a Conflict Research Fellow at the Social Science Research Council, New York and Associate Research Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre. He previously worked as a researcher at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) at the University of Manchester. He tweets at @odriscoll_dylan

Irene Costantini is a postdoc researcher at the University of Naples, ‘L’Orientale’. She has worked at MERI, Erbil, Iraq and at the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit, University of York. Her research interests include the politics of conflict, post-conflict transition and statebuilding interventions, as well as state transformation in the MENA region, focusing on Iraq and Libya. She is the author of Statebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa region: The Aftermath of Regime Change (Routledge, 2018) and she has published in International Peacekeeping, the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, Conflict, Security & Development, and The International Spectator among others. She tweets at @IreneCostantini

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by Mohamed Aldaaysi

A photo taken at the Muharraq cemetery during the funeral procession of the murdered imam. Source: Alayam Newspaper

In mid-June 2018, the murder of a local imam in one of Bahrain’s mosques re-ignited calls by various sub-sections of local society to institute a ban on Bangladeshi migrants. Back in 2008, similar attempts to stop businesses from hiring Bangladeshis were made after another murder case which saw a mechanic from the country assaulting and killing a local client after a pay dispute. The recruitment ban was, however, short-lived, owing primarily to the heavy reliance on Bangladeshi labour and resistance from local capitalists; especially in the construction sector.

The grotesque nature of the imam’s murder – he was tortured, cut into pieces and had his body dumped in a garbage disposal by a Bangladeshi muezzin and a few of his accomplices – was enough to steer public opinion away from discussing the nuances that underlined the inherently conflictual power relations between the imam and his area’s Bangladeshi community. The imam was reportedly trading in work permits, a common practice in Gulf countries that often leads to a rather precarious form of employment for migrant workers.

Through visa trading, citizens sponsor migrants’ work permits – in exchange for either a monthly fee or an upfront payment – granting them quasi-legal residency status while restricting their labour to a single employer. This type of rent-seeking activity that the imam was involved in, and the implied power relation between him and the sponsored Bangladeshi migrants, played a significant role in the motivations that preceded his murder. Yet local media outlets judged this background mainly inconsequential, choosing instead to focus on the nationality of the assailants and Bahraini society’s preconceived notions of the supposed ‘security threat’ posed by the Bangladeshi migrant community as a whole. A parliamentarian even argued that the assailants should face capital punishment without so much as a trial. The Bangladeshi ambassador did little to alleviate this backlash, choosing instead to hint that the vast majority of undocumented Bangladeshi migrants in the country were convicted criminals; and hence reaffirming the idea that they were indeed a security threat.

Discourse in local media was thus quick to vilify Bangladeshi migrants and officials in the country took precautionary measures to muffle any public backlash. According to Akhbar Alkhaleej, an unofficial ban on the extension of Bangladeshi work permits was introduced. Local commentators welcomed this, with some even going as far as predicting that this could be the silver bullet to somehow end the flow of undocumented workers and ‘free-visa‘ labourers in the country – even though in reality this was more a symptom of the rent-seeking activities of local citizens and the inefficiency of the kafala/sponsorship system in effectively managing migrant flows. Plans were also made by the ministry of justice to end the use of foreign labour in mosques, certain that a local muezzin would never commit such a crime. While it is true that a local would indeed lack the motivations that the Bangladeshi had in this particular case, the ‘solutions’ proposed unfortunately avoid the real root of the conflict in favour of fanning the flames of xenophobic attitudes that brand migrants as social security threats.

The response by local capitalists, however, was far less concerned with the perceived security threat and more with the economic implications of implementing the ban. While some welcomed it, they urged the government to find ‘alternative sources of cheap labour’ to offset any shortages as a result of the ban. Others pointed to the heavy reliance on Bangladeshi labour in the construction sector, where small contractors – often reliant on undocumented and aforementioned ‘free-visa’ workers – would find it difficult to survive if the ban were not lifted. Unsurprisingly, the interests of local capitalists were thus sharply divergent from popular sentiment. The appetite for cheap, docile labour – especially in the construction sector – seemed to far outweigh any security concerns invoked by the incident.

Nothing exemplifies the resilience of the interests of capital in the Gulf more than this incoherent dialectic between the new ‘family social security‘ discourse and local capital’s need for cheap labour flows. Migrants are somehow painted both as a security threat and a necessity for economic growth/activity – with the latter ultimately trumping the former. In early 2019 this became more obvious to observers when the royal-appointed Shura council opted to reject a law suggested by the elected parliamentary body to force a background check on criminal records as a pre-requisite for issuing migrant work permits. Both logistical difficulties and an adverse effect on investment were cited by the appointed representatives. In short, capital is King.

Mohamed Aldaaysi is an independent researcher from Bahrain. He was previously a postgraduate student pursuing an MSc in Migration, Mobility and Development at SOAS and an MSc in Local Economic Development at LSE. He tweets at @MDaaysi

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by Benjamin P. Nickels

This landmark history of modern Algeria tells the story of an ‘extraordinarily robust, resilient society’ withstanding external and internal violence and repression through the past five centuries. James McDougall gives an accessible and general overview, but the book also showcases his particular talent for illuminating the life of Algerians under French rule, and has a nuanced and illuminating disquisition on Algerian nationalism.

James McDougall, associate professor of modern history at Trinity College, Oxford, has written a landmark work that sets a new standard for surveys of modern Algeria. He achieves his stated goal of presenting the country for its own sake, instead of instrumentalising Algeria as a case study or model in some other analysis or tale (p. 3). McDougall writes a 350-page story of national continuity, of Algeria’s ‘extraordinarily robust, resilient society’ (p. 4) withstanding ‘fierce’ state actions and weathering the country’s dramatic political ruptures.

In surveys, periodisation is a cornerstone of interpretation. McDougall divides Algeria’s immense past into seven chronological chapters. He begins (Chapter 1: the years 1516–1830) with the Ottoman capture of Algiers, only sketching as background Algeria’s earlier experience with classical antiquity, the advent of Islam, and so on. Despite the title, this is actually a history of modern Algeria. Starting with the Ottoman intervention also highlights a recurring dynamic that typifies modern Algerian history in McDougall’s view – namely, the ongoing tension between invasive state builders and community resistance from within. McDougall deals with the next round of this state-society dynamic, the French period, through separation. He dedicates one chapter to Algerians’ experience of conquest and resistance (Chapter 2: 1830–1911), another to their habituation to and dissent from colonial rule (Chapter 4: 1912–1942), but he inserts a full chapter in between (Chapter 3: 1830–1944) – the sole interruption in his book’s continuous timeline – to focus on French power and society in Algeria. This structural choice makes sense. The French impact is so formative that it must be addressed at length, yet Algeria’s history is too often conflated with French history in ways that obscure Algeria’s past. McDougall’s decision does mean, however, that he dedicates over a third of his work to just one long century (1830–1942) and over half the book’s pages to the colonial period, once his chapter on the Algerian Revolution (Chapter 5: 1942–1962) is taken into account. The years of French rule (1830–1962) thus become the de facto centrepiece of the book – and by extension, of Algeria’s modern history.

McDougall creates something of a new period – a sort of ‘Algerian 20th Century’ between 1912 and 2012 – with his final two chapters. Chapter 6 (1962–1992) covers three decades of limited growth and progress in the post-Independence Algerian republic, and Chapter 7 (1992–2012) looks at 20 years of violence and its impacts since the 1990s. Through periodisation, McDougall implies a parallel with Chapters 4 and 5 covering three decades of tension within Algerie francaise that yielded 20 years of violence and the Revolution. By this reading, twice across the last hundred years, Algeria’s unserviceable state has failed to meet Algeria’s political and economic needs, sparking prolonged and destructive conflicts within Algerian society. This notion of an ‘Algerian 20th Century’ elevates the 1990s in importance (through analogy with the War of Independence). It also sets a pessimistic tone regarding the likely future of Algeria’s state-society dynamic.

For a survey, A History of Algeria feels surprising personal. McDougall occasionally references his field notes (e.g., pp. 343, 362) and opens the book with a first-hand account of traveling along the Algerian coast in the mid-2000s (pp. 1–2). Interviews he conducted across 15 or so years prior to publication, including with a dozen prominent Algerians listed by name, many militants turned ministers, adds another personal touch (see pp. 394–5). McDougall’s love for primary sources also shows through. He cites papers from the files of Algerian and French archives, and he takes care in selecting pictures. He clearly dug around. Nearly half of the book’s 33 figures are rare finds from libraries and archives, private collections, or McDougall’s own photographs, and the images capture the humanity of both ordinary Algerians and their famous leaders.

A History of Algeria is a general overview, but it displays McDougall’s particular talent for illuminating the life of Algerians under French rule, and the book extends his abiding interest in Algerian nationalism. This work continues to add nuance and depth to Ferhat Abbas’ actions and writings (see e.g., pp. 156–9). Hopefully McDougall will one day write a full-length biography of this misconstrued nationalist figure, too often simplified as a Francophile moderate swept aside by radicals. The book also describes how Algeria’s security structures emerged during the French period, tracking their origins in the powerful counterespionage secret services built during the Revolution (e.g., pp. 210, 239, 256) and then profiling key people who took lead security roles in the 1990s (pp. 299–301). Providing both a new narrative of Algerian history and a judicious intervention in many historiographical debates, A History of Algeria, written by one of the leading historians of Algeria of our generation, is the most comprehensive, up-to-date, and valuable account of modern Algeria available.

Ben Nickels is professor of international security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany, where he is course director of the Europe-Africa Security Seminar. Views expressed here are his own. He tweets at @BPNickels

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