Syria: Irony and the refugee state

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I've just finished reading Dawn Chatty's Syria: The making and unmaking of a refugee state, published by Hurst (U.K.) and OUP (U.S. and elsewhere) just a few weeks ago. It's an impressive, far-ranging, and devastatingly timely book that intersects in all kinds of ways with my current research on war wounds and the journeys made by the injured and sick within and across borders in the Middle East (see here). I want to offer some initial reflections, but first the description from OUP:

The dispossession and forced migration of nearly 50 per cent of Syria’s population has produced the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. This new book places the current displacement within the context of the widespread migrations that have indelibly marked the region throughout the last 150 years. Syria itself has harbored millions from its neighboring lands, and Syrian society has been shaped by these diasporas.

Dawn Chatty explores how modern Syria came to be a refuge state, focusing first on the major forced migrations into Syria of Circassians, Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians, and Iraqis. Drawing heavily on individual narratives and stories of integration, adaptation, and compromise, she shows that a local cosmopolitanism came to be seen as intrinsic to Syrian society. She examines the current outflow of people from Syria to neighboring states as individuals and families seek survival with dignity, arguing that though the future remains uncertain, the resilience and strength of Syrian society both displaced internally within Syria and externally across borders bodes well for successful return and reintegration. If there is any hope to be found in the Syrian civil war, it is in this history.

Professor Dawn Chatty is a social anthropologist at the Refugee Study Centre at the University of Oxford. Both academic and practitioner, Chatty has spent prolonged periods living and working in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and it is immediately clear that the book is the result of many years spent on the ground talking to and living among many of those who she writes about. She draws on a seriously impressive set of interviews that span a decade (2005-2015) and which took her to Aleppo, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Gaziantep and Istanbul. It's an anthropology that brings Syria and it's displaced to life, even amidst the death and destruction, and offers hope by turning to history and the making of a refugee state. Chatty "strives to illuminate the ethnographic, [and] the individual lived experience" (p.6) in a way that both inspires and reassures. It inspires because I think these kind of accounts are sorely missing from discussions about Syria, which are so often caught up in state- and proxy-war geopolitics, and it reassures me because this is exactly what I want to do in my research on the journeys of the sick and wounded in and out of Syria and Iraq - although I've got a lot of work to do even to come close to something like what Chatty has produced. 

When I first picked up the book, I was most interested in those displaced by the war in Syria since 2011; that is, I was interested less in the making of Syria as a refugee state, and more in its unmaking (and the implications of this unmaking across borders). But Chatty carefully shows how the history of Syria as a destination for refugees over the last 150 years has shaped not only Syrian displacements but also the regional response to those displacements today. Part of the argument is that the Greater Middle East has been marked by migration and displacement - under Ottoman rule, the British Mandate, and successive wars in the twentieth century - and that Syria has long been a place of refuge, and a place that accepts the 'Other' with local conviviality and tolerance toward difference. But Chatty goes further, and argues that if we want to understand the mass movement of Syrians to neighbouring states today (see the map below), we must take a "birds-eye view of the ethnic composition of Syria in the late Ottoman era and in the modern state carved out of the general Ottoman region known as Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria or the Levant) " (p. 8). Ethnicity, and religious and familial ties spanning decades and centuries have a great impact on who is displaced and where individuals and groups end up - and this, of course, opens up a geography of displacement that is intimately tied to the making and unmaking of Syria as a refugee state.

Syria Regional Refugee Response. Source:  UNHCR Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal

Syria Regional Refugee Response. Source: UNHCR Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal

I have been insisting for some time that the so-called "refugee crisis" that took root in Europe in 2015 was - and still is -  minor compared to what many Middle Eastern states have faced since around 2012-2013, and indeed continue to face. To put things into perspective, in 2015 Europe received around 1 million refugee claims in total. From April 2011 to December 2017, Europe received 1,015,500 asylum applications from Syrians fleeing the violence (over 60% of these were made to only two countries - Germany and Sweden). These are not insignificant, of course, but compare them to the statistics in the following paragraph and see the infographics below produced by Al Jazeera, which help put things into perspective.

There are over 5.5 million registered Syrian refugees (and over 7 million internally displaced persons within Syria). Turkey alone has taken-in 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Lebanon, a state which had a population of around 4.4 million in 2010, has now accepted nearly 1 million Syrian refugees - Chatty claims that the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon increased the overall population by around 30%. For it's part, Jordan has resettled over 650,00 Syrian refugees among it's population of around 6.5 million. We must remember, pace Chatty's central argument, that these states were already home to several million refugees before the fighting even started in Syria. But for me one of the most shocking statistics is Iraq: nearly 250,000 Syrians have sought refuge there. Iraq is a state that has been decimated by war in recent decades - not just the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, but also the First Gulf War, a decade of crippling international sanctions, and - before all that - a brutal eight-year war with Iran. Dr. Omar Dewachi has written about the de-development of Iraq in his wonderful new book Ungovernable Life: Mandatory medicine and Statecraft in Iraq (Stanford UP, 2017; review coming soon); war has left what Dewachi calls  'toxic legacies' on the Iraqi population, causing many to flea across borders elsewhere in the Middle East. Iraq is an unattractive destination by many measures - and that's surely and understatement - so the fact that so many Syrian's have made their way to Iraq bears testimony to how bad things are in Syria. Despite the fact that Iraq too is a warzone, many Syrian's prefer it to many European countries because it is closer to home, they may have better connections there and, ultimately, most want to return to Syria when the circumstances permit. All of this flies in the face of the iconography of the opportunity-seeking refugees "flooding" Europe. Indeed, as Chatty suggests: "The majority of Syrians have remained close to home in the neighbouring states of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey" (p. 243) and only when these states began to close their borders and tighten the restrictions on movement did any serious number of Syrians begin to look to Europe and elsewhere. For more on these lines of inquiry, see Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh's Repressentations of Displacement from the Middle East and North Africa, Public Culture, 28 (3): 457-473 (hereand her other brilliant work. 

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Chatty explains the regional response in the Middle East through the lens of Karam and the gift. In a separate paper and drawing from Andrew Shryock (2004) she explains the first term:

Karam, the Arabic term which can be translated as hospitality or generosity, is ultimately also about security, protection, and respect. The family or lineage’s reputation is in many ways hostage to correct behaviour with a guest/stranger, as inappropriate behaviour might lead to disrespect, danger, and insecurity
— Chatty, 2017 p. 190

It is an interesting concept that connects to Marcel Mauss’ seminal Essay on the Gift and Derrida's notion of hostipalité - more on these in a subsequent post - but there's more to it than a cultural ethics of generosity. One of the fascinating revelations for me in reading the final chapter - and I really should have known this already - is that neither Lebanon nor Jordan has signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and Turkey restricts its interpretation to mean only refugees from Europe (see the wording here). Thus, Chatty underscores:

all three states have no obligations, under international law, to provide protection. Yet in all three, the duty to be generous, to provide sanctuary to the stranger, has manifested itself as the pervasive response to Syrians, whether as kinsmen, business partners, or just fellow humans
— p.243

Contrast this with the European rights-based approach to asylum and refugees, embedded as it is in the 1951 Convention, and we begin to see that perhaps there are alternative ways for thinking about mass displacement and our obligations to distant strangers. My reading of Chatty here is that the regime of rights and the language of law through which it is articulated perhaps obfuscate our moral responsibility and our duty to provide a safe haven for the refugee. Refugee law is new and unfamiliar territory for me but in recent conversations with Christel Querton at Newcastle University, I've been learning about the uneven and inconsistent interpretations among European states of refugee law and it clearly isn't a deus ex machina. There's parallels here with my work on the international and military law of targeting - a focus on process and procedures, on tests of 'necessity' and 'proportionality' over and above a moral and ethical duty to spare and protect civilians (or, in this case, refugees), but Chatty's conclusion sounds a much brighter note:

As we enter the seventh year of the Syrian displacement crisis, it appears that the lessons learned from the late Ottoman reforms with regard to accommodating and integrating of forced migrants continue to hold true in the region once know as Greater Syria, and perhaps offer the West some salutary lessons.
— p.246

I couldn't agree more. Yet the Middle East regional response is not without it's problems - even karam has it's limits, it seems. As the number of Syrian refugees turned from thousands to tens of thousands and from hundreds of thousands into millions, the neighbouring states began to close their borders, making it more difficult for Syrians to seek asylum. Where states had once resisted the construction of settlement camps to house refugees, instead preferring local integration among families and within communities where possible, settlement camps have increasingly become the norm. Where refugees were once met with sympathy and conviviality, they are also now met with outright hostility. I will chart these transformations in a subsequent post, but one key issues is worth highlighting - access to healthcare across borders.


Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are struggling with complex and often compounded health issues and many do not have (adequate) access to healthcare. A series of local and international organisations have been reporting serious issues with healthcare across the region for several years now. In 2014 Amnesty International issued a report on Syrian refugees in need of healthcare in Lebanon entitled Agonizing Choices, in which it claimed:

Many refugees fleeing Syria have serious health care needs due to, amongst other things, pre-existing chronic conditions and injuries suffered during the conflict. However, on arriving in Lebanon they are met with an overstretched system in which the services available to refugees are limited and difficult to access.
— Amnesty International, Agonising Choices, p.6.
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In 2012 Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) identified access to healthcare as one of the most pressing issues facing Syrians in Lebanon. A similar picture emerged in Jordan fairly early on. In 2014 Jordan introduced user-fees for Syrian refugees, who were subsequently made to pay 35-60% higher fees than uninsured Jordanians. The financial barrier alone is too much for many to bear and thus we have accounts like this one, which are not uncommon: 

Mouna, a 33-year-old Syrian refugee from Damascus who delivered her fourth child at the medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) maternity hospital in Irbid told Amnesty International that she had not gone for a check-up until her seventh month of pregnancy. She explained: “I live outside of the city and if I come for check-ups, the transport costs 5 JOD (USD $7) and my husband is sick so I cannot leave him at home. I live near a Ministry of Health hospital but if I go there I will have to pay money.”
— Amnesty International, Living on the Margins, p.6

There's a gendered violence here - and not only in relation to pregnancy - and refugee women from Syria in Lebanon (and elsewhere) face "constant sexual harassment and exploration", according to Amnesty. Turkey has passed a series of laws in recent years to secure the rights of Syrian refugees to access healthcare, and has an impressive program - with the World Health Organisation -  to integrate Syrian healthcare professionals into the domestic healthcare system. Yet Jude Alawa from the Yale Global Health Review Blog reports, "issues of implementation, demographics, communication, and institutional gridlock still create instability within Turkey and prevent Syrian refugees from accessing sufficient healthcare.

There's much, much more to say on all of this, but suffice it to say for now that Syria's neighbouring states are struggling under the weight of responsibility and some factions within these states have become more openly hostile. State policy has shifted to curtail in influx of Syrian refugees, and many resources - not to mention permanent settlement itself - have become illusive for many. At the end of summer 2017, Hezbollah began repatriating Syrian refugees across the border and back into Syria and the United Nations signalled concerns that the conditions for safe return may not have been met. The media in Lebanon increasingly report with open hostility toward Syrians in Lebanon, as detailed by a recent Al Jazeera program. In Jordan, Syrians have increasingly become framed as a security problem and since 2014-2015, the government attitude toward refugees has become less welcoming as it is seen as unsustainable (see also why Jordan is is deporting refugees).

Vehicles make their way through Lebanon as part of the repatriation of Syrian refugees in August 2017. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images/The Guardian

Vehicles make their way through Lebanon as part of the repatriation of Syrian refugees in August 2017. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images/The Guardian

There's a double irony in the story that Chatty tells about Syria, and which I have tried to flesh out here. The first irony is of a state that "provided refuge for so many over a century and more" and which is now "experiencing nearly half of its own population displaced and searching for safety and sanctuary" (p. 10). But the less obvious irony, and one which Chatty works so hard to elucidate, is that some of the very states from which refugees fled to Syria in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are now turning their backs on the Syrians who once welcomed them with with karam. Or at least this is how one incredibly articulate Yaman Birawi saw it when he took to Facebook in 2015. The last words are his, and we have Chatty to thank for bringing them to life in what is a tragically important and critical intervention: 

Screenshot of Chatty's  Syria: The making and unmaking of a refugee state , p. 219. 

Screenshot of Chatty's Syria: The making and unmaking of a refugee state, p. 219.