The Syrian civil war is now well into its sixth year, and despite recent diplomatic initiatives, there seems to be no end in sight to the conflict. For the country’s 6 million refugees, return to Syria remains a distant hope. In the face of such stark realities, Syrian refugees living in the Middle East have shown striking resilience and fortitude. Despite tremendous odds they are rebuilding their communities, fighting for better living conditions, and making their voices heard.
Perhaps most striking is that much of this mobilization has occurred in defiance of the aid providers and humanitarian organizations whose mandate is to protect and care for refugee populations. While these organizations are undoubtedly motivated by a desire to help, their approach often fails to accommodate refugees’ tenacious efforts to reconstruct and shape their own lives. Such shortcomings—which in many ways are built into the nature of refugee response systems—have at times compelled refugees to turn to overt and even contentious modes of resistance. What do these refugee-led protests tell us about our existing system of humanitarian response?
Mobilizing at the Margins in Turkey and Lebanon
Though much attention over the last year has focused on Syrians fleeing to Europe, the majority of refugees have remained closer to home, settling in cities and camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, Turkey has taken in almost 3 million refugees, whose welfare is managed by a Turkish government agency under the prime minister’s office. In Lebanon, a country of 4 million people with a weak and divided government, there are over 1 million Syrian refugees. Jordan hosts 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, 80,000 of whom have been housed in the region’s largest camp for Syrian refugees—the UNHCR-run Za’atari refugee camp.
Refugees in each of these sites have faced diverse challenges to rebuilding their lives and communities, largely due to differences in the types of authorities responsible for their care. Management of refugee crises is often an ad hoc affair, with responsibility for various tasks being divided between state and humanitarian authorities. While state actors may be tasked with providing security, NGOs typically take responsibility for emergency aid and service provision. The two actors also have different mandates: whereas state agencies are often concerned with limiting the effects of refugee inflows on host populations, humanitarian organizations are motivated by a desire to alleviate the suffering of all individuals, regardless of nationality, class, or ethnic background. These two players generally work together to manage refugee crises, although the nature of their collaboration and their relative levels of responsibility may differ markedly across countries.
In Turkey, for example, the state has taken over primary management of the refugee crisis, with only minimal involvement from humanitarian actors. The Turkish state agency overseeing refugee affairs, the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), is a well-funded organization with close ties to the leaders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since the start of the civil war, AFAD has opened twenty-five refugee camps, which house over 200,000 Syrians. Although these camps have been lauded by some for their cleanliness and efficient service provision, they are also highly controlled spaces where even small displays of autonomy or resistance may be met with harsh punishment. Camp residents are monitored by twenty-four-hour surveillance cameras, which help AFAD identify “troublemakers,” as one former camp administrator put it. Such troublemakers, he explained, are typically “exiled” from the camp or sent back to Syria—in violation of the international legal principle of non-refoulement, which forbids governments from repatriating individuals who may still be at risk in their countries. Although occasionally the UN and human rights NGOs have criticized these actions, which have been covered mostly by the Turkish media, many players seem willing to turn a blind eye—in part to facilitate the signing of a recent agreement whereby European countries will send their Syrian refugees back to Turkey.
Even in the face of such strong authorities and harsh consequences, Syrians in these camps have occasionally made their voices heard. In March 2013 a protest erupted in front of the administrative building of the Suleiman Shah Tent City after faulty electrical wiring set alight several tents, killing a seven-year-old child and injuring at least two others. But sustaining such mobilization in Turkey has been difficult; after this incident the Turkish authorities allegedly used the camp’s security camera footage to identify over 600 refugees involved in the protest and deported them back to Syria.
Whereas in Turkey refugees struggle with authoritarian conditions, in Lebanon they suffer from a lack of governance. The Lebanese government is bitterly divided between competing political factions, which has prevented it from devising a coherent policy framework for managing the refugee crisis. This lack of strategy—what one NGO has called “the policy of no policy”—has left a vacuum in aid provision that has been filled by a host of diverse humanitarian actors, such as the UN and other international and local NGOs. However, with so many players involved and no central authority to coordinate, support to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, particularly those who live in isolated rural camps or in dense urban slums, has been inconsistent and haphazard.
Syrians in Lebanon therefore live in precarious conditions. As they do not have the right to work in the country, they struggle to eke out a basic living through a combination of illegal employment and informal grassroots initiatives. Occasionally a group of Syrians will protest what they perceive as a deeply unjust legal regime and poorly organized welfare system. For example, members of some camps explained that they have boycotted food and aid donations when NGOs show up without enough goods for the whole community. Last year the Lebanese government implemented a law forbidding UNHCR from registering all but the most vulnerable categories of new refugees, which prompted a group of Syrian and Lebanese NGOs to draft a petition condemning the policy. Refugees have also sometimes protested in front of municipal offices to demand better access to services like healthcare or education. But the costs of protest in Lebanon can be high—like in Turkey, the authorities have been known to deport or imprison refugees who do not follow the rules.
The Refugee Leaders in Jordan’s Za’atari Camp
Perhaps the most surprising example of Syrian refugee mobilization has been in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp. Set up in the summer of 2012 on an open stretch of desert in the north of the country, Za’atari grew rapidly, for a time taking in as many as 5,000 refugees per day. The camp was run by a coalition of UN organizations, international NGOs like the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, and Oxfam, and Jordanian government agencies, which together provided food, shelter, healthcare, and security for the Syrian residents. But dividing up responsibility created challenges. At the outset the camp was officially run by a Jordanian NGO called the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), which had little experience managing camps. Members of aid organizations and former JHCO employees both reported that the agency had gotten in over its head; it was neither able to exert control over the refugees in the camp nor able to effectively coordinate aid and security among the collaborating agencies. Eventually JHCO handed over management of the camp to UNHCR, at which point coordination improved, but it still took the new leadership months to settle in. According to a 2013 UNHCR security report, the public space of the camp during this early period essentially became “contested between some of the longer-staying informal refugee leaders and the camp management.”
The informal refugee leaders mentioned in this report came to be known by camp managers as “street leaders”—a reference to the fact that many of them “controlled” a specific street of tents and caravans. According to both refugees living in Za’atari and representatives of aid organizations who were working there at the time, such leaders might share control of an entire Za’atari district or a single “district leader” might sit atop a group of street leaders. Often, such leaders had previously held positions of social prominence back in Syria. For example, many were tribal leaders or village elders, or the heads of large families; one street leader explained that he arrived in Za’atari with over fifty members of his extended family from southern Syria. In some cases, however, street leaders were simply enterprising or entrepreneurial individuals who gained prominence from their activities in the camp itself.
From the outset, these leaders were viewed with suspicion by humanitarian authorities. For example, a governance plan drafted by UNHCR in 2013 described them as “powerful individuals and organized gangs [that] have imposed their will on sections of the camp, diverting assistance and engaging in criminal activities.” In some cases, such characterizations were well-founded. Indeed, many street leaders did run illegal businesses or smuggling operations (as in Lebanon, Syrians cannot legally work in Jordan), and some deliberately diverted aid and goods to their own constituents in the camp. Some refugees came to resent these leaders, and described them as opportunists who took advantage of the vacuum in authority to accumulate power and resources, marginalizing those outside their clan or family networks.
But others, even some among the aid community, have recognized that these leaders also play a political role. According to one UN representative, a survey conducted in 2014 revealed that street leaders were one of the most respected authorities in the camp. Refugees described the way in which leaders often mediated disputes—for example, property thefts, petty fights, and inter-family squabbles. One district leader explained that people in the districts came to him with their problems and he would do his best to help; as an example, he told a story of helping a girl get an abortion. Leaders also often set aside an extra caravan as a gathering spot for a street or district, and refugees met in these venues to discuss common issues (as well as to socialize in the evenings). One group of refugee women described these caravans as the only places in the camp available for such informal gatherings.
Leaders also became adept at using demonstrations, roadblocks, and boycotts to bring their concerns to the attention of camp authorities. These incidents are typically motivated not by ideology or demands for political representation, but rather by more prosaic grievances—over the nature of service provision, over security infractions, or over authorities’ attempts to assert more control over life in the camp. For example, in 2013 a refugee in District 6 realized that the public water tanks were being filled by a truck that had also been used to cart out sludge and wastewater. The man called his neighbors and the district’s street leaders, and a crowd of 400 quickly gathered, infuriated at the contamination of their drinking water. They began chanting, throwing stones at the tank, and threatening the driver, until the camp police arrived and arrested him.
On another occasion in April 2014, the Jordanian police detained several Syrian refugees in Districts 7 and 8 as they were trying to smuggle themselves out of the camp (refugees must receive permission to enter and leave the camp). Their friends and relatives quickly mobilized to protest their detention, setting off one of the biggest riots the camp has seen so far. Refugees surrounded the panicked security forces who fired teargas and live rounds into the crowd, killing one young man. For two days after this event NGOs remained in their base camp, too fearful to enter the camp itself. Eventually the camp’s police force met with street leaders in the districts where the event had occurred, who promised to guarantee the aid workers’ safety.
Though overt protest has served as the most direct way in which refugees can make demands or criticize the conditions in Za’atari, camp residents have also resisted aid providers in a variety of more subtle ways. Many of these struggles have occurred over the terms and manner of service provision. For example, refugees stubbornly refused to embrace the collective welfare models that aid agencies had used in other refugee camps and sought to replicate in Za’atari. Rather than cook in communal kitchens, they built “illegal” kitchens in their tents or caravans, or bought food from bakeries and shops along the thriving market street dubbed the Champs Elysees. According to a representative of the World Food Program, refugees rejected the packaged meals that were initially provided, and requested staples and raw ingredients instead so they might prepare their own food.
According to another aid worker, refugees had refused to use the public bathrooms in their neighborhoods, preferring instead to build makeshift private toilets in their homes, in some cases with their own self-installed septic tanks. And rather than draw water from shared district water tanks they diverted the water via hoses into their own private tanks. Frustrated NGOs tried a range of tactics to prevent what one aid worker described as “welfare privatization” efforts, including face-to-face negotiations, confiscations of property, and even arrests. For example, private water tanks were repeatedly confiscated by the camp police, only to resurface next to the same houses days later.
In short, refugees stubbornly refused to embrace the NGOs’ proposals, in some cases because they saw them as degrading or culturally inappropriate. They preferred, as much as possible to preserve their dignity by maintaining habits and customs from their lives back in Syria. Ultimately the NGOs gave in—they dismantled the communal kitchens and bathrooms, built grocery stores where refugees can select their own food, began filling refugees’ private water tanks, and, as of 2015, started constructing a camp-wide sewage system to support the refugees’ private bathrooms.
In 2013 UNHCR and its NGO partners came to realize that in order to effectively manage the camp they would have to begin working with refugee leaders. According to one aid worker and records of UNHCR meetings, camp officials and NGOs began collaborating with street leaders using them to distribute resources and provide services. Camp managers also sought out leaders to mediate disputes, to diffuse incidents of unrest, or to negotiate refugee demands, and these dialogues became a central, if unofficial, feature of camp governance.
But according to UNHCR officials I spoke with, the agency has refused to formalize these relations or grant street leaders any kind of official status in the camp’s administration. A UNHCR concept note written in late 2013 calling for new channels of refugee engagement critiqued the street leaders’ governance systems as “widely ineffective, corrupt, and not representative of the population as a whole.” It also raised concerns that formal recognition would increase leaders’ power and institutionalize an undemocratic system of governance. Instead it proposed establishing officially sanctioned refugee gatherings to marginalize street leaders and “identify and empower new community leadership.” These community gatherings, which began in 2015, are bi-weekly meetings held in each camp district, in which refugees are encouraged to air grievances and discuss collective solutions with aid providers.
The logic behind these committees is, in many ways, sound: they are intended to be a neutral and open forum in which refugees can express any concerns. But the alternative committee structure has failed to garner the legitimacy that UNHCR and its partners had hoped. One problem is attendance; a small number of refugees (many of them current or former street leaders) tend to show up regularly, giving them an outsized voice. When asked why the camp had not held elections to these committees, NGO representatives explained that both the Jordanian authorities and UNHCR had ruled out the idea from the outset: they suspected that the camp’s street leaders would sweep any elections. Moreover, in parallel with these direct outreach efforts, one official reported that camp management continues to meet with street leaders on an ad hoc basis, recognizing that they remain the most authoritative figures in refugee communities.
Recognizing Refugee Politics
Za’atari may hold lessons for how we manage future refugee crises. At a basic level it demonstrates the perhaps unsurprising fact that refugees are also political actors—with their own leadership structures, collective interests, and the capacity to air grievances through protest. Even refugees in the highly controlled Turkish refugee camps and the fragmented Lebanese settlements have attempted to make their voices heard, demanding access to services, better security, and more rights.
But humanitarian organizations are not accustomed to recognizing the populations that they care for as political actors. Even when they engage in initiatives that have direct political implications they tend to refer to them with anodyne euphemisms like “community mobilization” or “capacity building.” For the most part there is nothing malicious behind these elisions; indeed most humanitarian actors are motivated by genuine empathy for their aid recipients and a commitment to treating all refugees as equal. Rather, it is these very humanitarian commitments that often blind their practitioners to the political dramas happening right in front of them—and in which they may themselves be key players.
NGOs may not think of themselves as political authorities or as de facto governors of refugee populations. But in many settings that is exactly what they have become. The political scientist Michael Barnett has termed this phenomenon “humanitarian governance,” or the institutionalized administration of communities in the name of a higher moral principle. Barnett and others have pointed out the often unrecognized power implications of these arrangements, and have critiqued humanitarian authorities for their failure to develop institutionalized mechanisms for refugees to hold them accountable and to participate in decision-making. “Although humanitarian governance operates in the name of the victims of the world,” Barnett writes, “governance is about rule, and rule is about power.”
The refugees in Za’atari have shown what can happen if states and humanitarian agencies do not acknowledge refugees as actors who wish to have a say in how they are governed. Eventually refugees will organize, they will begin making claims, and if those demands are not met they may offer resistance. It would be better, therefore, to engage refugee political mobilization directly. NGOs might consider supporting refugee organizing as a means to empowering their communities and helping them become self-sufficient. Such a shift may require humanitarian actors to make difficult changes—perhaps by recognizing and incorporating refugee leaders who they consider unsavory, or perhaps by granting refugee groups more autonomy, rights, or decision-making authority. It may also require NGOs and UN agencies to do more to navigate tense relationships with host governments, who may be reticent to encourage refugee political organizing.
Likewise, these host governments would do well to consider granting refugees more rights, like access to social services and welfare, the right to participate in domestic political processes (like voting in local elections), fair judicial treatment, and, eventually, a path to full citizenship. In fact, it is likely that the current political organizing occurring among Syrian communities will set the course for their future participation in their host country’s politics. One needs only to look to the example of Palestinian refugees in the very same countries—particularly Lebanon and Jordan—to see how mobilization among refugees may affect local political realities. In Jordan the naturalization of Palestinian refugees changed the balance of power in the national parliament, and in Lebanon, Palestinian militant groups were key players in the fifteen-year-long civil war. Depending on how long Syrians are compelled to remain in exile, the leaders emerging now may become the representatives of the future Syrian minority in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan—or even Germany.
The irony of Za’atari’s tumultuous early days is that ultimately they produced one of the most livable places in the Middle East for Syrian refugees, particularly when compared to conditions in Turkey and Lebanon. Though Za’atari today can never replace refugees’ homes back in Syria, most residents agree that the camp is now a relatively bearable place to live—with a thriving market, an array of arts and education initiatives, consistent service provision, and even a handful of social venues for residents to pass the evenings. But much of what makes Za’atari so tolerable has come about despite the authorities who govern it—often because refugees demanded change, through protests, riots, and acts of disobedience that were met with arrests and teargas. Surely such a reasonable outcome need not have involved so much pain. In fact, the Za’atari experience points to some of the greatest shortcomings in the current humanitarian system—low levels of refugee political participation, the lack of a formal system for keeping humanitarian authorities accountable, the unwillingness to recognize refugees as autonomous political agents with a stake in their own future. Much of this can and should be fixed. But doing so will require a more honest accounting of the power and politics inherent to humanitarian crisis management.
Killian Clarke is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Princeton University. His research focuses on political mobilization and contentious politics in the Middle East.