Syrian refugee youth and the [anti] politics of survival

By Ann-Christin Wagner
Submitted to Session P4751 (Spaces of Youth Political Engagement Six Years after the 2011 Uprisings, 2017 Annual Meeting
Diaspora/Refugee Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
While there has been significant scholarly interest in youth political engagement in the Middle East since the 2010/2011 uprisings, research has almost exclusively focused on highly literate and tech-savvy activists from the urban middle classes. Little attention has been paid to the circumstances under which young people fail to become politicized. Based on one year of ethnographic fieldwork with Syrian refugees in a provincial town in the north of Jordan, I argue that the young Syrians in question are incapacitated as political actors both by the asylum regime in the host country and humanitarian rule, emphasizing the often neglected role of the aid sector in pursuing “youth” participation and politics.

Following Sukarieh and Tannock’s “political economy of youth”, this paper presents a case study of young displaced Syrians forged into an apolitical “refugee youth”. In their rural regions of origin, they traditionally experienced shortened adolescence by virtue of early marriage and labor. Yet, in a situation of protracted displacement, this lack of opportunities for youthful behaviour is exacerbated by the breakdown of community structures, impaired access to education, and a migrant labor regime that criminalizes adult Syrian labour, pushing even early teens into exploitative forms of work. However, the humanitarian landscape in town simultaneously exposes young Syrian refugees to alternative ideas about “youth”, informed by international development discourse, while creating spaces where “youthfulness” can be exerted. By painting young refugees as “traumatized” and in need of fixing, but also as potential youth entrepreneurs, humanitarian youth programming focuses on individualistic “self-development” in line with neoliberal agendas, effectively disabling youth activism and masking unequal power relations between refugees, the host community and aid agencies, respectively. In addition, in the absence of long-term employment perspectives for young Syrians in the humanitarian sector or beyond, NGO-channelled youth engagement becomes a sort of “time pass”, compensating for the lack of access to higher education and dignified labour.
Finally, this paper calls for a more nuanced study of young Arabs, highlighting how both displacement and class condition “becoming” a certain kind of youth.