Socio-economic class and the lived experience of exile among Syrian refugees in Germany and Turkey

By Wendy Pearlman
Submitted to Session P4810 (Refugees from Syria: State Policies, Humanitarian Aid, and the Lived Experience of Exile, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Diaspora/Refugee Studies;
In refugee studies, refugees are often analyzed abstractly as victims of violence and forced migration, legally as rights-holders under international statutes, or demographically as a population distinct from the societies from which they have come and to which they have arrived.

These perspectives are useful for examining an array of important questions, but obscure many factors that both signal salient differences among refugees and vitally shape the lived experience of exile. One such factor is refugees’ own socioeconomic backgrounds. The wealth, education level, and class identity that individuals had before fleeing their homelands affects many dimensions of their post-flight lives, including their future expectations, their sense of what they have lost, and the personal resources that they bring to the challenge of integration and starting anew. At the same time, refugees’ prior class status does not have an unmediated impact on their subsequent socioeconomic trajectories. Rather, like other aspects of refugees’ new worlds, they are filtered though the particular circumstances that they encounter in their new lands of exile, and thus vary with those circumstances themselves.

This paper explores how host state contexts shape refugees’ experiences of socioeconomic class through comparative analysis of Syrian refugee communities in Turkey and Germany. In Turkey, the state has relatively been slow in issuing and enforcing regulations and thus, at least during the first years of the Syrian conflict, largely left Syrians to “go it alone.” I argue that this weak state intervention in the realms of absorption and integration compounds the socioeconomic differences that Syrians carry with them. Refugees with greater personal resources carve pathways to comfort and success, while those with fewer resources meet with little protection from impoverishment or exploitation. In Germany, by contrast, the state and its bureaucracy impose their overpowering presence upon the lives of refugees as upon citizens themselves. Such strong intervention has a leveling effect on refugees’ pre-existing class differences. At least during the first years of the asylum process, asylum seekers’ housing, work prospects, and everyday experiences are heavily structured by law and integration programs, which affect the richer and poorer among them without distinction and thereby lessen the significance of those differences.

This paper explores these differences, pulling upon nine months of field research in Turkey and Germany between 2013 and 2017, and illustrating its claims with testimonials from interviews with dozens of displaced Syrians in both countries.