Economics Under Encampment: Re-Thinking Syrian Refugee Camps in Jordan

By Lewis Turner
Submitted to Session P4745 ((Im)Mobilizing Agency in the Context of Short, Medium, and Long-term Displacement in Jordan, 2017 Annual Meeting
Intl Rltns/Aff
Diaspora/Refugee Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
As the presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan has moved from a context of emergency response to protracted displacement, humanitarian and governmental attention has increasingly focused on the issue of refugee livelihoods. Jordan announced its intention to ‘turn the refugee crisis into a development opportunity,’ and to allow Syrians residing in host communities to be formally integrated into the labor market. Camp residents, however, approximately 20 percent of registered Syrian refugees in the country, have largely been excluded from these schemes. This paper explores the economic opportunities, strategies and challenges of Syrian refugees living in a context of encampment in Jordan.

In contrast to scholarship that explores refugee camps as spaces of exception, or as spaces of humanitarian care and control, this paper analyzes Jordan’s Syrian refugee camps as spaces of economic activity, and tools of economic policy. But rather than following economic analyses that debate whether refugees are a ‘burden’ or a ‘benefit’ to the host state, it explores the economic lives and aspirations of Syrian refugees and the strategies for economic livelihoods that they pursue in camps. It argues that Syrians’ attempts to exercise economic agency challenge the agendas of governmental and humanitarian actors in the camps, even challenging the very notion of what a camp ‘should’ be. The ensuing contestations reveal Jordanian governmental actors’ visions for a camp as a site of refugee passivity, and their attempts to align economic activity within the camps to suit governmental interests. Simultaneously, humanitarian agencies attempt to create camp spaces that are ‘innovative,’ ‘self-reliant’ and ‘entrepreneurial.’ Refugees’ attempts to live with economic dignity often proceed in spite of, rather than facilitated by, the projects of authorities.

The application of a gendered lens, which recognizes that Syrian men and women are differently situated in, and hailed by, these agendas, offers deeper insights into the dynamics being explored. In particular, the contestations must be understood within a context in which work occupies a central, even defining, role in the construction of Syrian masculinities, which have been challenged by exile. This paper is based on twelve months of fieldwork in Jordan, which included extensive participant-observation in Za’tari Refugee Camp, and interviews with humanitarian actors, NGOs, and Syrian refugees residing in both camps and host communities.