Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Mobility, Displacement, and Forced Migration in the Middle East Working Group I


In December 2016 CIRS launched a grants cycle to fund empirical research on the subject of “Mobility, Displacement, and Forced Migration in the Middle East,” and on May 21–22, 2017 the first working group under this project was convened in Doha. Seven teams of successful grant awardees were brought together with a number of other scholars to discuss existing gaps in scholarship on voluntary and forced migration in the region, and how their proposed research projects address some of these gaps.

Natalia Ribas-Mateos spoke on the topic of “Borders and Mobility in the Middle East,” highlighting how globalization has created further transformation of geopolitical lines and borders we find across the world. In the Middle East, this transformation has been accompanied by two significant phenomena. First, the Middle East has witnessed a rise in restrictions placed on the mobility of refugees and migrants. Second, the region has been witnessing a decrease in the limitations on cross-border flow of goods, refugee encampments and settlements (formal and informal), human vulnerability and rights violations, and expanded border securitization. Mateos argued that these processes of transformation play out in remarkably stark fashion in border cities. Border cities in the Middle East have become a space where these contradictions are made most manifest. Such contradictions manifest in the differences between a common shared life (similar patterns among everyday border practices) and the reinforcement of borders, the deterioration of human rights conditions, and the reinforcement of the border closure. In researching the topic at hand, Mateos will investigate the transformation of geopolitical lines and borders through conducting fieldwork in selected border villages, towns, and cities in contemporary locations bordering Syria.

Rogaia Abusharaf, a professor at Georgetown University-Qatar as well as a grant awardee under this project, provided a more historicized view of forced migration through sharing insights on her project titled “A Story Worth-telling: Omani-Zanzibari Identity at the Intersection of Ethnic Cleansing and Forced Migration.” Abusharaf’s research project is based on the significant maritime networks that have historically existed for people across the Indian Ocean and the East African littoral. Although Oman’s official presence in Africa is often fixed to 1832 when Sayyid Sultan transferred the capital from Muscat to Zanzibar, many Omanis refer to migratory patterns that spanned over centuries before. Abusharaf suggests that these historic migrations, both before and after the settlement of the Al-Busaidi dynasty in the Zanzibar archipelago, lie at the heart of the creation of and persistence of a distinct Omani-Swahili identity and political subjectivity. Through the funding provided by CIRS, Abusharaf will examine the story of how the forced migration of Omanis from Zanzibar back to Muscat after the Zanzibari Revolution of 1964 affected their Omani-Swahili identity. Abusharaf suggests that the impact of this forced migration on Omani-Zanzibaris has not been explored, and her research hope to shed original light on three main questions: How do Omani-Zanzibaris think of themselves politically? How do they think of themselves socio-culturally? And how do they think of themselves linguistically? Abusharaf will conduct a multi-sited ethnography in Muscat and Zanzibar. She will gather personal narratives to elucidate the base theme of the trajectory of Swahili identities in Oman, and the extent to which these identities have been modulated by their forced migratory experience from Zanzibar. These interviews will be triangulated with archival research on the geopolitical representation of the Zanzibar revolution/genocide as established in the British National Archives and various manuscripts in Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat related to the return migration of Omani-Zanzibaris.

Aitemad Muhanna-Matar, a grant awardee, shifted the discussion to “Internal Displacement, (Re)-configuration of Gender Identity, and Potential Links to Radicalization: The Case of Syrian Refugees in Jordan.” Matar pointed out that most gender-specific work on Syrian refugees focuses on the material aspects of displacement, with insufficient attention given to the subjective effects. Muhanna-Matar’s project will study the Syrian refugee crisis’ impact on reconfiguring gender identity. There is also a gap in the scholarship in terms of whether such episodes of ‘forced’ gender reconfiguration potentially lead to forms of religious “radicalization”. Through her CIRS’ grant funding, Muhanna-Matar will explore how dynamics of coping with refuge- hood may lead to a gender identity crisis. In certain circumstances of violence and uncertainty, some men and women return to religion as a means of reaffirming a particular model of gendered identity that they perceive as being under threat. Muhana-Matar will also examine to what extent men and women’s experiences and strategies of coping with vulnerability have involved a (re-)configuration of their “normative” gender roles. In addition, she will investigate how these reconfigured gender roles are perhaps perceived as socially and culturally degrading to both men’s and women’s sense of human dignity. Finally, she will study how both men and women accommodate or resist processes of gender reconfiguration.

Leïla Vignal, a grant awardee, focused the discussion on “From Mobility to Refugee: Exploring the Mutli-layered Patterns of Syrian Refuge and Mobility in the Northern Bekaa, Lebanon: The Case of the Dayr al-Ahmar District.” Vignal pointed out that little research has been carried out in this region of Lebanon. Dayr al-Ahmar District is a predominantly Maronite area that holds religious significance to both Shia and Maronites. Vignal argued that Dayr al-Ahmar District has historically had close economic ties to Syria with seasonal migration of Syrian workers coming to the area to take up occupation in the agricultural sector. These circulatory patterns of migration that are tied to the annual agricultural cycle continue even now, during the current conflict. Vignal stated that the current Syrian conflict has however heightened tensions between confessional groups in the North Bekaa Valley. She suggested that this could partially be due to Hezbollah’s nearby headquarters and the fact that the communities hosting Syrian refugees are likely at odds with Hezbollah. CIRS’ grant allows Vignal to conduct in-depth fieldwork in the Dayr al-Ahmar region, in the North of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon (muhafazet Baalbek-Hermel). Based on her findings, Vignal aims to illuminate the dynamics and the patterns of Syrian refugees in neighboring Levantine countries. In particular, Vignal hopes to put the current forced displacement of Syrians into the larger theoretical framework of migration and mobility, and connect the current forms of the Syrian displacement and refuge to a longer history of cross-border mobility, transnational connections, and migration in the Middle East.

Building up on Vignal’s discussion, Estella Carpi, a grant awardee, presented her research on “Local Markets and Crisis Responses in Border Cities: The Cases of Lebanon and Turkey.” Carpi argued that the nearly six-year-old Syrian crisis has led to a large number of refugees fleeing into the border towns of Gaziantep (Southern Turkey) and Halba (Northern Lebanon). As a consequence, Syrian refugee newcomers, older date Syrian migrants, and locals have formed new social networks that have reconfigured these two urban settings. In this framework, the sizeable presence of the international humanitarian apparatus assisting the refugees in border towns is changing local consumption cultures and leisure activities. Humanitarianism is here to be interpreted as a neoliberal force transforming local cultures and human geography in official states of emergency. In these increasingly hybrid social settings, the transformation of local, international, and refugee socio-cultural practices–traditions, habits, and public behavioral codes–is under-researched while able to unearth how the urban patterns of Gaziantep and Halba are presently changing. Through conducting empirical fieldwork in these two cities, Carpi will explore the fluid leisure and consumption cultures in international humanitarian settings in order to elucidate institutional and human components of border urban change. She aims to investigate how everyday practices change within and between local, migrant, and refugee communities in times of emergency and in response to neoliberal humanitarian policies and emerging cultures of everyday life arrangement.

Pooya Alaedini and Florian Weidmann have been awarded grant funding to study “The Impact of Afghan Refugees on the Social and Spatial Fabric of Tehran.” Pooya Alaeidini presented the project proposal at the working group, and opened his discussion by stating that the prolonged conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to more than forty years of Iran serving as a continuous host to large groups of refugees. While Iran has become one of the biggest host countries in the Middle East there remains a need for new insight into the development dynamics of refugee communities and their impact on and engagement with their surroundings in Iran. Alaeidini pointed out that the unprecedented scale of recent migration patterns has had a significant impact on urban development dynamics, particularly in the larger Iranian cities. Afghan refugee communities have begun to transform local urbanism in Iranian cities. Using the CIRS’ grant funds, Alaeidini and Weidmann will conduct fieldwork in Tehran, will conduct interviews with officials and refugees as well as site visits to various districts of the city for further visual examination. Alaedini and Weidmann will focus in particular on three main dimensions of these communities’ impact on their new surroundings: an active and conscious participation via community representatives in order to improve certain conditions; an indirect development of new spatial realities by investment patterns and general economic interaction; and last but not least the role of cultural aspects.

Ricardo René Larémont and Mustafa Attir, grant-awardees, discussed “Mobility, Displacement, and Forced Migration in Libya and Tunisia.” They claimed that of the three routes to Europe, the central route from Libya and Tunisia to Italy and Malta is the only one that has not been impeded and has expanded. It is the most viable route for migrants wishing to pass into Europe; yet, the effects of migration on Libya and Tunisia are relatively unstudied. The grant-awardees highlighted that Libya and Tunisia are not only points of departure for accessing Europe, but also points of destination, places where migrants often remain for extended periods of time and build permanent or semi-permanent communities. Though significant work in recent years has studied the impact of trans-Mediterranean migration on Europe, little to no research has examined its effects on North Africa. Through conducting individual and focus groups interviews, the researchers seek to address this lacuna by establishing foundational knowledge about the array of African and Middle Eastern migrants who have arrived in Libya and Tunisia. Though some of these migrants may attempt the dangerous crossing to Europe, many more choose–or are forced–to remain in these points of departure. In order to address the humanitarian tragedy and security risks that are currently unfolding in the region, this research will provide insights to understand these migrants, their experiences, and the communities they have formed.

Matt Buehler sharpened the discussion with his presentation on “Migrants in Morocco: Inclusion, Integration, and Societal Impact.” Buehler argued that scholars understand the causes of the crisis leading to the intensification of refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East and North Africa region but less is known about the native citizens’ opinions about foreign refugees who have resettled in their countries. Through an original, nationally representative public opinion poll of 2000 citizens in Morocco, a country where over 40,000 Arab and Black African refugees reside, Buehler explored whether Moroccans think African or Arab refugees have better chances of social integration and acquiring citizenship. Buehler claims that although Arab and Black African refugees fled similar conditions of conflict and war, ordinary Moroccans do not view them equally. Whereas Moroccans express attitudes of sympathy and compassion towards Arab refugees, they express attitudes of prejudice and racism towards African refugees. The poll explains this divergence in citizen attitudes, isolating the factors that predict why prejudice intensifies or abates if a refugee is African or Arab.

Thomas Schmidinger, a grant awardee, discussed “Forced Migration in Northern Iraq: A Comparative Study of Yezidis, Shabak, and Assyrians.” Schmidinger argued that the Daesh onslaught on Jebel Sinjar and Ninewah plain in Northern Iraq in August 2014 specifically targeted three minority groups: the Yezidis, the heterodox Shi’ite Shabak, and the Assyrian Christians. The Assyrians appear to have relocated to the Ain Kawa suburb of Erbil. The Yezidis have resettled in a number of refugee camps in and near Iraqi Kurdistan, but the majority appears set to immigrate to Europe. The Shabak, finally, first fled to Erbil area, but were subsequently encouraged to leave the refugee camps there and resettle in Shi’ite Southern Iraq. Through conducting fieldwork in Northern Iraq, Schmidinger and his co-PI Michiel Leezenberg will trace and compare the dispersal patterns of these groups after being driven away from their homes. The researchers aim to answer a number of questions: To what extent was there organized resistance by either KRG troops, local militias, and individual inhabitants? To what extent has there been pressure on the Shabak community to convert or assimilate to Twelver Shi’ism? To what extent has gendered violence (most famously, and notoriously, the enslavement and rape of thousands of Yezidi women) systematically been used as an instrument of war? To what extent do images of female fighters on the Kurdish side (a propaganda tool used most effectively by PKK and YPG guerrillas, but also by the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga) reflect real empowerment of women rather than a mere propagandistic ploy? And to what extent has forced resettlement had differential effects on men and women, and on gendered sentiments of group identity and group honor?

Amani El Jack shifted the discussion to “Gender Dimensions of Displacement.” El Jack argued that issues of identity, nationality, and citizenship are instrumental in developing a gender-sensitive framework. She claimed that gender dimensions of displacement manifest in three different case studies. First, it is important to examine women-women relations. She aims to interview nannies and maids in locals and expats’ households to examine how gender relations between females are managed. In the Middle East, and particularly the GCC, most of the literature addresses issues around working conditions, but not how gender issues are negotiated in relation to exploitation and possibilities for solidarity. Second, El Jack argued that different patterns of migration lead to different gender consequences. Insofar as the Syrian civil war is concerned, displacement is not a consequence but rather used as a strategy of war. In relation to Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan, do women, men, and children face displacement differently? To what extent do women have access to power in refugee camps? And despite the difficulty of displacement, to what extent has it created opportunities for women to challenge the patriarchal system? Finally, El Jack claimed that displacement, social change, and transformation should be studied in relation to one another. Displacement is not limited to people, but also value systems. This displacement of value systems triggers transformation and social changes that manifest in the renegotiation and reconfiguration of gender roles.

Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy discussed “Saudi Arabia’s Humanitarian Donorship and Yemeni Refugee: Values, Systems, and Interests.” El Taraboulsi-McCarthy looked broadly at Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian engagement in Yemen in terms of structure, allocation of funds, motivations, blockages, and opportunities. She also discussed the livelihood opportunities, remittances, blockages to survival, and regulatory frameworks of Yemeni refugees in Saudi Arabia, particularly Riyadh and Jeddah, in light of the conflict. After conducting interviews with different stakeholders in Saudi Arabia, El Taraboulsi-McCarthy argued that the structure of humanitarian donorship had changed drastically in Saudi Arabia since 9/11 up until 2015. The Ministry of Interior in Saudi Arabia was responsible for collecting funds from the public, monitoring the process of donations, and channeling these funds to the beneficiaries. Since 2015, the structure of donorship has started changing once again. New charitable organizations have emerged that function independently from the Ministry of Interior. For instance, King Salman Center focuses on Yemen, and acts as a channel to allocate resources and provide aid and relief to Yemen. The Center also allocates resources to crises elsewhere, such as Syria. El Taraboulsi-McCarthy argued that such humanitarian engagements are used as a tool of foreign policy to project Saudi Arabia as a “Kingdom of Humanitarianism.”

Finally, Nathalie Puetz led a discussion on “Migratory Connections between the Middle East, East Africa, and the Horn of Africa: Yemeni Refuge-seekers in Djibouti.” Puetz argued that scholarship on migration in and out of the Arabian Peninsula has focused primarily on Yemen’s (elite) Hadrami diaspora around the Indian Ocean basin or on (abject) labor migration to the Arab states of the Gulf. The current refugee and migration crisis in Yemen—entailing thousands of African refugees and Yemeni nationals fleeing Yemen for the Horn of Africa while African migrants continue to enter war-torn Yemen—demonstrates the need for sustained scholarly attention to the circular, cyclical, and mixed migration flows between Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Puetz will analyze this predicament through an ethnographic study of the Yemeni migrant and refugee communities being (re-)established in ports and cities across the strait aptly named Bab al-Mandeb (Gate of Tears). Through conducting interviews in four migrant/refugee receiving countries, namely Djibouti, Somaliland, Ethiopia, and Sudan, Puetz will investigate Yemeni refugees and migrants’ pathways, and will continue to engage with a number of families regularly as they move geographically, politically, and socially between communities and categories of displacement and belonging. She aims to understand the conditions of mobility and modes of citizenship navigated by non-elite, hybrid (e.g., African-Yemeni) communities at the margins of states and societies.



Participants and Discussants:

  • Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Pooya Alaedini, University of Tehran
  • Mustafa Attir, The Libyan Academy for Graduate Studies, Tripoli
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Matt Buehler, University of Tennessee
  • Estella Carpi, University College London
  • Assaf Dahdah, Aix-Marseille Université, France
  • Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Amani El Jack, University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
  • Mohammed Abu Hawash, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Michiel Leezenberg, University of Amsterdam
  • Ricardo René Larémont, State University of New York
  • Aitemad Muhanna Matar, London School of Economics and Jordan University
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Emma Mogensen, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Nathalie Peutz, New York University, Abu Dhabi
  • Natalia Ribas-Mateos, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
  • Thomas Schmidinger, University of Vienna
  • Sabika Shaban, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Leïla Vignal, University of Oxford
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Florian Wiedmann, Internationale Akademie Berlin
  • Valbona Zenku, Georgetown University in Qatar


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS