Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

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


On December 10-11, 2017, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held the second working group under its research initiative on “Mobility, Displacement, and Forced Migration in the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, scholars discussed issues around: borders and mobility of Syrian refugees in the Levant; livelihood and identity politics of Syrian refugees in Northern Lebanon and Southern Turkey; patterns of Syrian refugees in Dayr al-Ahmar region in Lebanon; the experiences of displaced Syrian refugees in Jordan from a gender perspective; the situation of Yezidi, Christian and other religious communities from Sinjar, Iraq; migration to Libya and Tunisia; African migrants in Morocco; Afghan migrants in Tehran; and Yemeni refugees in Djibouti. It is worth mentioning that five teams of researchers participating in this project were awarded grants from CIRS to conduct empirical fieldwork.

Zahra Babar started the working group discussions by presenting Natalia Ribas-Mateos’s paper on “Borders and Mobilities in the Middle East: Emerging Challenges for Syrian Refugees in the Bilad Al Sham.” In her paper, Ribas-Mateos examines the transformation of geopolitical lines and borders with the rise of globalization in the Middle East. She claims that such transformation has accompanied severe inequalities: increasing limitations placed on the mobility of refugees and migrants; fewer limitations on cross-border flow of goods, refugee encampments and settlements (formal and informal), human vulnerability and rights violations; and expanded border securitization. In examining the transformation of geopolitical lines and borders in the Middle East, Ribas-Mateos studied a number of Lebanese villages, towns and cities bordering Syria.

Building on Ribas-Mateos’s paper, Estella Carpi presented her grant-funded research on “The Borderwork of Humanitarianism during Displacement from War-Torn Syria: Livelihoods as Identity Politics in Northern Lebanon and Southern Turkey.” Carpi’s research is an ethnographic inquiry into the socio-economic practices of urban refugees, local residents, and humanitarian actors in the framework of the 2011-2015 forced migration flows from Syria into the border cities of Halba (northern Lebanon) and Gaziantep (southern Turkey). The research explores how local patterns of everyday consumption, livelihoods hunting, and labor have changed in light of the historically unprecedented humanitarian response to refugee crisis in the two border regions. The research focuses on humanitarian livelihoods programing and people’s identity work in a bid to examine the border-making effects that humanitarian practices—echoing national policies—entail. Likewise, it investigates the role of livelihoods programing in crystallizing identity categories, which crisis management typically relies on to build its outreach. The paper finally unravels an ongoing process of “identity neo-borderization” in northern Lebanon and southern Turkey.

Leïla Vignal, another grant-awardee, sharpened the discussion on Syrian refugees in neighboring Lebanon by presenting her paper, co-authored by Emma Aubin-Boltanski, on “Hosting and being Hosted in Times of Crisis: Exploring the Multi-layered Patterns of Syrian Refugees in the Dayr al-Ahmar Region, Northern Bekaa, Lebanon.” In their paper, Vignal and Aubin-Boltanski illuminate the dynamics and patterns of the Syrian refuge to Lebanon, and Syrian refugees’ relations and interactions with local host communities. Through an in-depth fieldwork in the villages of the Dayr al-Ahmar caza (sub-district) in the muhafaza (district) of Baalbek-Hermel, in the North of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, the authors study Syrian refugees through a local prism. Such prism allows rooting the host/guest relations into history and space. Similarly, the paper connects host-guest relations to specific contexts that are rendered difficult in Lebanon by the lack of economic development, the fragile organization of politics, and the lack of consensus with regards to the Syrian conflict and Syrian refugees.

Aitemad Muhanna-Matar, a grant-awardee, focused the discussion further on Syrian refugees through her discussion on “Gendering the Triangular Relationship between Vulnerability, Resilience and Resistance: The Experiences of Displaced Syrian Refugees in Jordan.” Based on empirical data drawn from the personal narratives of sixty Syrian refugees displaced in three Jordanian governorates: Amman, Zarqa and Mafraq, Muhanna-Matar explores the triangular relationship Syrian refugees have developed, through their experience of displacement, between gendered vulnerability, resilience, and resistance. Muhanna-Matar suggests that the three angles of the triangular relationship do not operate in a sequential manner, but in procession and mutual assistance. Through this relationship, vulnerable masculinity and femininity is negotiated, renegotiated, and contested through different modes of everyday acts of resilience and resistance, or resilient resistance. The article contextualizes the gendered vulnerability of Syrian refugees, how Syrian refugees cope with it, and how the international humanitarian community responds. 

Thomas Schmidinger shifted the discussion to “The Situation of Êzîdî-, Christian- and Other Religious Minorities- IDPs and Refugees from Sinjar after the Genocide of 2014.” In his article, Schmidinger argues that the lack of security and the rivalry between different militias and armed groups in Iraq prevented Êzîdî, Christians, and other religious communities from Sinjar to return to their region after their forced displacement. Only a limited number of displaced persons returned to the north of Mount Sinjar, while the vast majority still lives as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Dohuk Governorate. In addition, Schmidinger claims that many members of the religious minorities who lived in Sinjar lost their trust in a future inside Iraq. They do not connect their problems just with the so-called “Islamic State,” but rather see the Islamic State as a continuation of “Muslim (Sunni) repression against religious minorities.” He adds that although many of the aforementioned IDPs would like to migrate to Europe or overseas, they also know about the difficulties refugees face by European states. This led many of them to feel abandoned by the international community. 

Ricardo René Larémont and Mustafa Attir, grant-awardees, discussed “Clandestine Migration in Libya and Tunisia” (co-authored with Mohammed Jouili). Based on over 760 interviews with migrants in Libya and Tunisia, the authors argue that since the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, there has been a considerable increase of migrants from North Africa to Europe. Media and academia have focused their attention on trans-Mediterranean migration while ignoring the more important trend of migration to North Africa as a destination rather than as a transit point to Europe. The authors argue that Tunisia has witnessed a dramatic increase in migration from sub-Saharan countries, especially between 2015 and 2017. The primary motive for migration was economic. Most migrants see Tunisia as a final destination or they are involved in circular migration between Tunisia and their home countries, as they perceive employment opportunities in Tunisia as better than in their home countries even though the Tunisian economy has been in decline since 2011. The authors add that only a minority of migrants to Tunisia aspire to migrate to Europe. 

Building on the previous discussion, Matt Buehler discussed “Integration of African Migrants in Morocco: Surveying the Attitudes of Native Citizens” (co-authored with Kyung Joon Han). The authors argue that whether intentional or not, more and more African migrants have chosen to resettle in Morocco, without entering the European Union. This contributed to a greater number of interactions and conflicts between African migrants and native Moroccan citizens, who have express tremendous variation in how much they support or oppose these new arrives in their homeland. Based on a 1500-respondent survey, the authors to explore this variation in native citizens’ attitudes.

Pooya Alaedini discussed “Afghan Migrants in Tehran: A Socioeconomic and Spatial Analysis.” Alaedini claims that the Province of Tehran is a highly significant area of residence for Afghanis in Iran. The overwhelming urban primacy of the national capital located in the province makes Tehran particularly important in the analysis of Iran’s Afghani migrants—as they are concentrated in several locations across the neighborhoods and hold a variety of occupations against the background of the economic opportunities offered by the city. Thus, their effects on the city are also copious and important. With these in mind and based on empirical field work, Alaedini analyzes the dynamics of Afghani residence in urban Tehran by examining laws and regulations of urban and regional planning in Iran, and Afghani migration to Farahzad, Harandi, and Aminabad neighborhoods; demographics; housing; economic situation, employment and business activities; social networks in neighborhoods; and cultural and social activities.

Finally, Islam Hassan presented Nathalie Peutz’s “In Dire Straits: Refugees from Yemen Displaced in Djibouti.” Puetz conducted empirical, on-ground fieldwork in the Markazi camp in Djibouti, the only camp for Yemeni refugees in the Horn of Africa region. Based on her empirical fieldwork, Puetz argue in her paper that much of the literature on migration, sovereignty, and territoriality focuses on how externally funded mobility restriction regimes in transit countries aim to keep migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers out of the destination countries. This is the politics of exclusion. However, what Puetz’s interviewees pointed to was the temporary extension of Yemeni/Saudi sovereignty into a transit country to contain Yemeni refugees: to keep them “in.” Puetz argues that whether restriction regimes and extension of sovereignties have any legitimacy, or the paranoid fears of people living in a heightened state of uncertainty do, what is real is that the Markazi refugees feel doubly incarcerated— both as occupants of a securitized camp and as persons who, despite having crossed the sea, have not in fact escaped the grasp of Yemen. 

It is worth mentioning that CIRS will publish the papers of this research initiative in an edited volume by Zahra Babar in the near future.



Participants and Discussants:

  • Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Pooya Alaedini, University of Tehran
  • Mustafa Attir, University of El-Fatah in Tripoli, Libya, & Center for Sustainable Development Research
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Matt Buehler, Harvard University
  • Estella Carpi, University College London
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Ricardo René Larémont, State University of New York
  • Aitemad Muhanna-Matar, London School of Economics
  • Natalia Ribas-Mateos, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain
  • Thomas Schmidinger, University of Vienna
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Leïla Vignal, University of Rennes-2, France
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS