Are Syria's do-it-yourself refugees outliers or examples of a new norm?

Author:Beehner, Lionel
Position:Refugees and Statelessness

Refugee camps are often treated as incubators of social unrest, violence, terrorism, and illicit trade. This provokes their overseers in the United Nations (UN) and other relief agencies to conduct frequent social engineering to enhance the camps' legibility. Hence, me see orderly, perpendicular rows, standardized units from redistricting to the allocation of diapers, and so forth--all of the follies of high modernism that fames Scott predicted in Seeing Like a State, but writ small. Indeed, my qualitative research from the Za'atari refugee camp, located in Jordan along the Syrian border, indicates that refugees, especially middle-class ones like Syria's, rebel against uniformity--or what Scott describes as "metis"--and seek to recreate their domiciles as best they can from the meager canvas tents and campers allotted to them. Put simply, they see their surroundings more as the disorderly "sidewalk ballet" of fane Jacobs' Greenwich Village than the high modernist yet sterile functionalism of Robert Moses. This holds important policy implications for the future of how we devise refugee camps, which increasingly resemble small cities; how we settle internally displaced persons (IDPs); and how we deal with the aftermath of mass population displacements. From direct cash transfers to the districting of refugees, some bureaucratic flexibility is required but so is an acknowledgement and embrace of refugees' do-it-yourself ethos that is rooted in their resistance to authority and trauma from violence. Drawing from the literature in social anthropology and political science, this article presents new evidence from Za'atari that disputes the utility of a high modernist approach to the social engineering of large displaced populations.


"We design refugee camps; refugees build cities," Kilian Kleinschmidt, UN director of Za'atari." (1) Over the past few decades, the total number of people displaced by war, natural disasters, and other calamities has eclipsed 50 million. That is the highest number since the aftermath of World War II, despite the number of conflict zones continuing to ebb in recent years. (2) Refugee camps have swelled in numbers and have essentially transformed into makeshift cities. Demand has far outstripped supply, as these camps have become overcrowded, underfunded, and under-resourced.

Reports of crime, prostitution, violence, and health epidemics are common in most camps. Like favelas or urban slums, they are often treated as incubators of social unrest, terrorism, and illicit markets. This threat has prompted UN administrators, aid agencies, and receiving states to conduct substantial top-down social engineering to enhance camps' legibility and uniformity. (3) We see orderly perpendicular rows, standardized domiciles, and top-down micromanagement, from redistricting to the allocation of diapers--all of the follies of high modernism that Yale University's James Scott predicted in Seeing Like a State, but writ small. (4) Migration scholar Jennifer Hyndman has likened the policing strategies in Kenya's refugee camps to those of former European colonial administrators. (5)

Given that such top-down standardization is harmful for human interaction and enterprise, this approach, while efficient on paper, ignores modern realities and may even exacerbate the very threat it seeks to mitigate. This article makes two main arguments. First, refugee camps have the potential to become more than just makeshift temporary shelters for displaced persons; they can become engines of social and economic dynamism. Such a philosophy can not only help refugees become self-sufficient and self-reliant, providing a socioeconomic outlet and reducing the rate of recruitment into criminal or terrorist networks by shrinking the informal economy, but can also help the host state and its local economy.

There are some 3,500 small businesses in existence within the Syrian refugee camp I visited. (6) These outlets of entrepreneurship provide refugees suffering from the trauma of war with a coping mechanism, prevent idleness, and boost remittances sent back home. But they can also alleviate some of the economic burden placed on the regions encompassing the camps, potentially reducing host governments' need for targeted development assistance (TDA), as well as lessen tensions between local and refugee populations. (7) However, implementing this philosophy will require camp officials and host governments to resist Robert Moses-like impulses to implement one-size-fits-all schema solely focused on ensuring security and instead to embrace a more grassroots, do-it-yourself ethos--one that allows for a greater degree of flexibility, spontaneity, and creativity in how camps are constructed, organized, and administered. (8) These two views are not mutually exclusive, a point I elucidate later.)

Second, I argue that such social engineering efforts are in fact counterproductive to enhancing security in refugee camps, both for the refugees themselves and for the host state, as they foster resentment between administrative staff, local authorities, and the refugees, hindering cooperation. Put otherwise, humanitarian agencies and local authorities should treat refugee camps less as transitional holding pens full of potential threats in need of Foucauldian discipline and more

Lionel Beehner is a PhD Candidate at Yale University and is a former visiting scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. Email: lionel.beehner&

like organic cities of semi-permanence. (9)

To bolster this point, I draw from firsthand ethnographic evidence collected from the world's second largest refugee camp, Za'atari, located in Jordan along its border with Syria. Through participant observation and dozens of semi-structured interviews of refugees, aid workers, and camp officials along the Syrian border, my research suggests that many refugees, especially middle-class, urban, and educated ones from Syria, rebel against uniformity and actively seek to recreate their domiciles as best they can from the meager canvas tents and campers allotted to them. Put simply--and not to stretch the analogy too far--they see their newfound surroundings more like the disorderly "sidewalk ballet" in the mind of Jane Jacobs' 1960s Greenwich Village than the high modernist functionalism of Robert Moses' vision of urban planning. (10) In that way, contrary to being blights on the landscape or dens of crime, refugee camps in some cases have emerged as oases of order, a testament to their inhabitants' bottom-up efforts at entrepreneurship and "new urbanism." This observation holds important normative implications for how aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) conceptualize the future of refugee camps, how states resettle IDPs, and how the international community deals with the aftermath of mass population displacements.

To be sure, the drive among local authorities and aid workers for greater order and legibility is not motivated by some nefarious desire to impose a kind of Gramscian hegemony. (11) It is instead the by-product of bureaucratic inertia, a lack of resources, as well as a system that places the host state's security above the sovereignty of the individual refugee. It is a product, at least in part, of the "fog of war"--Za'atari was literally erected in a matter of days during the summer of 2012--as well as of a system prone to a lack of experimentation and new ideas. The Office of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) officials I met were extremely competent, well-intentioned, and even in agreement with the need to avoid too much centralized planning.

There has been no shortage of scholarly attention paid to the plight of refugees, but there has been little attention to date on how the construction, organization, and administration of refugee camps can contribute to security threats or vice versa. (12) The assumption among both government and NGO officials is that law and order and human security should correlate, a version of the "broken-windows" paradigm to enforcing social order. (13) This philosophy has motivated bureaucratic efforts to subdivide camps into microdistricts, each with their own set of bylaws, codes, schools, civilian police units, health facilities, and other norms, institutions, and agencies.

This article relies on data collected over the course of two separate research trips to the Syrian border, first to the Turkish-Syrian border in October 2012 and second to the Jordanian-Syrian border in August 2013. Dozens of Syrian refugees, aid workers, and government and UN officials were interviewed on both the Jordanian and Turkish sides of the border. (14) The bulk of the qualitative evidence--or participant observation, if you will--comes from an August 2013 trip to Za'atari and from interviewing "urban refugees" scattered in towns near the camp. This article is organized as follows: a brief tracing of the history of how refugee camps have been perceived and treated in social science literature, from a humanitarian crisis to a looming potential security threat. Then, background is provided on the refugee crisis in Syria and some stylized facts about Za'atari specifically, before examining how high modernism has given way to greater decentralization and followed by normative and prescriptive analysis.


Refugee camps in the modern age have become cities unto themselves, mostly to accommodate their swelling populations--16.7 million worldwide in 2013, 1.2 million more than the previous year--but also to accommodate the changing tastes, preferences, idiosyncrasies, and attitudes of the refugees. Put simply, the image of the barefoot and bedraggled refugee is increasingly an anachronism of past generations in some regions. Today's refugees are on average economically better off, more sophisticated, and generally more entrepreneurial than their predecessors. Refugee camps, moreover...

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