Disasters: Deconstructed Season 7 Episode 7

Thanks to Ksenia Chmutina, Camillo Boano and Jason von Meding for their invitation to participate in their podcast series.

In this episode we discuss Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of Indignation”.

You can watch the podcast here below, or listening to it on their webpage: https://disastersdecon.podbean.com/e/s7e7-reading-pedagogy-of-indignation/

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RHACEL SALAZAR PARREÑAS, Unfree:Migrant Domestic Work in Arab States (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021)

My review of Salazar Parreñas’s Unfree is now published in Mashriq & Mahjar.

I hope it’s able to convey how important is reading this book, but also how critical I am about some of its aspects…

You can read it open access here:


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Refugee Hosts announces the publication of a major report, ‘Development Approaches to Forced Displacement from Syria in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq’ (by Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Greatrick, Carpi, and Shaiah Istanbouli).

Written by Refugee Hosts

On the 3 November 2022 the UCL-Migration Research Unit at the Department of Geography published a major report on ‘Development Approaches to Forced Displacement from Syria in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.’ The report, led by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, presents the findings of a state-of-the-art literature review of over 260 sources published between 2016–2021, synthesising existing knowledge on 3 factors that are important for refugees from Syria based in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Access the Summary Report below:

A set of 3 Policy Briefs has also been published to disseminate policy-relevant findings and recommendations arising in the full report (available here), including two thematically focused Briefs on Onward Migration (available here) and on Social Cohesion (available here).

The report was commissioned by the Policy and Operations Evaluation department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands (IOB) and is organized into 3 parts:

Part I of the report sets out the evidence relating to onwards migration. Literature relating to the difference between aspirations and capabilities to facilitate onward migration is examined and policy implications are outlined. The literature stresses that aspirations and the capability to act varies according to the characteristics of specific individuals and groups (e.g. gender, age, class, family composition, religion, ethnicity). In turn, literature on drivers of onward migration indicates context-specific factors and highlights why particular groups of people may seek onward migration from a given host country, while the majority of refugees remain in their country of first asylum. The influence of foreign assistance on migration decisions is also assessed. This evidence suggests that coordinated foreign assistance that addresses livelihoods, rights and protections have the potential to enable refugees to build sustainable lives in host countries. However, further research is necessary to fully understand the impact of foreign assistance on onward migration.

Part II synthesises the literature on approaches adopted to enhance social cohesion between refugees and members of host communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Promoting social cohesion is of increasing interest to diverse stakeholders, including policy-makers, donors, and humanitarian and development agencies. However, in spite of its popularity amongst policy-makers and practitioners, social cohesion is a contested concept which remains largely undefined and is difficult to measure. Social cohesion literature, policies and programmes have overwhelmingly focused on documenting host perceptions of refugees and host assumptions relating to the ‘impact’ of refugees on hosts. However, the assumption that the presence of refugees leads to negative impacts on members of host communities is not consistent with the evidence. Evidence is synthesized relating to key legal, policy and social factors which support or prevent refugees’ local participation. Part II also summarizes multiscalar factors which variously undermine or potentially enhance the nature and quality of refugee-host interactions and different forms of local participation, noting that these are influenced by ongoing and new forms of discrimination, violence and exclusion.

Part III assesses the evidence relating to refugees’ participation in local economies, and how refugees’ presence is related to changes in national, municipal, and local level economies. While it is often assumed – by donors, policy-makers, practitioners and host community members alike – that the arrival of refugees has a negative impact on local and national economies, the evidence highlights that these assumptions are often empirically unfounded, and that greater attention must be paid to long-standing structural dynamics and the broader impacts of conflicts and humanitarian responses to displacement. This part of the report examines the evidence relating to refugees’ access to formal and informal modes of employment (as entrepreneurs and employees alike), and the diverse factors which may promote or impede safe and dignified modes of economic participation. Noting the challenge of causally linking ‘the arrival and presence of refugees’ to changes in national-, municipal- and city/town-level economies, growth and employment, the final part of the report synthesises evidence on the nature and impacts of policies and programmes developed and implemented since 2016 in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, including a discussion of how changes in labour laws, processes to obtain and renew residency and work permits, the establishment of special economic zones, financial crises and the impact of COVID-19, relate to refugees’ economic participation in local communities.

Featured image: (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

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Review forum: War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon, Sara Fregonese, I.B.Tauris (2019)

I really enjoyed taking part in Sara Fregonese’s book forum!

It was an intriguing discussion I had with the author, Sara Fregonese, and with Aya Nassar, Mona Fawaz, and Alan Ingram – all focusing on war, urbanism, and/or Lebanon – during the Royal Geographic Society Conference in August 2021.

The review has been edited by Olivia Mason, and it is now accessible in the Journal of Political Geography:


I republish my contribution here below, to make it open access 🙂

4. Epistemological reflections on space, violence, and relational identities

4.1. Estella Carpi

War and the City by Sara Fregonese is a powerful piece of work which demonstrates that the built environment can act as a powerful geopolitical agent and that understanding urban space is key to understanding people during conflict. Fregonese frames War and the City as a historical account, but it is more than just a history. Urban warfare is examined through a geographic and an urban lens without reducing the narrative approach to geography or urban studies. Together, the chapters contribute to the creation of an all-around interdisciplinary work. This book effectively illustrates the urban nature of the civil war and inspires reflections on other conflicts and crises characterising Beirut’s history, which may also be considered ‘urbicides’. War and the City shows that making war per se can dangerously come to represent a ‘normal’ dimension of that urbanity.

Fregonese not only effectively describes people’s complex relationships with the geographies of war and everyday violence in Beirut: through this book, we also learn how those become translated into spatialities of enmity, and, therefore, potentially constructive coexistence. In this vein, the book equips its readers with concepts and terminologies which can be employed to understand other war-marked urbanities in Lebanon’s history. One example is the northern city of Tripoli, where in the neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab at-Tabbeneh antithetical polities vis-a-vis the Asad regime’s politics and Syrian politics in Lebanon are emblematically divided by Syria Street.

In the broader body of literature on Lebanon, war, and urbanity, Fregonese’s work proposes sovereignty and power in Lebanon as a hybrid assemblage which shapes the urban battleground; while, in the academic arena, the state has always been the privileged lens through which to understand welfare, crisis, and human choice. This conceptual framework, which Fregonese has developed over time since 2012, has provided more nuanced interpretations of power in action in the Lebanese context.

The book develops themes which lie at the intersection of the macro and micro aspects of urban warfare, going beyond the current theoretical deadlocks. Fregonese demonstrates how sectarian power and identity are the products of grounded mechanisms that happen through space. Thus, echoing important previous views on sectarianism in Lebanon (e.g. Makdisi, 2000), the warring parties are neither fixed categories of people nor predefined ways of thinking and behaving. If sectarian power can shape space and practices of war, the politics of urban warfare is not merely about facts and relations that shape space: those relations are also enabled or prevented by space. In other words, sectarian power shapes the territory, but it is not innately inscribed into it. However, sectarianism as an inherent characteristic of the region is a longstanding belief of many Middle East commentators who have thus actively created a Lebanese exceptionalism in identity-dictated conflict.

Methodologically, Fregonese openly shares the way in which she re-orients the interview process, an important stage which is often silenced, even in ethnographies. For example, she states that she often scaled down her interlocutors from the regional to urban level (p. 10). This politics of writing ensures greater empirical honesty. Epistemologically, by proposing the tragedy, chaos, and fate scripts, War and the City offers a systematic analysis of two key representational tropes, which I identify as ‘impossibility’ and ‘determinism’. In this section of the book, we are reminded of the fundamental role of representations: not only media representations, but also the representations produced by official diplomatic discourse, which is often underestimated in the accounts focused on the Lebanese civil war. Against the misleading role of representations, Fregonese demonstrates that urban spatiality was reorganised to serve war, rather than being captured by expressions such as ‘incomprehensible chaos’. Indeed, more than once Fregonese talks of ‘militia knowledge and practices,’ which do not develop independently from geopolitical dynamics. Scholars rarely employ such terminology when referring to militias in Lebanon or in general. Thus, Fregonese invites us to the feasibility of understanding war by detailing space. The book challenges several accounts which portray Lebanon as an impossible-to-map place, and which propose that the civil war is a conflict that we simply cannot comprehend. Indeed, she challenges the ‘descent into barbarism’ talk (p. 69). The city in wartime is configured as a set of identity-defined enclaves since the spatial basis for heterogeneity was exactly the target of sectarian violence. The latter, at the same time, is also discussed as both causing and being caused by class inequality. In War and the City, in fact, sectarianism is the most discussed form of violence, yet only one among many. For example, looting, targeting the built environment for reasons beyond military necessity, economic inequality, and street symbols such as posters, which embody the “social and material fabric of wartime Beirut” (p. 111), all interact with intersectional forms of sectarian power.

The book marks two epistemological turning points in the study of Beirut and urban warfare. The first point is that while focusing on war, Fregonese puts forward the possibility of urban space as a factor in pacification. Indeed, few are the studies which focus on the so-called capacities for peace while too many focus on tensions in human relations and the need for social cohesion. The urban space contributes considerably to reshaping such relations. Indeed, Fregonese points out that hardly any attention has been paid to the relations between space and peace (Macaspac & Moore, 2022Megoran & Dalby, 2018). However, I wonder whether it would be even more generative to see war and urban research progressing beyond the categorisation of ordinary atmospheres and political orders. This epistemological move would encourage scholars to think beyond the war/peace repertories. In my view, inhabitation, coexistence, and even wellbeing may offer emancipatory conceptual tools to finally move beyond the interpretative grids and the inner workings of official politics.

War and the City is a powerful reminder to those who focus on human relations that we cannot only speak of ‘war-affected spaces’, which is common in narratives of crisis forgetful of the agency of space itself, but also of ‘spaces making war’. In fact, human relations alone cannot make either peace or war: such conditions can only be achieved through the built environment. As a social anthropologist and a recurrent Beirut dweller, I would love to read more about the intimacies produced by the geopolitical frames discussed in the book. However, that would probably have fallen beyond its scope, which instead focusses on the balance between, on the one hand, grand narratives of representation and power and, on the other, the intimate. A connection is built between the grand narratives around the Lebanese civil war, which are called ‘regional conjunctures’ (p. 10), and the relational and ideological lifeworlds of the people. In summary, War and the City reminds those who are interested in social relations that to really understand the latter, we first need to understand the city. Thus, we must take a step back and register the spatiality of such relations and note the effects of spatial transformation. The second turning point is the suggestion that sectarian order, and more broadly societal divides, do not exist regardless of social processes. This invites us to question demographic homogeneity as a way to territorial peace.

By way of conclusion, I believe War and the City should be judged not only by how dexterously Fregonese organises and answers her own questions, but also by the questions she leaves on the table. For instance, how do cities in Lebanon (and elsewhere) manage to challenge, transform, and interrogate such geographies of war? Where did the spatiality of urban warfare challenge war dynamics? Many of the questions generated by Fregonese’s research do not have a once-and-for-all answer precisely because they are subject to enquiry within continuous debates on the layered nature of urban warfare and the Lebanese civil war.

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What future for research if no one is willing to be publicly associated with ‘failure’?

Last autumn 2021, I applied for a Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellowship and I received the results in February 2022. I was not among the winners. So what? Like me, other hundreds of colleagues were not. What really matters is that, this time, unlikely my 2019 application, I received highly questionable feedback on my research proposal. The reviewers’ comments seemed to barely refer to my methods and rationale, revealing an inattentive reading of the proposal. For example, while politicians were not included in any way in the scope of my research plan, one comment was about me “interviewing politicians”. What I particularly found ethically shocking was one comment on healthcare professionals from Middle Eastern diaspora groups not being fit to participate in policy-making because they would be biased. Moreover, the reviewer commented that “This is an exceptional and risky way of relating with the research participants”.

My host institution encouraged me to request a re-evaluation of the proposal. I did, in vain; but the EU committee rejected my request of re-evaluation while stating that it agreed with most of the points raised by the reviewers (Ha! Without making a formal re-evaluation possible, you are self-entitled to rejecting the re-evaluation option?! A clear contradiction. And what background and expertise did they have, as a committee, to say they agree with the reviewers’ comments? A paradoxical and shallow response, to say the least). What really shocked me was the agreement on the bias related comment, which is still haunting me. To mention their response to that issue verbatim: “After a close reading of the ESR and the relevant parts of the proposal, the Committee cannot agree with the applicant that the statements indicated in the ESR are inappropriate. The Committee confirms that the comments refer to the experts’ assessment in relation to the related evaluation aspects and reflect the corresponding evaluators’ opinion on the proposal”. No worries if you found this answer tautological or not easily intelligible. This is just a heavy paraphrase to echo the reviewer’s racist, under-explained, and discriminatory comment. At that point, I had not only failed my MSCF application – which I would never consider ‘unjust’ per se – but also my attempt to get serious feedback on my proposal had failed.

Much to my dismay, straight after the results, I realised many colleagues were also unsatisfied with the feedback they had been provided with: some even reported offensive comments on the elected host institution. Others questioned the non-anonymity criteria of the selection process, stating that they found the reviewers’ feedback largely biased and sometimes the product of the reviewers’ internet search (e.g., checking the applicant’s political views or alike). Along with some colleagues based in different institutions, we intended to publish a public petition asking for a revision of the fellowship assessment criteria and greater rigor in the assessment process. For example, funding schemes such as the Wellcome Trust also set up an interview date to select the candidates, and demand a peer monitoring process of the criteria used for assessment. This method requires working towards a single report and evaluation, rather than having a member of the committee summarising the comments of two reviewers who evaluate the proposals independently. Although what can be considered the best assessment criteria remains a moot point, one of our arguments was that scientific rigor can hardly be guaranteed when the process is not strictly coordinated. Moreover, the current political economy of research, with academics lacking time and being put under pressure with multiple tasks, does not help.

Unfortunately, too many of my colleagues eventually decided not to sign and publish the petition, probably not wanting their name to be publicly associated with it – as though this could somehow tarnish their reputation – or, even more likely, they did not want themselves to be associated with failure. I found this episode very telling about how academics often purport to serve as public intellectuals while only intellectual success is paraded. All the rest, like poor quality assessment processes or unjust politics of assessment, needs to be swept under the rug.

Let’s overturn that rug. As a researcher, I also care about learning from failure and from precious feedback, while refusing the success-or-failure binary logic that undergirds the contemporary horror of neoliberal research. As the Pink Floyd used to sing, “Is there anybody out there?”.

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Pursuing Hope (Umudun Peşinde): A Review

By Estella Carpi

Original source: https://southernresponses.org/2022/07/12/pursuing-hope-umudun-pesinde-a- review/?fbclid=IwAR113UYnSR7eWVt6QWa63PIvi9v_VqpJCz7Bm9ys8pUyqfjIDZgDO4 8vPAA

How do Christian Iraqi men and women who have sought safety in Turkey conceptualise and narrate their own experiences of displacement and violence, including with regards to processes related to religion? In this review of a collection of stories written by Christian Iraqi refugees, Dr Estella Carpi argues that religion can be instrumentalized within conflict situations in a multiplicity of ways, proposing that post-confessional approaches can help develop a more nuanced understanding of these processes precisely by facilitating “an interpretation of socio-political processes beyond religious belongings” alone. The Southern Responses to Displacement has been exploring the themes of religion and faith-based responses to displacement. To read more on these topics see here, here and here and access the recommended reading at the end of this post.

Pursuing Hope (Umudun Peşinde): A Review

By Dr Estella Carpi, University College London

Pursuing Hope, published and distributed by the Bible Shop in Istanbul, is a collection of twenty stories written by Christian Iraqi refugees who either passed through Turkey before resettling in third countries, or who are still in Turkey. The volunteers of the Syriac Catholic Church started collecting these stories in 2016, and wanted them to be published. Buğra Poyraz, from the Bible Society, served as editor of this collection. The stories, originally written in Arabic, have been translated into English by Natalie Konutgan, and the book has also been translated into Turkish to enable local people to access the stories of Turkey-based Iraqi refugees. While people with different religious and ethnic backgrounds in the Middle East have been displaced several times throughout modern history – especially during the formation of the nation-states over the twentieth century – the stories in this book all refer to the 2014 expansion of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq (e.g., Mosul and Anbar) and the subsequent expulsion and oppression of Christian Iraqis, among other groups (e.g., Yezidis and Muslim Shiites). These stories, written by Iraqi women and men, witness religiously-motivated violence, everyday forms of persecution, chronic uncertainty, and nostalgia about a lost normality. The violence these stories denounce is not only macro-political, but instead encompasses all intimate forms of violence that relate to conflict-related displacement. Notably, the stories range from the resentment felt towards one’s own wife for having decided to accept resettlement in a third country without waiting for her husband to be able to join her, to experiences of house raids, systematic threats, explosions in church during Mass and car-bombs. Some of the stories also trace the ambiguous feelings that revolve around the decision to be smuggled by boat, and the chronic intimate sense of insecurity generated by experiences of kidnapping. Amongst the horror documented in such stories, the normality of “taking walks with family” and “seeing children playing” (p. 56) can only be imagined.
Disease, divorce, and resettlement reshape the destiny of refugee and displaced youth and children, with the latter embodying the only sense of building a future in some of the stories of refugee parents. War and persecution dramatically disrupt parenthood when parents survive their children, or “tear families apart” (p. 131) when the resettlement of children is the only viable option; refugee parents enter an eternal wait to be able to see their children again and, at times, prefer dying where they were born, although the place where they lived has by now turned into “a heap of stones” (p. 125).

In this framework, the church, like mosques during the Ottoman period, becomes a shelter which simultaneously protects and puts people at risk of being targetted by IS militants, as it marks them as “infidel Christians”. However, in this collection of stories, religious belonging only matters in response to religion-defined violence, which explicitly aims to construct Christians as illegitimate inhabitants and “infidels” (p. 23) in the areas conquered by IS during its expansion in 2014. The religious identity of IS militants is never made explicit, precisely because Sunni Islam is not the issue here: the enemies are rather “terrorists” (p. 51), “gang members” (p. 96) and “hate murderers” (p. 18). If these Christian Iraqi refugees used to live their life together with other social and religious groups, the enemy, although located in a broader political economy of war and motivated by various political and economic factors, still call them by name and religious affiliation; still chase them from town to town because they are Christian (p. 71). Abandoning Christianity becomes the only token for physical safety; yet, it does not spare those identified as apostates a harrowing future as a slave of IS fighters and militants.

As noted in the collection, “being Christian” is not an a priori marker defining the lives of these refugees: religious belonging matters as it is made an explicit target of systematic violence. For instance, by being asked their name and religion (p. 57) to justify violence and persecution, and by being threatened because they are Christians. Pursuing Hope is an invitation to reflect on how epistemologies based on post-confessional approaches – by inviting us to an interpretation of socio-political processes beyond religious belongings – can importantly unearth the infinite ways in which religion is instrumentalised. Such approaches
are most suitable and, indeed, need to be adopted to guide our understanding of human conflict. Yet, this collection of stories also offers a powerful reminder that post-confessionalism has not fully managed to explain how violence committed in the name of religion still happens, although religion per se complexly relates to politics, economy, and human culture. Indeed, we should make the effort to understand religiously-motivated violence and hatred by being inspired by post- confessional views while also learning about the material instrumentalisation of religion.

In the contemporary Middle East, due to its religious diversity, commentators and rights’ advocates often speak of the need to “protect religious minorities”, such as the Christians of Iraq. As a result, religious minorities have gradually come to constitute a fundamental feature of state politics and a token of eligibility to access to humanitarian services. The nation-state boundary logic, however, has forced these social groups to be merely described in minority terms, while in-group nuances often go unheeded. Similarly, it is the invasive presence of the state in the Middle East — generally an authoritarian entity using divide- and-rule strategies – that has often fomented a longing for secessionism and identity-defined independence in particular religious and/or ethnic groups. As I have argued in the past, the “numberization” of social groups in the Middle East region, often ravaged by conflict, has long served political intentions and fears. And here lies the fallacy of religion meant as an empty category that we can fill with any meaning but which is still capable, however it is interpreted, of shaping events and raising different collective sentiments.

In the framework of numerous and diversified forms of faith-inspired assistance for displaced people worlwide, this book is an important reminder that “religions are always embedded in and linked to the cultural, political, economic, and social environments around them. This means that religious actors can have ties to all aspects of involvement in a conflict, but also as peacemakers”. In the light of this, as the Southern Responses project has shown across the years, refugees who identify themselves as religious are likely to be instrumentalised by international actors, without the former being able to have their say on services and displacement management.

Pursuing Hope will haunt its readers with its heartbreaking stories, and with the need to forward an epistemology that interrogates the instrumentalisation of religion while warning against identity-based stigmatisation.

The book can be purchased in the Bible Shop on Istanbul’s popular İstiklal Caddesi, in other libraries in Turkey, or online.


Asai, N. (2019) Soka Gakkai International – Faith-Based Humanitarian Action During Large Scale Disaster
Carpi, E. (2019) Local Faith Actors in Disaster Response and Risk Reduction – ALNAP Webinar

Carpi, E. (2018) Does Faith-Based Aid Provision Always Localise Aid? Fakih, F. (2019) Beyond Humanitarianism Paradigm: The Effect of Displacement on Religious Authorities – Dr Estella Carpi Lecture at Lebanese American University

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Faith-Based Humanitarianism Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Refugee-Refugee Humanitarianism
Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.
Omata, N. (2019) South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR Ozturk, M. (2019) Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa
Wagner, A. C. (2019) “There are no missionaries here!” – How a local church took the lead in the refugee response in northern Jordan
Featured image: Creative Commons


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Harmonising Reason with Sensibility (Global Young Academy, May 2022)

Are you a social, political or physical scientist who’s struggling to get your rationality and/or sensibility acknowledged in your work? You’re not alone.

Watch our Global Young Academy video on how reason and sensibility inform different disciplines.

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How to Support At-Risk Scholars? (May, 2022)

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Finanziamenti, posizionamento e prospettive di ricerca sull’area MENA (May, 2022)

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Lessons from the Middle East for Ukraine’s Refugee Crisis (April, 2022)



6 min read

Estella Carpi

28 April, 2022

In-depth: As millions of Ukrainian refugees flee to host cities in neighbouring Poland, reassessing the experience of Syrian refugees in the Middle East can provide vital lessons for sustainable resettlement.

In the two months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, more than two million refugees – mostly women and children – have crossed over the border from Ukraine into Poland.

These people have sought out shelter in border towns, including Przemysl and Medyka, as well as in the main Polish cities, namely Warsaw and Krakow.

When large-scale military attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure occur, they inevitably result in a rapid exodus of people fleeing into cities and towns in neighbouring countries. In response, the general public promptly praises these refuge destinations for their unconditional hospitality.  

But after absorbing millions of Ukrainian refugees, Polish mayors are now warning that their cities are over capacity as municipal infrastructures are under strain and any sort of shelters, such as gyms, theatres, and local houses, have become overcrowded.

As a result, the media narrative turns to one of ‘saturation’ and of host cities “reaching capacity”.  

Here, lessons can be learned by drawing on the case of Middle Eastern cities that received large numbers of Syrian refugees in the wake of Syria’s civil war. There are two important lessons to embrace: firstly, how the ‘hospitality’ and ‘reaching capacity’ discourse may prevent us from understanding the capacity of cities from a historical perspective.

“Lessons can be learned by drawing on the case of Middle Eastern cities that received large numbers of Syrian refugees in the wake of Syria’s civil war”

Second, the tensions in collaboration between urban and humanitarian actors in crisis-affected contexts often cause resource wastage and political power deadlocks, and cooperation between the two still needs to be strengthened.

The infrastructural pressure that cities experience when receiving new residents cannot be denied. However, there is a problem with the idea of cities reaching capacity: it assumes that cities were doing just fine before refugees arrived.

In the Middle Eastern context, which has a long history of people fleeing conflict – from Palestine, Iraq and Syria, among others – the arrival of refugees is blamed for weakening local infrastructures and depleting resources while, in reality, the pressure from an influx of refugees simply exposes the current status of a city’s capacities and the type of governance in place. 

In reality, especially given the dynamism of the job market, cities are constantly evolving to accommodate people, among whom some are refugees.

If we consider that there are an estimated  84 million displaced people across the world, the fact that refugees tend to permanently relocate to cities is a part of normality; yet, the discourse of hospitality and capacity implicitly keeps refugees as permanent ‘guests‘. 

For example, Turkey has received nearly 3.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict started in 2011. Due to such large numbers, the country’s refugee hospitality was largely praised, like in today’s Poland.

However, academic studies have shown how the hospitality of the recent past can give way to today’s legitimation of refugee return programmes, which are borderline deportations.

Such ‘invitations’ to return to Syria are justified by the discourse that perpetually keeps Syrians in Turkey as ‘old guests’ after more than a 10-year long displacement.

In this vein, the ‘reaching capacity’ mantra makes such host cities look like they were all functioning perfectly before refugees arrived, and that the return of refugees to their country of origin is the only requirement to rescue urban infrastructure, local labour, and resources.  

Lessons for Ukraine's refugee crisis from the Middle EastUkrainian refugees rest in a temporary shelter at a gym of a primary school in Przemysl, near the Polish-Ukrainian border on 12 March 2022. [Getty]

With many media outlets depicting war refugees from Ukraine as hordes of people who literally ”overwhelm” cities, crisis functions as a litmus test for the city’s normal capacities as well as its malfunctions.

The hospitality rhetoric presently used to comment on Polish cities echoes the wider public’s praise of local hospitality in reference to Syrian refugees, but the responsibility of refugee reception, sufficient welfare provision, and infrastructural support in the countries receiving refugees from Syria was not equally shared by European countries. 

Today we are provided with an image of well-received Ukrainians, while tomorrow they will be said to endanger local labour and resources in their host countries. By doing so, such accounts overshadow the (sometimes longstanding) presence of Ukrainian labourers and their past contribution to national welfare in such countries.

Future social relationships between new and old refugees and migrants and locals never come out of the blue, but rather they are built on long-standing dynamics and socioeconomic factors. The media representation of a massive exodus of Ukrainians into other countries in Europe can thus engender the misconception that there is no social and economic continuity to learn from. 

“Academic studies have shown how the hospitality of the recent past can give way to today’s legitimation of refugee return programmes, which are borderline deportations”

Over the last two decades, with the increasing number of refugees in urban areas, international humanitarian actors, who generally come to provide assistance in the spaces where most refugees reside, have largely been working in cities. This means they have to learn how to work in closer cooperation with urban actors (e.g. mayors, schools, and hospitals) and other local aid providers in host cities.

Moreover, foreign interventions typically bringing in resources and support can alter the urban fabric as well as local relationships. Therefore, international humanitarian actors also need to learn about the social relationships at play in the host city, including its infrastructure or pre-existing services and systems, urban governance, and welfare, as well as informal and community-based networks.

As transient actors, they also need to build their own relationships with the population at large and gain local trust. 

Despite the increasing importance of the urban-humanitarian nexus, research on Syrian displacement suggests that humanitarian agencies often arrive too late to recognise local authorities and integrate urban infrastructure into humanitarian programming when intervening in host cities.

In other words, rather than burdening responsibilities on ‘local knowledge’, it is fundamental that international humanitarian actors enlarge their own knowledge of local urban life. This enables them to understand what form of support may be more viable in the long run. 

In the countries that received large numbers of refugees from Syria, the humanitarian system initially acted with a traditional, short-term, and urgent action-oriented focus. Indeed, foreign assistance providers who came to assist Syrian refugees in Lebanon tended to neglect municipal and regional governors, as well as informal providers, who were all able to face emergency crises to different extents.

In the Lebanese context, aid agencies resorted to urban authorities to guarantee their own local legitimacy and to build quicker access to people in need, rather than developing a fine-grained knowledge of the local context.

“The management of Syrian displacement in Middle Eastern cities is a key example of the missed opportunities between urban actors, local service providers, and foreign humanitarian actors”

A deeper mutual understanding between urban and humanitarian actors and their respective approaches to crises have often proved to be lacking, thus losing the opportunity to complement each other.

In countries like Jordan and Lebanon, top-down humanitarian efforts, such as training urban actors and merely asking for their formal approval to operate, have been mistaken for substantive engagement.

As a result, there has been a delay in the meaningful and consistent collaboration between urban and humanitarian systems. More meaningful and grassroots knowledge exchanges could eventually engender more synergy in aid provision. 

In this respect, the management of Syrian displacement in Middle Eastern cities is a key example of the missed opportunities between urban actors, local service providers, and foreign humanitarian actors.

What has happened in the countries neighbouring Syria over the last decade therefore provides many lessons for Polish cities today.

Learning from the survival and reception mechanisms in place at a local and national level is key to the sustainability of host cities in the future.

Estella Carpi is a lecturer of Humanitarian Studies in the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London. 

Follow her on Twitter: @estycrp

Categories: Jordan, Lebanon, Middle East, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine | Leave a comment

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