Posts Tagged With: Palestinian refugees

Book Review – Humanitarian Rackets and their Moral Hazards: The Case of the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon (December 20, 2017)

Humanitarian Rackets and their Moral Hazards: The Case of the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon by Rayyar Marron. Abingdon and New York: Routledge 2016. 188 pp., £110 hardcover 9781472457998, £36.99 paperback 9780815352570, £36.99 e-book 9781315587615

Rayyar Marron’s book provides a critique of how academic and activist accounts of Palestinian refugee camps end up reinforcing the humanitarian narrative of refugee victimhood. By underlining refugee economic and political agency, especially in the camp of Shatila in Lebanon, Marron recounts economic fraud and tactics that not only guarantee refugees’ survival and empowerment, but also seek to suggest a de-romanticised configuration of ‘refugee’ within the Middle Eastern moral economy. The author questions human suffering underlying the formulation of social and humanitarian policy. In this vein, in the scholarly literature, camps are defined not only as “sites of exilic nationalism” (p. 5), but also of resistance (p. 4). In this context, Marron contests how “Palestinianness” is addressed as a mere humanitarian cause, where refugees are passive aid recipients in need of international compassion.

The book is composed of an introduction, seven chapters, and a brief conclusion. The lengthy introduction aims to collocate the book within the framework of the de-romanticisation of vulnerability and of refugee agency: but it struggles to anticipate the core arguments. Chapter 1 intends to show how Palestinian refugees themselves seek to repackage their originally military cause as humanitarian due to the decline in funding, therefore often portraying themselves as “dispossessed peasants” (p. 44). Marron emphasises the identity crisis through which Palestinian refugees in Lebanon passed through when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was removed from Lebanon in 1982. Nevertheless, the chapter loses the opportunity to accurately describe what the author sees as a crucial historical moment, when Palestinians dropped the militant guerrilla culture as a public discourse to embody the exceptional case for assistance. More attention to this historical moment would have unraveled how the Palestinians’ unethical tactics to guarantee everyday life – such as smuggling and political protection rackets – are actually connected to daily grievance. The author, making the important attempt to de-romanticise the refugee category and refugee agency, however ends up focusing only on one side of the coin, providing a predominantly negative representation of camp society. A nuanced approach to examining everyday life would instead have informed the longstanding dialectics between need and greed in refugee economies.

Chapter 2 suggests the emergence of a Palestinian nationhood in connection with the pan-Islamic and pan-Arab cause (p. 50), in a complex framework of foreign state patronages. Marron specifically argues that a Palestinian sense of national belonging precedes the PLO battles, while providing shy hints of this pre-exilic society. This chapter does not provide the specificities of whom, where, and what led humanitarian definitions and practices to a negatively nuanced – but under-explained – everyday racketeering and appropriation.

In Chapter 3, the author argues that the PLO and the Palestinian political movement of Fatah radicalised the political landscape in Lebanon, seeking direct influence from within the formal institution of the parliament (p. 76), or through studentships, as cadres of Fatah enrolled as students in Lebanese universities (p. 78). By conducting robberies and soliciting funding, the PLO and Fatah militarised the civilian refugee community, raising violence in the camps. The author describes the “neopatrimonial” tendencies of Fatah and the PLO in terms of “self-enrichment” rather than the official rhetoric of the “revolution” (p. 87). Marron thus opposes the narratives that depict the so-called Palestinian revolution as an effort against Lebanese sectarian politics.

Chapter 4 highlights the challenges of organising camp society outside of patronage legacies. The pervasive influence of factional politics on refugee lives is in fact mentioned as the most deleterious issue for the Palestinians, rather than poverty or lack of infrastructure per se. On the one hand, the chapter is not too convincing in the attempt to incorporate humanitarianism into the discussion of patronage, where political groups compete for assistance, recruiting their families and allies in the capacity of beneficiaries or employees within humanitarian projects, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) (pp. 93-95). On the other, the author clearly shows how camp dwellers challenge the legitimacy of the popular committees, as they represent the interests of proxy states to the camp society (pp. 103-104). Marron here opposes the tendency of the scholarly literature to separate out the Palestinian oppressive sovereigns from the refugees.

Chapter 5 provides accounts of rent-seeking and illegal housing (p. 111) to shed light on camps as sources of livelihoods and proliferation, by specifying, for instance, that the percentage of Palestinian camp dwellers who own their homes (82%) is higher than Lebanese nationals (68%). Besides, Chapter 5 seeks to approach the humanitarian framework, by mentioning how NGOs are captured by competing factions in the camps (p. 116). Marron, however, is not detailed in showing how ordinary people participate in these dynamics, risking, on the one hand, a new homogenisation of refugees – shaped by negative agency – and, on the other, a new homogenisation of humanitarians, who emerge as victims that are over-burdened with responsibilities, and finding “their path disrupted by amorphous forces” (p. 124).

The role of humanitarian agencies which stems from this chapter is slightly opaque: the attentive reader is left with several questions regarding what humanitarian projects the author precisely refers to until Chapter 6, when Marron finally outlines the political economy of refugee camps and NGOs. Drawing on Horkheimer’s theory of rackets, the author largely draws on her own ethnographic experience as a teacher in a vocational school in Shatila to inform her argument that the protectors in refugee camps are also the sources of violence (p. 126). The experiential anecdote serves to illustrate how factions, influential retired community members from different political constituencies, camp residents, and humanitarians participate in the “racket society”. Likewise, Marron mentions that public services are privatised by camp factional officials to appropriate aid from outside (i.e. waste removal service, electricity grid, etc.). Nonetheless, the author often mentions dynamics of welfare power-sharing, which can surely overlap with humanitarian interventions, without telling us how she frames such overlaps and, furthermore, is too quick to label all of the service providers in the camp as “humanitarian”.

While in the first instance the author depicts the humanitarian system as caught up in the racketeering dynamics as a mere victim, in Chapter 7, she nuances their action as a “moral hazard” (p. 149) in the crystallising refugee vulnerability and as facilitating the amplification of statelessness (p. 146). Racketeering against UNRWA projects is therefore seen as the only means by which camp dwellers can access resources (p. 163). In the effort to normalise refugee camps and dissuade public narratives from ossified victimhood, Marron concludes by asserting the humanitarian exacerbation of camp racketeering dynamics but, at the same time, denouncing how humanitarian failures have been “deflected away from camp society and back onto the Lebanese state and the international community” (p. 171). The author here argues that “humanitarian assistance is not a measure that ensures collective welfare”, but rather an individual entitlement for which racketeering is necessary in order to obtain “fair shares”. I find this the most significant and intriguing argument advanced, which, probably, should have been introduced and developed earlier in the book.

Throughout the chapters, the reader struggles to identify the voices of Marron’s interviewees and her own empirical evidence. Among her second source-based historical accounts around the formation of a camp habitus oppression, the refugee individual, however, is not well visibilised: refugees seem to be given agency through the negative morality of the humanitarian rackets and political neopatrimonialism, while being unable to turn camps into civil societies.
Moreover, to me, the choice of the title remains unclear, as the humanitarian discourse and practices are not given the largest room for analysis. By the same token, the geography of the camps in Lebanon is not clearly outlined, emerging as an abstract and therefore easily homogenisable space, while most of the accounts and the camp history provided actually regard Shatila exclusively. The book’s overall imprecise structure hinders a still needed in-depth discussion of humanitarianism in camp societies.

While revealing a specific disciplinary approach is not essential in my view, the author could have been more explicit in several sections in defining her positionality while in the field and the local politics of knowledge. The book presents a very large number of key themes which therefore remain hinted at rather than properly explored, scattering the reader’s attention. On the whole, this book is primarily a historical account for social sciences scholars and researchers interested in refugee-related issues, and humanitarian practitioners. I particularly suggest this book to those who engage with the history of Palestinians in the region, and the way camp politics intertwines with the domestic politics of “host societies”. In this regard, the author provides insights from relevant first hand experience and important secondary sources, which inform the current debates on politics, refugeeness, and humanitarian governance.

Estella Carpi is a Research Associate in the Migration Research Unit, Department of Geography, University College London, working on Southern-led responses to displacement from Syria in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. She received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Sydney (Australia) with a research project on social responses to conflict-induced displacement and humanitarian assistance provision in contemporary Lebanon. In the past, she also worked as a researcher in Egypt, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates, mostly focusing on humanitarian and welfare systems, forced migration, and identity politics.

Categories: Lebanon, Palestine, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of Diana Allan’s “Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile” (July 2016)

I have reviewed Diana Allan’s book “Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile” for Anthropological Quarterly (Spring 2016). You can access the PDF file at this link:

Categories: Lebanon, Palestine, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Palestinians fleeing Syria for Lebanon: the eternal refugee.

IRIN piece I contributed to, after visiting the Sabra camp in Beirut, already overcrowded with Palestinians coming from Syria. My part is the one on Lebanon.

Analysis: Palestinian refugees from Syria feel abandoned

Palestinians fleeing yarmuk

5,000 Palestinians flee to Jordan and Lebanon
Destabilization fears
Palestinians cite discrimination
UNRWA lacks resources

RAMTHA/BEIRUT/DUBAI, 29 August 2012 (IRIN) – In Jordan and Lebanon, the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) has registered nearly 5,000 Palestinian refugees from the 17-month conflict in Syria. As both countries are already home to large Palestinian refugee populations, the newly arrived have become a political issue – with Palestinians feeling they are treated unfairly.

“It has been quite bad living like a prisoner, especially when you see other people come and go but you are trapped,” said Samir, a Palestinian at a dormitory-style facility known as Cyber City, 90km north of the Jordanian capital Amman.

When Samir arrived in Jordan five months ago, Syrian refugees without a visa could move and work freely within Jordan with the signature of a Jordanian guarantor, while Palestinians, many of whom have family in Jordan, were prohibited from leaving the camp to visit or stay with relatives. This month, the Jordanian government discontinued the sponsorship system for Syrian refugees.

Samir’s wife Hanah could have left the camp because she is Syrian. “Can you imagine such discrimination?” she asked IRIN. “I will not leave them.”

Palestinians said they were not allowed to move more than 30m from the building. The camp is 12km from downtown Ramtha and is not served by public transport.

UNRWA told IRIN only 185 Palestinians without a valid visa – i.e. those who were smuggled over the border, or who had to leave their papers behind – have been sent to Cyber City, while another 770 live outside the camp. Refugees IRIN interviewed at the camp said Palestinians not holding Syrian or Jordanian nationality had been sent to the camp.

Palestinians at Cyber City told IRIN that family members trying to flee had been turned back at the Jordanian border, a phenomenon also noted by Human Rights Watch.

Reacting to the allegations, Samih* Maaytah, minister of state for media affairs and communications, told IRIN: “Each country has the right to protect its sovereignty. At some point, we did not allow some Syrians to enter Jordan via air, for example, because we have the right to check who is coming in. Jordan should not be questioned over its sovereignty rights. Turkey, for example, had recently said it needs to regulate how many Syrians are entering its borders. No one has given a reason for it or questioned it.”

Most of those at the camp are Palestinian Jordanians who had their citizenship withdrawn years ago in a Jordanian attempt to discourage Israeli transfers of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan.

“I was born in Jordan, but moved with my family to Syria. In 1995, they withdrew my citizenship from me and my brother. Although it is my country, I cannot move freely inside along with other people,” said Samir, who showed his Jordanian birth certificate to IRIN.

Maaytah told IRIN: “Whether it is Palestinians or not, those who came without Jordanian or Syrian nationalities will be given basic rights but any additional benefits are not Jordan’s responsibility. These people came to Jordan seeking security and Jordan gave it to them.”

But Jordan’s fears might go deeper. While Palestinians are estimated to make up more than half of Jordan’s population, the Hashemite dynasty relies on its non-Palestinian tribal support base for power. Since “Black September” in 1970 when Jordanian and Palestine Liberation Organization forces battled for control over the kingdom, the issue of how many Palestinians reside in the country has become taboo. During the second Gulf war, when scores of Palestinian expat workers fled to Jordan, the country found itself in a similar position as today.

“Jordan has experienced 500,000 Palestinians coming from Kuwait in 1992. It changed the way our society functions. In a country of just three million people, 500,000 refugees [are a lot],” a government employee, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN in March. “As Jordanians we are worried for the interests of our country.”


Similar dynamics are at play in Lebanon, which hosted 455,000 Palestinians before the Syrian crisis.

“The Lebanese have made it clear they don’t want to see more than a certain number of people coming here,” a high-ranking aid official told IRIN on condition of anonymity.

Some 4,000 Palestinians have registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, many of them in the last month. Many more may not have registered because of their “vulnerable” status there, said Roger Davies, acting director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon.

According to Palestinian-Syrian journalist Nidal Bitari, the problem in receiving Palestinians is rooted in the Lebanese civil war and the long-standing tensions between the Lebanese government and Palestinian factions.

Most of the Palestinians fleeing from Syria to Lebanon have gone to one of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps, but the camps in Beirut are overcrowded slums. With limited opportunities for Palestinians to find jobs and leave, many of these settlements have become breeding grounds for extremism. Fear that the new refugees might be recruited by armed Palestinian fractions such as Fatah al-Islam is influencing government decisions, thinks Bitari.

Forced to pay

Officially both Jordan and Lebanon are keeping their borders open for all refugees from Syria. But unlike Syrians, who can freely enter Lebanon for up to six months, Palestinians receive only a one-week residency permit. Once that expires, they must pay 50,000 LBP (US$33) each month to renew it.

“There is a clear distinction between Palestinians from Syria and Syrians from Syria,” said Davies.

For some of the Palestinians, the fee is hard to afford: “My son arrived on 18 July and is still here [without a permit]. Where do we get the money from?” said Umm al-Khayr, a sick woman in her sixties from Damascus. “Why don’t they just give us six months like the Syrians?”

Corruption is also a problem: “I saw a Palestinian woman at the border, who did not know anyone in Lebanon and she was forced to pay $300 in bribes, $40 for each child,” said Darim, a teenager from Damascus. Palestinians who want to leave Syria still need permission from the Syrian government. While UNRWA said the procedure has been eased, NGO worker Rawan Nassar told IRIN that people have been asked to deposit large sums of money to obtain permission from the Syrian authorities, or have even been forced into providing sexual favours by border officials.

According to Palestinian sources close to Fatah, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is expected to visit Lebanon shortly to negotiate better conditions with the government.

Costly, cramped camps

In Lebanon, already poor conditions in the camps are affecting the Palestinians. But even in these camps, rents remain high. Refugees complain that even when they pay $200, the rooms they get are in an awful condition. “In Sabra there is another family of 12 and they are all sleeping in one room without any mattress,” said Abu Ahmad, an old man bearing the hallmarks of the Syrian intelligence’s brutality: broken teeth and bullet wounds on his arms.

Jordan’s Cyber City, visited by IRIN, houses about 400 refugees, both Palestinians and Syrians.

Families are given separate rooms; singles have to share. “The room is too small for a family. I feel awkward walking to the bathroom with so many strange men around. We are nearly 40 people on this floor,” said Hanah.

Refugees who have to share kitchens and bathrooms with 30-40 people complained about unsanitary conditions in the camp.

“It is quite smelly here. Some of the mattresses had bugs. People caught skin infections and head lice,” said Hanah.


Many Palestinians feel betrayed, and blame the government and aid agencies. While Syrian refugees receive assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Palestinians fall under the mandate of UNRWA, with its smaller relief budget.

“UN agencies turned their backs on us,” said a refugee in Jordan who did not give his name. Refugees in Lebanon had similar stories to tell: “There is a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy who arrived two weeks ago with four kids and so far she hasn’t received anything from UNRWA,” said Umm Ahmad, Darim’s mother.

UNRWA Jordan told IRIN that while funds are limited “we acknowledge all Palestine refugees registered with the agency. Those who live in the agency’s five areas of operations are eligible for its services.”

UNRWA is providing primary health care free of charge, but has only limited additional funds for the new refugees. The extra strain that refugee children might put on UNRWA’s schooling system is of special concern. UNRWA has appealed to donors for an additional $27.4 million for its consolidated regional plan, but so far has only received $4.71million.

“We do not know our future,” said one of the refugees. “People come and take pictures and speak with us, but they all leave at the end.”

Categories: Lebanon, Palestine, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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