The refugee crisis – what can social scientists do?

Road sign in Jordan showing the direction to Syria. Photo.
In August there were more people returning to Syria from Jordan than going the other way. Photo: Cathrine Brun/NTNU

«There are busses from Amman to Syria nearly every day», we are told as we pass by a bus-station in central Amman, the capital of Jordan.

I had heard about the returns, but I couldn’t stop thinking: “Who would voluntarily want to go back to Syria now?”

In August there were more people returning to Syria from Jordan than going the other way. The World Food Programme (WFP) ran out of funds in August and had to substantially reduce their food assistance in Jordan.

Some refugees did not see any alternative but to return. Many academics, humanitarians and politicians (including Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg) have called for the Jordanian government to allow Syrians to work. In an ideal world that is what we would hope for, but we do not know whether or not it will happen.

Talking to Syrian refugees and humanitarian workers in Jordan, I find that the reasons for returning to Syria are quite diverse.

People seem to go back to complete their university education, or to look after or sell properties or other assets. They return to look after older relatives who may have stayed behind. And they return to be able to move on to Europe.

Understanding the return-movement requires more knowledge about the different ways in which Syrian refugees try to make a living and secure a better future for themselves as refugees. At the moment, we do not know enough about their strategies and their constraints.

Jordan’s refugee regime

Being a refugee in Jordan is a complex matter. Jordan has received many different groups of refugees over the years. Since the first major influx of Palestinian refugees into Jordan in 1948, several groups of forced migrants have arrived in the country.

The refugee-population consists of Palestinians (from the West Bank and Gaza), Iraqis and Syrians, but also Sudanese, Somalis and many other nationalities.

Tents in a regugee camp. Photo.
Picture taken in Jordan’s Zaatari camp. Photo: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

Jordan has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and has its own refugee regime. The country juggles a diverse set of internal and geopolitical interests in their dealings with different groups of refugees.

Only 1% of the Syrian refugees can afford the permit that would allow them to work legally. Most Iraqi, Somalis, Sudanese and, to lesser extent, Gazan refugees face similar restrictions in accessing the formal labour market.

Humanitarian organisations must of course abide by Jordan’s refugee regime when they operate here. Livelihoods projects for Syrian refugees are thus generally not possible and humanitarian organisations cannot employ Syrian refugees.

Jordan is a location of relative stability in the Middle East and has become a humanitarian hub. Current humanitarian practices in Jordan will influence and set precedence for coming crises. Refugees can stay but they cannot integrate – and without employment many refugees employ negative coping strategies.

The crisis has become protracted and there is no solution in sight. How can we help to make a better future possible for refugees in this context?

Urban refugees

There are more than 600.000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. Approximately 20% live in camps, but the majority live outside camps and mostly in urban areas. UNHCR reports that 60% of those living outside camps earn some income, mainly in the informal sector.

What about those 40% that do not work, how do people survive? Do they rely on international or local networks? What is the role of assets they brought with them from Syria? Do they survive only on humanitarian assistance? What will happen with livelihoods and with the urban economy as humanitarian assistance diminishes? We simply do not know enough yet.

Urban refugees are a volatile population with low security of tenure who frequently shift between rented dwellings. Humanitarian agencies work hard to get an overview of who the refugees are, where they live and what they need.

Commonly, humanitarian agencies assist those urban refugees who come to their organisation to ask for help. But how do we know that the most vulnerable are being reached in this way?

Changing humanitarian practices

Humanitarian workers build their expertise by moving from crisis to crisis to assist. However, what was learnt working in the conflict in rural South Sudan may not apply to the relatively peaceful urban Amman.

Best practices are modelled on rural areas or camp-settings. There is increasing attention and knowledge towards humanitarian work in urban settings, but this knowledge has often not trickled down to the implementation level.

What can researchers do?

Organisations are making systematic efforts to gather information about the needs of their principal stakeholders. A huge amount of information has been generated from needs- and impact-assessments. Staff in humanitarian organisations write and publish reports, they learn from their past projects and develop their practices. But the same organisations express the need for more systematic efforts to collect and analyse data.

Here is where social scientists could come in. As researchers we can assist in setting up monitoring mechanisms that take place over a longer period of time, and we can document and compare activities across different organisations and sectors and between refugees, host communities and organisations. We can develop tools to analyse the changing dynamics of societies and the role of the urban informal sector for refugees and host communities.

A wider understanding of the cultural, social and political contexts, rapid urbanisation, employment and economic development and the different experiences and strategies among different groups of refugees and hosts will be crucial to understand how to assist refugees in an urban setting.

In order to produce innovative knowledge, increased collaboration between humanitarians and academic researchers is required. Openness and flexibility on the part of organisations and researchers will be necessary.

Time and resources must be allocated to form such alliances between academia and the humanitarian sector. Through collaborative research we could contribute to make decision-making and assistance more adjusted to the local reality.

I was in Jordan from the 6th to 15th November, 2015. Together with David Sanderson from the Department of Urban Design and Planning, we explored ways in which NTNU can contribute with research and innovation to assist in the refugee crisis.

The Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management funded my journey to Jordan and our stay through their seed money allocation for 2015. Many thanks to Anna V. Kvittingen (NTNU Samfunnsforskning) for assistance and to the Norwegian Refugee Council for hosting us in Irbid.


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