The exile of millions of Syrians has led to the creation of both official and unofficial temporary settlements in the Middle East

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Last update: 2022-04-22 08:59:24

The exile of millions of Syrians has led to the creation of both official and unofficial temporary settlements in the Middle East: in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, above all. They are transit places that, with the passage of time, become genuine towns. Neighbourhood and village dynamics are recreated inside them, together with forms of commerce and exchange, and these help to keep the identity of a people alive.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Syrian conflict has produced more than five million refugees. It is one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the Middle East since the Second World War and, in terms of numbers, it outdoes the latest conflict in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since 2015, the refugees have been increasingly directed towards further-flung destinations such as Europe. The Middle East nevertheless continues to be the region in which the highest number of refugees is concentrated. Given that the conflict is dragging on indefinitely, the countries bordering on Syria are facing the issue of refugees settling in their respective host countries. After the major waves of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967 and save in rare, exceptional case,[1] the states in the region have always refused to accept the creation of new refugee camps. Nonetheless, Jordan and Turkey have questioned this policy and new camps have been opened on the borders with Syria.

Looking beyond the figures and the debates that these can trigger in the host countries,[2] there is a need to consider the significance of this exodus, the extent and prolongation of which have profoundly reshaped Syrian society. Exile is not the lot of just some categories of the population, such as those actively opposing Bashar al-Assad’s regime: it is involving whole sectors of Syrian society who are being forced to leave by the mass destruction and prolonged insecurity. The multiplication of actors in the conflict is causing Syrian territory to become increasingly fragmented, whilst the violence has become so widespread that finding refuge inside Syria (as a large number of refugees try to do initially) is becoming an ever more complex undertaking. The number of internally displaced persons concentrated in the safer zones continues to grow, making it increasingly difficult to access accommodation and primary services in many Syrian cities. Leaving Syria to seek asylum thus becomes the only possible option. The fact that the conflict is being protracted is pushing refugees to seek more durable settlement spaces where they can try to reconstruct a more stable life.


From Palestinian Camps to Syrian Camps

The failure to resolve the Palestinian issue (with the corollary that the camps created in the 1950s and then in 1967 have become permanent) strongly conditions the way in which the new flows of migrants in the Middle East are being treated. This is the reason why, for example, the main host countries in the region did not open refugee camps in their territories after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003. Indeed, camps allow a humanitarian crisis to be managed at the operational level and they facilitate a monitoring of the refugees but they also create various problems. For example, they can create pockets of poverty that are partially disconnected from the host country’s socio-economic context. Furthermore, in the long run, obstacles to the refugees’ mobility increase their dependence on humanitarian organizations, which fact can foster the refugee populations developing forms of segregation within their hosting society, thereby creating forms of stigmatization.

The reluctance of the hosting countries’ authorities to open refugee camps also partly depends on the fear that the refugees will settle permanently in their territory, as in the case of the Palestinian refugees. Conversely, the Iraqi crises of 1990-1991 and post-2003 have shown that, in the cases of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, the absence of camps, combined with fairly unrestrictive forms of entry and stay at the beginning of the crisis (even if this must be relativized according to the countries and periods concerned) and easy access to public services and informal employment, increased the refugees’ possibility of mobility and, therefore, their re-emigration towards a third country.[3]

Nevertheless, the decision not to open refugee camps depends both on states’ policies and on the logic followed by the actors themselves. Like other groups of refugees in the Middle East, the Iraqi refugees were concentrated in urban contexts and, most of the time, on the edges of city peripheries. The camp of Azraq in Jordan was built to accommodate up to 130,000 people when the number of refugees was very high. Today it is almost empty. In August 2016, the UNHCR registered the presence of 55,000 refugees there i.e. roughly half the camp’s hosting capacity. When they can, the majority of Syrian refugees settle in an urban context where there are greater possibilities of finding a job and it is easier to reconstruct a “normal” life.

Marked both by a history of conflict and by a difficult relationship with Palestinian refugees, Lebanon has up until now refused to open camps officially for the Syrians on its territory. The fear of creating “Syrian” spaces on Lebanese ground, where political and/or armed movements could develop, remains a strong one amongst the Lebanese political class, which is, in its turn, very divided over the Syrian conflict. Unlike Lebanon, which hosts a higher number of refugees, Jordan has opened camps to the north of the country so as to channel the flows that are arriving. Turkey has also set up camps along the border with Syria. At a regional level, however, less than one fifth of the refugees are living in the camps. If the three main Syrian refugee settlement camps in Jordan are sheltering only 20 per cent of the total number of Syrians, the majority of refugees has passed through transit camps situated on the border with Syria. The latter have been created in tandem with the gradual closure of the western border between Syria and Jordan and allow the Jordanian authorities to carry out security checks before allowing the refugees to enter their territory. The waiting time in these camps varies according to the profile that individual refugees have. Once they have been accepted, the latter are directed towards one of the three settlement camps, whereas they can also settle elsewhere within the territory if they have a Jordanian guarantor (kafīl).


The Refugee Camps as Precarious Towns

As the anthropologist Michel Agier observed,[4]

spaces of transit and waiting, [the camps] are organized like ‘towns’ but this does not mean that they have any urban planning behind them, insofar as everything is conceived not to last. They become established and they last.

For example, the conventional idea that one has of refugee camps has little to do with the current situation in the Palestinian camps in the Middle East. In actual fact, since the end of the 1950s, brickwork houses have been taking the place of the tents. Cut off from the towns at the time they were created, nowadays most of the camps are situated in the periphery of the host countries’ main agglomerations. The temporal dimension of the Palestinian exile is an important element for consideration. Sixty years of exile have generated an unusual relationship between the Palestinians and their respective hosting societies: one that combines a strong local integration (tied to the rapid urbanization of the country they have come to) with forms of segregation that depend on the various political and legal contexts.

In this sense, the Palestinian experience has many lessons to offer the other refugee groups in the region. What has become of the Palestinian camps, the first of which came into being in 1949? Apart from their residential function, the refugee camps serve three purposes for Palestinian society in exile: they are places where forms of solidarity can be expressed on the spot amongst the refugees, they guarantee the re-composition of the Palestinian identity despite the diaspora and they are spaces of political expression, thereby giving shape to the basic fabric of Palestinian society in exile. Nevertheless, as the hopes of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gradually dwindle, the camps are becoming spaces that are turned in on themselves socially, economically and in terms of identity. Increasing demographic pressure and the lack of financial resources are resulting in inadequate infrastructures and dwellings that are often crumbling. The lack of financing from the international humanitarian organizations and the camps’ particular status in the hosting countries (which tend to marginalize and stigmatize these spaces) are factors that allow us to understand the situation in which these realities find themselves today.

So what has become of the Syrian refugees? Situated in the north of Jordan and hosting almost 80,000 inhabitants, Zaatari Camp is the best known of the Syrian refugees’ settlement spaces. It is a genuine town (although the odd tent still stands alongside the pre-fabricated buildings) and all the paradoxes of the Syrians’ presence in Jordan are concentrated in this area. The humanitarian organizations are ubiquitous, symbolizing the fragility of an exiled population without resources. Unlike the Iraqi refugees arriving in Jordan after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime (who came, for the most part, from the urban middle classes and established themselves in the Jordanian capital), a good part of the Syrian refugees today come from the rural areas and are therefore more vulnerable. For example, they have limited access to the labour market, even if measures facilitating the acquisition of a work permit were adopted before the summer of 2016. Furthermore, those who intend to come out of the camps have to obtain an authorisation and this is granted for a limited period.

Even if it is fairly difficult to describe the Syrian camps, their demographic development has been rapid. Their very morphology has evolved considerably, passing from a densely populated space full of juxtaposed tents to a presence of pre-fabricated facilities with private courtyards and vegetable patches squeezed in amongst them. Zaatari Camp was initially an open hosting space, offering the refugees the possibility of going in and out without any particular checks. Then, as the exile grew longer and the number of refugees increased significantly, the Jordanian authorities began to control their entry and exit. Nowadays the camp is a closed space and the refugees who wish to go outside have to have a temporary authorisation that permits them to go for medical examinations, visit an embassy or go to see any relative. In the same way, outsiders who wish to enter the camp have to obtain a preliminary authorization from the Jordanian authorities.


Zaatari: a Town in the Making

This progressive ‘closing off’ of the refugee camps is the response to a need to control the forms of settlement lived by the Syrian refugee population, on the one hand, and to security requirements, on the other. It has the effect of ‘confining’ some Syrians within a circumscribed space, thereby helping to shape the camp. The refugees have known how to develop a space for social and economic life in this territory, despite the restrictions imposed by the humanitarian administration. They have grouped themselves by family and sometimes by village of origin. Pre-fabricated facilities and tents have been readapted to make dwellings. These are makeshift, to be sure, but they have made it possible to recreate private spaces and today the camp is scattered with little commercial and artisanal activities that generate meagre incomes. Insofar as it is possible, the refugees have tried to recreate a semblance of normal life in a context of almost total deprivation and heavy restrictions. Thus one can observe an increasingly densely built-up space and its reorganization under the influence of dynamics that are generated by the refugees themselves.

Whilst the camp is partially disconnected from the Jordanian socio-economic environment, the morphology of this space is evolving. The lack of connection with the geographically nearby environment pushes the Syrians to develop their own economy, starting from their own resources and the limited external contributions. A high street has developed at the entrance to the camp. Officially called “Souk Street”, it is called “Champs Elysées” by the inhabitants. The dwellings have all been turned into shops selling basic products (groceries, bakeries, greengrocers’…), telecommunications shops and do-it-yourself shops, little restaurants, hairdressers, jewellers and clothing shops. In addition to constituting a source of income, this street has become a space for socialising where the refugees meet and stroll about, just as they would in the high street of any town. The appearance of shops hiring out wedding dresses shows how, for better or worse, Syrian society is rebuilding itself in exile. Given that this condition is continuing, services are developing in the camp to satisfy the refugees’ needs and one can even come across street vendors offering coffee, tea and sandwiches. And since the camp stretches over a vast surface area, separate “neighbourhoods” are developing. Initially, there were numbered sections that echoed the camp’s spatial extension according to the tempo of the new arrivals. Little by little, the refugees have reorganized themselves into groups, so as to recreate forms of neighbourliness and closeness similar to those they had known in Syria before their exile. Life is being rebuilt around the family members who have sought refuge in the camp and neighbours coming from the same districts or villages in Syria. Associations (informal ones, most of the time) are forming and little groups of refugees are starting to give concerts featuring traditional music. Thus the camp is becoming a space where there is life and sociability on the strength of the enforced exile and the absence of alternative solutions. In this sense, the Syrians’ exile nowadays recalls that of the Palestinians a few decades ago.

The space that is developing is therefore a singular one. The camp is perceived as an area of closure and waiting, where precariousness reigns and dependence on international aid is heavy. Forced for the most part into inactivity, its inhabitants profoundly resent their refugee status. The rules regulating building are very rigid: Syrians cannot build brickwork houses in the camp but must content themselves with prefabricated houses that they then adapt. The housing units rapidly become dilapidated due to the rather harsh climatic conditions in northern Jordan. For this reason, the camp is the very symbol of the tension in which the refugees are living: the tension between the precariousness resulting from the material conditions and the closing off, on the one hand, and the will to reconstruct a “normal” life in exile, on the other.


From Transit to Settlement

The reality of the camps is, of itself, a composite one. Alongside the main official camps run jointly by (international and local) humanitarian organizations and the hosting countries, there exist many other forms of camp in the Middle East. In July 2016, more than 85,000 Syrians were stuck in Rukban and Hadalat, two transit camps to the east of the Syro-Jordanian border, in a no-man’s-land between the two countries. Crossing points for entering Jordan, these spaces were transit camps where the refugees initially spent between one and ten days, whereas nowadays they have become settlement camps where what is provisional lasts several weeks or even several months. The toughening of the policies on entry into Jordan has transformed the border places into de facto camps in which the humanitarian conditions are extremely difficult despite the intervention of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The issue of the camps is therefore intrinsically linked to that of asylum policies and ways of managing borders. The toughening of the policies on entry into neighbouring countries’ territories and the continuation of the conflict (which makes mobility impossible) have a twofold consequence: on the one hand, they foster the refugees’ “stable” settlement in the host country and, on the other, they contribute to the creation of camps on the borders, where refugees trying to escape the violence tend to gather. In Lebanon, the absence of official camps has produced a myriad of smaller, unofficial settlements characterised by a great precariousness because of the lack of coordination in humanitarian assistance. This problem is no longer exclusive to the region, moreover. Thus camps exist in various forms along the refugee route, oscillating between crossing or transit camps and spaces of prolonged settlement.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] For example, after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003, the Palestinians from Iraq were forbidden entry into Syria; for this reason, camps were created to host them in a no-mans-land between the two countries. See Jalal al-Husseini and Kamel Doraï, “La vulnérabilité des réfugiés palestiniens à la lumière de la crise syrienne,” Confluences Méditerranée 87 (Autumn 2013), pp. 95-107.

[2] The preliminary results of the last Jordanian census, published in January 2016, indicate the presence of 1.2 million Syrians in Jordan. The debate about numbers recurs regularly, coinciding with every fresh mass arrival of refugees. For example, the study carried out by the Norwegian Institute FAFO in 2007 shows very clearly how difficult it is to produce statistics on the refugees in Jordan. See Iraqis in Jordan 2007. Their Number and Characteristics, FAFO, UNFPA, Department of Statistics in Jordan, available at As far as the refugees who enter Europe are concerned, the figures produced by Frontex must be approached with caution because they count border crossings (thus risking counting the same people several times), rather than the asylum applications actually made in every single member state.

[3] Géraldine Chatelard and Kamel Doraï, “La présence irakienne en Syrie et en Jordanie : dynamiques sociales et spatiales, et modes de gestion par les pays d’accueil,” Maghreb-Machrek 199 (2009), pp. 43-60.

[4] Michel Agier, “Le son de la guerre. Expérience africaines de l’errance, des frontières et des camps,” Politix 24 (2004), no. 61, pp. 83-99.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Kamel Doraï, “The Economy of Refugee Camps”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 38-45.

Online version:
Kamel Doraï, “The Economy of Refugee Camps”, Oasis [online], published on 16th March 2017, URL: