American Univesity of Beirut

Essential Readings on Forced Displacement: Perspectives from the Arab Region

​Sawsan Abdulrahim

Forced displacement is integral to the study of social, economic, and political transformations (Castles, 2003).  This statement is perhaps no truer than in the Arab region which comprises countries hosting some of the highest numbers of forcibly displaced persons per capita worldwide (Lebanon and Jordan); the most protracted and the world's largest refugee crises in modern time (Palestinians and Syrians); and massive internal displacement resulting from inter-ethnic conflicts and/or climate change (Iraq, Sudan, Somalia). In contrast to other world regions that have established conventions to govern forced displacement, like the 1969 OAU Convention governing refugees in Africa or the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on refugees in Latin America, Arab states have invested little effort to institute national or regional policies to manage displacement or protect the millions of refugees and internally displaced populations (IDPs) within their borders.  The region presents a paradox in that it produces and hosts high numbers of refugees, yet blatantly rejects their integration. In what follows, I suggest readings on the history of and guidelines that constitute the international refugee regime complemented by a few pieces that highlight the disconnect between the mandates of international agencies and realities in the Arab region.  In the second part, I center emergent writings in the field of forced displacement that draw attention to the discursive nature of the refugee label as well as  those that highlight forms of refugee agency in the face of bureaucratic international governance and closed border policies. 

UNHCR and the Arab Region's Refugee Context

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took shape in response to dramatic social and political transformations in Europe following World War II.  UNHCR was born out of a particular historical experience before many Arab countries gained independence from European colonization; to this day, the majority  are not signatories on the 1951 Refugee Convention (and its 1967 Protocol).  Most Arab states, irrespective of their signatory status, outsource refugee governance, including status determination, assistance, and resettlement, to the agency.   Because UNHCR plays a vital role in refugee management in most Arab states, understanding its history, mandate, and limitations is imperative to any further reading on refugees in the region.  The book UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection, by Betts, Loescher, and Milner (2012), provides an easy-to-read narrative.  Whilst the authors present UNHCR against the backdrop of primarily European history, the book delves into the current global context in which the agency operates and how it strives to balance global diplomacy, refugee protection, and funding.


On UNHCR's role in the Arab region, articles by Ruben Zaiotti (2006) and Michael Kagan (2006, 2017) provide critical analysis and highlight gaps in the agency's role and the mismatch between its mandate to provide refugee protection and involvement in refugee status determination.  To complement these articles, one may read a comprehensive report by Maha Yahya (2015) which delineates how the development of refugee policies in the region has been stymied by the sectarian nature of population movements, citing Iraq and Syria as examples, as well as Arab states' refusal to adopt a unified development approach to forced displacement. 

In a fragmented region, the presence of UNHCR reinforces a North-South model of refugee governance and assistance that creates dependency and colonial continuities. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyye's (2018) scholarship is corrective in this regard, as she calls for questioning the North-South relationship and centering Southern knowledge on forced displacement. The author argues that just as forced displacement is a primarily Southern phenomenon (86% of refugees are hosted in low-income countries), the responses to it should also be primarily led by Southern actors and manifest through “refugee-refugee relationality."  Only a few pieces from the region challenge “Northern knowledge" about refugees, including a highly recommended and recently published ethnographic study by Derya Ozkul and Rita Jarrous (2021) on the agency of refugees as they navigate UNHCR's bureaucracy through rumors as a form of collective interpretive labor.

UNRWA and Palestinian Refugees

Given the centrality of the Palestinian cause, any list of essential readings on forced displacement in the Arab region must raise the question of Palestinian refugees and their right-of-return. Three themes to cover include Al-Nakba (the Catastrophe of 1948), UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees established in 1949), and the legal and socio-economic rights of Palestinian refugees outside historic Palestine (in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon).  In lieu of academic readings about Al-Nakba, I recommend watching the 2013 three-episode Al Jazeera English documentary titled Al-Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe.  For the legally inclined, the second edition of Palestinian Refugees in International Law by Francesca Albanese and Lex Takkenberg (2020) provides a rights-based framework for strengthening Palestinian refugee protections, including expanding the role of UNRWA from a service provider to an organization that advocates for the rights of Palestinian refugees. 

As a protracted refugee population, Palestinians have a contentious relationship with UNRWA whose continuing existence despite grueling odds is a reminder of their own survival as a people but also of their prolonged plight.  In 2009, the Refugee Survey Quarterly published a special issue themed “UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees 60 years Later."  The issue includes reflective pieces by guest editors Riccardo Bocco (2009) and Lex Takkenberg (2009) who locate the history of UNRWA within the broader history of Palestinian forced displacement. It also includes an article by Maya Rosenfeld (2009) on the transformation of UNRWA over the years focusing on the ebbs and flows of the agency's investment in refugee education.  A recent and equally important source is UNRWA and Palestinian Refugees: From Relief and Works to Human Development by Sari Hanafi, Leila Hilal, and Lex Takkenberg (2014).  For a critical perspective, Ilana Feldman's (2012, 2017) ethnographic research in Gaza and Lebanon contributes a nuanced analysis of how long-term humanitarianism defines the conditions of living and dying for Palestinian refugees.  Full-length studies of this group in Lebanon and Syria, respectively, are Rebecca Roberts' (2010) Palestinians in Lebanon: Refugees Living with Long Term Displacement and Anaheed Al Hardan's (2016) Palestinians in Syria: Nakba Memories of Shattered Communities.  Finally, other recommended short pieces on Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria are “The Cost of Being Palestinian in Lebanon," by Sawsan Abdulrahim and Marwan Khawaja (2010); and “Yarmuk Refugee Camp and the Syrian Uprising: A View from Within" by Nidal Bitari (2013).  

Irregular Migration and Smuggling

The seaborne migration to Europe from the Mediterranean's Eastern and Southern shores in 2014-2015 revived scholarly interest in smuggling and produced nuanced examinations of this irregular form of migration. Smuggling is driven by  the intertwining of protracted displacement in the global south and closed borders in Europe and other refugee resettlement destinations.  Most of those who put their lives at risk riding dingy boats in the Mediterranean and crossing Europe on foot  were protracted Syrian and Afghan refugees who had given up on the possibility of legal resettlement in Europe and sought the services of smugglers instead. 

Ghassan Kanafani's novel, Men in the Sun (1999), is highly recommended as a piece that links literature with sociological analysis. The novel narrates the story of three protagonists who sought the services of a smuggler to travel from a Palestinian refugee camp through the excruciating desert heat of Iraq and Kuwait.  The smuggler's obscure character in the novel – exploiter, compatriot, no-nonsense businessman – parallels depictions in recently published ethnographic studies of actors in smuggling networks.  Whilst the prevalent global policy discourse around smuggling portrays it as a criminal activity and conflates it with trafficking while also calling for the capture and imprisonment of smugglers, a book titled Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour, by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano (2018) with ethnographic research by Luigi Achilli (2018), on the smuggling networks of Syrian refugees from Turkey to Greece, presents a different reality of comradery between smuggler and refugee.  To those who are distraught by inhumane outcomes of precarious migration from Syria, Afghanistan, and Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, the aforementioned pieces present convincing arguments against reducing the complexity of smuggling into a dichotomy of vulnerable refugee versus criminal smuggler.  These pieces also call for enacting open-border policies and holding the global north accountable.

Crossing Borders and Crossing Categories

Recent writings on forced displacement highlight a tension between immobility in protracted refugee situations, on the one hand, and agency on the other, where the forcibly displaced move not only across borders but also across categories. Roger Zetter's writings (1991, 2007) critique refugee agencies' insistence on drawing rigid lines around the refugee label, arguing that this rigidity merely serves to reduce the number of people who qualify for international protection and is at total odds with the complexity of what constitutes forced displacement in a globalized world.  A more recent article by Marta Evand Erdal and Ceri Oeppen (2018) brings to focus “the discursive and analytical significance of describing migration as forced and voluntary" and argues that the fluid nature of mobility makes it impossible to draw lines around migration categories. The literature questioning the refugee label as a clearly delineated one is expanding with a recently published book by Rebecca Hamlin (2021), Crossing: How We Label and React to People on the Move, arguing that the refugee-economic migrant binary is a fiction and that categories of border crossing fall along a continuum.

This nuanced perspective of continuity has not yet caught traction in the writings on forced displacement in the Arab region, with only a couple of exceptions. The first is a piece by demographer Phillip Fargues (2014), whose report for the European University Institute on the “Fuzzy lines of international migration" in the Arab region highlights the problematic of demarcating migration categories in a context where definitions are not only ambiguous but highly subjective.  The second is an insightful short piece by China Sajadian (2020) published by Jadaliyya in which the author captures the discursiveness of categories in the case of Syrian seasonal farmworkers-come-refugees in Lebanon. The experience of this group is prototypical of mixed migration flows – the dynamic move between forced, economic, and circular migration categories – and is shaped by a political economy where humanitarianism and development intertwine. 

Yet, despite the complexity of border crossing and the intertwining of multiple factors determining mobility, even in cases of flight following war, international agencies continue to subscribe to rigid definitions of who constitutes a refugee and who deserves international protection.  Realities are more complex, and human subjects who cross borders to survive will also cross the lines that define categories. 


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Achilli, L. (2018). The “Good" Smuggler: The Ethics and Morals of Human Smuggling among

Syrians. The Annals of the American Academy, 676: 77-96.

Albanese, F. & Takkenberg, L. (2021). Palestinian Refugees in International Law (2nd Edition).

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Al-Hardan, A. (2016). Palestinians in Syria: Nakba Memories of Shattered Communities.

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Betts, A., Loescher, G., & Milner, J. (2012). UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee

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Bitari, N. (2013). Yarmuk refugee camp and the Syrian uprising: A view from within. Journal of

Palestine Studies, 43(1): 61-78.

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Takkenberg, L. (2009). UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees after sixty years: Some reflections.

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            practices in an uncertain environment. International Journal of Refugee Law, 18(2):


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Zetter, R. (2007). More labels, fewer refugees: remaking the refugee label in an era of

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