Tribal networks and informal adaptive mechanisms of Syrian refugees: The case of the Bani Khalid tribe in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon

​Research R​​eport

Paivi Miettunen, University of Helsinki
Mohammed Shunnaq, Yarmouk University

Refugee Research and Policy Program, February 2020​

Executive Summary

​This project focuses on tribal networks and tribal relations of the Bani Khalid tribe in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and analyzes how these networks are part of informal adaptive mechanisms of the refugees.

Bani Khalid is one of the large Bedouin tribes that has expanded throughout the Middle East: from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, Syria and Jordan among others. In the beginning of the 20th century, several subtribes of Bani Khalid migrated annually through the northern Badia, but following the establishment of the modern states, newly made borders divided them. Despite this, the tribal ties have remained strong, with frequent and active communications across the borders.

In Jordan, several villages located around the city of Mafraq belong to the tribe, among them Hamra, Howsha, Zaatari and Khaldiya. A larger migration to Jordan took place in the 1980’s when several families from Syria settled in the village of Zaatari. The most recent migration was caused by the war in Syria, resulting in the members of the tribe fleeing across the borders.

Even though the Zaatari refugee camp is located nearby, Syrian members of the Bani Khalid are mostly living in the villages of their tribe, especially Zaatari. They have been utilizing the kafala system (sponsorship system), in which a Jordanian citizen has the possibility to act as a “sponsor”, allowing the refugee to stay outside camps. These individuals and families are staying with Jordanian families or living on land owned by the Jordanian members of the tribe. While many of the Syrian-origin Bani Khalid have been able to start small businesses and support themselves, there are also many less fortunate people, especially widows and people with health issues, who mostly rely on charity and support from others. As the war in Syria continues, forcing people to remain uprooted, dependency, kinship, and traditional laws of hospitality among the Bedouin are all shaping and reshaping the relationships between Syrian and Jordanian Bani Khalid.

The historical tribal territories extended to the area of modern Lebanon, with families spending part of their annual cycle in the northern parts of the Bekaa Valley. When the modern state of Lebanon was established, some families remained in the country. However, the socioeconomic status of the Bedouin in Lebanon has been relatively low, resulting in marginalization and poverty. Because of this, and because of the small number of Bani Khalid in the country, the Lebanese members of the tribe have less means to provide aid and support to their tribal kin fleeing from Syria. Despite this, not all the Bani Khalid leaving Syria have chosen to settle in Jordan. Before the war, many members of the tribe worked seasonally in the farms and businesses in Lebanon, while their families stayed in Syria, tending to their own farms and cattle. The war forced whole families to migrate and stay in Lebanon permanently. In many cases, these groups were able to utilize their established, work-related contacts in the country. Overall, Lebanon and Jordan have applied very different approaches to the refugee issue. Despite this, the coping and survival strategies of the Bani Khalid refugees share many similar characteristics.

This report is the result of a comparative study of the differences and similarities of the importance and limits of the tribal networks in informal economies of the refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. We argue that these structures of kinship, tribal traditions and sense of identity can to a certain degree support the adaptation of refugees of tribal origin. The informal mechanisms long utilized in the background and in addition to formal state structures by tribal communities in the three countries provide a framework – a shared knowledge – that is familiar to the members of different tribes. This familiarity, in turn, helps in coping and provides agency when facing new situations. We believe that institutions working with refugees of tribal origin should have an understanding about the tribal systems, networks and past developments. We have therefore provided some basic information concerning these topics in this report.​

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