Syrians are scattered around the world. The United Nations estimates that 13.5 million people – more than half of Syria’s population – fled the civil war that started in 2011. Nine years later, the conflict is ongoing and President Bashar al-Assad is still in power. The Alwaleed Centre at the University of Edinburgh held a workshop on ‘Syrian (im)mobilities’ to reflect on questions of movement, settlement and return. Community members, researchers and practitioners shared their perspectives on current and future challenges facing displaced Syrians in the UK, the EU and the Middle East. As part of the Doctors within Borders project, I attended the workshop as a way to think through complexities related to mobile populations.

Though health was not a focus of the Alwaleed Centre workshop, it nonetheless provided an overview of the complexities experienced by mobile populations and host countries.

Three themes emerged:

1. Shifting mobilities

Countries have differing and shifting policies in terms of receiving people who flee conflict. In the United Kingdom, refugee status is awarded only to children and spouses, not grandparents, children over 18, nor second spouses (permitted by traditional Islamic law). Before 2005, claimants were given indefinite leave to remain. After 2005, claimants were allowed to remain for up to five years. In 2016, the UK passed a more punitive Immigration Act focused on illegal migration. Such sharp policy shifts over a ten-year period suggest that policy instability will be an ongoing challenge for claimants, as well as health care providers.

Globally, Turkey hosts the most Syrian refugees: 3.6 million. In Turkey, refugees are welcomed as guests. This is, in part, because Turkey is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Initially, Turkey had an open door policy. However, Timothy Peace (GLIMER) noted that the influx of Syrians was so great that local infrastructure and services were overwhelmed resulting in clashes, such as massive queues at local dentist and doctor offices.

In 2014, a law on Foreigners and International Protection was introduced to clarify the status of Syrians beyond ‘guest’ and to formally enable access to health, education, social assistance, and employment. However, Dr. Dogus Simsek (University College London, Political Sociology) found that there is a disjuncture between law and reality. For example, as of 2019, only 31,000 Syrians obtained work permits for formal employment. This suggests that there are ongoing barriers to employment, and that such barriers may be experienced in other sectors, such as health care, as well as in other countries.

2. Spectre of return

Amidst the multiple pressures of fleeing conflict, seeking asylum and navigating permission to stay, known as ‘leave to remain,’ there is the spectre of return. Syrian refugee and now UK citizen, Nadia Akta (University of Edinburgh, Alwaleed Centre) described the realities of creating a new life from scratch in a foreign country. Challenges include, but are by no means limited to, learning a new language, navigating unfamiliar systems, including health care access, and looking for work. Such an uphill struggle would make many wish for the familiarity and ease of home. For some, the possibility of returning to Syria shadows the experience of creating a new life in another country.

In contrast, younger generations may be less interested in returning to Syria as they have no memories of Syria, or only memories of war. For political activists and those who embraced the more liberal cultures of host countries, such as an emerging LGBTQ scene in Lebanon, returning to Syria is not an option due to threat of torture and death. There are multiple ongoing tensions: staying versus going, feeling temporary versus being permanent, and dreams of here versus there, wherever here and there may be.

3. Agency

Between the ongoing Syrian civil war, shifting national policies in host countries, and the spectre of return, mobile populations lack control over their own lives. However, mobile populations are not without agency. Two examples are from Lebanon and Jordan. Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita: one refugee for every 21 citizens. Lebanon opened schools to Syrians. Dr. Carmen Geha (American University of Beirut, Political Studies) identifies this as one of Lebanon’s key success in terms of responding to the Syrian crisis. Dr. Arek Dakessian (Queen Margaret University, Sociology) and colleagues found that young Syrians emerged as political actors. Though schools are open, refugees experience racism on a daily basis from fellow students and teachers.

Dr. Dakessian told of how one student was bullied. In response, his parents did not allow the boy to play outdoors. The boy convinced his bully to visit his home and apologise. He was then allowed to play outdoors again. Another story was of a student who experienced racism from a teacher. The student went to the school principal with their concern and the next day the teacher apologised. These young people recognise that refugees as a group are repressed by social structures. They took courageous steps to navigate frictions and create more freedom for themselves.

In Jordan, agency takes the form of building homes. There are 80,000 refugees at the Zatarri refugee camp, making it Jordan’s fourth largest city. However, the majority of refugees in Jordan live in cities and small towns, not camps. As with Turkey, Syrians were welcomed as temporary guests. Further, given tribal relationships that pre-date modern nation states Syrians are viewed as relatives. Dr. Ann-Christin Wagner (Anthropology, University of Edinburgh) described the mobility-based coping strategies used by Syrians. Long before the Syrian war, mobile livelihoods and different types of welcoming and belonging shaped the region.

In Jordan, some Syrians are given land by their relatives on which to build a home. The land is understood as a temporary gift. When the visitors return to Syria, these new homes will increase land value and by extension social mobility of the Jordanian hosts. Syrians serve as cheap labour and enable the migratisation of the labour economy. Issues of class and land ownership complicate acts of solidarity, welcoming and agency.

Over decades, Syrians developed mobility-based coping strategies, such as frequently crossing borders to find work. For Dr. Wagner a key question is how to make circular migration safer and more dignified. While the above examples focus on homes and schools, for Doctors within Borders, they raise the questions of what agency mobile populations exert within healthcare systems.


The Alwaleed Centre

Doctors within Borders

Syrian (im)mobilities – Workshop agenda

Dr. Stephanie Sodero is a Banting Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Medical Anthropology and member of the Doctors within Borders Network.

This blog was originally posted by Stephanie on her website.

Syrian (im)mobilities: Thinking through mobile population health