Refugee Livelihoods: Refugee Hosts in Conversation with ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group

On Wednesday 14 June 2017, Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, PI of the Refugee Hosts project, joined a live TwitterChat with the ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) and other experts (see below) to ask: Are we doing enough for refugees? This chat was engaged with by over 25,000 people, making for a very exciting, interactive hour.

This brief post – written by Refugee Hosts’ Project and Communications Coordinator, Aydan Greatrick – highlights some of the important points raised in response to this question: much more needs to be done, but how we collectively go about meeting the needs of the world’s displaced people requires a more innovative, creative, collaborative approach, one espoused by the Refugee Hosts project.


Question 1: Who is there to support refugees in displacement?

Responses to this question highlighted how often the providers of support to refugees are assumed or taken for granted. In fact, many discussants emphasised the often under-reported roles played by established refugee communities, local faith groups, and civil society groups in providing essential, informal assistance to displaced peoples, in contrast to the large numbers of highly visible NGOs stepping in, to varying effect:

 

However, Barry Shorey of IRC disagreed – perhaps it is more a case of not enough people doing the right work?

In drawing on her research in Lebanon as part of Refugee Hosts, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh focused in particular on the diverse forms of ‘refugee-refugee solidarity‘ that exist at the local level, and how this is opening up new forms of creative and practical support for Syrian refugees.

 

She continued by noting that:

 

Crucially, there are often many instances in which local faith communities play key roles in providing assistance, protection and solidarity, a point which is being explored by the Refugee Hosts project in collaboration with our project partner the Joint Learning Initiative on Local Faith Communities, Refugees and Forced Migration 

The conversation also stressed the changing dynamics of refugee support, and the challenges and opportunities that arise through the growing reality of protraction and precarity in displacement contexts:

 

Whilst raising awareness of the important work many local communities play in responding to the needs of displaced peoples, Elena noted that it is important that we do not idealise local level responses. Nevertheless, much more can be done to ensure that humanitarians and international organisations do not ignore, or undermine, local responses. In many ways, developing better practices of working with communities might enable humanitarians to answer critical questions about our own work: who is being supported, and which refugees are ignored or marginalised by our responses?

Finally, we are reminded of how important creative engagements can be in illuminating the experience of receiving, waiting or not receiving support whilst displaced:

“In the lonely camp, in a camp that leads to nothing and to another camp, I knocked and I knocked and without turning my back I could see the feet behind me crushing the air and time.”

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, A Sudden Utterance is the Stranger 

 

In short, through her contributions to this part of the debate, Elena argued that it is crucial for us to recognise the precarious and protracted experiences of refugees, as well as the diverse, everyday ways in which both refugees and local host communities support each other in displacement contexts.


Question 2: 14M refugees are displaced around the world. Are aid agencies doing enough to respond? 

In response to this question, which built on the notion that INGOs and major humanitarian organisations might not be the most effective providers of aid, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh drew on Aydan Greatrick’s piece (published on Refugee Hosts) to argue that discourses of exceptionalism, and historical short-termism, undermine policy processes.

 

In fact, and in light of some of the more limited responses of hard-pushed INGOs struggling to keep up with mounting casework (and increasingly securitised state borders), Elena referred to Susanna Trotta’s research to argue that faith-led initiatives might offer a model of ‘replicability’ when it comes to opening up corridors of protection.

 

An important point about camps was also raised by Jeff Crisp – of Chatham House and formerly of UNHCR -, who argued that camps are a largely ineffective route to protection, yet remain a mainstay in traditional humanitarian responses to displacement:


Question 3: During displacement, what do refugees prioritise the most? 

In response to question 3, which asked what it is that refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs prioritise the most, an emphasis on dignity was apparent:

 

This is something of great interest to the interdisciplinary Refugee Hosts project, which will be exploring the diverse ways in which displacement is experienced and creatively resisted, and how dignity is (or is not) secured through everyday acts of welcome.

In drawing out acts of ‘everyday dignity’ in otherwise ‘inhospitable places’ Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh shared some recent findings from her research in Baddawi refugee camp in North Lebanon to highlight that at times, refugees may prioritise:

Q3: buying and tending plants in inhospitable spaces pic.twitter.com/GaSvRJguBE

— Refugee Hosts (@RefugeeHosts) 14 June 2017

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 18.42.41

Plants for sale in one of the markets in Baddawi camp, North Lebanon (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2017

Q3 #RefugeeLives: People combine saving their own and their families lives, with living meaningful lives, which might mean playing football… pic.twitter.com/kGvxs12G8B

— Refugee Hosts (@RefugeeHosts) June 14, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 18.44.35

A group of boys play football in the Sahrawi refugee camps in SW Algeria (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2007.

 

Indeed, alongside such displays of everyday life, dignity also emerges through creative acts, such as poetry and creative writing. Over the coming months and years, Refugee Hosts will be exploring, through creative writing and translation workshops, the role(s) played by poetry, creative writing, art and stories as modes of creative resistance and as ways of giving meaning to lives in exile.

Of course, Elena had noted in an earlier contribution (cited above) that finding dignity in displacement also relies on accessing work, education and opportunities. We might conceptualise this as a return to normalcy, and in this regard the centrality of art, faith and celebration must also be noted.

Furthermore, while we often think about human dignity through the lens of how people can live in dignity, the ability for people to die with dignity is often prioritised by displaced people themselves, a point that is clearly demonstrated by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Yousif M. Qasmiyeh’s photo essay about the cemetery in Baddawi refugee camp, North Lebanon:

Q3 #RefugeeLives – [a priority is] also being able to die and mourn in dignity

https://t.co/U3DnpL0583 pic.twitter.com/ZpS7mRMovr

— Refugee Hosts (@RefugeeHosts) June 14, 2017

Figure 3

Abu Diab, the gravedigger in Baddawi camp, with his hands at rest. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. December 2016.

 


Question 4: Should it be up to refugees themselves to overcome obstacles in their livelihoods? 

In truth, it is often refugees themselves who play a key part in overcoming barriers to their livelihoods. Protracted refugee communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – as some of the members of the local communities that our Refugee Hosts team will be working with in those countries – often play a major role in creating opportunities both for themselves, and new arrivals:

 

A key question that emerged through these discussions was: what it is that ultimately motivates these local level responses and initiatives? Drawing on the points raised vis-a-vis dignity, we might understand the act of hosting, of welcoming your fellow refugee, as one that provides dignity to those who, according to the humanitarian narrative, are usually rendered passive recipients of aid. In this way the entire concept of livelihoods can be problematised and expanded to include the often overlooked ways in which displaced peoples overcome barriers of (un)belonging through acts of solidarity, art, faith and everyday life.

In particular, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s research draws on Jean Luc-Nancy to argue that everyday acts of ‘being with refugees’ – including through what Elena terms ‘refugee-refugee relationality’ – provide a form of dignity typically frustrated by policy frameworks that treat displaced peoples as ‘suffering victims’ or ‘passive receivers of aid.’  With the conversation increasingly focusing on the important presence of community,  Elena argues that we must recognise refugees’ relationality not only toward NGOs and states, but also towards other refugees and hosts:

Q4 : refugees don’t (usually) live in isolation–we need to think about refugee relationality:  http://bit.ly/2h5fakJ

— Refugee Hosts (@RefugeeHosts) 14 June 2017

 

And finally, it is imperative that agencies and organisations working with refugees are held to account, so that obstacles can be overcome and not strengthened in times of crisis:

Q4 #RefugeeLives: we need to hold different actors accountable, to remove obstacles that prevent refugees from supporting themselves and others pic.twitter.com/8RK3HS6lWU

— Refugee Hosts (@RefugeeHosts) 14 June 2017

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 18.52.47

Children waiting in the Sahrawi refugee camps, SW Algeria (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2007


Question 5: With 60% of refugees living outside camps, what role do host communities play?

The growing number of refugees and asylum seekers living outside of camps needs to be reconciled with. The implications here are broad, and demonstrate a trend in humanitarian work where it is increasingly acknowledged that local communities – not professional NGOs or states – are typically first responders to conflict-induced displacement.

 

Yet, in recognising this, we must not idealise local community responses, nor misrepresent them as a utopian example of hospitality: they are often wrought with tensions that must be meaningfully grappled with.

One such example of how these local tensions are navigated can be found on our blog. In this piece, Tahir Zaman of SOAS discusses the struggle to create a mobile commons in Athens, a place where refugees and hosts alike find solidarity to resist what they perceive to be the failures of the state to meet their basic needs:

Q5 #RefugeeLives: Host communities often also live in precarious conditions: this may lead to acts of solidarity: https://t.co/x94oNXPXIw

— Refugee Hosts (@RefugeeHosts) June 14, 2017

Image 3 TZ

People on the move are giving back by volunteering at a soup kitchen for homeless people in Athens (c) T. Zaman, 2017.

 

Moreover, the challenges of living in urban areas, where emergency provision and assistance is less easily administered by NGOs, mean that further marginalisation, poverty and exploitation can ensue. Refugee Hosts research in Baddawi camp, Lebanon, and in Istanbul, Turkey, has highlighted this through a series of photo galleries, both of which capture the often tense and fractured contexts that frame the political responses of host communities there. However, as Barri Shore pointed out, organisations – including IRC – are finding opportunities to support refugee livelihoods through municipalities that offer ways forward for both refugees and hosts:

Municipalities like Akkar doing great work @theIRC has livelihood center there serving host and refugee communities with employment support

— Barri (@BarriShorey) 14 June 2017

 

Barri Shore’s reference to Akkar echoed a point made by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh who, drawing on Estella Carpi’s recent piece on our blog, noted that local responses in this region of Lebanon were facilitating a deliberate construction of a ‘refugee-other’, despite the historically porous frontiers that have existed between Syrian and Lebanese communities that span this border region. In this context, how ‘being a refugee’ reconstructs local community relations – and inter-community tensions – at the local level, bears some further consideration.

Moreover, who the host ‘is’ in these urban (camp) settings becomes a further source of contestation. In Baddawi, Lebanon, we see a number of ‘hybrid hosts’ operating in this space. These are people who belong to established refugee communities from Palestine, IDPs or other Syrian refugees. They are not citizens of the state yet they operate as hosts inside the urban space. How willingly this hosting is carried out, especially when many of these peoples are themselves seeking international protection or recognition from UNRWA and/or UNHCR, is questionable, highlighting a challenge at the local level that humanitarians and policy makers must grapple with sooner rather than later:

 

Leading on to the next question, which explored the role(s) played by states in responding to displacement, journalist Moulid Houjale noted that – in light of the increasingly urban nature of refugee experiences – integration must be encouraged. How far states are willing to commit to this though is questionable in light of the securitisation of borders and the fortification of citizenship:

 

Question 6: How do host state policies affect #RefugeeLives?

 

Recognising the roles played by municipal authorities is useful if we are to build on the discussions relating to local community responses to displacement, a point made earlier with regard to IRC’s work in Akkar. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, in building on her research conducted as part of the Refugee Hosts project, argues that, whilst state policies do frame protection contexts, working with and through municipal government lends some extra flexibility.

Indeed, as Zehra Rizvi of Avenir Analytics pointed out, the role of state-initiated support, can magnify problems and exacerbate challenges, especially on the local level:

 

Adding to this point, Daniel Howden – editor of Refugees Deeply – directed the panel toward their recent report on state policies in Greece. They note that a deep mistrust between central government and local groups has opened up, a consequence of a profoundly challenging context where recent economic depression has helped to limit the credibility of the state:


Question 7+8: Half of the world’s refugees have been displaced for 10 years but we have few long-term solutions. Why? And what can be done to better support #RefugeeLives?

 

The answer to these questions might well be the same: we need to get better at producing knowledge with and about communities of refugees and hosts long affected by displacement. This point resonated throughout the ODI-HPG Twitter Chat, with many participants emphasising the ways in which such communities are overlooked by academic and policy debates. But there is also a need to come to terms with ongoing trends at the state and local levels. Refugee Hosts believes one option is to encourage the co-production of solutions to displacement with those communities most affected by it:

 

Ben Rawlance – author of ‘City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Biggest Refugee Camp‘ and former Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch (Horn of Africa) – also added that our notions of ‘citizenship’ and rights is failing the world’s displaced, replacing historic rights of residency with the law of nativism:

 

In short, there appears to be a desperate need to change the narrative both about displacement and about hosting. By working with local communities, and by recognising the diverse, everyday ways in which refugees and hosts alike find dignity in displacement, we can make this happen. In many ways, we might address these issues through a renewed political will to not only uphold rights protections but also to challenge the status quo – we must act in solidarity rather than charity.

 

This is a key aim of the Refugee Hosts project, and one which we hope to realise by engaging with refugee lives and livelihoods in the broadest sense of the term, through not only policy-relevant frameworks, but also poetry, creative writing and a deep understanding of history and political theology. To this end, our interdisciplinary team, with the support of our partners and the communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey with whom we are working, seek to reshape the humanitarian narrative in ways that resonate with this debate:

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Expert panelists involved in the chat include:

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Featured Image (c) ODI

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