Despite media hysteria and popular preconceptions, the majority of refugees from the Middle East do not end up in Western Europe, but are displaced locally to neighbouring countries. People fleeing conflict and oppression often find themselves hosted in communities by refugees who have settled there before them. Creating the best means of helping those in flight involves understanding the complex dynamics of the communities involved.

More than five million refugees have fled conflict in Syria, yet few media outlets have reported that the vast majority of those seeking sanctuary do not come to Europe, but find refuge in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.  Local communities, civil society groups, established refugee communities, and faith-based organisations provide essential assistance, solidarity and support to refugees. In this complex and sensitive area, however, the motivation and impact of these groups’ responses requires greater analysis and understanding.

Lyndsey Stonebridge, Professor of Humanities and Human Rights at the University of Birmingham and member of the University’s Institute for Research into Superdiversity, (IRiS), joined fellow researchers across a range of disciplines to set up the Refugee Hosts programme in 2015, led by Professor Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh from UCL. Working with nine communities across Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the AHRC-ESRC funded project aims to better understand the challenges and opportunities faced by refugees from Syria and people in the communities hosting them.

Professor Stonebridge cites Baddawi Camp, in Lebanon, as a prime example of the complex nature of the communities now hosting Syrian refugees. Established in 1955 and located near Tripoli, Baddawi attracted large numbers of Palestine refugees displaced from camps destroyed in the mid-1970s and 2007. Damaged during the Lebanese civil war, the camp saw several waves of displacement; all of which placed significant strain on its infrastructure and agency-provided services.

“The story of Baddawi Camp is rarely told, but perfectly illustrates how complex the dynamics of refugee communities in the Middle East can be; it has a long history of taking in refugees on top of those who are already there. Rather than going elsewhere, some people fleeing the conflict in Syria chose to go to Baddawi Camp where they were provided with shelter and support from long-term refugees.”

“With UN agencies competing to provide healthcare, education and provisions and the US Government withdrawing funding from UNRWA, the camp was under enormous pressure even before the impact of coronavirus. Baddawi Camp went into voluntary lockdown weeks before the UK and has remained so.”

The Refugee Hosts programme is in its final phase, and a number of research papers along with a policy handbook are forthcoming. A key element of the project has been creative writing and photography; interventions by artists, writers and creatives has helped to create an online conversation across a diverse range of contributors. In particular, workshops with refugees in the partner communities have allowed Professor Stonebridge and her fellow researchers to tease out nuances of relationships between members of the refugee communities.

“Refugee Hosts was conceived in the midst of crisis as the situation in Syria developed; moral and political pain was coursing through the region, leaving governments and aid agencies facing massive challenges. We’ve taken a multi-disciplinary approach to unlocking understanding bringing in social scientists, health experts and political theologians.

“With my own background in literature, and working closely with our poet ‘in-residence’, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, who was born and raised in Baddawi Camp and whose research and writing explores time, the archive and the camp, we have found that creative elements such as poetry and discussion can be incredibly powerful tools to open up analysis of the situations that refugees and communities find themselves in. The creative side of the project has gained a lot of traction – our ‘end-of-project’ conference earlier this year was screened live with Arabic translation across the Middle East and Europe.”

The project is also finding traction closer to home in the UK. Refugees: Forced to Flee recently opened at the Imperial War Museum London, part of the Refugee Hosts programme and an exhibition rooted in the cutting-edge research of Professor Stonebridge and her fellow researchers.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the exhibition explores the decisions and consequences faced by those whose lives have been shattered by war over the past 100 years. It tells the stories of refugees in different times and places – from those fleeing Belgium in the First World War to those escaping conflict in modern-day Syria.

Professor Stonebridge was co-investigator on the Religion and Social Justice for Refugees Project - a partnership between the Refugee Hosts team and Yale University – funded by the British Council and led by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh Zareena Grewal with Unni Karunakara.

This saw her carrying out interviews with legal experts and representatives from Non-Governmental Organisations and faith-based groups. The resulting report was launched in March 2020 and provided wider insight into the dynamics of refugee communities in Cameroon, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia and Mexico.

The researchers found that states and human rights frameworks have often failed to offer meaningful protection to refugees – leading to a wide range of groups, including refugees themselves, faith-based organisations and local communities seeking to fill the gaps not only left by states, but often created or manufactured by them.

Professor Stonebridge is clear that story of refugee-led, faith-inspired responses to displacement needs to be told more widely.

“The work taking place at community level is so often invisible, as the mainstream media focusses on the narrative of refugees, particularly those who are Muslims, either as victims needing rescue or a ‘stateless’ political and social threat that is unfit for European or North American citizenship.

“Humanitarianism is a response to systemic, political failures; acknowledging this allows us to focus on the ways in which religion can promote social justice for refugees by addressing structural barriers that reproduce inequalities, exclusion, violence and marginalisation.

“Our Religion and Social Justice for Refugees report raises a range of highly topical issues around the ways in which religion has been not just politicised, but weaponised in terms of refugees. Religious and faith-based groups are providing important support to refugees, often filling the gaps left by conventional aid agencies. We still need a deeper understanding of the significance of hosting to the hosts, but it is clear that what Refugee Hosts’ project investigator Professor Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, refers to as ‘refugee-to-refugee humanitarianism’ is far more important than has been recognised until now.”


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