Refugee Neighbours & Hostipitality

Refugee Neighbours & Hostipitality

Exploring The Complexities of refugee-refugee humanitarianism

By Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (University College London) and Yousif M. Qasmiyeh (University of Oxford)

Jan 5, 2017          Picture: Department for International Development/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s And Who Is My Neighbour? Exclusive

In spite of the Western media becoming saturated with accounts pertaining to the refugee crisis in Europe, the vast majority of refugees from Syria continue to be hosted in neighbouring countries: 1,075,637 in Lebanon, 633,644 in Jordan and 2,181,293 in Turkey by 1 December 2015. While European states and political parties debate how to respond to this crisis and where – with the UK threatening to redirect foreign aid allocated to programs in the global South in order to provide resources for local councils to house refugees in Britain – the most significant actors supporting refugees from this conflict have arguably been local communities and civil society organisations in LebanonJordan and Turkey. The diverse initiatives developed by individuals and communities in Syria’s neighbouring countries are clear examples of the importance of South-South humanitarian responses to forced migration [1], and they complement and at times challenge the projects funded and developed by states and aid agencies from across the global North.

The members of these local communities include Lebanese, Jordanian and Turkish citizens, but also protracted refugees who had sought sanctuary in Lebanon and Jordan long before the outbreak of the conflict in Syria or the violence that has engulfed the region since 2010. These ‘established protracted refugees’ – including in particular Palestinians and Iraqis in Lebanon and Jordan – have offered key forms of assistance and protection to ‘new refugees’ from Syria through what we can call ‘refugee-refugee humanitarianism.’

In many ways, refugee-led initiatives challenge widely held (although equally widely contested) assumptions that refugees are passive victims in need of care from outsiders. The example of ‘established’ Palestinian refugees offering humanitarian support to ‘new’ refugees situates these refugees as active providers of support, rather than dependent recipients; equally, it reflects the extent to which refugee camps can become ‘shared spaces’, spaces to which ‘new’ refugees can head in search of safety [2]. However, far from idealising these responses, this example simultaneously raises key questions: to what extent are local responses to conflict characterised by power imbalances, processes of exclusion and overt hostility? And how sustainable can refugee-refugee humanitarianism be in contexts of widespread precariousness and violence?



In this context, Jacques Derrida’s notion of hostipitality is particularly pertinent in elucidating, as well as problematising, the relationship between welcoming and rejecting neighbours in times of conflict and peace alike. In essence, Derrida’s coinage highlights that ‘hospitality’ – in this context, the welcoming attitudes and practices embodied by neighbours towards newly or recently displaced refugees from Syria – is always “parasitized by its opposite, ‘hostility’, the undesirable guest which it harbours as the self-contradiction within its own body.”[3] Hospitality, as such, is never absolute: the possibility of rejection – and overt violence – is always already there. A neighbour can only ever welcome another neighbour in a conditional way – to offer welcome is always already to have the power to delimit the space or place that is being offered to the Other. As such, whether we are the host or the guest in asylum, Derrida argues both that we do not know what hospitality is – it is ultimately unknowable and also unachievable – and that hospitality itself inherently bears its own opposition (and opposite), the ever present possibility of hostility towards the Other who has, at one time, been welcomed at the threshold. Yet, Derrida concludes: “Perhaps no one welcomed is ever completely welcome”.[4] In effect, Palestinians – whether the hosts or the guests in the case-study we explore below – have never ‘known’ what it is to ‘be’ “completely welcome[d]” in the Middle East.

Indeed, before turning to either a reflection on the case of ‘established’ Palestinian refugees in Lebanon offering assistance to their ‘neighbours’ from Syria, or returning to the notion of hospitality, it is important to consider the multiple meanings (and the etymology) of the term ‘neighbour’ itself. In this case, rather than tracing the etymology in English and its various settings, we offer a brief note on its meaning in Arabic, the language spoken by the majority of refugees displaced from Syria to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and by the majority of the neighbouring communities which have hosted refugees from Syria in the first two of these.



The word ‘neighbour’ has multiple connotations and faces. In the Arabic language, as well as in the Islamic tradition, the word ‘neighbour’ itself is governed by a range of settings; these include religious settings but also mundane or less holy contexts related to everyday life. When we examine the term’s etymology, as well as its various uses and nuances, it is therefore helpful to consider its meaning in relation to the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition (the Sunnah), but also with regards to interpretations that are not related to religion or might even be deemed ‘unholy’.

Qur’anically and according to the Sunnah, the term neighbour has a clear spatial and moral reading that is defined, reaffirmed and demarcated by proximity, neighbourhood and charity. Simultaneously, however, if we view the same term in another set of social encounters and through its various usages in Arabic throughout history, we find that the concept can invoke antagonism, antonyms as well as organic clashes with the overarching religious canon. A clear example of this schism of interpretation is embodied in the definition of the term ‘neighbour’ offered in Lisan Al-Arab, which is the authoritative and encyclopaedic Arabic dictionary. According to Lisan Al-Arab, the neighbour is thus:

The one whose house is next to yours, the stranger, the partner, the beneficiary, the ally, the supporter, the spouse, the intimate parts, the house that is closer to the coast, the good, the bad, the hypocrite, the changeable, the kind.[5]

Bearing this ambivalence and semantic (and functional) rupture in mind, and in light of Derrida’s hostipitality, we now turn to the case of neighbourly humanitarianism in Northern Lebanon.


“We arrived in the camp, not in Lebanon”

Baddawi refugee camp in North Lebanon was established in 1955 and – while estimates vary widely – was home to between 25,000 – 40,000 Palestinian refugees before the outbreak of the current conflict in Syria. Like other Palestinian camps across Lebanon, it has long been characterised by violence and lawlessness, with the camps being spaces which are beyond Lebanese jurisdiction; indeed they were commonly referred to as ‘islands of insecurity’ well before the outbreak of the conflict in Syria. Nonetheless, Baddawi has also become a space of protection and assistance for thousands of ‘new’ refugees[6] from Syria since 2011. These include Syrian nationals who have fled violence and persecution in their country, but also Syrian Palestinians, Kurds and Iraqis who have been displaced from refugee camps and cities across that country. Whilst they may be categorised as ‘new’ arrivals in Lebanon and Jordan when compared with these ‘established’ refugee communities, it is important to note that refugees from Syria are now officially categorised as protracted refugees; indeed, for many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Iraqis, this is the second, third or fourth time that they have been displaced by conflict, thereby experiencing overlapping refugeedoms.

Throughout fieldwork in Lebanon this summer, many interviewees in Baddawi camp reiterated that when they fled Syria “we arrived in the camp” and just “passed through Lebanon.” Having crossed the Syrian-Lebanese border, they were physically on Lebanese territory and yet explained that they had travelled directly to, and arrived in, Baddawi camp, where established residents and local organisations offered them shelter, food and clothes. In many ways, the camp has superseded the Lebanese state, insofar as many refugees from Syria explicitly identified Baddawi as their destination point from the very onset of their journeys. Indeed, in spite of the extreme poverty and – amongst other things – the ad hoc clashes that at times take place between the Palestinian factions that compete to assert their presence and/or to control different parts of the camp, Baddawi continues to be perceived by many ‘new’ refugees as being safer than any of the spaces available outside of the existing Palestinian camps. In this context, the Palestinian refugee camps are simultaneously ‘islands of insecurity’ and ‘islands’ that are in many ways separated from national Lebanese policies vis-à-vis ‘new’ refugees, whether these national policies offer support or, as is increasingly the case, restrictions on their presence in Lebanon.


Refugee-refugee solidarity… and hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion

In many ways, arriving in the camp – whether Baddawi or other camps in Lebanon – has reflected the emergence of a new form of solidarity: solidarity between old and new refugees. Established refugees in Baddawi camp and ‘new’ refugees often have a great deal in common, providing strong foundations for this form of refugee-refugee support: they share the legal and political status of being refugees and an embodied understanding of the nature and impacts of violence, dispossession and displacement. In the context of Palestinians from Syria, including those who had fled the destruction of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, some share direct family connections; all share the overarching Palestinian nationality. They also now share the increasingly cramped space of Baddawi refugee camp.

Sharing limited spaces: growing verticality and static horizontality (C) Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh
Sharing limited spaces: growing verticality and static horizontality (C) Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

Sharing this space has, in many ways, been an opportunity to form part of the broader refugee nation, a space of solidarity in which they can ‘be with’ other refugees, rather than arriving as strangers to a Lebanese city. However, this does not mean that all refugees in Baddawi are positioned equally, have been equally welcomed, or have had equal access to the services and resources available. In effect, a hierarchy of refugee-ness has emerged, as reflected in the terms used in this article: established residents describe ‘Other’ refugees ‘as’ refugees, clearly differentiating between the camps’ natives (the original, authentic refugees) and the newcomers (somehow inauthentic and challenging the rights of ‘established’ refugees). Indeed, this differentiation between the refugee Self and Other parallels increasing competition between established and new refugees, not only over the limited space in the camps, but also over increasingly limited resources and job opportunities there.

Neighbouring or Colliding Spaces? (C) Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh
Neighbouring or Colliding Spaces? (C) Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

Baddawi camp has become a space in which both of the United Nations’ refugee agencies are present: the ‘global refugee agency’, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), providing assistance and protection to all refugees from Syria apart from Palestinians, while the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has a mandate to provide support only to Palestinian refugees, including both established and new Palestinian refugees in the camp. Following UNHCR’s arrival in the camps, camp residents have transformed ‘UNHCR’ into a verb: the camps have been ‘UNHCR-ized.’ Through this process, Palestinians who had originally worked for UNRWA – the main employer in the camps – have shifted, when possible, to UNHCR positions, which are more highly paid than UNRWA roles. ‘Established’ Palestinian refugees who used to provide help to other Palestinians in the camp through UNRWA are now helping Syrian refugees through UNHCR. Both institutions are struggling to provide meaningful support to the expanding population, and all refugees – ‘established’ and ‘new’ alike – are suffering in the process.

Many refugees from Syria arrived in the camp with some savings and basic items to sell and barter, and yet these have long-disappeared and ‘new refugees’ are increasingly relying on ‘established’ refugees, including relatives and friends, but also wider members of the local community, local mosques and NGOs that are locally-run by refugees with limited national or international support. Indeed, sources of local assistance for Palestinians from Syria have become even more urgent after UNRWA was forced, in May 2015, to suspend its cash assistance to help accommodate the more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria who are currently seeking sanctuary in Lebanon.

The need for local support has thus been solidified, and yet with Baddawi camp’s already limited services and infrastructure being severely under-resourced, established camp residents and local organisations are increasingly running out of resources to support ‘new’ refugees, and, indeed, their own immediate families. On the one hand, this is leading to tension and insecurity amongst and between new and established groups of refugees in Baddawi. On the other hand, tensions between refugees and the citizens of hosting countries have also been extensively documented, including not only in Lebanon, but also around the world. Also paralleling the dynamics found in other refugee situations, in Baddawi ‘new’ and ‘established’ interviewees alike denounced the abuse and exploitation of ‘new’ refugees by local service providers. These forms of abuse are, sadly, common across refugee situations around the world, where men, women and children are often subjected to human rights violations by other refugees, international aid providers, or international peacekeepers.


Solidarity, neighbourliness or hostipitality?

In this highly complex and under-resourced crisis, refugee-refugee humanitarianism is filling a significant gap, providing material, emotional and spiritual support to individuals, families and groups who have been displaced – often for the second or third time – by the on-going Syrian conflict. Such support is highly valued by many ‘new’ refugees, and yet local, refugee-to-refugee assistance, by neighbours who are simultaneously identified as part of the refugee Self but also the refugee Other, is becoming increasingly unsustainable. From the initial sense of sorority and fraternity that underpinned the ‘welcoming’ of ‘new’ refugees by Palestinians in Baddawi camp, established refugees have increasingly questioned the short-, medium-, and longer-term implications of hosting ‘new’ refugees and of the UNHCR-ization of the camps. As established residents have refocused on their own situations, hospitality has been increasingly replaced by a sense of detachment from ‘new’ refugees’ needs; ultimately, this has shifted to a response that has embodied, at best, the ‘unwelcoming’ of ‘new refugees’, and at worst, overt hostility and violence, thereby reaffirming the inherent tensions within neighbourliness and hostipitality alike.

Footnotes & References

[1] Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena. (2015) South-South educational migration, humanitarianism and development: Views from the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East, Oxford: Routledge.

[2] Qasmiyeh, Yousif. M and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena (2013) “Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation,” in J. Garnett and A. Harriss (Eds) Rescripting Religion in the City, Farnham: Ashgate. pp. 131-143.

[3] Derrida, Jacques (2000), ‘Hostipitality,’ Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 5(3): 3-8, p.3.

[4] Derrida, Jacques (2000), ‘Hostipitality,’ Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 5(3): 3-8, p.6.

[5] Yousif M. Qasmiyeh’s translation.

[6] This is not the first time that Palestinian refugees in Baddawi have hosted ‘new’ refugees, having provided sanctuary to an additional 15,000 Palestinians displaced from near-by Nahr el-Bared refugee camp when that camp was destroyed during the fighting between Fatah Al-Islam and the Lebanese army in 2007. 10,000 Palestinians from Nahr el-Bared camp remained in Baddawi by 2009. See Qasmiyeh, Yousif. M and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena (2013) “Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation,” in J. Garnett and A. Harriss (Eds) Rescripting Religion in the City, Farnham: Ashgate. pp. 131-143.


Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh is Lecturer in Human Geography, Co-Director of the Migration Research Unit, and the coordinator of the Refuge in a Moving World research network at University College London. Her recent publications include The Ideal Refugees: Gender, Islam and the Sahrawi Politics of Survival (Syracuse University Press, 2014), The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (Oxford University Press, 2014), and South-South Educational Migration, Humanitarianism and Development: Views from the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East (Routledge, 2015). In October 2015, Elena was awarded a 2015 Philip Leverhulme Prize, which will support her on-going research into South-South humanitarian responses to conflict-induced displacement in the Middle East.

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh is a poet, translator, and Tutor in Arabic at the Language Centre, University of Oxford. His articles have been published in the Journal of Refugee Studies, and in edited collections including Rescripting Religion in the City: Migration and Religious Identity in the Modern Metropolis (Ashgate, 2013) and Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora (Edinburgh University Press, 2016). His poetry and translations have appeared in Critical QuarterlySee How I Land (Heaventree Press, 2009), The Oxonian Review, and Modern Poetry in Translation.

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