The Logics of Relatedness in Conditions of Forced Migration. Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon

Verantwortlicher Elisabeth Nössing, M.A.
Trägerschaft Institut für Islamwissenschaft und Neuere Orientalische Philologie; École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales
Betreuung Prof. Dr. Anke von Kügelgen, Prof. Dr. Tassadit Yacine, Prof. Dr. Édouard Conte
Finanzierung Schweizerischer Nationalfonds

Aus Sicherheitsgründen wurde beschlossen, die Feldforschungen in Jordanien und Libanon nicht wie geplant durchzuführen. Das Projekt findet sich darum momentan in Umgestaltung.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, in addition to an estimated 220,000 fatalities, some 4 million officially registered persons have been forced to abandon their homeland, while an estimated 7.6 million are internally displaced. This constitutes the most massive wave of forced displacement and migration since the end of World War II and by far the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis today.

Aid organisations classify refugees as individuals, households, or into vulnerable categories. They neglect the potential of kinship and ad hoc collectives to foster mutual assistance, grant socio-psychological security, and improve living conditions in forced exile. In Arab societies, personal identities are based on belonging to extended kinship groups. Exile fragments but does not dissolve these collectives; the related values, rights, and duties remain operative. Yet individual legitimacy, and thereby membership of a kinship collective, can only be transmitted through paternal descent, from father to child. In practice, though, the vast majority of refugee children do not possess legal proof of paternity. And women can transmit neither nationality nor refugee status to their offspring. This project focuses on transformations of war-fragmented kinship collectives. This requires elucidating the key process of nasab, which, constituted through marriage, ascribes individual and collective affiliations ranging from individual legitimacy to membership of overarching communities in accordance with the transgenerational succession of patronymics. The multiplication of breaches of nasab among refugees generates disruptive phenomena including early, forced, and exploitative forms of marriage, child labour and human trafficking, as well as illegitimacy and statelessness. Nasab, based on sharp gender asymmetry, may, according to context, produce either inclusion or exclusion.

We hypothesize that the potential for Syrian refugees to ‘integrate’ within the host society through marriage is limited. This restriction is related to the widespread preference for unions among kin in the region. Yet, refugees have few cousins on the spot and are, further, not considered equal partners by non-related locals. The logic of matrimonial alliance can thus, on the one hand, foster the integration of refugees who dispose of kinship ties in the host society while, on the other hand, excluding those refugees who lack the relations and economic resources to be considered marriageable by locals. Beyond the vulnerable marrying the vulnerable, the only remaining option for refugees consists in accepting strongly asymmetrical unions, linking, for example, refugee girls with older or richer, local or foreign, men seeking a second spouse or a ‘traveller’s marriage’. Such unions presuppose and further entail breaches of nasab. They are not to be viewed as accidents, rather as the structural consequence of the fusion of nasab dynamics, gender inequality, and the economic disparity resulting from exile; they perpetuate refugees’ vulnerability, divest women of honour and deprive children of nasab. These hypotheses will be tested in Irbid (Jordan) and Beirut (Lebanon) through broad-scale genealogical and network analysis conducted in the course of participant observation.

Applying these methods to the study of collectives – rather than to individuals, nuclear families, or aggregates – can attenuate the implications of anomy by helping to strengthen integrative processes in concrete situations of dislocation and disempowerment. We argue that people can and do resist autocracy and forced displacement by maintaining close and extended ties of relatedness in the face of dislocation. We will ask how people use long-established relational techniques to come to terms with systemic violence in their daily lives as refugees. Care will be given to map extant and potential networks of solidarity through which relations of kinship and neighbourliness become mutually constitutive and reinforcing. The knowledge thus gained in close dialogue with refugees will be applied to document and, hopefully, validate the identities of vulnerable persons. In sum, this project aims to grasp how local dialectics of inclusive vs. exclusive processes and practices of kinship, marriage, and elective proximity evolve in exile.

The knowledge generated will improve the provision of legal aid by specialised organisations in Jordan and Lebanon through which team members will engage in participant observation. Closer to home, the theses and articles presented will help clarify the personal status of the mostly unregistered and undocumented Syrians who reach the coasts of Europe, while contributing to elucidate collective patterns of migration. Together, these results will form the base of training courses in Switzerland.