‘Did you hear? @ZaatariCamp is now serving pizza! #Refugees can be entrepreneurs too!’Footnote 1
In contrast to longstanding portrayals of refugees as passive and dependent on the largesse of humanitarian organisations, in recent years the ‘refugee entrepreneur’ has emerged as a significant figure in humanitarian, media, and academic portrayals of refugees. Positioning refugees as ‘entrepreneurs’ is both the latest iteration of a longstanding humanitarian emphasis on refugee ‘self-reliance’, and a reflection of the changing nature of humanitarianism, which increasingly promotes ‘innovation’ and ‘resilience’ among refugee populations, in lieu of re-establishing the severed connection between state and citizen that refugeehood represents.Footnote 2 Simultaneously, the promotion of ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ can be understood as part of attempts, through an emphasis on refugees’ agency and creativity, to re-imagine refugees as an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘resource’, rather than a ‘burden’ or a ‘threat’.Footnote 3 Some therefore deploy the idea of ‘refugee entrepreneurship’ in an attempt to challenge and change narratives that feed hostility towards refugees. Yet, as this article will demonstrate through a critical analysis of humanitarian understandings and depictions of the Syrian ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ of Za‘tari refugee camp in Jordan,Footnote 4 in this context the vision of ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ is inextricably intertwined with processes of racialisation, which serve to reproduce both white supremacy and anti-black racism.
Specifically, this article argues that humanitarian designations of Syrian refugees in Za‘tari as ‘entrepreneurs’ is a positioning of Syrian refugees within and relative to the racial hierarchies that have long pervaded humanitarian work. In ‘the field’, many humanitarians informally but explicitly position Syrian refugees as ‘non-African’. In their creativity, energy, and focus on what is deemed ‘entrepreneurship’, Syrian refugees are regularly understood to be both distinct from and superior to ‘African’ refugees, with whom many humanitarians are more accustomed to working, and who occupy a central position in how refugeehood and humanitarianism are often imagined. This designation of Syrians as ‘entrepreneurs’ simultaneously reproduces the longstanding idea of Syrians as ‘Levantine’, and thereby somehow ‘natural’ traders. These new processes of racialisation, therefore, map onto their equally problematic predecessors. In online articles, tweets, and commentary, however, humanitarian actors’ explicit comparisons with ‘Africans’ disappear, as they attempt to portray Syrians in Za‘tari as ‘entrepreneurs’ in order to enable them to be perceived as closer to whiteness, and to thereby generate sympathy and acceptance for them among middle-class, Western audiences and donors, who are imagined as white. In this context, therefore, the positioning of Syrian refugees as ‘entrepreneurs’ is inseparable from white supremacy and anti-blackness. Humanitarian actors rely on, and reproduce, globally circulating colonial hierarchies of race, which mediate their interactions with, and understandings of, the Syrian population of Za‘tari.
In the context of Za‘tari, as in all contexts, there are multiple (often overlapping) rationalities that structure and inform humanitarianism. By foregrounding the racialised hierarchies of humanitarianism, in official and unofficial humanitarian discourses and ideas, I am purposefully centring a crucial yet understudied aspect of humanitarian work. In doing so, I offer two central contributions to scholarship. Firstly, this article responds to Adia Benton's call for greater engagement with ‘professional humanitarianism's thorny and under-examined relationship with anti-blackness and white supremacy’.Footnote 5 As will shortly be discussed, questions of race are similarly marginalised and under-studied within the discipline of International Relations (IR) as a whole. In responding to Benton's call, and to the wider shortage of analyses of race and racialisation within IR, the article expands scholarly understandings of the centrality of race and racial hierarchies to humanitarianism, by demonstrating some of the ways in which race is operationalised in discussions and portrayals of ‘refugee entrepreneurship’. In line with the broader trend of using the study of ‘micro-moves’ to shed light on broader concepts and processes in IR,Footnote 6 it contributes to a ‘deepen[ing of] the evidentiary base for claims linking race … and humanitarianism’.Footnote 7 It furthermore does so through a focus on a context – Za‘tari camp – that has become one of the key sites for imagining the ‘refugee crisis’.Footnote 8
Secondly, this article asks critical questions about the political work and effects of the figure of the ‘refugee entrepreneur’, and thereby also contributes to debates on both portrayals of refugees and the changing nature of the contemporary humanitarian system. The terminology of ‘refugee entrepreneurship’ is often incorporated in both academic and non-academic production on refugees, which can thereby reproduce and reinforce the racialised hierarchies that create surprise and even amazement at the skills of Syrians. Even when narratives of ‘entrepreneurship’ do not involve the same explicit racial comparisons, the perceived connotations of the ‘entrepreneurial ideal’ mean that these designations still contain positionings of refugees relative to hierarchies of race, as well as gender, class, and ability. The narrative of ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ furthermore instrumentalises the survival strategies of marginalised populations. In line with ‘resiliency humanitarianism’,Footnote 9 it shifts attention to how refugees can (and thus implicitly should) adapt to their new circumstances, rather than facilitating demands for human rights, political change, and humanitarian support. ‘Refugee entrepreneurs’ do not need the support of states or humanitarians, but rather to be allowed to embrace the forces of free-market capitalism.Footnote 10
The article proceeds by firstly outlining how, despite scholarly production on the centrality of race to the ways in which the figure of ‘the refugee’ has been popularly imagined, scholarship on humanitarianism largely replicates the broader ‘racial aphasia’ of the discipline of IR.Footnote 11 Subsequently, a background to Za‘tari is provided, including an exploration of the camp's market, which is central to portrayals of the camp as a space of ‘entrepreneurship’. The article then tackles, in turn, different aspects of the racialisations involved in the designation of Syrians as ‘entrepreneurs’. Firstly, it analyses how humanitarian actors’ relationships with Syrians are mediated by understandings of Syrians as ‘non-African’, and sometimes as ‘Levantine’, before examining how Syrians are positioned as ‘entrepreneurs’ in humanitarian online content, in order to enable them to be perceived, by Western audiences, as closer to whiteness. These portrayals, it demonstrates, are regularly replicated in both media and academic production on refugees in Za‘tari. Following this, the article examines the implications of these arguments for portrayals of non-Syrian refugees as ‘refugee entrepreneurs’, before finally considering the place of ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ in the evolving humanitarian system.
The analysis presented here is primarily based on fieldwork in Jordan that took place from September 2015 to August 2016. This fieldwork included 27 days of participant and non-participant observation in Za‘tari, primarily through my work with the Jordanian NGO Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD), and via a research permit from the Jordanian Ministry of Interior. Over the course of this fieldwork, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 28 humanitarian and NGO workers; 10 officials from donor agencies, think tanks, and the private sector; and 32 Syrian refugees living inside and outside of the camp. Many of the Syrian interviewees in Za‘tari were working in the camp's market, and others were ‘volunteering’ for humanitarian organisations through ‘Cash for Work’ schemes. Interviews were conducted with Syrians in Arabic, and with humanitarian workers primarily in English (although some included exchanges in Arabic). All of my Syrian interviewees, and the vast majority of humanitarian interviewees, have been anonymised, at their request. In addition to these more formal interviews, the article draws on numerous informal conversations and interactions with Syrian refugees and humanitarian workers, both inside and outside of Za‘tari. The deployment of this in-depth, textured, ethnographically informed analysis, comes in the context of a wider movement in the discipline of IR to analyse ‘where structures are enacted and contested’, and to do so ‘through the lenses of lived, embodied and experiential everyday processes’.Footnote 12 Furthermore, drawing on Stuart Hall's insights into intertextuality, the article analyses humanitarian actors’ online communications about the camp, with a focus on websites and twitter accounts run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which, together with the Jordanian Government, governs Za‘tari camp.
Race, refugees, and International Relations
As numerous scholars have demonstrated, despite its importance in both the foundation of the discipline, and its centrality to international politics, the topic of race is typically absent from IR scholarship.Footnote 13 The discipline suffers from racial aphasia, a ‘calculated forgetting, an obstruction of discourse, language and speech’.Footnote 14 Nevertheless, while academic work on race and IR remains a ‘marginal enterprise’,Footnote 15 there has been a noticeable increase in the volume of academic production on race in/and IR.Footnote 16 Of particular relevance to the analysis presented in this article, is this scholarship's clear demonstration that the racial structures created by slavery, colonialism, and capitalism continue to be central to the operations of international politics, the workings of contemporary capitalism, and the racialised nature of the global order.Footnote 17 Patrick Wolfe thus describes race as ‘colonialism speaking’, and racialisation as the ‘active productivity of race’, which does not describe human groups, but rather ‘brings them into being’.Footnote 18 Colonised populations, Wolfe explains, ‘continue to be racialised in specific ways that mark out and reproduce … unequal relationships’.Footnote 19 While this article is primarily grounded in IR scholarship, these points have of course similarly been demonstrated in a range of disciplines, especially in Black studies, African American studies, cultural studies, and the literature on racial capitalism.Footnote 20
Scholarship on humanitarianism replicates the aforementioned broader sidelining of race. As Adia Benton has argued, central theoretical concepts in humanitarianism scholarship, such as Fassin's humanitarian politics of life, have ‘little regard to the kinds of social distinctions between humans, like race, that precede and are intensified by the humanitarian encounter’.Footnote 21 As in IR as a whole, however, there is a small and growing number of critical scholars who have challenged the racial aphasia of analyses of humanitarianism. In recent years, scholars have produced analyses of race and the politics of celebrity humanitarianism, racialised humanitarian imagery, racialised hierarchies of power within humanitarian organisations, and the racial politics of ‘Tinder humanitarians’.Footnote 22 Scholars have similarly demonstrated that race has been central to the responses of European states to refugees and migrants, even if the ‘brute racial fact of this deadly European border regime is seldom acknowledged’.Footnote 23 Race has also been crucial in the analysis of some scholars working on related fields, most notably development and intervention, in which the subject is similarly regularly ignored or sidelined.Footnote 24
While the relative absence of race within work on humanitarianism is explicable, given the broader patterns of knowledge production noted above, it is even more striking that much scholarship on humanitarianism and refugee politics largely ignores race,Footnote 25 given that scholars have demonstrated the centrality of racial hierarchies to humanitarian work, and the importance of race in how the figure of ‘the refugee’ has been imagined. B. S. Chimni has demonstrated that, in Northern imaginaries during the era of the Cold War, refugees were typically those fleeing communist regimes, and thus politically useful to Northern states because they could be mobilised as evidence of communist repression. A concomitant ‘image of a “normal” refugee was constructed – white, male and anti-communist’.Footnote 26 Following the growing perception in the 1980s that more non-white, Southern refugees were coming to the North, the image of the refugee shifted from the ‘heroic, political individual to a nameless flood of poverty-stricken women and children’, and Africa became increasingly central to how refugeehood was imagined.Footnote 27 The figure of the refugee was subject, Johnson argues, to interconnected processes of feminisation, depoliticisation, and racialisation,Footnote 28 demonstrating, once again, the inextricability of axes of power and differentiation such as race and gender.Footnote 29 This depiction constituted a notable contrast to some previous visions of refugees in sub-Saharan Africa, who in the 1970s for example were often depicted as representing an opportunity for economic growth and rural development.Footnote 30 The feminised image of refugeehood, as Jennifer Hyndman and Wenona Giles argue, is centrally associated with refugee populations living in the South, especially those populations living in protracted displacement, such as Syrian refugees in Jordan. By contrast, refugees who are moving from the South to the North are depicted as threatening to the security and/or welfare systems of states in the North.Footnote 31 In the context of the so-called European ‘migration crisis’, young male refugees in particular were positioned, in media portrayals and political discourse, as threatening to European states and populations.Footnote 32
The generic figure of the ‘entrepreneur’ is also a gendered and racialised subject position. For many people, including a wide range of humanitarians working in Za‘tari, this generic subject position stands in sharp contrast to the generic figure of the refugee in the South described above. As Melanie Knight has argued, the ideal of ‘entrepreneurship’ is associated with whiteness ‘through the privileging of abstract thinking [and] mobility’, while the ‘management and self-discipline required serve to legitimize a white, male, liberal, able-bodied subject’.Footnote 33 More widely, Knight continues, feminists have demonstrated that the built-in ideals of ‘entrepreneurship’ and the ‘industrious, autonomous, disciplined, success-driven self … negat[e] histories of oppression; sociolegal and political systemic barriers; and social context’.Footnote 34 In a similar vein, in her extensive analysis of race and development, Kalpana Wilson has demonstrated that within capitalist accumulation under colonialism, a system that was ‘productive of material and embodied difference on a global scale’,Footnote 35 whiteness became conflated with ‘the capitalist virtues of dynamism and enterprise’.Footnote 36
Whether practices are deemed to constitute ‘entrepreneurship’ is a judgement that is always ‘claimed and contested in a wider field of power relations’, and thus the idea of ‘entrepreneurship’ does not signify a ‘productive economic role or disposition outside of cultural meaning’.Footnote 37 Rather, to give one example, the ‘entrepreneurialism’ of communities in the Global South is ‘discovered’ as part of attempts to bestow ‘a form of neoliberal agency upon Third World subjects’.Footnote 38 As this article will discuss in further detail, the activities of some populations are interpreted as ‘entrepreneurial’ because they are ‘known’ to be more ‘naturally entrepreneurial’. This analysis means that designations of ‘entrepreneurship’, such as those in and about Za‘tari, must be analysed and understood within the specific contexts in which they are made. The meanings of those designations emerge from that context, and the wider sets of power relations in which it exists.Footnote 39
Encouraging and spreading the gendered, racialised, classed, and ableist mode of personhood represented by the generic figure of the ‘entrepreneur’ is furthermore central to numerous interventions in the South, which typically take place under the rubric of ‘development’, and often target women in particular. These interventions articulate with broader neoliberal economic discourses, in which self-enterprising citizen-subjects forge their way ahead in the absence of state support, and in which micro-finance is the cure of poverty.Footnote 40 Actors such as the World Bank, among many others, focus on fostering ‘entrepreneurial’ cultures, creating new women ‘entrepreneurs’ as a means to promote gender equality, and facilitating access to capital and markets for women ‘entrepreneurs’.Footnote 41 These projects represent a form of neoliberal subject formation, focused on creating ‘entrepreneurial’, individualistic selves,Footnote 42 and are part of the broader work of ‘development’, which is, as Wilson argues, ‘always, also, implicitly about race’.Footnote 43
The refugee regime is similarly increasingly being reimagined as centred not around restoring the link between the state and citizen through resettlement, integration into the host society, or voluntary return to the country of origin, but rather around the neoliberal notions of the ‘resilience’, ‘adaptability’, and ‘entrepreneurship’ of refugees.Footnote 44 Refugees are increasingly, like others subject to neoliberal governance,Footnote 45 expected to fend for themselves. As Nora Bardelli argues, the ‘solution’ to displacement is therefore increasingly defined in developmental terms, and has become ‘a matter of access to the job market rather than a political question about inequalities, exclusion, conflict, exploitation, assymetrical power relations, and so on’.Footnote 46 In this vein, high-profile proposals have argued that the economic hopes of Za‘tari's residents lay in their integration into the low-wage workforces of nearby Special Economic Zones.Footnote 47 But in Za‘tari, to the surprise of many humanitarian workers, Syrian refugees did not need to be ‘taught’ ‘entrepreneurialism’. Their independent economic activity represented a phenomenon that camp authorities aimed to constrain and manage, but also to harness in their attempts to market Syrian refugees to the outside world.
Za‘tari refugee camp and its market
On the instructions of the Jordanian government, Za‘tari camp was established in July 2012, about ten kilometres from the border with Syria, and on the edge of a Jordanian village from which the camp takes its name. While the camp population fluctuated extensively in the first two years of its existence, since the summer of 2014 around 80,000 Syrians have been living there, which, in terms of population, makes it the largest camp for Syrian refugees in both Jordan and the Middle East.Footnote 48 Overall, however, camp residents represent a relatively small proportion of the total number of Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, which totals around 660,000. The vast majority of Syrian refugees in the country live in the ‘host communities’ of Jordan, primarily the large urban centres of Amman, Irbid, Mafraq, and Zarqa. The Jordanian census of December 2015 recorded a much higher number of around 1.25 million Syrians living in Jordan (refugees and non-refugees), although this number is the subject of much debate and controversy.Footnote 49 Despite hosting a relatively small proportion of the Syrian refugee population, Za‘tari quickly attracted a disproportionate level of funding and attention, as refugee camps often do, and has become one of the key sites of the Syria refugee response.Footnote 50
As soon as the camp opened, Syrians began to conduct informal economic activity. In a fashion typical of many humanitarian settings,Footnote 51 Syrians quickly began to exchange and marketise the goods that were distributed to them by humanitarian agencies, including the prefabricated container units (intended as housing) that are being used as shops. According to a 2014 humanitarian assessment, the types of shops most commonly found in Za‘tari are mini markets, clothes shops, shoe shops, jewellery shops, phone and Internet shops, and restaurants and bakeries. Less numerous but also present are currency exchanges and animal/pet shops.Footnote 52 The number of businesses in the camp is estimated by UNHCR to be around 3,000.Footnote 53 In 2014, it was estimated that the value of economic activity in the market exceeded $12 million monthly, although the informality of the businesses makes such figures challenging to ascertain with accuracy.Footnote 54 In contrast to Northern donors’ aforementioned focus on women ‘entrepreneurs’, the market in Za‘tari is staffed overwhelmingly by men, who in 2014 constituted 96 per cent of those working in the market. Around half of the businesses recorded at that time employed staff, a majority of whom were family members, and who typically were not paid a wage.Footnote 55
Humanitarian responses to Syrians’ creation of the market were complex and at times contradictory. Humanitarian actors would lament that Syrians were using resources in ways humanitarians had not envisaged, and were selling them on at much lower prices than humanitarian actors had paid for them.Footnote 56 They also undertook extensive efforts to limit Syrians’ capacities to reshape the life of Za‘tari, as is evidenced by UNHCR's 2013 Governance Plan, which foresaw a large-scale spatial reorganisation of the camp.Footnote 57 Nevertheless, according to multiple interviewees who worked in the camp, many humanitarian employees in Za‘tari were from the beginning, at least relatively speaking, somewhat willing to accommodate Syrians’ independent economic activities, recognising that Syrians were creating livelihoods for themselves. Moreover, as I will explore in detail, many humanitarian workers’ impressions of the market are extremely positive. But the leadership of UNHCR Jordan in particular, which is close to the Jordanian government, and held accountable by the government for UNHCR's actions in the country, was deeply concerned by the ways in which the camp was developing, as was the Jordanian government.Footnote 58
Given the history and presence of de facto permanent Palestinian refugee camps in the country,Footnote 59 for many Jordanian governmental and non-governmental actors, Syrians’ transformation of Za‘tari was read as an indication that the camp would also become a non-temporary feature of Jordanian life, with associated concerns about both security and demographics.Footnote 60 The entity created within the Ministry of Interior to coordinate and oversee the government's response to Syrian refugees, the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate (SRAD), put in place regulations that spoke directly to these concerns. For example, SRAD insisted that no concrete or breezeblocks be brought into the camp, although occasionally they were visible. The shopkeepers I met were keen to emphasise that they abided by the restrictions put in place by the government,Footnote 61 which is unsurprising, given that shops are regularly shut down for (perceived) infractions of the rules governing the camp.Footnote 62
The varied responses of humanitarian actors reflect, firstly, the multiple individuals and agencies that together constitute the ‘refugee response’, and the range of (at times divergent) agendas they hold. Secondly, these responses reflect the complexities that humanitarians experience in attempting to maintain productive working relationships with the host government, while recognising that Syrians were demonstrating the ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptability’ demanded of them, but while also wishing to govern Za‘tari in authoritarian ways. Syrians were meant to be ‘self-reliant’, but not in ways that demonstrated what Mark Duffield terms a ‘radical autonomy’ from aid agencies.Footnote 63 The result of this was that despite humanitarian and state actors attempting (with some considerable success) to restrict, constrain, and regulate the market, Syrians living in Za‘tari have built and shaped an informal economy that is a central feature of the camp's economy and wider life. While this market generated humanitarian and governmental concerns, regulations, and repressions, as I shall now explore, it also generated surprise, applause, and at times even amazement.
‘The Syrians are amazing!’Footnote 64 Syrian ‘entrepreneurship’ and humanitarian anti-blackness
The camp market and Syrians’ ‘entrepreneurship’ were frequent topics of conversation among humanitarian workers, who often commented on the speed of the market's development, the range of goods it provided, and the ‘creativity’ and ‘ingenuity’ that it demonstrated. Whether I had seen the market was often the first question I was asked by someone who found out I had visited Za‘tari. Humanitarian conversations about the market were often extremely positive, and regularly expressed surprise, shock, and admiration that refugees living in a refugee camp could make this happen. While, as Heaven Crawley has pointed out, ‘[a]ll that connects [refugees to each other] is their “refugeeness”’Footnote 65 the category of the refugee, and the prevailing understandings of refugees in the South as feminised, depoliticised, and dependent on humanitarian organisations, would appear in this context to be shaping the expectations of many of those who encounter new populations of refugees. One interviewee told me how, when she saw the market, ‘I felt … I loved it a lot, they created a life. They have shops, markets, butcher shops, everything! Everything!’Footnote 66 While in the market, another used the same word – ‘everything’ – to describe what one could buy there, before elaborating about the ‘excellent’ conditions of life for Syrians in Za‘tari.Footnote 67 Another interviewee asked if I had been to Za‘tari myself, and if I had seen ‘what the Syrians are doing? They have turned the logic of the camp on its head … The Syrians are amazing!’Footnote 68
In the aforementioned proclamations, the racialised nature of humanitarian workers’ reactions is implicit; the racialisation is present in the perceived divergence of Syrians from the prevailing construction of refugeehood previously discussed, in which ‘Africa’ is central, and in which ‘Africanness [is] conflated with (unremarkable) blackness.’Footnote 69 As Wolfe argued, ‘race and place are inextricable’.Footnote 70 However, explicit comparisons between Syrians and ‘African’ refugees were also very common. While sometimes these comparisons referred to ‘Africa’ en masse, at other times they referred to specific country contexts. Even in these latter examples, however, the refugees in question were typically designated as either ‘African’ or simply ‘refugees’, with no mention of nationality, country of origin, or any other more specific designation. For example, one former UNHCR worker told me over dinner that they had never met a refugee who had asked for a job until they came to the Middle East and worked with Syrians. Refugees in Kenya would always want more money or material things from UNHCR, but they would never ask for a job; they didn't appear to consider work to be important. Syrians, however, this interlocutor continued, were a proud people, who did not want to beg.Footnote 71 Entirely unsurprisingly, researchers have found that refugees in a range of African contexts have been ‘imaginative, resourceful and industrious’.Footnote 72 Yet these attributes have often been unrecognised by humanitarian actors, and have until recently rarely been designated as ‘entrepreneurship’. Instead, humanitarian actors have often perpetuated the idea that there is a widespread ‘dependency mentality’ among refugee populations. That is, humanitarians help to create the very ‘dependency’ that they bemoan.Footnote 73
These explicit comparisons between Syrians and ‘Africans’ appeared to be one of the central ways through which many humanitarians’ understandings of, and relationships with, Syrian refugees were mediated. While the substance of the comparisons was varied, Syrian refugees were invariably compared favourably to ‘African’ refugees, and were always positioned higher on perceived civilisational hierarchies. For example, I was told that unlike Africans, who are used to experiencing food shortages, Syrian refugees would not tolerate eating the same food that was provided by humanitarians each day. Humanitarian actors should run literacy programmes in Za‘tari because they worked so well ‘in Africa’. Za‘tari was not a ‘typical camp’, in which the military is in control (a questionable empirical claim),Footnote 74 but ‘that's how it works in Africa’. Many humanitarian workers also considered Syrian refugees’ demands and expectations to be much higher than those of ‘Africans’, a commentary that speaks to some of the challenges that humanitarian agencies perceive they have faced transferring their operations to ‘middle-income’ countries, to work with populations from other ‘middle-income’ countries.Footnote 75
This analysis demonstrates, as Benton has argued, that ‘race operates in even the most mundane aspects of [humanitarian] service delivery’.Footnote 76 Reflecting ‘overlapping racial and geopolitical hierarchies’,Footnote 77 ‘Africa’ appears ‘at the bottom of the development hierarchy and outside of modernity’,Footnote 78 and ‘black people … serve as a foil against which’ others are assessed.Footnote 79 In the context of Za‘tari, it was very common to encounter ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ being homogenised and constructed as passive, dependent, backward, and impoverished, reinforcing well-established humanitarian and development discourses.Footnote 80 These constructions of ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ also occurred outside of direct comparisons with Syrian refugees. One interviewee recalled a senior UNHCR employee, when referring to a longstanding refugee camp in Kenya and the ongoing sanitation programmes in the camp, saying that ‘in 30 years these people might have learned to clean up their own shit by now’.Footnote 81 One more critical interviewee described these sentiments as reflecting and emanating from the ‘sector mentality that all refugees are Africans, and all Africans are illiterate’.Footnote 82
Many of the interlocutors who would draw comparisons between Syrian refugees and ‘African’ refugees were so-called ‘international’ humanitarian workers who had previously worked ‘in Africa’. Many of them spoke of wanting to go ‘back to Africa’ after their postings working on the Syria crisis. ‘Africa’ appeared to be the ‘default’ space of humanitarianism, and where many of these individuals had learned how to be humanitarians. Most of these people were white and held European or North American citizenship. The comparisons, however, were by no means made exclusively by humanitarian workers of this profile, but also by Jordanian (so-called ‘local’) humanitarians. While the categories of ‘international’ and ‘local’ humanitarians both contain a range of experiences, positionalities, and perspectives, it was noticeable that, in comparison with their ‘international’ counterparts, Jordanian interlocutors appeared to be less frequently able to draw on personal experiences of ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’, yet analogous comparisons would still regularly be deployed. Comparative statements often came in a formulation such as that if it was possible to do a certain sort of programme with refugees in Somalia/Kenya/‘Africa’, then it must be possible to do it in Jordan with Syrian refugees. One Jordanian interlocutor argued that there was much more control and order in Jordan, compared to ‘Africa’ where large swathes of territory were essentially ungoverned, and that ‘international’ humanitarians should adapt their expectations accordingly, and consult with the Jordanian authorities before carrying out their plans, even if they were not used to doing so ‘in Africa’.Footnote 83
In addition to influencing perceptions of Syrians, it is important to note that this humanitarian anti-blackness has very important implications for other nationalities of refugees who seek asylum in Jordan, such as the approximately 6,000 Sudanese and 750 Somalis registered with UNHCR. While there are multiple concurrent rationalities that shape Jordanian and humanitarian policies towards refugees from these countries,Footnote 84 research has demonstrated the lack of support and international attention they receive, even when, for example, 800 Sudanese refugees (mostly Darfuris) were deported to Sudan by the Jordanian government in 2015.Footnote 85 Somali and Sudanese refugees themselves have consistently highlighted their experiences of racism and discrimination in Jordan, from ‘host communities’, the Jordanian government, and humanitarian actors.Footnote 86
This anti-blackness should be understood within the specificities of the Jordanian context and broader globalised hierarchies of race. For example, it occurs within a space with a pertinent ‘legacy of an Arab nationalism that deemed Semitic Arab-ness superior to other types’,Footnote 87 and within a wider region in which distinguishing ‘Arabness’ from ‘blackness’ has been an important aspect of national identity formation.Footnote 88 Simultaneously and crucially, however, this anti-blackness is also a reproduction of ‘the racial ordering system which has been continuous, yet morphing in form, from colonialism … into the present’.Footnote 89 As was noted earlier, literatures within IR, Black studies, and other disciplines have all made clear that these hierarchies of race cannot be understood separately from colonialism, slavery, and capitalism.Footnote 90 As scholars have furthermore demonstrated, these hierarchies have long been interwoven throughout humanitarianism, as well as parallel fields such as development.Footnote 91
Syrians are not only being rendered distant from ‘(unremarkable) blackness’, however.Footnote 92 In a further continuity with colonial designations and hierarchies, Syrians’ ‘entrepreneurship’ is also seen, by some humanitarians and academics, as an embodiment of their status as ‘Levantines’. Deriving from the French word for ‘rising’, in its broader sense ‘the Levant’ can refer to the areas of land on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, but is also used to refer to the historic region of Syria, which incorporated present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel. Although the designation of ‘Levantine’ has varied and shifting connotations, often related to mobility, diversity, and rootless cosmopolitanism,Footnote 93 ‘entrepreneurship’ is central to many understandings of ‘Levantinism’ and to readings of the peoples of the region, and especially of the diasporas of Syria and Lebanon specifically. In numerous, diverse contexts, Syrians and Lebanese have been ‘known’ for embodying ‘entrepreneurial’ traits. In Brazil, they were able to claim and obtain an ‘ambivalent respectability’ within the nation through their ‘alleged innate commercial essence’.Footnote 94 The Lebanese have been similarly referred to as one of the world's leading ‘trading diasporas’, emerging in West Africa as ‘a significant entrepreneurial class’.Footnote 95
The manifestations of these ideas within and about Za‘tari were again numerous. Curtis Ryan, in a 2014 article on the camp, noted that Syrians’ ‘resilience’ and attempts to build community in the camp are ‘casually ascribed’, by ‘[m]any observers – and some refugees themselves … to a natural entrepreneurial trait of the Syrian nation.’Footnote 96 In a televised interview, Kilian Kleinschmidt, the then UNHCR Senior Field Coordinator (the most senior UNHCR role in Za‘tari – also known as the ‘camp manager’) declared that it was ‘very natural [Syrians] have set up shops, because they are traders’.Footnote 97 A report by the University of Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre claims that ‘[i]n the Levant region, Syrians are well known for their entrepreneurial endeavours. Many of the refugees arriving to Zaʿatari are highly skilled … Many were traders in Syria.’Footnote 98
At the same time, however, it is important to note how localised such racialised understandings of ‘entrepreneurship’ and work can be. In Jordan's Special Economic Zones, for example, many factories have built labour regimes centred on the social isolation and exploitation of migrant workers, predominantly women, from South Asia. When offered the chance to hire Syrian refugees, many employers were uninterested, assuming, in contrasting racialised hierarchies, that Syrians would be unproductive, ‘like Jordanians’, whom factories are legally obliged to employ a quota of when using migrant workers.Footnote 99 As John Chalcraft has explored in the context of Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon, ‘Syrians are “known” to be docile, hard-working, uncomplaining and ready to follow orders … Syrians are said to be uneducated and “backward” or “rural”.’Footnote 100 Syrians are thus ‘known’ very differently in different contexts, even when those contexts are in very close geographical proximity. Humanitarian portrayals of Syrians online attempt to render them ‘known’ as ‘entrepreneurs’. These communications target a wider, but at the same time particular, audience.
‘You wouldn't mind if they moved into your neighbourhood’:Footnote 101 Marketing Za‘tari's ‘entrepreneurs’
In humanitarian actors’ public communications, explicit racial comparisons are absent, but the implicit positioning of Syrians and their ‘entrepreneurship’ relative to racial hierarchies continues. This can be seen in UNHCR's online promotion of Syrians’ ‘entrepreneurship’, which is a recurring theme in humanitarian portrayals of Za‘tari camp. ‘#Innovation starts with affected communities. Great examples from @ZaatariCamp’, reads a September 2015 tweet from @UNHCRInnovation, a Twitter account run by the UNHCR Innovation Service.Footnote 102 The ‘@ZaatariCamp’ it mentions is Za‘tari's Twitter handle, which made it, in October 2013, the first refugee camp in the world to have its own Twitter account.Footnote 103 Run by UNHCR staff in the camp, rather than Syrian refugees themselves, its profile describes the camp as ‘vast, dusty and unpredictable’ and a ‘remarkable stretch of desert [that] is home to 80,000 Syrian refugees’.Footnote 104 The market, where much of this ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ happens, has, according to @ZaatariCamp, ‘helped refugees in finding normalcy in displacement’.Footnote 105 One of these ‘entrepreneurs’ is a man pictured in his perfume shop in October 2013. The tweet contains a quotation that reads ‘I needed to live and I need to work … I also needed to change the smell of this place’, followed by the words ‘Respect. #entrepreneur.’Footnote 106
As Stuart Hall has argued, the intertextuality of images means that they are read and understood in the context of other images that may not simultaneously be present.Footnote 107 This insight can be mobilised to understand how the passive, depoliticised, feminised, and racialised figure of the refugee remains the implicit basis for comparison in profiles of Syrians’ ‘entrepreneurship’. In 2015, for example, UNHCR's website offered a profile of a new pizza delivery service that opened in the camp, and of Abu Mahmood, the ‘Syrian entrepreneur [who] has brought a slice of normal life to refugees’.Footnote 108 The article quotes Nasser Touaibia, then a UNHCR communications officer, who argues that the new shop is a demonstration of the fact that Syrian refugees in Za‘tari ‘are not just … waiting for humanitarian agencies to create opportunities for them … [they] are proactive, they are very creative, and they come up with new ideas’.Footnote 109 UNHCR Innovation also draws attention to Abu Mahmood, whose story is the first in an article that profiles ‘10 refugees who will change your perception of entrepreneurship.’Footnote 110 Two of the other nine are also Syrian refugees living in Za‘tari. Bizarrely, the website of UNHCR Innovation has a ‘Jordan’ page that only contains a picture of Abu Mahmood and his pizzas, without even so much as a caption.Footnote 111 In yet another article on the same pizza shop, Touaibia describes Syrians in Za‘tari as ‘not the type of people that would sit around, cross their hands and wait for you to do something for them. They are actually very creative and very active.’Footnote 112 Which ‘types of people’ do ‘sit around’ waiting for humanitarians to provide for them, one might wonder? Is it imagined that other (‘African’?) refugees sit waiting, outside of time, while Syrians demonstrate the ‘hustling’ that is central to work (and life) under neoliberalism?Footnote 113
The depictions of ‘refugee entrepreneurship’ among Syrians in Za‘tari rarely include explicit discussions of gender, either. As noted above, the overwhelming majority of Syrians who have started businesses and/or work in Za‘tari's market are men, reflecting, among other factors, their easier access to capital, the domestic and caring work done by women in the camp, and gendered expectations about work and responsibilities.Footnote 114 While there are humanitarian and other profiles of both refugee men and women ‘entrepreneurs’ in the camp,Footnote 115 it is striking that the gendered motivations of many men for wanting to become ‘entrepreneurs’ – to fulfil gendered expectations that they be a breadwinner for their familiesFootnote 116 – are typically not discussed. In the context of the widespread demonisation of refugees, particularly those from predominantly Arab and Muslim contexts such as Syria,Footnote 117 male ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ appear to be an acceptable face of Syrian refugee men for UNHCR to promote to a wider audience, even if the masculinities driving much of their ‘entrepreneurship’ remain absent from the narratives.
The focus on Syrian ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ is part of a deliberate strategy used by UNHCR to counter prevailing negative images of Syrian refugees and thereby to attempt to help facilitate donations and resettlement opportunities. As scholars have long noted, UNHCR is highly dependent on voluntary donations from States, which can influence its portrayal of refugees, and which issues it highlights or remains silent about.Footnote 118 According to Jared Kohler, a photographer formerly contracted to UNHCR Jordan, UN agencies in the camp believed that, from an advocacy standpoint, they should not highlight stories of abuse and violence in Za‘tari, but rather look ‘for a feel good story’. Kohler explained that in his experience, humanitarians seeking to advocate for refugees appeared to typically believe that in contexts of sub-Saharan Africa, the dire material circumstances, and therefore needs, of refugees can be clearly captured and communicated to middle-class, Western audiences. Syrians, however, he continued, are from a ‘middle-income’, non-African country, and are subject to widespread Islamophobia and anti-Arab prejudice. In this context, it appeared that humanitarian workers believed that more sympathy and acceptance could be created among these same middle-class, Western audiences, who are imagined as white, if Syrians were portrayed as ‘innovators’ and ‘entrepreneurs’, as people who ‘you wouldn't mind if they moved into your neighbourhood’. As was discussed above, the abstract ideal of ‘entrepreneurship’ is, for many people, associated with whiteness (as well as masculinity, mobility, class privilege, abstract thinking, and bodily ability). Syrians are therefore able to be perceived as being closer to whiteness (and these other subject positions), through the construction of them as ‘entrepreneurs’, in contrast to humanitarian imagery and portrayals attempting, as in the case of refugees in sub-Saharan Africa, to generate pity. Put plainly, the idea is, in Kohler's words, ‘to make them look white, so to speak’.Footnote 119
The marketing of the Syrians of Za‘tari as ‘entrepreneurs’ also took place within the camp itself, where tours for visiting delegations were a daily occurrence.Footnote 120 One former camp worker I interviewed recalled observing Google employees being shown around the camp by UNHCR. He recounted how the visitors would marvel at ‘how innovative and entrepreneurial this guy is. He started his own bakery from nothing.’ This kind of focus and formulation can have the effect of deflecting attention away from other questions, such as why he was living in a refugee camp with ‘nothing’ from which to build a living, and the political efforts and solidarity that would be needed to change that situation. The man in question, I was told, had been a baker in Syria for decades.Footnote 121 While such sentiments are presumably intended as a ‘compliment’, I would nonetheless argue, following the aforementioned interviewee, that these reactions to the market represent Syrians’ survival strategies being ‘manipulated … into “innovation” because it has been discovered by Westerners’.Footnote 122
Syrians I spoke with often appeared to feel a real sense of achievement about the fact that they had built a vibrant market under such politically authoritarian and economically difficult conditions, and to be pleased by the reputation they had gained for being hard-working and creative.Footnote 123 It is not possible, in a single article, to also explore in-depth refugees’ reactions to humanitarian narratives about them, which will of course always be varied. Elsewhere I have examined at length Syrians’ relationships to work and the market in Za‘tari, and the contestations that they were engaged in with humanitarians on these questions.Footnote 124 I would note, however, that in my experience comparisons with ‘Africans’ were simply absent from Syrians’ discussions of the market they had built, the services they were provided, and their relationships with humanitarians, nor did they raise with me the fact that humanitarians made these comparisons. These narratives came from humanitarian workers, and I was exposed to them, in ways it appears many Syrians were perhaps not, because of my positionality and privilege. From the expectant looks of agreement, and the casual ways in which the comparisons were deployed, I came to believe that many humanitarians expected me – a white, male British researcher of humanitarianism who regularly visited the camp with NGOs – to understand and identify with their visions of refugees and of ‘Africa’. This of course does not mean that all humanitarians stated or agreed with such comparisons, but it was nonetheless notable that, in my experience, they were not challenged when expressed in humanitarian group settings.
The narratives of Syrian ‘entrepreneurship’, and the fascination with the ability of refugees to undertake such ‘entrepreneurship’, are not only found in humanitarian production. One can also find them regularly (re)produced in the international English-language news media. ABC News reports that ‘Syrian entrepreneurs thrive’ in the camp, which has ‘mushroomed as Syrians set up shop’, according to The Guardian.Footnote 125 The street that houses the most shops is often referred to, by humanitarian workers, in the press, and in academic production, as the ‘Champs-Élysées’, after the famous, high-end shopping boulevard in Paris.Footnote 126 BBC News claims that Za‘tari, with this ‘Champs-Élysées’, is a ‘fertile ground for small businesses’.Footnote 127 Sometimes this designation becomes the ‘Shams-Élysées’, merging the names of the French street and the historical name for greater Syria (al-Sham), which can also refer to Damascus and its environs.Footnote 128 This name was coined not by Syrians, however, but by French aid workers, who were stationed in a clinic near the market as it was developing.Footnote 129 Syrians simply refer to the streets as ‘the market’ (al-suq). Even the ways in which areas of the market are named thus appear to reflect the perspectives of non-Syrians, and become part of how the camp is imagined, reported, and discussed by outsiders.
Troublingly for academic knowledge production on refugees and humanitarianism, these same ideas on ‘entrepreneurship’ can be found in scholarship about Za‘tari. In Lionel Beehner's article in Journal of International Affairs, he describes the ‘do-it-yourself’ Syrians in Za‘tari as ‘a unique breed of refugees’, because they were, he claims, unaccustomed to state officials offering free public goods, and because ‘there is no equivalent of a civil society in Syria that would replicate what UN officials do within Za‘atari’.Footnote 130 Paradoxically, considering their purported uniqueness, Syrians are also a demonstration that ‘today's refugees are on average economically better off, more sophisticated, and generally more entrepreneurial than their predecessors’.Footnote 131 In a similar vein to the aforementioned humanitarian production, Beehner highlights Za‘tari's pizza delivery shop, that refugees in Za‘tari come ‘from all walks of life, income levels, and professions’, and that ‘the camp is seen as more “high end” than those in Africa and elsewhere’.Footnote 132 Although Beehner notes the ‘norms of entrepreneurship’ found among refugees in Somaliland,Footnote 133 nevertheless, following the logic of his argument, presumably ‘Africa and elsewhere’ are where Za‘tari's economically worse off, less ‘sophisticated’ and less ‘entrepreneurial’ predecessors are to be found. In the wider academic production on the camp, like the humanitarian literature, the idea that Syrians in Za‘tari are ‘entrepreneurial’ (as well as ‘innovative’ and ‘resilient’) appears to be widespread.Footnote 134 A blog post by Helen Storey on the website of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, part of the University of the Arts London, is titled, ‘Za‘atari Refugee Camp: How to be an Entrepreneur in Hell.’ The second part of the title, we are later told, is a quotation from the UNHCR camp manager, at that time Hovig Etyemezian.Footnote 135
While Syrians in Za‘tari are perceived to be something of a case study for ‘refugee entrepreneurship’, as noted above, Za‘tari is not the only context in which refugees have been depicted, in both humanitarian and academic production, as ‘refugee entrepreneurs’. The aforementioned UNHCR article on refugees who will ‘change your perception of entrepreneurship’ includes stories of Somali refugees living in Kenya, Sudanese refugees living in Chad, and refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo living in Uganda.Footnote 136 In academic production, scholars have discussed the presence and potential of ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ in a range of contexts, although Kenya and Uganda appear to attract significant attention.Footnote 137
The ways and extent to which racialisations are part of the (explicit and implicit) designations of ‘entrepreneurship’ ‘on the ground’ within these contexts, as well as in production about them, is a subject that merits investigation, in order to further our understandings of how humanitarian individuals and institutions ‘filter the global idea of race’.Footnote 138 In those investigations, it will be important to remember that different positionings of refugees – as anti-communist heroes, as depoliticised masses of women and children, and as ‘entrepreneurs’ – are all inextricably connected with ideas about race, as well as gender, class, and other structures. Since the generic figure of the ‘entrepreneur’ signifies whiteness, masculinity, mobility, class privilege, abstract thinking, and bodily ability, the idea of the ‘refugee entrepreneur’ foregrounds and praises those refugees who are able to (be perceived to) embody these traits. Systemic structures and barriers, histories of oppression, and wider socioeconomic contexts can be sidelined, even erased, as the focus is placed upon individuals and their perceived ‘entrepreneurial’ qualities.Footnote 139
The marketing of Syrians as ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ can furthermore be seen and understood within the context of a broader instrumentalisation of refugees’ experiences and hardships,Footnote 140 which are being used in order to attempt to portray them as ‘palatable’ and ‘productive’ potential members of societies and especially workforces. For example, according to Alexander Betts, due to their experiences refugees should be seen as ‘natural entrepreneurs’. Refugees, he argues ‘have to adapt – to new social networks, new markets, and new regulation. As the old adage suggests, “necessity is the mother of invention”.’Footnote 141 Taking this logic even further is a German non-profit recruitment agency called ‘Social-Bee’, which attempts to help refugees in Germany find employment. To do so, both online and on public billboards, it promotes refugees as potential workers by describing the ‘soft skills’ they got ‘the hard way’. A Social-Bee website includes small profiles of four refugees (all men), with quotations attributed to refugees themselves, accompanied by headlines that appear to be the organisation's take on how such skills are transferable to the labour market. Set to tense and dramatic background music, Qutayba from Syria, for example, states that ‘while fleeing I was arrested and interrogated for several days’. Above this quotation, in much larger letters but without quotation marks, are the words ‘I am stress resistant.’ Zeray from Eritrea says that he ‘survived with 85 people in a small dinghy’, which is presented beneath the large caption ‘I'm a team player.’Footnote 142 In their entry into the labour market, refugees’ experiences are being instrumentalised, and refugees themselves are being marketed.
This article has argued that race is central to the ways in which refugees in Za‘tari are understood and depicted as ‘entrepreneurs’. Within the camp, humanitarian workers deem Syrians’ economic activities to distinguish them from ‘African’ refugees, to embody their ‘Levantinism’, and to present an opportunity to market Syrians to the outside world as ‘entrepreneurs’. That is, to market them as embodying a subject position associated with whiteness, as well as masculinity, class privilege, and bodily ability, in order to promote Syrian refugees to intended Western audiences and donors. The ‘refugee entrepreneur’ thus becomes a recent instantiation of the ever-changing constructions of how refugeehood is imagined. In elaborating these arguments, the article has furthered our understandings of the underexplored relationship between humanitarianism and race. As Meera Sabaratnam argues, exposing the ‘racialised hierarchies of entitlement’ running through contemporary systems of aid presents a ‘timely opportunity for demanding change’.Footnote 143
Situating the ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ of Za‘tari within a wider analysis of contemporary humanitarianism, this article has furthermore demonstrated that the perceptions and promotion of ‘entrepreneurs’ can be understood as part of a neoliberalised ‘resiliency humanitarianism’, which demands that its ‘beneficiaries’ constantly ‘adapt’ and ‘bounce back’ in contexts of disaster and displacement. At the same time, the vision of ‘refugee entrepreneurship’ articulates with troubling proposed reforms to the wider refugee regime, which downplay refugees’ rights and foreground refugees’ integration into economic markets, all undergirded by the contention that ‘global capitalism can come to the rescue of the refugee system’.Footnote 144 In these depictions of refugees’ lives, where is the assistance that many refugees need? Where are the refugees who cannot live up to the ‘entrepreneurial ideal’? Where are the structural barriers and histories of dispossession that shape their lives? And where are the refugees who actively challenge these economic hierarchies and problematic models of personhood?
People who are experiencing displacement respond to changing and challenging circumstances in ways that are diverse, and which reflect their varied pasts, presents, and (hoped-for) futures. Many of these responses are surprising to outsiders. This article has demonstrated that this surprise, and the ways in which it is mobilised, can be intricately connected to ideas about race. Designating activities as ‘entrepreneurship’, even if done with the intention of breaking-down dehumanising portrayals of refugees, happens within pre-existing fields of power relations. Within hierarchies of race, gender, class, ability, among others, and alongside calls for structural reform of the refugee regime towards more ‘market-oriented’ solutions, in which refugees will increasingly have to fend for themselves. Humanitarians, journalists, and academics promoting ‘refugee entrepreneurs’ as a new way in which refugeehood should be imagined must be cognisant of these complex contexts, and the colonial legacies imbricated in them. For whatever refugees’ survival strategies might be, and however they might be labelled and interpreted, they are not an invitation to strip away the dwindling support structures that do still exist for refugees.
I would like to thank Laleh Khalili, Kerem Nişancioğlu, Sara Salem, and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful and detailed comments on this work. I received valuable feedback and encouragement from fellow panellists, audiences, and discussants when presenting the paper at the 2018 meetings of the British International Studies Association in Bath and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies in London, and at the ALMA Research Series in Freiburg. Finally, I would like to thank Adia Benton, who, at the 2017 meeting of the International Studies Association in Baltimore, encouraged me to pursue the ideas that developed into this article.