Are Syria's Do-it-Yourself Refugees Outliers or Examples of a New Norm?

Lionel Beehner
May 04, 2015

Refugee camps are often treated as incubators of social unrest, violence, terrorism, and illicit trade. This provokes their overseers in the United Nations (UN) and other relief agencies to conduct frequent social engineering to enhance the camps’ legibility. Hence, we see orderly, perpendicular rows, standardized units from redistricting to the allocation of diapers, and so forth—all of the follies of high modernism that James Scott predicted in "Seeing Like a State," but writ small. Indeed, my qualitative research from the Za’atari refugee camp, located in Jordan along the Syrian border, indicates that refugees, especially middle-class ones like Syria’s, rebel against uniformity—or what Scott describes as “metis”—and seek to recreate their domiciles as best they can from the meager canvas tents and campers allotted to them. Put simply, they see their surroundings more as the disorderly “sidewalk ballet” of Jane Jacobs’ Greenwich Village than the high modernist yet sterile functionalism of Robert Moses. This holds important policy implications for the future of how we devise refugee camps, which increasingly resemble small cities; how we settle internally displaced persons (IDPs); and how we deal with the aftermath of mass population displacements. From direct cash transfers to the districting of refugees, some bureaucratic flexibility is required but so is an acknowledgement and embrace of refugees’ do-it-yourself ethos that is rooted in their resistance to authority and trauma from violence. Drawing from the literature in social anthropology and political science, this article presents new evidence from Za’atari that disputes the utility of a high modernist approach to the social engineering of large displaced populations.