I was in Damascus in early 2007 to conduct research on the situation of newly arrived Iraqi refugees when I went looking for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Syria office. I found it in a two-room apartment downtown, staffed by a single Syrian protection officer. The pressures on the organization were becoming intense, she told me. Earlier that day she had spontaneously handed out some cash to a young Iraqi man who had nowhere to stay so that he could pay for a hotel. The thought of him having to sleep in a park was abhorrent and scandalous. UNHCR Syria’s annual budget was $1.4 million at the time.

Two years later, UNHCR mounted its biggest regional operation ever in Syria, managing a total annual budget of $130 million. In Jordan, UNHCR’s budget rose from $3 million in 2006 to $404 million in 2015. Since 2013, UNHCR’s regional budget has regularly topped the staggering amount of $4 billion. At the same time, the region’s once-open borders have closed, hard visa regimes have been imposed, Turkey has built a wall along its southern border and refugees endure a situation of increased repression and impoverishment.

The expansion of humanitarian aid in Syria and its neighboring states has gone hand-in-hand with a growing restriction on refugees’ right of movement and ever-stricter control over refugees’ personal information and biometric data. UNHCR and the Syrian and Jordanian governments share two interests in particular: to raise humanitarian funds and to centralize information and control over refugee populations. Disastrously, this shared interest has created a control regime for refugees in the region that is much stricter and more violent than what existed before humanitarian actors’ large-scale involvement. This situation is sad and tragic, given UNHCR’s outspoken commitment to human rights and track record of alleviating refugee suffering.

Syria and Jordan have decades-long experience with hosting and managing refugee populations. [1] While the arrivals of Palestinians by the tens of thousands in 1948 and 1967 are the most well-known examples, both countries have also integrated other displaced (and nomadic) populations throughout the twentieth century. The Iraqi refugee crisis, which began in earnest in 2005, was the first displacement crisis of the twenty-first century and it differed from all the others in one crucial aspect: it brought the international apparatus of humanitarian response to the Middle East, led by its central organization, UNHCR. The massive involvement of UNHCR-led humanitarianism meant that the meaning of refugee suffering became framed in a very particular way, which eventually replaced all other, earlier ways of portraying refugee existence in the Middle East. The cornerstones of this portrayal are that refugees are a burden on host societies and a potential security problem. Both aspects are crucial for mobilizing donors. But this framing also means that humanitarian measures have become increasingly entangled with state security measures that oppress refugees.

Three examples show how humanitarian and security concerns are now entwined. First, from 2012 onwards there has been a move to keep Syrian refugees in Jordan in camps. Second, the collection of refugees’ biometric data by UNHCR is opaque and growing. And third, UNHCR has acquiesced to the Syrian government’s demands that it cease operations in opposition-held areas.

Between 2005 and 2009, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis arrived in Syria and Jordan (and Lebanon). International observers were often surprised that these governments refrained from building camps. While neither government ever explained whether this was a deliberate policy, it was widely assumed that the Palestinian example, in which camps became permanent features of society and often developed into centers of political resistance, served as a deterrent. Both governments’ reluctance to apply the word “refugee” to Iraqis (which would have served as another comparison with the Palestinian situation) bolsters the idea that there was no interest in turning Iraqi flight into a political issue. Unlike Palestinian refugee suffering, which has been used—by the Syrian government in particular—for decades to remind regional and global powers of the ongoing injustice of the Israeli occupation, Iraqi and Syrian refugee suffering was from the onset framed exclusively as a humanitarian issue. To be precise, before the involvement of international humanitarian actors in 2007, the new Iraqi presence was largely silenced in both Syria and Jordan, as Iraqis were discouraged or forbidden from displaying any Iraqi symbols or references.

Large-scale encampment of Syrian refugees began in Jordan in 2012, with the construction of Za‘atari camp, which today houses around 80,000 people. While Za‘atari is a relatively open camp, Azraq, the second Jordanian camp, which opened in 2014, comes close to being a remote prison in the desert. Azraq houses around 55,000 people. New arrivals from Syria are brought directly to Azraq. As the Jordanian government cracks down on Syrian shanty towns, those inhabitants are also transported to the camp. Departure from Azraq is difficult, both administratively and physically, due to the remote location. Simultaneously, the Jordanian government has gradually barred more and more humanitarian provisions to Syrians living outside of camps, including health care, in an obvious move to force more Syrians into Zaatari or Azraq. As has been the case generally, humanitarian organizations have accepted this increasingly draconian crackdown on refugee rights without protest.

Encampment has coincided with the gradual closing of all regional borders to Syrian refugees. Today only the most privileged Syrians can obtain the administrative and financial means to leave their country. The unfortunate remainder is stranded outside of border crossings. Both the Syrian-Jordanian and the Syrian-Turkish borders are now populated by such “trapped” populations, as humanitarian jargon refers to them. [2]Jordan and Turkey argue that these refugees pose too much of a security risk to be allowed into the country. The Jordanian government initially restricted all humanitarian provisions to the make-shift border camps on the grounds that fighters were supposedly hiding among the impoverished masses. Turkish forces routinely open fire on Syrians trying to cross the border. [3]

The massive growth of UNHCR operations confronted the organization with two related problems: how to manage an explosion of paperwork and how to ensure an effective distribution of aid. As a solution, UNHCR turned towards technology, combining big data management with an ID regime based on biometric data. This approach was made possible by the relative sophistication of both the Syrian and Jordanian economy (compared to other humanitarian crisis arenas), combined with a highly educated population from which most humanitarian personnel are recruited. Recipients of humanitarian aid in Jordan and Lebanon today pay for their groceries by having their iris scanned, and when they cash in a voucher, participate in a camp meeting or collect any other humanitarian service, it is often registered automatically via their chip card or ID. This process enables humanitarian organizations, including NGOs such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, to collect a wide array of “user data,” which aid recipients have no choice but to provide if they want to receive assistance. In a report on this innovation, the Norwegian Refugee Council enthuses about the “wealth of disaggregated data with which access and protection issues for vulnerable groups can be identified” if voucher codes are connected to UNHCR-issued identity cards. [4]

UNHCR piloted iris scanning of refugees in Jordan in 2013. According to a 2017 UNHCR fact sheet, 98 percent of Syrians are processed using biometrics, in partnership with a British Company called IrisGuard. Children from as young as six years old have their eyes scanned in the registration process. [5] It is hard to escape the thought that an impoverished, desperate population is being used as a guinea pig to test and develop a new security technology that remains unacceptable in the West. According to a corporate press release, the IrisGuard technology “has already detected and stopped multiple refugees attempting re-registration both locally and across national borders.” [6] While the “unified regional iris repository” is housed within UNHCR’s offices in Amman, the technology can communicate data across the region no matter where the refugee is located, which, according to the press release “helps to determine the size and composition of refugee populations.” [7] The coinciding of humanitarian and security interests is perfected in a technology that allows refugees to pay for groceries while simultaneously communicating their whereabouts, as well as information about the items they actually bought. Incredibly, not a single humanitarian actor on the ground has raised serious concerns about this development. Instead, the United Nations and NGOs are united in a chorus of praise about how cash-less shopping raises refugee dignity, guards against aid misappropriation and allows for an overall improved aid response.

Finally, the failure of UNHCR (and other humanitarian actors) to put up serious resistance against the Syrian government’s horrendous crimes against civilians, including refugees and internally displaced people, has resulted in the complete decoupling of humanitarianism from human rights in the region. When the Syrian conflict began in 2011, UNHCR had, due to the preceding Iraqi crisis, developed into a small but significant actor in the country. Since then, UNHCR has spent several billion dollars in aid within Syria, much of it channeled through government ministries. The influence that the Syrian government has had over the aid effort has been mind-boggling. It has been able to prevent aid deliveries to opposition-held areas, has carried out brutal sieges of entire neighborhoods under the nose of humanitarian actors, dropped poison gas, fire and cluster bombs onto residential neighborhoods, deliberately destroyed hospitals and schools and was even allowed to edit a UN aid report, deleting words such as “siege” and “besieged.” [8] Given the fact that most of the affected civilians are internally displaced or (humanitarian jargon alert) “war affected populations,” they very clearly fall under the mandate of UNHCR.

Why has the largest humanitarian organization working in the Middle East failed to speak out or at least put up a significant fight? Is this simply a sign of a craven attitude? Are its Syria operations so dependent on biased personnel structures? Or has the organization been taken over completely by the belief that refugees need to be managed and controlled, and that it is enough to simply keep them alive? The United States is UNHCR’s largest donor by far, followed by the European Union, and these governments have influence over the organization’s policies. But with no secure legal footing in either Syria or Jordan, its smooth integration into authoritarian contexts is due more to a co-optation of senior UNHCR personnel by Syrian and Jordanian elites through a degree of coercion and consent.

Sadly, the massive expansion of UNHCR-led humanitarianism in the Middle East has in no way contributed to a greater assertion of human rights, either for citizens or refugees. Instead, it has proven to critics the utter failure of humanitarianism to provide an emancipatory path toward justice and actual peace. As the British sociologist Marc Duffield, who has analyzed humanitarian politics for decades, depressingly argues, humanitarianism merges seamlessly into existing structures of political and economic oppression, reinforcing instead of challenging them. [9] The need for humanitarian intervention to save refugees has become, materially and ideologically, linked to portraying them as a threat to economic stability. Refugees are considered a security threat because they may become frustrated and angry and dangerous. They are thought to import dangerous religiosity and to overcrowd infrastructure. The depoliticized humanitarian rhetoric completely leaves out the perpetrators whose violence caused refugees to flee in the first place.

Instead, blame for their existence is placed fully on refugees themselves. Humanitarian interventions focus on changing and controlling refugee behavior, while calls for a change to the external, political and economic injustices determining refugees’ plight are practically absent. Where no hope, vision or interest exists to engage in national or international fights for refugee rights, humanitarianism becomes a doctrine with no alternatives.

That this view has taken root in the Middle East is particularly disheartening. The region was shaped by refugee populations and by a strong tradition of accepting those chased from their homes, together with a longstanding history of calling for refugee rights and justice. The growing exclusion of refugees from increasingly nationalized populations spells the end of this positive element of Middle Eastern politics.



1. Dawn Chatty, Syria: The Making and Unmaking of a Refugee State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

2. “Syrians at the Berm: Surviving in Nightmarish Conditions and with an Uncertain Status,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, October 2017.

3. “Turkey/Syria: Border Guards Shoot, Block Fleeing Syrians,” Human Rights Watch, February 3, 2018.

4. “Supporting Dignified Choices: ‘Paper Plus’ Cash Voucher Programming in Camps in Jordan,” Norwegian Refugee Council, March 2015.

5. Sarah Soliman, “Tracking Refugees with Biometrics: More Questions Than Answers,”War on the Rocks, March 9, 2016.

6. Adam Vrankulj, “UNHCR Adopts IrisGuard Technology for Refugee Registration,”Biometric Update, February 21, 2014.

7. Ibid.

8. Roy Gutman, “How the UN Let Assad Edit the Truth of Syria’s War,” Foreign Policy, January 27, 2016.

9. Marc Duffield, Post-Humanitarianism: Governing Precarity in the Digital World(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).

How to cite this article:

Sophia Hoffmann "Refugee Rights Hit the Wall," Middle East Report 286 (Spring 2018).

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