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Leveraging Sovereignty: Jordan and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

  • Author(s): Arar, Rawan
  • Advisor(s): FitzGerald, David
  • et al.
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The contemporary refugee crisis has sparked a global debate about the shared responsibility to take in refugees – and ways to keep them out. Protecting “national sovereignty” became the battle cry throughout the Western world when sympathy for people fleeing violence quickly turned to panic over uncontrolled borders. Western states have invoked their right to self-governance and autonomy as the justification for rejecting migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as well as refusing the interference of international institutions like the United Nations or European Union. The European refugee crisis has inspired a renewed effort to halt immigration to the West by encouraging states in the Middle East to control and contain their refugee populations. While Western sovereignty is foundational to political sociology and the sociology of international immigration, the sovereignty of developing states that host most of the world’s refugees is neglected in the sociological literature.

How do developing countries in the Global South – those that host 85% of the world’s 24.5 million refugees – maintain their sovereignty? I examine how Jordan protect its sovereignty in the face of porous borders and the interference of international institutions and foreign states. Jordan hosts 2.7 million refugees in a total population of 9.5 million people. Jordan provides shelter, education, health care, and protection to millions of refugees, challenges that are exacerbated as citizens face high unemployment and strained social institutions including overcrowded hospitals and underperforming schools. I show that sovereignty is a relational process enacted through quotidian practices not only from the top-down—by government and international officials—but also from the bottom-up through the daily decisions of refugees and citizens.

I conducted an ethnography of the state and in-depth, semi-structured interviews in Arabic and English, triangulating 175 total interviews with Syrian refugees, Jordanian citizens, and UN, NGO, and government officials. I triangulate interviews to explore the social construction of sovereignty. I find that sovereignty practices are leveraged against one another, which is often done to secure financial and other kinds of support from the international community. However, when state security is in jeopardy, Jordanian officials will strictly maintain final authority over refugee populations.

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This item is under embargo until September 30, 2022.