By: Sophia Hoffmann

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sophia Hoffmann (SH): After finishing my post-graduate studies in London in 2004, I trained as a journalist and then moved to Damascus to pick up some foreign correspondence work. I quickly became gripped with curiosity about how politics worked in Syria, both in the day to day, and on the international level. Everyday life in Syria seemed governed by a mix of intense fear and relaxed, easy-going attitudes that I really wanted to understand better.

This was in 2005, just after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and violence in Baghdad was at its height. The Brookings Institute hired me to conduct some research into the growing Iraqi refugee community in Syria, which I completed with the help of several Iraqi friends. After that, I knew I had found a satisfying and innovative way to research Syrian politics: looking at the daily-life situation of newly arriving Iraqis. My PhD supervisor, Laleh Khalili, encouraged me to think of the PhD, which I finished in 2011, as a book from the start. However, given the Syrian uprising and consequent war from 2011 onwards, I rewrote the manuscript to highlight several important continuities in Syria’s politics that the book analyses, and also to explain why the highly internationalized interventions surrounding Iraqi refugees in Syria served as a catalyst for the unfolding catastrophe.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SH: The book’s big picture question is about the differences between, or perhaps rather the incorrect understandings about liberal and illiberal statehood. While hanging around with mostly young Iraqis and Syrians—my main interlocutors where in the teens and twenties (I conducted more formal interviews with older Iraqis)—it quickly became obvious that their different citizenships did not significantly shape their relationship with Syrian politics and the Syrian state. This was a paradox from the political science view of statehood, in which territory, population, and government form a unity, and I wanted to show that.

The book’s narrative is about the daily life of Iraqis arriving in Syria from 2003 onwards, about how their presence led to a sudden expansion of international humanitarianism in Syria, and about the contradictions this newly arrived liberal refugee management created. Since then, the Iraqis have left, and half of Syria’s population has had to flee their homes, but the humanitarian sector has stayed and prospered.

The book describes the humanitarian projects and programs that developed between 2007 and 2011 around Iraqi refugees, and how Iraqis were understood and portrayed by humanitarians. This humanitarian portrayal of Iraqis starkly contradicted the lived reality of the Iraqi community I witnessed while living in a Damascene suburb with a large Iraqi population. The book gives a feel of what daily life in Damascus was like at the time, while also developing a nuanced, theoretical argument about different forms of statehood.

 J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SH: Given that this was my first significant piece of academic writing, a better question is: how does it connect to your work since then? Researching the book made me aware that in the Middle East, up until now, many refugees populations arrived and were integrated by societies and states with relative ease. A far cry from the brutality and fortress-mentality used against refugees/migrants in Europe. UN-led, humanitarian refugee programs, sadly, constantly emphasize that migrants and refugees are aliens, who do not belong (e.g., they echo liberal states’ obsession with forming a national community). My post-doctoral project turned more explicitly to the question of how international humanitarianism was changing refugee politics in the Middle East, for which I researched and published about the new refugee camps for Syrians in Jordan. This work was published, for example, in an article called Humanitarian security in Jordan’s Azraq Camp.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SH: I am honored by any person who reads this book. I would like it to provide food for thought and complicate simplistic understandings about Syria, and the catastrophe that has befallen the country since 2011. The Asad government was and is at the root of this catastrophe. The book shows the international embeddedness of this government, and the mounting tensions and contradictions that the imperialist politics of Western-led humanitarianism and warfare in the Middle East have created for Syria.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SH: My current research project is called “Learning intelligence: the exchange of secret service knowledge between Germany and the Arab Middle East 1950-2010.” Together with two PhD students, we compare the East German Stasi, the West German BND, the Iraqi, Egyptian and (probably) South Yemeni intelligence apparatuses, and investigate how knowledge travelled between these agencies.

I want to improve our understanding about the role that intelligence agencies play for modern statehood and modern international relations and investigate if and how knowledge about how to set up and run agencies circulates between states. Evidently, this project is connected to my ongoing skepticism about the authoritarian-democracy binary. We know that so much knowledge about how to organize repression originates in the liberal West. How exactly this knowledge is developed and shared is rarely investigated.

During my first, ongoing, research phase, in the Berlin-based archives of the East German Ministry for State Security, it has already become overwhelmingly clear that intelligence agencies are deeply internationalized institutions, whose relations weave a thick cloak of shared knowledge about the targets, technologies, and purposes of surveillance. The prevailing understanding of intelligence agencies as highly bordered organizations fixated on national security and secrecy is only partially correct and veils their role in international governance.

J: Why does the title of the book refer to Iraqi migrants, not Iraqi refugees?

SH: The word refugee has unfortunately become associated with a very narrow understanding of who fits this description. Also, the term has become closely associated with the exclusionary and problematic definition of a refugee that is provided in the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. Many of the Iraqis in Syria from which I learned, and who appear in the book, do not fit these definitions and associations. This is why I chose the broader category ”migrant,” with the idea in mind that refugees, who flee oppressive and dangerous circumstances, are one type of migrant.


Excerpt from the Book:

Two displacement crises have hit Syria in the past decade. The first began in 2005, as thousands of Iraqis started crossing Syria’s borders to flee the violence engulfing their country in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. Since 2012, it is Syrians themselves who are departing their homes en masse, as conflict has overwhelmed Syria, which only shortly before provide safe haven to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

These two migrations overlapped in time, and express important political and social continuities shaping Syria and its neighbouring states. The most obvious of these continuities is the seemingly unstoppable growth of extreme violence against civilian populations and infrastructure; this violence is being accompanied by other transformations to the social and political landscape, which will continue to form states and societies after conflict has subsided. Today’s violence is an “axis of social reordering”, as Marc Duffield observed about the post Cold-War conflicts of the 1990s, and a “powerful mechanism for the globalisation of economic, political and scientific relations” in and around Syria.

This book analyses aspects of this ‘reordering’ as they began to develop in the context of Iraqi migration to Syria. Based on ten months of field research, which I carried out while living in an Iraqi-dominated suburb of Damascus in 2010, and several, previous long-term visits to Syria since 2005, the book documents some of the political, social and spatial transformations that the Iraqi refugee crisis brought to Syria, shortly before the outbreak of revolutionary demonstrations and subsequent war. Even the usage of the phrase ‘Iraqi refugee crisis’ implies one such reordering: the identification of Iraqi immigration to Syria as a humanitarian emergency of universal concern, and the subsequent, heavy material involvement of foreign actors in its management. In hindsight, foreign actors’ work on the Iraqi refugee crisis was a learning phase, in which these actors became familiar with the social, political and cultural context of Syria and its neighbours, and adapted their standard operating procedures and categories to function in this context. It proved a learning phase, because when the Syrian refugee crisis began, these procedures and categories could be rolled as a seemingly coherent response to the newly arriving, displaced Syrians. The Iraqi refugee crisis served as the incubator for the massive, international emergency aid sector that has since 2007 become entrenched in the Middle East.

Most visible among this emergency sector are the numerous aid organisations channelling goods and services to impoverished migrants. Before Iraqi migration was identified as a crisis, most of these organisations had never worked in the Middle East. Syria in particular, with its controlling government, suspicious of all foreign presence, presented a new and difficult context for foreign aid operations. In fact, before the Syrian government took the step to permit large-scale aid operations in Damascus from 2008 onwards, the country had been largely shut off from international development and humanitarian discourse. The international aid sector’s expansion in Syria presented a watershed for the country and the region, exposing the Syrian government’s willingness to outsource the caring for poor populations, which Syria’s failing public services were no longer reaching, to international aid providers. Aid organisations, which arrived with a mandate to care only for Iraqi refugees, soon extended programmes to poor Syrians. Since then, due to the escalation of violence, they have become a key resource through which Syria’s ‘war-affected’ (an aid-jargon term) population is being provided with basic means of survival. In 2012, after strong lobbying, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, a quasi-government organization through which all foreign aid on government-controlled areas in Syria must flow, allowed aid to be extended to internally displaced Syrians, however still under very close government control and not in all areas. Thus, many of the humanitarian categories and categorisations that this book describes as being applied to Iraqis living in Syria, are today being applied to Syrians living in Syria, and in neighbouring states. The Middle East is today witnessing an expansion of humanitarian governance carried out via a growing international aid sector, which this book documents during the moments of its beginning.

This humanitarian governance has since then not only expanded in geographical space, but also in intensity of effect. The growing practice of marking the Iraqi migrant population in Syria as fundamentally different on the basis of their different nationality, which this book describes as an effect of the expanding aid sector, has, for example, today significantly escalated in Jordan’s new encampment policies aimed at the Syrian refugee population. Whereas no camps where built for Iraqi refugees, poor Syrians in Jordan are increasingly forced to reside in either Zaatari or Azraq camp, opened in 2012 and 2014 respectively, and run jointly by aid organisations and Jordanian security forces. A tightening of visa and immigration laws and a growth of government-led practice to insulate and differentiate refugees from the national population have accompanied the expansion of the international refugee aid sector in the Levant. This book covers in richly observed detail how and why the ideas, concepts, programmes and projects of international refugee aid are a reason for this development, which stands in marked contrast to the region’s refugee politics of the past, when refugees were rapidly integrated and/or presented as symbols of political wrongs, which needed to be corrected.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has played a lead role in the international management of the Iraqi and Syrian displacement crises. During the course of my regular visits to Syria between 2005 and 2011, I witnessed UNHCR’s rapid rise from a humble, small office in downtown Damascus and an annual budget of less than USD 2 million, to a formidable regional player, wielding budgets of several billion dollars. Given UNHCR’s strongly proclaimed commitment to human rights and indeed democracy, the agency’s amazing success story in the Middle East continues to astound, especially given how easy it proved for UNHCR managers to form warm partnerships with oppressive authorities in Syria, and today others in the region. UNHCR’s beginnings in Syria proved to be only the groundwork for a widening and deepening of UNHCR’s programmatic footprint in the Levant, and of its relations to state authorities in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. In Syria, UNHCR’s close cooperation with authorities, which, although considered critically in this book, nevertheless was a solid foundation to deliver aid to the Iraqi migrant population in the past, has turned into something more sinister and tragic today. UNHCR continues to comply with the Syrian government’s wishes that no relief aid should reach civilian populations living in areas controlled by opposition groups. This means that until this moment of writing in mid-2015, UNHCR continues to deliver over 90 % of its aid in government-held areas. Not to mention the fact that many of its multi-million dollar projects aimed at supporting civilian infrastructure in Syria are implemented in partnership with Syrian ministries and government agencies, through which much of the money is channelled. Whatever UNHCR’s public defence of this practice and stand towards the Syrian government – and such public defence has been near-to absent – it is an extremely disturbing situation of bias, which has led to a growing distrust and even open hostility towards the agency by other aid providers. Here, we see that the Syrian government’s ability to control and manipulate aid providers has gained force since the early days of the Iraqi refugee emergency. At the same time, aid providers also cling to, and implement in their programmes, their political visions and interests, and those of the donor governments that are continuing to pay for the multi-billion-aid effort.

Of these donor states the US is the biggest by far, providing more of UNHCR’s budget than the next five donors, which include the EU and Japan, together. This fact presents one of the important continuities between the Iraqi and Syrian displacement crises: while the overall amount of aid money pouring into the Levant has grown, the relative distribution of where it comes from has remained constant. In this book, I document and analyse the politics of two important donor states, the US and Germany, towards the Iraqi refugee crisis. Considering the situation five years later, the unstable mix of domestic and international considerations found to be guiding donor politics towards Iraqi displacement has remained the same with regards to the Syrian crisis, while its terrible effects have only gathered in intensity, as the situation continues to worsen.


Sophia Hoffmann, Iraqi Migrants in Syria: The Crisis Before the Storm (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2016).