Anne Marie Baylouny, When Blame Backfires: Syrian Refugees and Citizen Grievances in Jordan and Lebanon (Cornell University Press, 2020).

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

Anne Marie Baylouny (AMB): When massive numbers of Syrians fled to neighboring countries, remaining there since the beginning of 2011, I wondered what the effect would be, particularly on Jordan and Lebanon—countries with weak economies, scarce resources, little state welfare provision, and numerous internal divisions. The media and humanitarian institutions focused almost entirely on the Syrians themselves—and for good reason. But I wondered what effect this new demographic reality had, and was still having, on those countries receiving the refugees. After all, two of the major Syrian refugee-hosting countries, Jordan and Lebanon, now have the most refugees per capita in the world.

How would they cope? How would the political dynamics change, understanding politics in the broad sense of encompassing social and economic life? Would senses of identity shift against the new foreign population? How would the neoliberal policies of these countries interact with new demands on public goods and infrastructure? Would the governments be able to deflect blame for economic pain? Both countries have a long history of using immigrants, minorities, and local identity divisions as political scapegoats. Divide and rule has kept citizens who disagree with their governments from uniting together here.

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

AMB: I used literature on scapegoating and blame from psychology and sociology, social movement literature, and refugee studies to explain changes in the host countries. One of Charles Tilly’s lesser known works, Credit and Blame, dealt with blame. Blame is intensely political and has often been used to deflect attention from real problems or to absolve elites from scrutiny. Inability to pinpoint blame can mean no protest at all, as there is no one to target to enact change.

In the cases here, politicians and the media blamed the Syrian refugees for all sorts of problems, most predating their heightened influx into both countries. This is a regular practice in Jordan and Lebanon, as in many other countries: elites in both states have commonly blamed foreigners, Palestinians, and Islamists, and Ba’athists and Communists back in the day. These regimes maintain power by using divisions and distractions, including changes of government. Blaming and dismissing the prime minister is particularly common in Jordan, as has occurred with all the major opposition protests in the country. Scapegoating is a powerful tool, one that usually works.

What I saw in Jordan and Lebanon was that while people accused the Syrians of creating the problems, they held the government as responsible for fixing those problems, and criticized them when no solution was given. The reaction was small, local protests in the first few years, asking the government for housing, electricity, water, and better medical care. I then watched those small protests get larger and their issues change: they were no longer centered simply on the lack of local service provisions but now specifically on the regimes that were causing these deficiencies. The relationship and expectations between citizen and state was changing.

Specific grievances turned into systematic critiques. Unlikely groups joined together, as the movements gained strength in both countries. In almost all the protests, there was a clear avoidance of blaming the Syrians. Bringing in this aspect would distract from the ultimate goal of pushing for change in state institutions.

This result is new and unlikely: increasingly larger movements remained focused on a systemic, difficult goal. Psychologically, people avoid conclusions that cause them to act or that implicitly involve self-blame or self-responsibility. Accusing their regime meant that ultimately, the citizens were responsible for changing it. Laying blame on a foreign group lets people off the hook in this sense.

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

AMB: My work focuses on how people live, how they are able to make a living, and how they negotiate their world to create security for themselves and their families. As in this book, my previous work, Privatizing Welfare in the Middle East: Kin Mutual Aid Associations in Jordan and Lebanon (2010), examined how social insurance and the ability to live independently changes with economic circumstances, and how senses of identity are altered to cope with new circumstances. Both books begin with the premise that discourses and dynamics at the national political level result from grassroots changes, and both look beyond leaders and political oppositions to see what backs them or disputes them. Movements and parties derive their strength from participants—what drives people to join is key in understanding larger political trends.   

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

AMB: The general public, students, and academics would all be comfortable reading this book. One key message—namely, why and when politicians can get away with deflecting blame—is quite relevant today in a number of contexts. We know that many countries have used xenophobia or blame against some powerless group to deflect attention and criticism from themselves or the problems of governance.

I would like to see more research into when divisive tactics succeed and when they fail. We know that the people most likely to blame immigrants for their problems have had little contact with immigrants—this bears true in studies around the world. So are the people who fall for divisions, who willingly scapegoat another group, are they the ones who are not actually suffering? My research shows that in this case, that is what happened. Those experiencing real loss wanted to solve their problems and turned to the government, perceiving that blame of the Syrians, who were also suffering, was pointless. The result of such research could trigger changes in how activists target their messages and what those messages are.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AMB: I am exploring this dynamic of scapegoating and deflecting blame in general. This work made me look deeper into who people blame for their problems and how that matters to protest movements. Blame runs through our world today, often blame unconnected to real causes as the data shows. Still, people frequently believe that blame and prefer not to look at themselves. When the opposite occurs, people start to take responsibility.  

J: How can this book be used in teaching? Does it cover other aspects of the Syrian refugee crisis? 

AMB: I geared the chapters in this book to be useful in the classroom. I have a chapter on host perceptions, real and imagined, and how host citizens feel about the Syrians. It demonstrates how quickly the discourse turned against the refugees, attributing to them long-standing problems. Classes teaching about immigration effects, backlash against forced migrants, the use of refugees by politicians, and refugee-host dynamics would benefit from this.

Another chapter examines how Syrian refugees have affected Jordan and Lebanon economically and in public services. I intended this chapter for use in refugee studies classes and classes on developing countries, many of which host refugees. I discuss the existing data on jobs, education, and infrastructure effects. Our data on these subjects is incomplete, but the direction of the impact of high refugee influxes is clear for countries with little state capacity or countries enacting neoliberalism. Demographic change pushes on existing fault lines of the states. This chapter also lays out the legal and institutional basis for refugee policy in these states.

This book would aid the policies of non-governmental organization also. I show how some well-meaning practices have stirred up hatred toward the Syrians, like when an NGO gave water filtering technology to Syrians in a Lebanese town, but not to the Lebanese living next door to them. Both were drinking the same dirty water, both were poor. In these circumstances it is surprising that ultimate blame was directed at the Lebanese government, when you could easily imagine more resentment toward Syrians or the NGO community.

The book is perfect for teaching on social movements, as it demonstrates the escalation of protest frames and the diverse types of protests that result, in addition to the role of blame. It shows the trend from individual quasi-spontaneous protest toward increasing organization and larger, more unified movements.

With the trend toward increasing protest movements in the Middle East and the critical role of necessary goods in spurring those protests, this book would be useful in courses on the Middle East. The first chapter provides a short outline of Lebanon and Jordan’s histories, focusing on state provisioning and the history of protest. Subsequent chapters explain the importance of basic resources and services in citizens’ expectations of their states, and the consequences for breaking that social contract. Interestingly, the book also uncovers a common idea of the ideal state, what citizens want their state to furnish and how it should act. This ideal does not come from past provisioning so much as it does from comparison with Western Europe. This in itself is a topic that needs more study—what do people want from their states, and how does this change by country, region, economic class, and education?


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)

Four-year-old Sanad stood waiting in court with his seven-year-old sister and their mother in Mafraq, northern Jordan. The widow Um Sanad and her small family had been evicted, a direct result of the influx of Syrian refugees in Jordan. Um Sanad had been paying 75 Jordanian dinars (JD) a month for their apartment, around USD 100, for the previous nine years. Her landlord increased the rent by close to 70%, and the new cost would leave her with only 10 JD (USD 14) to live on. Hundreds of families were similarly threatened with eviction across Mafraq, as their rent increased by as much as 300%. Syrians were flooding across the border looking for shelter at this time in 2013, a condition that landlords exploited to charge far more rent. The situation pit son against father, brother against brother, and ultimately, Jordanian against Syrian.

Abu Mohammad joined the growing protests against this injustice. His rent had tripled because of the Syrians. Unable to pay, he bought a tent and, together with some twenty families, took part in one of the first tent protests. These Jordanians, made homeless in their own country due to refugees from neighboring Syria, set up their own camp, the Jordanian Displaced People’s Camp #1 (Mukhayyam an-Naziheen al-Urduniyyin, Raqm 1) in Mafraq. Their tents bore the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) logo, ironically having been purchased from Syrian refugees. The evicted families demanded that the authorities intervene and help them solve the problem of high rent. Local and national Jordanian government officials called on the protesters to disband. The protesters responded with a threat to escalate the open-ended protest to hunger strikes until their problem was fixed. “We protesters responded to them that there is no way to stop the protest unless our demands are met. If the police interfere [to force them to disband], we will go on a hunger strike, with no food or water, and Mafraq city will become a city of tents,” one organizer said. These protesting Jordanians were not historically part of opposition to the government. To the contrary, they formed the regime’s base of support. But they needed a solution: their situation could not continue as it was, they declared.

Half an hour down the road from Mafraq, Hamda Masaeed sat in her self-made tent, timeworn and frayed. The seventy-year-old grandmother watched as aid trucks and charities alike passed her ten-member family by to deliver help across the road in Za’atari, the newly established Syrian refugee camp. A Jordanian citizen, Hamda envied the beautiful new tents of the Syrian refugees and lamented, “Don’t they realize that we need help too?”

Accounts of citizen suffering, presumably caused by the Syrian refugee influx, and the apparent neglect of local needs in favor of the refugees, caused immense resentment. By this time, two years into the Syrian war, there was no love lost on the Syrian refugees. Large swaths of society in Lebanon and Jordan had become overtly hostile to the Syrians after their initial welcome. The Syrian presence in these countries was overwhelming. Syrian refugee numbers far surpassed anything seen in the west. Syrians formed an average of 10% of the population in Jordan from 2014 to 2018, and in Lebanon the numbers were much higher: Syrians in Lebanon were at least one quarter of the population. The sheer demographic impact of the Syrians overwhelmed institutions, services, and infrastructure. People of all social classes in both countries questioned what national identity meant. “What does it mean to be Jordanian when twenty percent of your country is Syrian or Iraqi?”

As an unpopular minority group, Syrian refugees seemingly made the perfect scapegoats. Scapegoats displace grievances against the state to an unpopular minority or immigrant group. These states tried at every turn to blame the Syrians for national problems, no matter how long those issues preceded the Syrians’ arrival. In typical scapegoating fashion, state elites turned attention and hostility toward the Syrians: The state could have fixed electricity in Lebanon, but the Syrians took five hours of power a day from households. Similarly, authorities in Jordan stated that Syrians drained national water resources and used far more than nationals, who conserve this resource. These scapegoating discourses did not function as such tactics usually do. They did not distract attention from the state into anger at the minority or outsider group.

Crucial daily needs were affected by the demographic stress of the Syrians, altering or threatening citizens’ lives. These needs called out for solutions, not merely blame against a group unable to fix their situation. It is this aspect that distinguishes Jordan and Lebanon from other cases of attempted scapegoating. Citizens were – and are – angry at Syrians, but such anger does nothing to provide water, waste removal, or electricity. Indeed, electricity, housing, water, and waste – which have been longstanding national problems – are some of the basic issues that spurred protests by Jordanians and Lebanese against their governments. In tent protests like the one above, Jordanian protesters blamed the Syrian refugees for their predicament, and many wanted the Syrian to leave. However, their demands focused on concrete redress from the state. Large signs in the tent protests declared the inhabitants’ patriotism and begged for housing from God and king. During the same period in Lebanon, Lebanese demonstrated, burned tires, and blocked roads protesting the prolonged lack of electricity in Baalbek, an area with one of the highest Syrian refugee populations. There was widespread popular agreement that the Syrian refugees were at fault in draining electricity from nationals. Officials accused the refugees of stealing electricity and of simply overwhelming the electrical grid’s capacity due to their large numbers. But instead of protests aimed at the Syrian refugees, the Lebanese attacked and targeted the Energy Ministry and other arms of the state, demanding more electricity.

The arrival of the Syrian refugees stressed domestic fault lines, both calling attention to endemic problems and triggering protests against the states for remedies. Many of these fault lines were basic, daily needs, some crucial to survival. Citizens responded with dual blame. They faulted the Syrians for causing the problems, but accused the states of responsibility for fixing those issues. Active protest, with a few exceptions, was focused on national and local state institutions and demanded solutions. When one Jordanian town ran out of water, they blamed Syrians taking from Jordan’s scarce national water supply. International aid organizations were providing water to the Syrian refugees, sometimes drawing from domestic supply. No one seemed to consider Jordanian needs. Citizens’ priorities for water were dramatically clear. The Jordanian protesters confronted their government – and, quite surprisingly, the king himself – with guns. “I have nothing to lose. If I don’t drink water, I will die,” a lead protester said.

“It’s the Syrians’ fault,” one man in Jordan of Palestinian heritage told me. “But the government has to do something about it.” Aid money received on behalf of the Syrians only exacerbated the criticisms. Before the Syrians, “People said the problem was Lebanese. Then the politicians blamed the Syrians for all the waste and using infrastructure. But the politicians were getting all this money for these problems. So people turned against the politicians. You say you are getting all this money and nothing is happening,” a Lebanese man said. “There are just too many Syrians for the population of Lebanon. We have to be humanitarian toward them – but the state and the UN do not help enough,” another Lebanese said. A Jordanian city council member described, “We had tent protests here [northern Jordan, with a large refugee population] but not much anymore. They demanded help from the government, which is their right [as Jordanians] in the constitution, [the right] to work, to a house, and to health care.” A Lebanese UNICEF employee added, “In the back of their [Lebanese] minds they realize their government is failing. Sometimes they blame the Syrians, but more and more they realize this blame is used by the politicians for their own benefit.”

Scapegoating historically has worked as intended, displacing anger away from the state. In Jordan and Lebanon with the Syrian refugees, the tactic failed. The distinction here is that grievances concern resources fundamental to life. In such cases, solutions can outweigh scapegoating. Scapegoats are rarely in a position to provide water, electricity, or housing, nor can they restructure a national waste system. In these cases, Jordanians and Lebanese ranked their basic needs over the psychological benefit of blame toward a presumed guilty group. The states’ use of scapegoating to exempt themselves from scrutiny and fault for deep structural problems arguably backfired. Citizens in these refugee-hosting countries agreed that the Syrians were to blame, but levied responsibility to alleviate their grievances on the states.