By Rawan Arar, University of California, San Diego

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Refugees and Migration Movements in the Middle East workshop organized in collaboration with POMEPS and the Center for Middle East Studies at USC and held at University of Southern California on February 2-3, 2017. POMEPS Studies 25 is a collection of their memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

At the heart of the nation-state system and the international refugee regime is the principle of sovereignty— a state’s ultimate control within its specified territory, and its externally recognized right to claim legitimate authority over its internal affairs. The nation-state system is a collection of sovereign states; therefore, the principle of sovereignty exists for each individual state and as part of a system that governs international relations. These two workings of sovereignty become mutually constitutive because the behaviors of sovereign states are often influenced by regional or global considerations. In principle, all states have the right to claim sovereignty despite wealth or power; in practice, however, wealthier and more powerful states are better equipped to protect their sovereign interests. The international refugee regime is grounded in these two aspects of sovereignty— the authority of the individual sovereign state and the constraints or opportunities that exists within the system of sovereign states.

The principle of sovereignty is a primary consideration in deciding who qualifies as a refugee under international law. Refugee status, and the protections it entails, are contingent upon crossing state borders. Approximately 65 million people were forcibly displaced in 2016. While many of these people have suffered comparable persecution, they do not all receive the same legal protections. Forced migrants fall into different legal categories that are determined by where a person is geographically located. A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” (Article 1 [A]2 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, emphasis is mine). This legal caveat is included to uphold the conflict state’s sovereignty. Refugees could not exist without the nation-state system, the legitimacy given to state borders, and the international norm of non-interference.[1]

Not only does sovereignty shape who a refugee is, the principle of sovereignty also shapes the global distribution of refugees and the challenges that states face to receive refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), reports that developing countries in the Global South (GS) house 86% of the world’s refugees (UNHCR 2014). Meanwhile, wealthier states in the Global North (GN) resettle less than one percent of all refugees. In 2015, 81,893 of the 20 million refugees worldwide departed to resettlement countries, falling short of the 134,044 refugees the UNHCR submitted for resettlement.

States in the GN leverage their ability to externalize refugee hosting responsibilities to the GS, and in return, become financial donors that provide support for refugees abroad. In 2016, the top donor states were United States (1,493,799,619 USD), the European Union (341,606,227 USD) and Germany (283,888,027 USD). Burden sharing allows some states to contribute with resources and others with absorptive capacity, which can be defined as the “ability” and “willingness” to take in refugees.[2] This approach to burden sharing turns refugee into a commodity that is “traded” because hegemonic states take advantage of “structural inequities constructed and sustained by them [hegemonic states]”[3]  Sates in the GN use their wealth, power, and influence to contain the migration flows of refugees and place the responsibility of refugee hosting onto the GS.

The division of labor between states is called the “grand compromise.”[4] States in the GS shoulder the “refugee burden,” which refers to the difficulties of changing demographics, porous borders, and the involvement of international institutions— all practices that have been characterized as contributing to the decline of sovereignty. The “grand compromise” acknowledges that refugees pose distinct challenges for states in the GS as compared to the GN. States in the GN strictly protect their sovereign authority by controlling state borders, selecting and screening prospective refugees, and regulating the number of people who may enter their territory. Moreover, states in the GN do not rely on the UNHCR to provide aid and, therefore, do not yield governing authority to an international institution.

The international refugee regime prioritizes the sovereignty of states in the GN at the expense of sovereignty in the GS. In the GS, state borders tend to be significantly more porous, allowing for minimal screening and selection. States on the GS often rely on refugee camp to closely monitor refugees, attenuate security concerns, and separate refugees from the host population to diffuse tensions.[5] States in the GS invite the UNHCR to contribute to housing, feeding, and providing social services to refugees, which can lead to a decline in the state’s domestic authority. Some authors characterize the UNHCR as a “surrogate state,” whereby the UN has state-like functions through its allocation of rights to refugees with the permission of the host state.[6]

Rhetorical claims to sovereignty abound, especially in the aftermath of the European refugee crisis. States in the GN have invoked their right to self-governance and autonomy as the justification for rejecting migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as well as the involvement of international institutions like the United Nations or European Union. States in the GS also have sovereignty concerns. However, because of the “grand compromise” that is foundational to the international refugee regime, states in the GS must practice sovereignty while hosting large numbers of refugees.


The Case of Jordan:

My research focuses on Jordan. Like states in the GN, Jordan has concerns over porous borders and international involvement, both of which are theorized to contribute to the erosion of state sovereignty. Since the inception of the Jordanian state, the country has accepted millions of refugees while maintaining final authority over internal and external affairs of the state. Given the challenges of refugee reception, how does Jordan maintain sovereignty? In the second half of this essay, I describe one aspect of the practice of Jordanian sovereignty. I argue that officials of the Jordanian state leverage their position within the “grand compromise” to maintain state sovereignty. The practice of Jordanian sovereignty is tied to sovereignty concerns of states in the GN. Jordanian officials leverage Jordan’s role in solving the “refugee problem,” and in the process, increase international aid and optimize refugee hosting.

Jordan is a world leader in refugee hosting. Jordan has continuously earned recognition as one of the UNHCR’s top ten refugee host countries, making the state a central player in the global distribution of refugees. In 2015, Jordan was the top country of UNHCR resettlement operations with 24,374 refugees submitted for resettlement. For over 70 years, Jordan has hosted displaced people from Palestine, Iraq, and Syria, to name the most prominent waves of refugees. While Jordan’s status as a major refugee host state is internationally recognized by state and UN leaders, there are several conflicting estimates about the number of refugees that currently reside, or have resided, in Jordan. Counting and recording populations within a territory has been theorized as an exercise of sovereign authority.[7] Empirically, states that exercise sovereignty through strict border control, usually in the GN, can often provide the exact number of refugees within their territory.

By some accounts, Jordan is home to 2.7 million refugees in a population of 7.8 million (Amnesty International). Others estimate that the total population of Jordan is 9.5 million (Jordanian census 2015). According to the UNHCR, approximately 655,500 Syrians refugees are registered with the UN. Governmental estimates are much higher, suggesting that Jordan hosts 1.3 million Syrians. Governmental estimates include Syrian refugees registered with the UN and Syrian immigrants who may have been in Jordan before the start of the Syrian conflict. The disparity in refugee counts between the Jordanian government and NGOs is not new.

During my ethnographic work in Jordan, I heard one high ranking Jordanian official explain, “We used to exaggerate the numbers with the Iraqis, but we do not do that anymore. We are not exaggerating the Syrian numbers.” In 2007, the Norwegian research institute FAFO found that there were 161,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, while government estimates claimed that there were 750,000 to one million Iraqi refugees.[8] As of January 2017, the UNHCR reports that there are 61,004 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, a count that excludes Iraqis who not registered with the UN Refugee Agency. The juxtaposition of these numbers brings to light an important challenge that refugee host states face when they rely on international institutions to provide aid. While the UNHCR and other refugee aid organizations are tasked with serving registered refugee populations, the refugee host state must account for both refugee and non-refugee identifying immigrants as well as their own citizens. In Jordan, the refugee burden includes strained schools and hospitals, a perceived decline in standards of living, and fear over water insecurity.

A disagreement over counting refugees also surfaced between Jordan and the UNHCR over the number of Syrian refugees that began to gather at the border in late 2015. Jordanian government spokesperson Mohammed Momani claimed that the UNHCR “exaggerated” when they criticized Jordan for leaving 12,000 Syrians were stranded at the border. In February 2016, BBC journalist Lyse Doucet interviewed King Abdullah II about Jordan’s moral responsibility to accept Syrian refugees. Doucet emphasized Jordan’s responsibility to accept refugees while King Abdullah II made claims about Jordanian sovereignty, stressing the failure of the international community to host an adequate number of refugees. Unlike counting the number of refugees inside the Jordanian state, which has been used to justify financial aid requests, the number of refugees at the border jeopardized Jordan’s reputation as a hospitable refugee host state. Through this interview, King Abdullah II describes Jordanian security concerns and relates them to the concerns of states in the GN. He illustrates that Jordan has the capacity to control migration across state borders but reiterates Jordan’s willingness to continue accepting refugees. This interview is framed by the onset of the European refugee crisis and the backlash against refugee reception in Europe, which has strategically situated Jordan to leverage their “local absorption capacity.” King Abdullah II explains:

At this stage, we let them [Syrian refugees] in as they are being vetted. There is pressure from the international community to let them in, but we are saying to everybody, this is a major national security problem for all of us… But again, we throw back to the international community and to those countries that are being very difficult to us, saying at the end of the day, okay, you are saying that there are only 16,000 [refugees at the border]… We’ve already taken in 1.4 million people. If you are going to take the higher moral ground on this issue, we’ll get them all to an airbase and we’re more than happy to relocate them to your country…If you want to help the refugee problem, 16,000 refugees to your country, I don’t think is that much of a problem.

Doucet responds with a question: “Has anyone taken up your offer?” King Abdullah II replies, “Of course not.” Then, Doucet makes the humanistic point, “Europe is saying to you, we don’t want [sic] more refugees. You are saying you don’t want any more refugees. Where do they go?” King Abdullah II does not back away from Jordan’s role as a refugee host state. He explains, “We will continue to bring them across, in limited numbers. We will continue to look after them on the other side [of the border]. And, we will continue to vet them. So, it’s going to take time because we cannot afford a terrorist incident to be here in our country.” As of July 2016, the number of Syrian refugees at the border rose to approximately 85,000 people. In June 2016, an ISIS-claimed bomb exploded at the border. King Abdallah II declared, “Jordan will respond with an iron fist against anyone who tries to tamper with its security and borders.” The case of Syrian refugees at the Jordan-Syria border indicates that while Jordan is a major refugee hosting country, the state also has the capacity to control immigration.

The European refugee crisis increased Jordan’s leverage within the international refugee regime as hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers began to unravel the “grand compromise.” One Jordanian official described 2016 as “Jordan’s golden year.”  He explained to me that it would be in Jordan’s interest to emphasize the country’s role not only as a “country of first settlement” but also as a “buffer state” like Turkey. Buffer states get their name from serving as an immigration buffer between countries of origin and destination countries. Since the start of the refugee crisis, my respondent clarified, 150,000 Syrians have returned home on their way to Turkey and Europe. While he criticized Turkey’s impolite behavior toward the European Union, he recognized that Turkey has successfully leveraged their refugee hosting capacity to gain greater resources from donor states in the GN.

The definition of sovereignty is nebulous because it encompasses a wide range of closely related phenomena – each of which is acted upon by the sovereign to maintain final authority. For major refugee host states like Jordan, the practice of sovereignty is shaped by the “grand compromise,” which is foundational to the international refugee regime. Jordan leverages the sovereignty concerns of donor states in the GN, specifically their eagerness to contain refugee flows in the GS, in order to increase international aid and optimize refugee hosting.

Rawan Arar is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, San Diego and a researcher at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.


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[1] Haddad, 2008.

[2] Jacobsen 1996

[3] Chimni, 1998 p. 362

[4] Cuéllar 2006

[5] Hanafi, 2014.

[6] Slaughter and Crisp 2009 and Kagan 2011

[7] For example, see Loveman 2005; Hannah 2009.

[8] Chatelard 2008.

Leveraging Sovereignty: The Case of Jordan and the International Refugee Regime