A Tale of Two Municipalities: The Local Politics of International Assistance During Refugee Crises

Reva Dhingra, Independent Scholar



Refugee “crises,” or the sudden, transnational flight of thousands or even millions of individuals, have driven the bulk of the global increase in refugees over the past ten years. Over 70 percent of refugees are located in developing countries. In states often already facing challenges in economic growth, weak public infrastructure, and political fragility, refugee crises present a potential shock to domestic political, economic, and social systems. Refugee presences are also a distinctly spatial phenomenon. While some areas of a country may receive few or no refugees during a crisis, the population of other areas may double or even triple (Jacobsen 2002). A refugee crisis not only changes demographic balances but can also strain local government budgets and public services. However, a refugee crisis simultaneously offers new sources of economic opportunity through international assistance, refugee economic participation, and new transnational linkages.

Over the past decade, a new body of literature has examined the phenomenon of refugee rentier states, where national governments leverage the presence of refugees to attract external political, economic, and social resources (Kelberer 2017; Tsourapas 2019). Yet limited work has examined how refugee-hosting localities may seek to attract such resources. “Unpacking” the rentier state to consider subnational actors is critical to understanding the domestic political and economic effects of rents, and whether the external resources stemming from refugees reach the local level (Hertog 2023; Lynch and Tsourapas 2024).

In this contribution, I examine how local elected officials in clientelist, developing systems perceive and attempt to influence the allocation of international assistance and central state support during refugee crises. I argue that humanitarian assistance during refugee crises is distinct from development assistance, which the central state may often successfully co-opt or redirect spatially within the country (Briggs 2014; Jablonski 2014). While central state attempts to co-opt aid typically persist during refugee crises, refugee presences are often physically observable by international organizations and create real or perceived pressure on local services and employment. Consequently, I argue the central state is forced to initially allow assistance to go toward refugee-hosting municipalities.

Local elected officials are not passive in this process, however. Based on over 80 interviews conducted from 2018 to 2021 in 14 different municipalities in Jordan and in-depth case studies of two municipalities, I argue that Jordanian mayors in Syrian refugee-hosting areas have sought to capitalize on refugee presences. Refugees are used to obtain fiscal assistance from international sources and, in some cases, achieve policy or clientelist objectives previously out of reach in the country’s highly centralized system. Even mayors of municipalities that have few refugees according to official data attempt to utilize refugees for additional international and central state budgetary support. Local elected officials’ perception of refugees as resources leads to these officials attempting to obtain assistance from central and international sources by alternately characterizing refugees as resources or burdens who may cause social unrest if refugee-hosting municipalities are not supported.

This research builds on the refugee rentier literature (Lynch and Tsourapas 2024) as well as the growing body of work examining how local actors are increasingly engaging in policymaking during refugee crises and accessing transnational networks (Betts, Memişoğlu, and Ali 2021; Mourad 2017).

Existing Literature

In the 21st century, most refugee crises in developing states come with the involvement of a multitude of international actors and assistance efforts. To assist refugees, mitigate the effects of refugee crises on ally host countries, and prevent onward displacement, bilateral and multilateral donors may offer direct fiscal assistance and programmatic support through international organizations and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). A state’s ability to access aid is dependent on ties with donor countries and the threat of out-migration of refugees to donor countries, among many other factors (Tsourapas 2019). Due to factors including limited host state capacity, perceptions of corruption, and donors’ strategic and political objectives, donors have also increasingly channeled assistance for refugees through non-state actors like INGOs and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs; Bennett 2014).

Some states limit international involvement in supporting refugees due to political reasons or fears of interference (Jacobsen 1996). Recent work, however, has examined how states may actively utilize the presence of refugees to obtain economic concessions and aid from developed countries, which are wary of refugees migrating to their own countries (Tsourapas 2019; Kelberer 2017; Arar 2017). Tsourapas (2019) explores the phenomenon of “refugee rentierism” in describing the behavior of three key refugee hosts—Lebanon, Jordan, and Türkiye—toward bilateral and multilateral donors. He outlines two key strategies, blackmailing and back-scratching, to describe the bargaining relationship between these countries and the European Union. However, much of the research focusing on the utility of refugees to extract external rents theorizes primarily on a national and international level rather than as part of a state’s domestic politics.

How international assistance reaches the local level is critical to understanding whether governments use refugees as a source of unearned rents to sustain their political coalitions of support or to fulfill the needs of communities often already struggling prior to refugees’ arrival. Recent work assesses how domestic political systems may shape the local allocation of international assistance for political purposes. Briggs (2014) and Jablonski (2014) find that patronage politics between the regime and supporters in Kenya led to a direction of development aid toward areas of government support. This research has a key implication: a local government’s ability to benefit from assistance or work with international actors may be contingent on the central government’s willingness to allow such contact with a specific locality.

Yet, while most aid diversion research focuses on development aid, humanitarian responses to refugee presences, conflicts, and natural disasters are far from immune to these challenges. Humanitarian actors are often implicated in both domestic and international politics, serving as witting or unwitting accomplices in a foreign or host state’s political agenda (Barnett and Weiss 2008; Barnett 2011; Donini et al. 2012). For example, in a study of United States natural disaster assistance, Bommer, Dreher, and Perez-Alvarez (2022) demonstrate that larger amounts of aid are disbursed when natural disasters hit the home region of a recipient country’s leader. However, existing research has not substantively explored the dynamics of international assistance during refugee crises.



I provide a framework for understanding the allocation of international assistance at the local level and how local elected officials perceive refugee presences and such allocation, as evidenced in attempts to influence this process. I first examine how the early dynamics of refugee crises shape aid allocation largely toward localities with higher numbers and proportions of refugees. Second, I argue that Jordanian local officials in refugee-dense (which I define for this study as municipalities whose population is greater than 5% Syrian refugees) and refugee-scarce localities (those where it is not) view refugees as resources to obtain international and central state assistance.

Most refugees globally live in urban or peri-urban areas as opposed to camps, which are typically directly managed by governments in conjunction with international actors. Uncertainty about refugee whereabouts in non-camp settings may pose a significant initial barrier to reaching refugees. Furthermore, given the often clientelist approaches of governments toward international assistance discussed above (Briggs 2014; Jablonski 2014; Clark 2018), international assistance during refugee crises may well be subject to similar attempts at redirection.

I argue that two factors will result in aid largely reaching localities with higher densities of refugees. First, refugees are mostly physically observable—whether by the local community, government, or international actors—when they arrive in an area. Often, refugees must register with host governments or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to access aid and services. However, some countries, such as Lebanon and Pakistan, either prevent registration or actively persecute and deport refugees, resulting in an increased degree of uncertainty.

Second, refugees may cause real or perceived local pressure on housing, employment, public services, and prices. Strong evidence shows that, regardless of actual impact, refugees have a negative effect on attitudes among host country citizens whether because of resource competition or negative attitudes toward out-groups (Hardin 1995; Sniderman, Hagendoorn, and Prior 2004; Dancygier 2010; Adida 2011). This literature suggests that anti-refugee sentiment may manifest through violence against refugees, xenophobia, or protests against refugees and the state. Alrababa’h et al. (2019) find in Jordan that citizens largely express positive attitudes toward Syrian refugees themselves, but they hold overwhelmingly negative perceptions of refugees’ impact on housing, the economy, and services.

I argue that the state and international actors are both aware of the possibility of social unrest. This threat shapes their subnational allocation decisions. While central states’ attempts to extract rents persist during refugee crises, such as through fees or seeking employment for relatives, this factor prevents significant spatial redirection. Therefore, while variation may occur in the level of assistance within refugee-dense areas, refugee-dense areas in the country overall receive higher levels of international assistance relative to non-refugee-dense areas.

Allocating most aid to refugee-hosting localities has significant implications for local politics and service provision. Refugees are often located in border areas in camps and peri-urban areas or, as states increasingly move away from using encampments, in urban areas. Border areas, in particular, often have limited influence in the national political arena and low levels of public service provision (Jacobsen 2002). A growing strand of research has centered on local elected officials as actors in the international–domestic nexus formed and developed during refugee crises (Betts, Memişoğlu, and Ali 2021; Mourad 2017).

Understanding the potential benefits and detriments of refugee presences and accompanying international aid is crucial to understanding local officials’ possible rent-seeking behavior. Recent research has found varied effects. Some work finds no effects on host citizen labor or access to services (Hartnett 2018; Tatah et al. 2016), while other work finds negative effects on commodity prices and low-income and informal worker employment (Alix-Garcia et al. 2018; Ceritoglu et al. 2017). In contrast, Zhou, Grossman, and Ge (2022) find that local, camp-adjacent communities with greater levels of refugee presence experienced substantial improvements in local development.

Regardless of the economic or social impacts for local populations, refugees can serve as sources of rents for local elected officials. I assume that officials are office-seeking and rent-seeking for themselves, family members, and political coalition members. I also assume that officials are elected based on clientelistic relationships with constituents, programmatic measures, or a combination of the two. International assistance, through NGO-implemented programs and direct support to local government, represents a potential additional source of revenue for office-seeking politicians. This may be weighed against other factors, including the local impacts of refugees, political risks, and anti-out-group sentiment. In Lebanon, for example, Syrian refugees have faced mass evictions in some municipalities (Mourad 2017; Frelick 2018).

However, I argue that local elected officials view international assistance as potentially outweighing the costs of refugees. In refugee-dense areas, officials attempt to actively leverage refugee presences through their interactions with international actors—in some cases bypassing the central state—by casting refugees alternately as resources or burdens. In less refugee-dense areas, officials observe increased international assistance provision in refugee-dense areas and seek to attract resources by arguing that refugees have impacted their municipalities.

This perception of refugees as resources for international aid challenges understandings of refugees solely as burdens, in line with analysis by Jacobsen (2002) of how refugees can benefit states and localities. Instead, my argument builds on theories posed by Tsourapas (2019) at the national level and Betts, Memişoğlu, and Ali (2021) and Lama Mourad at the local level to examine the strategies adopted by officials in pursuit of the material and political benefits posed by refugee presences.

Case Study: Methods and Background

I examine the Syrian refugee response in Jordan, focusing on the period from 2012 to 2019. I undertake process-tracing of aid allocation at the national level and comparative case studies at the municipal level, based on interviews conducted between 2018 and 2021 and on primary sources. I conducted interviews with NGO employees, central administrative authorities in the Ministries of Local Administration and Planning and International Cooperation, and with bilateral and multilateral donors. I interviewed 14 mayors in refugee-dense areas—which I define as municipalities whose population is greater than 5% Syrian refugees, such as Umm el-Jimal and Mafraq City—and less refugee-dense municipalities, such as Dhiban and Ain Al-Basha. I also interviewed bureaucrats in some of these municipalities.

Jordan’s 12 governorates are divided into two separate elected administrative systems: districts, governed by parliament members, and municipalities, governed by mayors and municipal councils. Mayors are responsible for a highly limited range of services and central government bureaucracy restricts decision-making (Clark 2018; Gao 2016). Both the municipal and parliamentary district structures have been described as engines of patronage and central co-optation by scholars of Jordan (Clark 2018; Kao 2015; Lust-Okar 2006).

International assistance, primarily direct fiscal support, has formed a crucial component of the Jordanian monarchy’s distributive relationship with its population since independence, with scholars dubbing Jordan a “semi-rentier” economy (Peters and Moore 2009). Scholars have further argued that Jordan has historically leveraged its geopolitical position to earn billions of dollars in both inter-Arab aid and other foreign aid, including through altering its foreign policy (Ryan 2018; Brand 1995). Jordan has also hosted successive refugee populations—including over 2.2 million Palestinian refugees—since its independence in 1946. Palestinian and Iraqi refugees constituted a key source of humanitarian, development, and security aid for the Jordanian state and have themselves contributed substantively to Jordan’s economic, social, and political development. The historical legacies of displacement present a potential confounder—local strategies towards refugees and accompanying international aid may be shaped by previous experiences.

The 2011 Syrian revolution and subsequent civil war sent Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries. As many as 3,000 refugees crossed Jordan’s northern border every day in late 2012 and 2013. As of January 2024, more than 643,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan are registered with the United Nations. Since 2012, Jordan has received billions of dollars in international humanitarian and development aid targeting its citizens and Syrian refugees. While most assistance has focused on health, education, shelter, and livelihoods, as of 2019, at least $100 million from donors including the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development, and the International Labour Organization has gone specifically toward supporting Jordanian municipalities. This assistance has provided funding for services such as trash collection, municipal employment initiatives, and capacity-building training for municipal staff.


Empirical Evidence

The Subnational Allocation of International Assistance

Umm el-Jimal municipality is in the northeastern region of Mafraq governorate, bordering Syria. Despite a strong tribal, East Bank Jordanian presence (the primary coalition members of the monarchy), the governorate has a relatively low percentage of public sector employment compared with other predominantly tribal East Bank Jordanian governorates. It is also characterized by high illiteracy rates, low access to education, and high levels of poverty (Ababsa ed., 2013). In 2012, thousands of Syrian refugees began to arrive, fleeing the civil war raging just miles away from Umm el-Jimal. The 2015 census placed Syrians at nearly 20% of the municipality’s population—excluding the 78,000 refugees residing in the Zaatari refugee camp, which extends into the municipality’s borders. Yet, when discussing Syrian refugees during my visit to the mayor’s office in 2018, the mayor was sanguine. He pointed out a trophy he received from an international organization for “best mayor of the year” for his management of the Syrian crisis.[i]

Many refugees arriving in northern Jordan during the Syrian civil war originated from southern Syria. Indeed, observers have highlighted the strong kinship ties between northern Jordanians and southern Syrians (Alrababa’h et al. 2019). However, NGOs and media sources highlighted protests early on by northern Jordanians against perceived favoritism toward refugees by the government and international organizations. Protesters blocked roads and prevented water trucks from entering the Zaatari camp (Luck 2013). Residents I interviewed expressed resentment toward not only Syrian refugees but the central government and NGO employees working in Umm el-Jimal employed from outside of the municipality.[ii]

However, Umm el-Jimal has also benefited from a surge in international funding. Accusations of corruption and redirection of aid dogged previous refugee response efforts, such as for Palestinian and Iraqi refugees in Jordan (Plascov 1981; Seeley 2010). However, my interviews with NGO employees serving as government liaisons, central administrative authorities, donors, and mayors, along with a quantitative dataset presented in a separate paper, do not suggest massive spatial redirection of assistance for Syrian refugees.

Instead, the evidence points to a response characterized by significant central bureaucratic bloat while still enabling assistance to reach refugee-dense municipalities at higher levels than less refugee-dense municipalities. Rather than seeking to geographically redirect aid, central authorities were most often interested in ensuring permit processes were followed or providing technical feedback on the programs. There were also cases of attempting to hire relatives or connections or pushing for local employment rather than foreigners.[iii] Interviewees working in government relations for INGOs told me that the primary challenges they faced in obtaining permissions for programs stemmed from sector ministries—such as health and education and the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation—disagreeing on objectives. They noted that government employees sometimes attempted to include budget lines to subsidize salaries for their ministries in programs. No interviewee indicated systematic central government efforts to influence where programs took place, though two interviewees noted that some ministries attempted to influence the local hiring process for project implementation.[iv]

As a result, municipalities such as Umm el-Jimal have received significant international support relative to municipalities with fewer refugees. Support takes the form of humanitarian programs and public and non-state service provision, and reaches both Jordanians and Syrians. Interviews with Ministry of Local Administration employees, NGO employees, and donor representatives further confirmed that while favoritism toward refugee-dense areas with strong ties to the central government was high, refugee-dense areas received more support overall compared with less refugee-dense areas.

A Tale of Two Municipalities

Umm el-Jimal is not the only municipality that has seen a surge of refugee-related international assistance. Across northern and parts of central Jordan, municipalities found themselves at the center of international attention during the early years of the Syrian refugee crisis. They have struggled to manage the additional service challenges and pressures on employment produced by the population doubling over only a few months.

Jordan’s highly centralized system precludes effective engagement of local officials in determining international program priorities. Permit processes are centrally controlled: without any input into the assistance arriving in their localities, there seems to be little reason for local officials to view refugee-related assistance as a resource. However, the case of Umm el-Jimal illustrates that local officials have increasingly pushed for local (elite) input into decision-making—despite central government control over coordination, fund disbursement, and permit processes. In an interview, the mayor highlighted his role in successfully pressuring the central government and international organizations to increase service provision: “I said to them, come and see the level of problems here […] If you have a powerful mayor, you can bring the central government to you,” he noted.4

It remains unclear whether local officials’ strategies to leverage refugees actually translate into better service provision for constituents. In a group interview, Umm el-Jimal residents said that any benefits they received were “simple” compared with benefits received by Syrian refugees living in the neighboring Zaatari refugee camp. As one resident put it: “I’m not saying to you that there haven’t been benefits, there have been benefits […] but [usage by Syrians] has eroded infrastructure.”[v] However, the case of Umm el-Jimal and other refugee-dense municipalities I visited indicate that local elected officials perceive refugees as linked with politically useful international assistance. The mayor touted his own increasing power and responsibility, noting that his “charisma” and “ability to bring services” following the refugees’ arrival were key factors in his reelection in 2017.[vi]

At the same time, the direction of aid toward refugee-dense municipalities has bred resentment among mayors in municipalities with fewer refugees. The municipalities of Dhiban and Lib and Mleih (Lib and Mleih is a single municipality) are developing localities with high unemployment and weak service provision. Their challenges far pre-date the Syrian refugee crisis and the perception of refugees as resources. In seeking support, mayors of these municipalities have, at times, sought to establish direct connections with international organizations and donors. They have also lobbied central government officials by highlighting the Syrian refugees within their communities and the burdens posed by them.

A predominantly East Bank tribal area, Dhiban faces among the highest rates of unemployment in Jordan. When I visited the municipalities in 2019, the mayors spoke of being overlooked by the central government and international actors, both in terms of employment and in comparison with northern municipalities, which host the majority of refugees. In particular, the mayors of both Dhiban and Lib and Mleih argued that the central government and international organizations were drastically undercounting refugees in their municipalities (which the census places at less than 3% of the municipalities’ populations). The mayor of Dhiban said:


“We have a problem with Dhiban that many [Syrians] live in Dhiban, but they are registered in Mafraq or the municipalities of the north, because there is a salary for them there, the [refugees] receive international support. But in Dhiban we don’t get support from international organizations.”[vii]

While it is likely that the number of refugees living in Dhiban differs from the official number, central government officials and international actors disputed the mayor’s argument that the number was dramatically higher.

The rhetoric employed by local officials explicitly links Syrian refugees to the need for infrastructure support from international organizations. Aware of international organizations’ focus on areas hosting Syrian refugees, mayors in less refugee-dense areas highlighted the negative impacts of refugees on their communities. Indeed, the mayor of Lib and Mleih noted that the number of refugees in his town was “twice” the number in Madaba (a much larger neighboring municipality) and his “municipality hadn’t gotten anything but [Madaba] got millions of dinar in support.” He felt that his municipality, meanwhile, was “helping Syrians for free.”[viii]

Central government employees further corroborated the perception that refugees are a crucial, and potentially the only, way to effectively obtain international assistance. In an interview, one central government employee noted:

“Most of these [refugee-receiving municipalities] achieved higher levels of service delivery than they actually had before the crisis. The capacity development of the staff, institution-wise, administrative-wise, financial-wise have all been positive. The negative is that this has caused some imbalance in development compared to other municipalities. Syrian refugees are located in the northern part and rarely in the southern part. Some southern municipalities are excluded that are in urgent need.”

More than 10 years after the arrival of Syrian refugees, the central state has made explicit efforts to redirect assistance back toward municipalities based on developmental outcomes rather than refugee presence.


This article provides a theoretical roadmap for understanding patterns of subnational aid allocation during fast-onset refugee crises and how local elected officials perceive refugee presences and the accompanying aid allocation. I establish an empirical pattern of local elected officials perceiving and utilizing refugees as resources to obtain international assistance for policy or clientelist purposes. Elected officials in less refugee-dense municipalities seek to highlight the number of refugees in their municipalities, aware of the link between refugee presence and international attention. In refugee-dense municipalities with high official numbers of refugees, elected officials also emphasize the burdens of hosting, yet many highlight their relationships with international organizations as enabling them to overcome these burdens and achieve policy objectives.

Understanding the distribution of international assistance to primarily refugee-dense areas—and the local elected officials’ perception of refugees as a means to obtain international aid—is only a starting point. Once aid arrives in a locality, the policies adopted by local elected officials have significant implications for service provision for their constituents. However, these are outside the scope of this project. A crucial area for additional research is to examine how policymaking around these new resources can shape constituents’ lives and whether refugee rentierism benefits accrue primarily to political leaders or whether they also reach the communities welcoming refugees.



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[i] Interview with Umm el-Jimal mayor, August 2018.

[ii] Interview with Umm el-Jimal community group, August 2018.

[iii] Interview with INGO coordination employee, June 2018.

[iv] Interview with Umm el-Jimal mayor, August 2018.

[v] Interview with Umm el-Jimal community group, August 2018.

[vi] Interview with Umm el-Jimal mayor, August 2021.

[vii] Interview with mayor of Dhiban, August 2019.

[viii] Interview with mayor of Lib and Mleih, August 2019.