Establishing the Refugee Rentier Subject: Forced Migration, Aid, and the Politics of Integration in Jordan and Türkiye

Shaddin Almasri, Danube University Krems

 

Following the political crisis driven by the onward movement of Syrians to European shores in 2015, Jordan and Türkiye both entered into migration partnerships with the European Union (EU). These included significant economic aid flows that eventually impacted service provision and the overall aid landscape in each of these contexts. The two migration partnerships differed in the strategies undertaken to stem the root causes of migration. The 2016 EU–Turkey Statement was framed by geopolitical positioning, given Türkiye’s unique place at the borders of Syria and the EU, making it a key transit route through which migrants would attempt to reach the EU. Key concerns thus included migration management and border control (Seeberg & Shteiwi 2017). The 2016 Jordan Compact, by contrast, focused on indirect investment to forestall the prevention of onward migration (Seeberg & Shteiwi 2017). This would be more heavily influenced by investments in supporting integration prospects for refugees beyond basic needs, with a special focus on labor market inclusion and entrepreneurial support (Alhajahmad et al. 2018). Despite this difference, however, aid allocation and distribution mechanisms appeared to behave similarly: while both contexts are chronic hosts of refugees with acute needs, aid and inclusion programs under the scope of the Jordan Compact and EU–Turkey Statement targeted only Syrian refugee populations.

This contribution builds on new and growing literature linked to refugee rentierism as solidarity-seeking, positioning this in relation to aid and integration outcomes for refugees as targeted objects of commodification (Lynch and Tsourapas 2024). As a key element of strategies for rent-seeking, refugee commodification can be accomplished through economic concessions, such as preferential loan or trade agreements, grants, or other material aid (Freier et al. 2021). More specifically, refugee commodification posits that particular subsets of forcibly displaced communities may become subjects of refugee rentierism, demonstrated through nationality-based access to forced migration aid in host countries. This disrupts the conventional understanding of the interplay between forced migration and international aid, namely that biases in the scale of aid responses are related to the level of displacement or political interest in the conflict. Using a comparative approach, this contribution demonstrates that, regardless of the differences in the strategies undertaken to stem onward movement of refugees, Syrian refugees were the mutually agreed focus of donor and recipient states. Integration and support measures linked with migration partnerships went beyond usual strategies in the host countries, thereby forging nationality-based restrictive responses for those outside the scope of the agreements. This contribution posits that refugee rentierism emerging from crises may be tied to a specific set of refugee rentier subjects, thereby—intentionally or otherwise—causing exclusionary aid and nationality-based integration responses.

The “refugee rentier subject” is defined here as the particular refugee group at the center of negotiations between recipient/host and donor states. Defining a refugee rentier subject serves two purposes: (1) it targets a single group perceived to be at risk of onward movement; and (2) it places limits on the scope of aid distribution and inclusion policies, thereby reducing the risk of creating “pull factors” to host states that have limited capacity and will to host refugees in the long term. To demonstrate the definition and impact of establishing the Syrian refugee rentier subject as an object of negotiations between EU donor states and partner governments in Jordan and Türkiye, this contribution first offers a brief background of refugee hosting in each of these countries. It then establishes how the language of migration partnerships targeted Syrians and sought to limit their onward migration from Jordan and Türkiye to the EU. Consequently, Syrian refugees are the only targeted recipients of the migration partnerships’ linked aid and development funds. This is shown by establishing how Syrian refugee access to protection and aid was facilitated and remained exclusive, and then by demonstrating the marginalization of other refugee groups that were not the subjects of refugee rentierism in the aid response.

 

Refugee Integration in Jordan and Türkiye

Jordan has long been dubbed a “refugee haven.” At the time of writing, it hosts the highest number of refugees per capita,[i] despite not being a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (aka the 1951 Refugee Convention). Jordan is a historical host of multiple refugee communities, including Palestinians, Iraqis, Chechens, Circassians, and, more recently, Syrians, Sudanese, and Somalis (Chatelard 2010). However, long-term integration prospects in Jordan are largely shaped by the nation’s experience of hosting, and fully integrating, the initial group of Palestinian arrivals, constituting an essential part of Jordan’s state formation (Lenner 2020). Since this initial wave of Palestinians, limited to arrivals until 1953, Jordan has not offered clear integration prospects in the form of citizenship for refugee groups.

While Jordan’s state identity is formed, arguably, at least partially by its influx of Palestinian refugees—a group still defined as a national “other”—Türkiye’s nationalization has instead extended beyond the confines of its borders (Ki̇ri̇şci̇ 2000). This is cemented in its 1934 Settlement Law, which, importantly, states that any person deemed to be of Turkish descent, that is, of Turkish ethnicity, may have the right to immigrate to and settle in Türkiye (Öztan 2020). Subsequent key policies adapted for the purposes of asylum included ratification of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, while maintaining European geographic borders (UNHCR, n.d.-b). It was only in 2013 that a comprehensive law addressing all foreigners in Türkiye was passed: the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (Republic of Türkiye 2013). This would include all those in Türkiye present as migrant workers, students, refugees, and those seeking international protection status. As in Jordan, however, pathways to permanent residency and citizenship would remain restricted or ambiguous.

 

Targeting Syrians as Refugees at Risk of Onward Movement

It was following the influx of migrants—an estimated half of whom were Syrian—to European shores in 2015 that discourse on development, integration, inclusion, harmonization, and self-reliance would start to emerge at scale in the region. Syrians were a specific population of concern, as they were a group with a high chance of being recognized as refugees and their arrival on European shores would, in many cases, mean eventual settlement.

In October 2015, the EU–Turkey Joint Action Plan was proposed, supporting two aims: (1) the provision of support to Syrian refugees in Türkiye and, (2) cooperation with the aim of reducing irregular migration flows to Europe (European Court of Auditors 2018). Not long after, in March 2016, the EU–Turkey Statement would be agreed, which supported migration cooperation between Türkiye and the EU. This included a “one-for-one” provision that would support the resettlement of one Syrian refugee to Europe in exchange for every Syrian returned to Türkiye. Tied to this is the financing of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey (FRiT). Established in January 2016, FRiT was a fund that managed an initial offering of €6 billion to support refugee hosting and migration management responsibilities. Similar discussions took place in Jordan around the same time. For instance, the 2015 Jordan Response Plan was the country’s first attempt at bridging the humanitarian and development aid divide, with an increased focus on self-reliance (Government of Jordan 2015). This would be followed soon after by the labor and trade-focused Jordan Compact in February 2016.

The Jordan Compact was framed as “turning the Syrian refugee crisis into a development opportunity,” stressing the focus on Syrians in the Jordanian context to support their employment and reduce incentives to seek asylum in Europe (“Western Leaders Use Financial Incentives to Keep Refugees in Jordan,” 2016). The EU–Turkey Statement also specifies only Syrians in the resettlement clause of the statement, stating, “For every Syrian being returned to Türkiye from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Türkiye to the EU taking into account the UN Vulnerability Criteria” (EuroParl, 2016).

The clear commonality throughout these discussions was the focus on Syrian refugees as beneficiaries of aid and, therefore, their host states as aid recipients. As the key migratory group, and one whose movement had some level of legitimacy because of the conflict in Syria, refugee support to the region was largely conflated with support to Syrians specifically. It was through such migration partnerships that a mutually convenient focus on Syrians would culminate in nationality-based refugee rentierism. In other words, not all migrants and refugees would benefit from arriving aid, as only a singular group was deemed as a beneficiary of the refugee rent to be extracted.

 

Syrian Refugee Rentier Subjects as Preferred Recipients of Refugee Protection

Differentiation began when refugee status was determined. As major hosts of refugee and migrant movements, Jordan and Türkiye enacted a level of selectivity in refugee recognition. In their initial years of refugee out-migration, Syrians were broadly recognized as a group with “refugee character” (see Jackson, 1999). That is, movements of Syrians seeking refuge were generally recognized to be for legitimate reason and in compliance with the definition of persecution defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. This was demonstrated not only through (initially) open borders to neighboring countries (Ferris 2013; UNHCR 2013), but also through relatively high recognition rates in Europe as well as increased rates of resettlement to third countries (Szucs 2023). Therefore, in the initial years of arrivals in Jordan and Türkiye, Syrians were awarded an ambiguous guest status in both states until the enactment of the Temporary Protection regulation in Türkiye (UNHCR n.d.-c) and a circular awarding Syrians temporary Ministry of Interior Service Cards (MoI cards) in Jordan (NRC 2016). In both cases, Syrians would not undergo refugee status determination procedures, in part due to the scale of the movement and in part due to political positioning vis-à-vis Bashar al-Assad and, soon after, his Russian allies.

Simultaneously, Türkiye and Jordan were, and continue to be, hosts to various migrant and refugee groups. In particular, groups that may be widely present as refugees elsewhere—such as Afghans, because of their significance in primary workforce occupations—may reside mostly as migrant workers in Türkiye (Almasri 2023b). In Jordan, the largest migrant worker group continued to be Egyptians. Much like Afghans in Türkiye, Egyptians would increasingly be marginalized and targeted following the narrow, nationality-based policy and program developments made in the wake of the Syrian refugee influx and the associated refugee aid programs that would subsequently emerge (Almasri 2023a). The language of these agreements differed in their focus on supporting labor inclusion and integration. In Jordan, there was more explicit focus on Syrian refugee labor inclusion in the aid targets set in a World Bank concessional loan program tied to the Jordan Compact outcomes (World Bank 2021). Türkiye’s aid programs did not specify issuance of work permits, however only Syrian refugees are mentioned as beneficiaries in integration efforts and other areas, as detailed in Türkiye’s World Bank Country Partnership Framework (World Bank 2017).

While the Temporary Protection regulation would afford Syrians residency in Türkiye with minimal procedural and administrative delay, those seeking international protection status would face increasingly challenging hurdles. These hurdles became more difficult after 2018, when Türkiye’s Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM), now called the Presidency of Migration Management (PMM), took over responsibility for international protection refugee status determination and registration from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR). As of 2018, civil society organizations have reported that single Afghan men, in particular, have faced challenges in acquiring international protection status, with one claiming that there have been no registrations of this group since (Almasri 2023b). This disproportionately affects Afghans in Türkiye collectively, as Afghan men often arrive independently due in large part to the dangerous routes they are obliged to take to reach the Turkish border. Meanwhile, in 2019, the DGMM, with the support of the UNHCR and the EU, undertook a Syrian refugee status verification exercise to ensure their regular status.

Accountability for these refugee populations also differed: as these groups existed outside of rent-awarding and rent-seeking discussions between recipient and host states, there was little advocacy on their behalf at the international level. Civil society organizations and advocacy groups have provided support to some extent, however not at the level of collective organization observed for Syrian refugee protection and inclusion measures (Bjerg 2022; Frelick 2022). While accusations of refugee deportations are defended by the DGMM, deportation numbers of Afghan migrants are instead exaggerated in some instances (Verma 2018).[ii] Conversely, it may have been in the EU’s favor to support the return of Afghans from Türkiye to discourage perceptions of onward movement to Europe; European countries infamously deported Afghan refugees during this period after some member states classified Afghanistan as a safe country.

In these acts, one can observe the process of legitimizing and delegitimizing refugee presence as linked to receipt of refugee aid. The Turkish and Jordanian governments extracted aid in exchange for policy concessions for Syrians. While this practice does not independently marginalize other groups present, it does make them comparatively less desirable, as little aid and integration support is being directed toward them. Aid extraction for these groups, in any case and at this stage, is undesirable—or perhaps unfeasible—for both recipient and donor governments.

 

Limiting Aid and Labor Inclusion to Syrian Refugee Rentier Subjects

While aid programs would expand sectoral foci targeting Syrian refugees and local host communities, minority refugee groups, Palestinian refugees, and migrants would all be marginalized in various ways. In both Jordan and Türkiye, it would be years before non-Syrian refugees would be actively included in key cash distribution programs. Non-Syrian refugees—or, more specifically, those holding international protection status—were only included in Türkiye’s European Social Safety Net cash distribution program in 2018, after its launch in 2016 (Almasri 2023b). In Jordan, non-Syrian refugees would be included in the World Food Program’s flagship food voucher distribution in 2019, some six years after the program was introduced (Baslan & Williams 2021). These programs are not only a key source through which refugees can meet their basic needs, but they also act as a deterrent for engaging in negative coping strategies, including withdrawing children from school, child labor, and early marriage (UNHCR 2021b). The selective issuance of such cash aid programs thus forged differentiated integration and wellness capacities for refugee groups by nationality (Mennonite Central Committee 2017).

Labor inclusion was also a significant component of the Jordan Compact. To realize the aims of the Compact, the government initially opened up work permits across a number of sectors, primarily agriculture, manufacturing, and construction (UNHCR, n.d.-a). While Syrian refugees demonstrated interest in obtaining work permits, there was little incentive to be bound to a single employer, particularly for work that was seasonal or temporary in nature, such as agriculture or construction (Stave et al. 2021). In response, the Government of Jordan de-linked work permits from employers, first in the agriculture sector and then in the construction sector, thus allowing Syrians to acquire work permits independently (International Labour Organization 2017). This not only gave laborers independence from their employers, but it also reduced fees: work permit fees were waived for Syrian refugees in these sectors.

While Syrians would have access to relatively cheap, accessible work permits that would not be employer-bound, this courtesy would not be extended to non-Syrian refugee and migrant populations (Almasri 2021). Practically, however, to earn an income, many refugee households would need to seek employment, especially if they were not receiving any form of cash or in-kind assistance. Non-Syrian refugees looked for informal jobs in precarious sectors, including agriculture and construction work, that offered daily wages. To legally gain employment, non-Syrian refugees would need to be sponsored by an employer, much like other migrant workers. However, as they were already present in Jordan, this would prove to be challenging, as a key function of these work permits was to import labor. For those that did manage, however, this practice would soon be prohibited: in mid-2018, the dual status of asylum seeker and migrant worker would be banned, forcing an asylum seeker to surrender their status in the event of pursuing legal employment (Waja 2021). Complicating matters further, in mid-2019, following a Jordanian government cabinet decision, the UNHCR would be restricted from performing new refugee status determination procedures on any asylum seekers that entered Jordan on any of a tourist, student, or medical tourism visa. This prevented all new non-Syrian arrivals from registering for asylum seeker status at all.

Simultaneously, repercussions for anyone working informally would be made more severe: increased penalties for hiring and engaging in informal work were endorsed by the Council of Ministers in 2020 (Jordan Times 2020). Soon after, the Government of Jordan began a campaign of surprise inspections on worksites to ensure compliance with work permit issuance for all foreign workers. These inspections have continued since, with (at the time of writing) the most recent taking place in July 2023 (Jordan Times 2023). Repercussions for those deemed to be in violation of the regulations include financial penalties, detention, and deportation of informal non-Syrian foreign workers, among them non-Syrian refugees. Yet, as noted earlier, public advocacy for non-Syrian labor inclusion is limited: as work permit issuance for Syrian refugees was tied to outcome-based aid indicators, program and associated policy influencing from the international and humanitarian community would be largely restricted to such indicators and targets, with very rare exception.

While Türkiye’s partnership with the EU was similarly limited to Syrian refugees, its link to development and labor indicators was more tenuous. Using a “blackmailing” strategy, Türkiye made use of its geopolitical positioning vis-à-vis Europe, wherein border control (or lack thereof) could facilitate increased flows of migrants and refugees who wished to migrate to the EU. Aid was therefore limited to mainly basic needs and, more critically, to infrastructure investments. However, the second tranche of FRiT, disbursed in 2018, had arguably more focus on the socio-economic conditions of refugees. Projects still crucially focused not only on infrastructure but also on skills-building and employment pathways (KAYIST, n.d.), albeit this expansion remained restricted to the rentier subjects initially targeted. The EU and Türkiye facilitated the legal employment of Syrian refugees by relaxing the requirement that foreign workers should earn minimum wage, by lowering foreign employment quotas, and by supporting social security payments for Syrian workers through the Transition to Formality Programme (KIGEP) implemented by the International Labour Organization (International Labour Organization, n.d.). Notably, while non-Syrian holders of international protection status also had a work permit law available to them, KIGEP would and continues to be restricted to supporting Syrian refugees. This also meant that programs dedicated to supporting legal refugee employment were restricted to Syrian refugees. As a key element of integration in a host country, exclusion from legal work marks a key aspect of differentiated integration resulting directly from refugee rentierism focused on a specific group.

The EU FRiT expanded to include non-Syrian beneficiaries in 2018. However, a type of path dependency had been created in the years prior, as many UN partners and organizations had already established relations with Syrians. Also, according to some civil society organizations, it was the preference of the Turkish government to limit programs to Syrians (Almasri 2023b). The impact of this is clear in implementation statistics: as of December 2021, less than 4% of refugee beneficiaries in the protection sector of UNHCR funding are from countries other than Syria. Holders of international protection status, some of which may also be Syrian, made up only 4% of Livelihoods sector refugee beneficiaries in 2021 (UNHCR 2021a). As of January 2022, only 51 of 105 of the UN’s implementing partners in Türkiye reported working with or having identified the needs of refugees from countries other than Syria (ibid.).

 

Ongoing Realities and Future Implications

EU aid to Jordan and Türkiye has served a clear aim: to limit onward migration to Europe. As a crisis response, this aid has targeted the largest and generally accepted as “legitimate” moving refugee group, as evidenced in temporary protection protocols in the region and high recognition rates in the EU. While this should not independently limit the inclusion of minority groups, it has established Syrians as the subject of distinctive refugee rentier behaviors not available to others. In turn, Syrian refugees were valued over other groups in the initial years of aid responses following the agreement of partnerships with the EU. Accordingly, this has motivated biases in policy and programs that exclude non-Syrian refugee groups. In some instances, as in Jordan’s targeting of non-Syrian labor, it could be argued that such exclusion deliberately marginalizes non-Syrian vulnerable groups.

While heavily criticized in the early years for targeting Syrian refugees, EU migration partnerships in the context of the Syrian crisis have also affected untargeted populations in host/recipient countries. Syrian refugees were targeted initially to stem onward movement, however in practice the majority of refugees in countries of first asylum tend not to migrate. This targeting also directly correlates with aid provision that addresses refugee needs, education, and labor integration. Hence, groups not perceived as being at risk of mass onward movement were neglected as they fell outside the scope of aid programs. This contribution thus demonstrates that the practice of targeting particular groups is an important element of contemporary refugee rentierism.

As Jordan and Türkiye approach their 12th year of hosting Syrian refugees, there are increased to return migrants, including refugees, to their home countries. While aid in Jordan was initially meant to support refugee self-reliance, poverty and unemployment rates at the time of writing are higher than ever. Thus, despite renewed donor interest, host governments are reluctant to expand current aid programs to non-Syrian refugees, fearing the creation of additional pull factors.

 

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[i] This figure includes United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) registration figures.

[ii] The status of Afghan refugees and migrants in Türkiye are often conflated.