Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-559fc8cf4f-d5zgf Total loading time: 0.249 Render date: 2021-02-26T10:32:08.273Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true }


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 April 2016


During the Iraqi refugee crisis of 2007–10, international humanitarian organizations appeared for the first time in the Syrian domestic arena. These aid providers interpreted the position of Iraqi refugees in Syria according to a liberal conception of state–citizen relations that did not accord with the Syrian government's actual approach to Iraqis. Guided by this liberal frame, humanitarian organizations introduced biopolitical programs into the Syrian domestic context. Through new forms of population management, they solicited forms of behavior from Iraqis that were different from those required by Syrian state authorities. Drawing on the concept of biopower and using ethnographic material drawn from long-term research in Damascus in 2009–10, this article sheds light on an important political development in Syria shortly before the outbreak of social unrest and on the social changes that international humanitarian aid may transport.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


Author's note: I thank the Council for British Research in the Levant and the Central Research Fund of the University of London for supporting the research conducted for this article. I also thank Alex Veit for his comments on an earlier draft and Laleh Khalili for her continuing guidance and intellectual and moral support. Further, I am grateful for the thoughtful commentary provided by three anonymous IJMES reviewers.

1 Hilhorst, Dorothy and Jansen, Bram J., “Humanitarian Space as Arena: A Perspective on the Everyday Politics of Aid,” Development and Change 41 (2010): 1117–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Feldman, Ilana, “The Humanitarian Condition: Palestinian Refugees and the Politics of Living,” Humanity 3 (2012): 165CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Watson, Scott, “The ‘Human’ as Referent Object? Humanitarianism as Securitization,” Security Dialogue 42 (2011): 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Vrasti, Wanda, “Universal but Not Truly Global: Governmentality, Economic Liberalism, and the International,” Review of International Studies 39 (2013): 4969CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Chandler, David, “Critiquing Liberal Cosmopolitanism?: The Limits of the Biopolitical Approach,” International Political Sociology 3 (2009): 5370CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 For the purposes of this article, “liberal” refers to a style of governance where the sovereign power of the state to intervene in individual lives and society is effectively restricted by law, and state legitimacy is upheld by public representation and suffrage. The term illiberal refers to a form of rule that includes no independent legal or administrative structure to effectively limit the government's power to violently intervene in individual lives.

5 Research for this article was carried out principally during a ten-month field visit to Damascus in 2009–10, during which I lived in the then Iraqi-dominated suburb Jaramana. Previously, I conducted several long-term stays in Damascus in 2005–7.

6 Chatelard, Geraldine, “The Politics of Population Movements in Contemporary Iraq: A Research Agenda,” in Writing the History of Iraq: Historiographical and Political Challenges, ed. Bocco, Riccardo, Tejet, Jordi, and Sluglett, Peter (London: Imperial College Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

7 Sassoon, Joseph, The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009)Google Scholar.

8 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “UNHCR Syria Updates: A Round Up of 2008,” Damascus, 2009.

9 Kurdish Iraqis were an important exception. They generally fled to the quasi-autonomous northern Iraqi provinces ruled by Kurdish parties.

10 Leenders, Reinoud, “Iraqi Refugees in Syria: Causing a Spillover of the Iraqi Conflict?,” Third World Quarterly 29 (2008): 1563–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Salam Kawakibi, “La migration irreguliere en Syrie: les refugies Irakiens comme cas d'etude,” report for the Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration, European University Institute, Florence, 2008.

12 Faisal al-Miqdad, “Iraqi Refugees in Syria,” Forced Migration Review (June 2007): 19–21.

13 Omar Dewachi, “‘Between Iraq and a Hard Place’: Urban Governance and Transnational Laboratories of Intervention of Displaced Iraqis in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon” (unpublished paper, 2010).

14 Ashraf al-Khalidi, Sophia Hoffmann, and Victor Tanner, “Iraqi Refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic: A Field-Based Snapshot,” Brookings Institution–University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement, Washington, D.C., June 2007.

15 Hoffmann, Sophia, “The Humanitarian Regime of Sovereignty: Ingos and Iraqi Migration to Syria,” Refuge 28 (2011): 5970Google Scholar.

16 UNHCR, “Country Operations Plan 2007: Syrian Arab Republic,” Damascus, Syria, 2007, accessed 5 January 2016,; UNHCR, “UNHCR Global Appeal 2010-2011: Syrian Arab Republic,” 2009, accessed 5 January 2016,

17 Wedeen, Lisa, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)Google Scholar; George, Alan, Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom (London: Zed Books, 2003)Google Scholar.

18 Kawakibi, “La migration irreguliere en Syrie.”

19 Ali Ali and Mohammed Kamel Dorai, “Under the Radar, but not Invisible: Iraqi Activity in Syria's Informal Economic Sector,” UNHCR, Damascus, 2010.

20 Haddad, Bassam, Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2012)Google Scholar.

21 Chatelard, Geraldine, “What Visibility Conceals: Re-Embedding Refugee Migration from Iraq,” in Dispossession and Displacement: Forced Migration in the Middle East and Africa, ed. Chatty, Dawn (London: British Academy, 2009)Google Scholar.

22 UNHCR, “Iraq Conference: UNHCR Convenes Humanitarian Conference on Iraqis Forced from Their Homes,” 16 April 2007, accessed 27 October 2014,

23 Senior UNHCR officer, interview with the author, Damascus, Syria, 26 October 2009.

24 Kawakibi, Salam, “What Might Have Been: A Decade of Civil Activism in Syria,” openDemocracy, 11 March 2013Google Scholar, accessed 5 January 2016,; Kawakibi, Salam, “The Paradox of Government-Organised Civil Activism in Syria,” in Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts, ed. Aarts, Paul and Cavatorta, Francesco (London: Lynne Rienner, 2012)Google Scholar.

25 Enza Di Iorio and Martine Zeuthen, “The Benefits of Engaging and Building Trust with a Reluctant Government: The Experience of Community Center for Iraqis in Syria,” Middle East Institute, Washington D.C., 25 January 2011, accessed 5 January 2016,

26 UNHCR, Internal Audit Division, “Audit Report: UNHCR Iraq Situation in Syria,” 22 April 2009, accessed 5 January 2016,

27 UNHCR, “Protection,” accessed 27 October 2014,

28 Barnett, Michael, “Humanitarianism with a Sovereign Face: UNHCR in the Global Undertow,” International Migration Review 35 (2001): 244–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Foucault, Michel, Security, Territory, Population (Lectures at the College De France 1977–1976) (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)Google Scholar.

30 Fassin, Didier, “Another Politics of Life Is Possible,” Theory, Culture & Society 26 (2009): 46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Foucault, Michel and Faubion, James eds., Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, vol. 3 (New York: New Press, 2000), introductionGoogle Scholar.

32 Salter, Mark B., “The Global Visa Regime and the Political Technologies of the International Self: Borders, Bodies, Biopolitics,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 31 (2006): 167–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chalfin, Brenda, “Working the Border: Constructing Sovereignty in the Context of Liberalization,” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 24 (2001): 129–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ong, Aihwa, Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Vrasti, Wanda, Volunteer Tourism in the Global South (London: Routledge, 2012)Google Scholar.

33 Agier, Michel, Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Fassin, Didier and Pandolfi, Mariella, eds., Contemporary State of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013)Google Scholar.

34 Seifan, Samir, “The Road to Economic Reform in Syria,” Syria Studies 2 (2010): 179Google Scholar; Perthes, Volker, The Political Economy of Syria under Asad (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1995)Google Scholar.

35 Sophia Hoffmann, “The Humanitarian Regime of Sovereignty.”

36 UNHCR, “Resettlement Handbook: Department of International Protection,” Geneva, Switzlerland, November 2004, accessed 5 January 2016, UNHCR's bureaucratic apparatus may be considered the backbone of its operations and power. Recent studies of the bureaucracies of liberal and nonliberal regimes have revealed their totalistic and nonnegotiable forms of power, which contradict classic sociological analyses of how bureaucratic control functions. See, for example, Bernstein, Anya, Mertz, Elisabeth, Sandvik, Kristin, and Scherz, China, “Symposium on Bureaucracy: Ethnography of the State in Everyday Life,” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34 (2011): 650CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bierschenk, Thomas and de Sardan, Jean-Pierre Olivier, States at Work: Dynamics of African Bureaucracies (Leiden: Brill, 2014)Google Scholar; Deeb, Hadi Nicholas, Marcus, George E., and Silverstein, Michael, “Directions: Studying Bureaucracies,” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34 (2011): 5180CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Feldman, Ilana, Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917–1967 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ashutosh, Ishan and Mountz, Alison, “Migration Management for the Benefit of Whom? Interrogating the Work of the International Organization for Migration,” Citizenship Studies 15 (2011): 2138CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Mountz, AlisonWhere Asylum-Seekers Wait: Feminist Counter-Topographies of Sites between States,” Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 18 (2011): 381–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 All names of interviewees have been changed.

38 Abu Mahmud family, interview with the author, Damascus, Syria, 17 March 2010.

39 Ibid.


40 The Iraq Student Project, accessed 5 January 2016,

41 Author's participation in ISP activities in Damascus, 18 January 2010; Easwaran, Eknath, Non-violent soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan: A Man to Match His Mountains (Tomales, Calif.: Nilgiri Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

42 Hoffmann, Sophia, Disciplining Movement: State Sovereignty in the Context of Iraqi Migration to Syria (PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2012)Google Scholar.

43 UNHCR, Working Group on Resettlement, “Resettlement of Iraqi Refugees, Notes,” Geneva, Switzerland, 2007.

44 Iraqi family, interview with the author, Damascus, Syria, 18 February 2010.

45 Iraqi woman, interview with the author, Damascus, Syria, 28 January 2010.

46 Salter, Mark B., “Governmentalities of an Airport: Heterotopia and Confession,” International Political Sociology 1 (2007): 57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 UNHCR deploys a number of “exclusion criteria” that withhold refugee status from persons involved in war crimes or crimes against humanity. Any relatively senior member of the Iraqi army was thus in principle suspect and required to undergo extra checks. UNHCR, “Guidelines on International Protection: Application of the Exclusion Clauses: Article 1F of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,” HCR/GIP/03/05, 4 September 2003, accessed 29 October 2014,

48 Iraqi man, interview with the author, Damascus, Syria, 14 February 2010.

49 Fassin, “Another Politics of Life Is Possible.”

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 30
Total number of PDF views: 309 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 26th February 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *