The basic needs of conflict- or disaster-affected refugees are often met with humanitarian aid goods and services. However, little is known about the economic opportunities that refugees can create beyond immediate relief.
Theodore Khoury, Associate Professor of Management at Portland State University, has published a new exploratory case study that reveals how Syrian refugees from the Za'atari refugee camp went beyond disaster relief and used social capital to establish informal economic systems that improved their quality of living. "Towards the theory of informal supply networks. An exploratory case study of Za'atari refugee camps" is published in Journal of Operations Management. It was co-authored by Ismail Abushaikha of Germanjordanian University, and Zhaohui Wu of Oregon State University.
March 2011 was the start of the ongoing civil war in Syria. The Za'atari refugee camps, which are located in Jordan 6km southwest of the Syrian border, saw nearly half a million Syrian refugees pass through it between 2012 and 2018. Interviews, observation data and field notes were used to create one of the most comprehensive case studies. The interviews, observations, field notes and photos, as well as videos, collected in and around Za'atari revealed complex refugee-led supply networks that help the camp's resilience and benefit Mafraq (the Jordanian host community).
This study discredits the idea that refugees are passive aid recipients waiting for charity and instead identifies a refugee camp with complex social systems.
Khoury says that many refugees live in camps indefinitely. Refugee regimes are unable or unwilling to support their development needs, ability to prosper economically and socially. Informal economies can be created to meet their needs when a formal economy fails to include them or is not available.
Za'atari's city-like setting and lively marketplaces make it a popular "success tale" for aid organizations and countries. 52 interviews were conducted with people from refugee camps, government officials, IGO workers, Mafraq communities, and non-governmental organizations. Research findings lead to a theory about informal supply networks. This is a group of primarily illegal, but still legitimate, channels and social relations that support the economic exchange between different actors or groups. In this case, the interviewees.
Khoury says, "Our theory on informal supply networks provides a new way to think about mass migration and refugee inclusion." We can understand social behavior in extreme contexts to develop flexible humanitarian aid policy and operations that allow refugees to make their own future through economic exchange.
When refugees began to trade in secondhand goods, and buy and sell relief goods between themselves and Mafraq residents, supply networks emerged. Also, relief goods were repurposed to make new products. Za'atari refugees coordinated access to essential goods that were not covered by relief activities. They assumed the roles of buyers, sellers, distributors wholesalers retailers traffickers, and service providers. The supply network in the camp was formed over time by the informal and formal economic activities of all parties.
The case study focused on three informal supply networks: building materials, housing, electricity, and electrical hardware. These products and services were essential in meeting the basic needs for refugees. Formal relief operations and refugee initiated informal operations worked together to support the flow in resources within these networks. This was representative of economic activities that involve refugees.
Researchers mapped the flow of materials and associated actor social activity and relationships to capture the economic activity in each supply network. The mapping showed where transactions took place and in which direction. However, the nature of transactions was not always obvious. These three key insights led us to a critical evaluation of emergency-oriented formal relief operations. We also needed to adopt a refugee perspective.
Sometimes, social ties were formed between refugees and Mafraq merchants or intermediaries. This gave some refugees access to resources they didn't have.
The type of goods exchanged determined the unique governance requirements.
Security guards and representatives of the camp authority routinely tolerated trafficking in recognition that the host community needed mutual development support.
Data collection and network mapping revealed three theoretical dimensions that defined the transactions and their function within informal supply networks.
The positioning of unique social capitals 51. The three types of social capital, or relationships ties, are linking (bridging), bonding and linking (51). Bonding refers to ties that are familiar like those with family, friends, and neighbors. Bridging allows actors to connect in parallel networks such as other neighborhoods, clans, and social groups. The concept of linking captures relationships that are characterized by power distance, social status, or hierarchy. These three forms of social capital established the boundaries of Za'atari informal supply network and expanded beyond their borders -- they allowed efficient economic exchanges and fostered trusting relationships that resulted in resilient supply networks.
"In 2013, refugees used to take care packages and sell them at Mafraq shops [...] and purchase other items that they needed. So now money is generating in camp. At the same time, Syrian women started making food and selling it to employees and staff of NGOs. (Supply chain officer, UNHCR 2016)
"I used to be a plumber, and now I own a dairy shop on the market street." One time, a friend of mine owns a restaurant and asked me if I would bring chicken drumsticks. I was able to get 15 kilograms and they sold in 3 minutes. (Dairy Products Seller. Refugee, 2016,)
Specific conventions govern transactions: The informal economy and supply networks of the camp were linked to the formal relief network governed by specific rules and policies. In a hierarchical arrangement, the Jordanian government gave UNHCR (United Nations high commissioner for refugees) management of the camp. This in turn coordinated relief operations from other NGOs/IGOs such as Portland-based Mercy Corps. The informal supply networks, on the other hand, were self-organized and transactions were governed either by market- or culturally-guided conventions. Electricity, for example, was subject to market-guided conventions and skilled refugees. Both building materials and housing supplies were a mixture of both. Community leaders prioritized family members, and other people with preferential relationships. At the same time, materials were sold underground through a profit-driven underground marketplace that was not influenced by who bought.
"Refugees from Azraq Camp in Jordan are forced to visit the shopping centers [World Food Program Supermarkets] in order to purchase their goods. But, here [at Za'atari refugee camps], there are more options on the market to choose from." (Perfume shop owner, refugee, 2016).
"Bikes were also given to some donors at one point, and some of them [refugees] received more than they needed and then sold them." Bikes are big business in Mafraq, as they are widely used in Mafraq as well as the camp. (Supermarket Cashier and Host Community 2018, 2018)
Legitimation of refugee initiated economic activities: Many camp security guards were often recruited from Mafraq. They felt that Mafraq's citizens also deserved relief supplies. Since they often had living standards that were lower than some refugees, they preferred the interests of refugees over those of law enforcement. This resulted in a camp boundary that was more flexible and permeable in terms of what goods could cross it. Guards, who were representatives of the camp authority did not stop goods trafficking across the camp border. Instead, they allowed informal supply networks and traffickers to continue operating within the camp boundary. This informality was recognized by the Jordanian government as well as the camp authorities. It helped to sustain refugees' livelihoods, provide economic opportunities for Mafraq, and reduce conflicts in the camp.
"There are no contracts between caravan owners and caravan users [...] We do not intervene in the organization of the market. If there is a complaint from others, we intervene. While it is illegal to rent or sell caravans, we won't interfere as long as there aren't any complaints. (Community police officer #2, Government, 2016,)
They [donkeys] and sheep are permitted, but they cannot be brought through the main gate of the camp. They cannot be brought legally but once they are inside the camp, it's okay." (Bedouin Refugee 2017).
Khoury says, "The refugee situations are extremely difficult. Life in Za'atari seems a far cry of the life they had to leave behind."
This study reveals that international policies regarding refugees and refugee programs are out of date. These policies were created shortly after WWII and are not well-suited to manage large-scale migration like what has happened in Europe and Southern Asia. According to the study, given the prolonged stay in "permanent temporariness", humanitarian aid operations and host communities should approach the refugee camp situation with longer-term solutions in mind.
Khoury adds, "When we respect the dignity and humanity of refugees and allow them to assert their cultural and socio-economic capital on their terms and conditions, communities can thrive." "We can shift the focus of migration to opportunities for social change and less on ongoing situations of 'crisis' by focusing more attention on how refugees can be accepted into our communities.