Finding Home in War

The history—and limitations—of the international refugee regime.

By Rana B. Khoury

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A view of Dara’a, Syria, from al-Ramtha, Jordan, 2014. Photograph by Rana B. Khoury.

 A view of Dara’a, Syria, from al-Ramtha, Jordan, 2014. Photograph by Rana B. Khoury.

“Is it true that Americans serve wine instead of food at parties?” Iyad asks, blushing under his smile. Syrians like Iyad are at the heart of my doctoral research in Jordan, but he questions me about life in the West at least as much as I do him about the roles civilians play in and around the war back home. His wife, Jamila, in her twenties, listens intently for my response. (I have changed names to protect the family’s security and privacy.) I have spent enough nights in their rented apartment in al-Ramtha, a Jordanian town five kilometers south of the Syrian border, that the two feel comfortable being coy and curious. They have made room for me in their emotional and physical lives, a space I consider privileged.

The parents of two young children, Iyad and Jamila are deep in love and friendship, though they scarcely knew each other when they wed a decade ago in Dara’a, a province in southern Syria. Traditional marriage was typical in their rural town, a place where the typical has now become extraordinary. An uprising-turned-war upended life for all: protesters became prisoners, the everyday became violence, and citizens became refugees. Torture and oppression drove Iyad’s family to flee, but it did not lead them to security elsewhere. Despite the vast institutional landscape that is the international refugee regime, the family found no refuge.


Record numbers of people are fleeing home. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counts over 65 million displaced; about a third of them are refugees, two-thirds are internally displaced people, and a few million are asylum seekers. In 2015 twenty-four humans left home every minute of the year. Syrians did so more than anyone else.

Today those fleeing war—such as Syrians—are counted as refugees by the UN and most observers. But that conception differs from the UN’s 1951 legal designation of a refugee as an individual targeted for persecution based on her or his belonging to some group, whether ethnic, racial, national, etc. That is, a refugee was legally constituted as a particular object of persecution, rather than a subject threatened by generalized violence. Moreover, until the 1960s, a refugee was even more specifically a European displaced during World War II and protected by the UNHCR, which upon its founding was granted just a few hundred thousand dollars and three years of temporary authority. Its early mandate was ambitious but decidedly circumscribed.

Convention Related to the Status of Refugees, Definition of the Term “Refugee”:

Any person who as a result of events occurring before January 1, 1951, and owing to 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

In contrast, UNHCR received over $3 billion in contributions in 2015. The agency commands authority in every region of the world to provide protection to displaced people fleeing targeted persecution and generalized conflict alike. Its growth reflects the institutionalization of the international refugee regime.

The UNHCR is at the head of the refugee regime, a mass of organizations, laws, rules, and actors. International refugee law is articulated in two UN treaties: the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which defines refugees’ rights to protection and states’ obligation toward them, and the 1967 Protocol, which extends these rights and obligations. Numerous bodies of international human rights and humanitarian law further legislate the protection of displaced people, beginning with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees individuals the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries, and extending to regional agreements between Latin American, African, and other countries that expand the definition of refugees. The regime consists of additional intergovernmental organizations, such as the International Organization for Migration, and numerous international, regional, and local nongovernmental organizations that serve refugees. More than two hundred such organizations acted as partners to the UNHCR in the official Syrian Regional Refugee Response Plan of 2016.

More than the sum of its parts, the international refugee regime is an institution. Economist Douglass C. North has described institutions as the “rules of the game” that structure human interaction through formal laws and informal norms. In the case of this international institution, a group of actors—states, organizations, and not least refugees—interact in a structured space and are subject to its rules. Where humanitarian crises occur, we can expect the international refugee regime to respond in relatively predictable ways. As with any institution, power was differentially distributed between actors at first. Institutions subsequently re-created this distribution of power with only slight variation. States, especially developed ones, are better placed than other actors to shape the trajectory and outcomes of the international refugee regime: whether or not refugees receive protection and, if so, how much, where, and when. While the rules have become more formal since World War II and its organizational constitution has expanded massively, a surprising amount of flexibility, arbitrariness, and gaps persist in the regime’s ultimate treatment of refugees.


On a sun-drenched morning in July 2014, Iyad and Jamila’s house woke up to the phone ringing. Iyad nodded his head silently throughout the brief conversation before hanging up and excitedly reporting the news to Jamila, his parents, and me: an agent for UNHCR was confirming the family’s application for resettlement to a third country. It was a step toward Europe, where the family was hoping to restart their lives. Their spirits lifted, and I was selfishly relieved—over several hours of interviews the previous day, my questioning had brought forth the pain of their recent past in delicate detail.

In Syria, Iyad had been a merchant working in the official free-trade zone between Jordan and Syria. Both his father and mother were employed in the government’s public sector. They were content—or perhaps didn’t dare humor thoughts of being otherwise. Then, in March 2011, Tunisia and Egypt’s uprisings spilled over into Syria. The Syrian protest movement began in Dara’a’s eponymous capital city, just ten kilometers away from the family’s home. Excitement won out over fear, and they joined the protests that soon spread across the province and throughout the country. Like others in their generation, Iyad’s parents were apprehensive but admired the courage shown by the young. Jamila recalled with enthusiasm her participation in a “women’s demonstration” while her mother-in-law smiled proudly at the memory. The air at the time was exuberant—until the repression and the continuing rebellion began to cycle into some of the worst violence of the twenty-first century.

The family stopped participating in the street protests once the violence began, but Iyad persisted in working at the trade zone, as though everything were normal. He was arrested at a road checkpoint one day in November 2011. Imprisoned on the charge of possessing weapons, Iyad was tossed into a jail cell along with a few dozen other souls. His description of the next three weeks seemed to me like a view into hell.

For lack of space, the men slept on their sides in rows, heads cushioned by unwashed feet. For lack of a toilet, they pissed in an olive-oil canister, urine splashing those nearby. On occasion, they were given pita bread and labna, a yogurt spread. The scarce food was a mixed blessing: the need to defecate meant being aggressively escorted outside, head hooded, and given all of three seconds to squat. In those close quarters, the men had nothing but one another. Advice spread about how to withstand interrogation.

At this point in recalling his story to me, Iyad began to act out what happened to him. Perhaps demonstration is the best way to explain the insufferable to someone whose body knows only its natural limits. It may have worked too well: I felt as if I were witnessing the men throw him facedown to the floor. Kneeling on his back, they pulled his legs and arms behind him and bound them together with a thin, coarse rope. They twisted his hands so that his palms faced outward—the better to whip his fingers, again and again. Iyad screamed noises, not words. So they unbound one leg. With the metal wires of an electrical cord, they cut deeply into the back of his calf, first one inch, then another. At inch six, he confessed.

The next day, Iyad failed to lead his captors to the weapons cache they sought because he knew of none—he had lied to end the torture. More punishment ensued. A few days later, Iyad was released thanks to a wasta, a personal connection, ending the twenty days that had felt like ages.

Upon his release the family decided that it was time to leave Syria. They fled south to Jordan.


Most displaced people flee first to a neighboring country, usually another developing country. Across these host states, there is vast variation in legal protection, depending on whether the state is party to the UN refugee treaties; its domestic laws regarding refugees; and whether, and to what extent, the UNHCR is involved in procedures that determine refugee status. Consider Jordan: a country that, even before the Syrian crisis, had the highest ratio of refugees to locals in the world. Generous as its humanitarian reception of displaced Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians has been, Jordan is not a signatory to the UN refugee treaties. It does not have any domestic refugee law and does not designate displaced people as refugees. Syrians in Jordan are technically “asylum seekers” and are dealt with on the basis of a memorandum of understanding—that is, an informal mechanism—with the UNHCR. As a resource-poor state protective of its national security, Jordan is keen to ensure the temporariness of Syrians’ displacement. Permanence, in this view, lies either in richer countries that can afford to resettle refugees or back home in Syria—when the war is over.

“The Refugees,” by John Henry Amschewitz, c. 1906. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Spencer Bickerton, 1933.

In any refugee situation, the UNHCR aspires to one of three “durable solutions” for refugees: resettlement (to a third country), repatriation (to the country of origin), or local integration (in the host state). But restrictive policies in developed nations mean that fewer than one million people have been resettled in the past decade. Instances of voluntary return—already fairly limited—have decreased in the same period due to persistent war and insecurity. Local integration is difficult to measure but does not, in any case, require the naturalization of refugees. Taken together, this lack of permanence lengthens temporariness: in 2014 UNHCR counted thirty-three protracted refugee situations (those lasting longer than five years), accounting for nearly half of all refugees globally.


During the first two years of displacement in Jordan, Iyad had managed to continue working a few days per week in the free-trade zone. The work was risky because it was informal—Jordan severely restricts refugees’ employment. Like other Syrians, the family enjoyed humanitarian access to healthcare and education, as well as a limited amount of food assistance. Their meager savings supplemented such aid at first, although it necessarily depleted as time passed. Without Iyad’s occasional income, the family could not afford to pay rent on their apartment. They dreaded a life relegated to a caravan in a refugee camp for an unknown amount of time.

The war soon caught up with their survival strategy. Trade in the free zone began to slow when the so-called Islamic State conquered parts of Iraq in 2014. It slowed further when al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat-al-Nusra gained ground in southern Syria. In April 2015 Syrian rebels took over the border crossing closest to the zone and trade halted completely.

I returned in the summer of 2015 to find that, after a year of waiting, the family had yet to receive a second phone call about their application for resettlement. Iyad, now home full time, had more questions for me—about Europe, about getting there illegally—questions I lacked the knowledge and courage to answer. He had been devising plans to make the risky and expensive journey to Europe by himself, hopefully to Germany, and file for asylum and then for family reunification to bring Jamila and the kids. Jamila, however, would not allow for it. She objected to the physical and legal risks and to the unknowns involved. She preferred to wait for the day when the war was over and they could make the two-hour drive home to Syria.


A displaced person becomes a refugee when she finds a place of refuge. History tells us that an institutionalized refugee regime is neither necessary nor sufficient to provide that. Religious, ideological, and national conflicts forced displacement long before international law defined the refugee. In the fifteenth century, Spanish Jews crossed the Mediterranean to find refuge in Arab lands. In the seventeenth century, the people were French Huguenots and the body of water was the English Channel. Politics, unsurprisingly, determines much. Leaders in the United States used the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to keep out foreigners associated with French radicalism (and the Republican Party). In the early 1950s, the United States’ Escapee Program bypassed the UNHCR to let in foreigners from Communist Eastern Europe. Following World War I, Europeans cooperated to establish temporary agencies to deal with nine million refugees, mostly ethnic minorities, who struggled to find a home in the new post-imperial nation-state order. The interwar Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees was only as efficacious as its individual member states allowed, however. A lack of cooperation and political will meant each state could still choose to deny entry to refugees, including Jews from Nazi Germany, who were left trapped at home under what became a genocidal regime.

World War II was so destructive that states afterward invested heavily in international institutions, most significantly the United Nations, founded in 1945. The balance of power in the UN favored the Europeans, particularly the war’s victors. The mandate of the organization’s new refugee agency was limited to the thirty million Europeans displaced during the conflict. When the partition of India displaced millions of people in 1947, the refugee regime did not provide for their protection. When the establishment of Israel in 1948 displaced three-quarters of a million Palestinians, a separate agency was established to assist them.

And yet UNHCR forged on well past the three-year lifetime diplomats originally allotted it. The High Commissioner sought and was granted multiple onetime exceptions from the UN’s General Assembly to authorize the agency to assist those outside its mandate. The first invocation of these informal “good offices” occurred in the mid-1950s, when hundreds of Chinese fled to British-ruled Hong Kong upon the establishment of the People’s Republic. In 1961 the General Assembly granted the agency authority to assist refugees through the good offices in any case the High Commissioner deemed fit. Later the UNHCR informally extended its mandate to protect internally displaced people. Today the UNHCR oversees the protection offered to displaced people on all sides of crises’ borders. But it remains a body dependent on the financial contributions of developed countries and can only facilitate—not force—the resettlement of refugees to those countries.


When I returned to Jordan in 2016, I knew I would not be seeing the family in al-Ramtha. About two years after receipt of their resettlement application was confirmed, Iyad informed me via WhatsApp that they had finally received the long-awaited second phone call. Their application had been rejected. The legal route to Europe was closed.

The family then made a decision that was meant to be made only when the war is over: they returned to Syria.

Now Iyad goes to work most days at a money-transfer agency. Home is in opposition-held territory, where rebel and civil administrators are able to deliver some public goods and services. Life might feel normal—but for the electricity cuts, the tents full of internally displaced people, the warplanes that never cease flying overhead. I know this because I still ask Iyad questions. And he continues to ask about my well-being and my family, whom he has never met, but no longer anything about the West.