EAC Thesis Award Runner-up: Reem Farah

20 July 2021

In addition to the winning thesis, the jury panel of the 2021 EAC Thesis Award have chosen two runners-up. Here you can read about one of these, written by Reem Farah of SOAS University of London, UK. The thesis’ title is ‘Expat, Local, and Refugee: “Studying Up” the Global Division of Labor and Mobility in the Humanitarian Industry in Jordan’. 

The executive summary follows, as written by Reem:

This thesis focuses on the study of expatriates in Jordan during the Syrian refugee crisis. It follows the growth of the humanitarian industry in Syria’s neighboring country and the influx of humanitarians who expatriated to aid in refugee relief. As the majority of research in migration and refugee studies focuses on Global South-North migration, this thesis aimed instead
to look at the understudied migration from the Global North to the Global South, particularly that of humanitarian expatriates heading towards, rather than away, from sites of conflict and containment.

This investigation follows the epistemological principle of ‘studying up’ rather than ‘researching down’ refugees, to examine structures of power in transnational spaces. As such, the thesis focuses on the transnational humanitarian industry as the overarching structure that brings together expatriate workers, local humanitarian workers, and refugees as workers and beneficiaries. In trying to understand the role of humanitarian expats, the thesis takes on a relational analysis between humanitarian expatriates, locals and refugees, allowing mobility and immobility to define each other.

In understanding mobility across transnational but localized humanitarian work, the article measures mobility in terms of both geographic (horizontal) and social/professional (vertical) mobility. This thesis searches for a correlation between workers’ access to geographic mobility and social and professional mobility. It finds unequal mobilities and labor among tiers of workers in the humanitarian model of aid. It articulates how expatriate humanitarians who move freely are able to access and accumulate work experience globally, ascending in their careers, while national staff in host countries are employed to assist as local informants or implementation partners, and refugee access to geographic and social mobility is contained in designated areas. By looking at the mobility of expatriates in the context of refugee containment, the article gleans questions about the (il)logic of global mobility as practiced by the humanitarian model of refugee relief. It provides the basis for future potential studies in migration studies to centre mobility as a main mode of power in transnational space.

This thesis brings together multiple interdisciplinary fields, accessing literature on the Middle East, migration studies, development, and political economy. The political economy approach anchors this thesis in the discourse of labor. It shifts the reader’s view of expatriates from carefree travelers or altruistic volunteers to workers that move within a transnational and localized labor market. As such, the thesis particularly deconstructs and takes issue with disparate employment practices among expatriates, locals, and refugees.

The research was carried out in the summer of 2018, and interview participants consisted of nine international staff, four locals, and two Syrian refugee humanitarian workers. The sample prioritized interviews with expatriate humanitarian workers as the main demographic of study and triangulated the testimonies of locals and refugee humanitarian workers to achieve a relational analysis that contextualizes their power relations. The expatriates interviewed held North American and European passports, of whom many were women and some were people of color. Although this thesis does not examine class and race in particular, it raises questions for future studies and provides an epistemological base to explore the power relations between different classes and races within the humanitarian system.

By carrying out first person interviews, the thesis voices the life experience of humanitarian expatriates. At the intersection of labor, mobility, and humanitarianism, it combines literature with an ethnographic approach, transcending traditional academic boundaries. The thesis shows, in the interview participants’ own words, how and why they moved towards sites of conflict and their experiences and ambition whether personal or professional. This aligns with the Expatriate Archive Centre’s mission to archive glimpses of expat life stories as part of one of the largest humanitarian and refugee crises of our century.

Moreover, as the methodology is based on triangulating transcripts, it puts the interview participants in conversation with one another through the text, and in the engagement between different actors’ experiences, some insights may advance policy. One significant example is when a contracted refugee NGO worker who was not given the benefits or his expatriate colleagues asks outright, what differentiates him from Western colleagues if both he and his colleagues are guests in a host country? This couches the experience of the expatriate squarely in the context of refugee and migration studies, demanding from the reader to rethink the undertones that bind expatriates and refugees to opposite ends of the migration spectrum.