The ambiguities of resilience: translating forced migration policy in the Syrian refugee response in Jordan

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This paper seeks to draw out the utility of using notions of ambiguity and translation, as they are increasingly found in critical policy studies, for understanding forced migration policies, particularly in the global South. Specifically, they shed light on how policies shaping a refugee response are co-produced across agencies operating at different scales and from various positionalities.

Taking the response to Syrian refugees in Jordan as a case study, the paper looks at translations of ‘resilience’ as a paradigm that has dominated the political response to Syrian displacement in Jordan over the past five years. It first traces the concept’s journey through various sub-disciplines and fields of application until it reaches humanitarian operations, where it became hugely popular within the context of the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan starting in 2014. It then explores how ‘resilience’ has been translated and negotiated by and between different agencies involved in governing the response in Jordan. These include international organisations, government agencies, and NGOs that espouse markedly different, at times contradictory understandings of the concept and its uses.

The paper argues that agencies’ broad agreement on ‘resilience’ as a meta-narrative has allowed the refugee response to maintain a surface-level coherence, even though it is, under the hood, comprised of myriad heterogeneous elements. To date that coherence can largely be found in a broad push away from a humanitarian-only intervention and toward development, particularly by encouraging Syrians’ self-help capacities in specific local settings and through local institutions. This is appealing to many agencies, given that donors are becoming less generous as the situation protracts. However, what those concepts in turn mean, who should be specifically targeted, and above all who is in charge of encouraging ‘resilience’ remains highly disputed throughout these translation processes. As such, ambiguity plays a vital role in moving the refugee response forward.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPolitical Geography
Publication statusAcceptance date - Mar 2020


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