Protracted Refugee Displacement in the Middle East: Making Home in Limbo?
Makeshift refugee home, outskirts of Amman, Jordan 1-22-14

This essay is part of a series that explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays consider the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these two crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies that have hampered the responses to them. See more ...


The current refugee crisis in the Middle East is likely to form the next chapter of long-term urban displacement in the region, but international refugee policies are only now coming to terms with the implications that stretch beyond national security. This essay takes stock of the policy stance towards Protracted Refugee Situations through a people-centered lens to analyze how refugees continue to “make home” even in periods of major stress, disruption, and policy limbo. By focusing on the home-making practices and strategies devised by displaced people in Amman, Beirut, and Cairo—the ABCs of protracted circumstances of displacement in the region—we demonstrate that revising the concept of durable solutions to include refugees’ own actions is a crucial element of any long-term policy to address the circumstances of displacement. Our essay examines a key policy assumption behind the concept Protracted Refugee Situations—the notion that the refugee predicament, “limbo,” can only be resolved through going Home as defined within a nation-state framework. Our proposal—that refugees can make home without necessarily going home—offers an alternative, refugee-centered perspective of home as a “constellation” of practices, strategies, and ideas.

The policy term Protracted Refugee Situations, or PRS, refers to large groups of refugees originating from the same country who have resided in another country for at least 5 years without a resolution to their displacement.[1] While PRS exist in most regions of the world, the largest and most intractable are found in the Middle East. Currently, at least 4.8 million Palestinian refugees displaced decades ago reside in a state of permanent temporariness in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, the Gulf states, and the Israeli-occupied territories, and many millions more recent refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia still live in the region. Given the history of population mobility and border flux in the Middle East, many additional displaced people who do not have official refugee status are also living in chronic exile; the average period of displacement is now 17.3 years—the lifespan of a generation.

The increased recognition of PRS by governments, international agencies and policy makers, while demonstrating the severity of global refugee crisis, nevertheless lays bare the disconnect between the broad political and humanitarian concern with the prolonged amount of time that refugees spend out of place, and the policy options to address this. The term limbo highlights the desperate circumstances of individuals living in PRS and the protection challenges facing the international community, but largely sidesteps the solutions paradigm that requires these out-of-place populations to be put back in place. For example, the United Nationas High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) defines PRS to be “… [situations] in which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social, and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile.”[2] Similarly, the U.S. State Department calls PRS “some of the most compelling humanitarian challenges confronting governments around the world. People in protracted refugee situations are often deprived of freedom of movement, access to land, and legal employment.”[3] The premise of PRS is that circumstances for these refugees are static, unsolvable, and threatening, and that the policies to manage them therefore require humanitarian maintenance in restricted settings, including freedom of movement.

While we agree that the conditions of protracted displacement for refugees in the Middle East and elsewhere are economically, socially, and psychologically distressing, the real issues—belied by the passive-voice policy language above—are of course political. Most States are unwilling to create the conditions for refugee and immigrant participation in local and national development; rather, mainstream commentators focus on the “root causes” of forced migration in the country of origin which, when addressed, would allow people “out of place” to go home again.[4]

Limbo—The Absence of a Durable Solution?

The evolution of the U.N.H.C.R.’s three durable solutions policy framework reflects this thinking. While earlier eras of mass forced migration gave rise to pragmatic practices of incorporating significant numbers of refugees into receiving societies (“local integration”) or enabling self-sorting of people into third countries (“resettlement”),[5] the emphasis in recent decades has been on “repatriation”—the voluntary return of displaced people to their previous home place. Absent a State-based solution tied to legal citizenship rights, the result is a potentially unending period where refugees remain in waiting. The ‘limbo’ referred to by the international refugee regime is the inability of States to solve the problem of people out of place through repatriation, local integration, or resettlement. The majority of States are reluctant to incorporate refugees, and so most now remain in a state of permanent temporariness.[6] “The Syrian refugee crisis,” states Crisp, “is a symptom of the disorder which currently exists in the international system.”[7]

The view that people remain in limbo until they return Home disregards the creativity and dynamism that emerge in places of desperation.

We agree with Crisp and many others that the international system is hopelessly disordered when it comes to people in circumstances of protracted displacement. But the continued policy use of the term “limbo” as a framework for these circumstances is unproductive, since by all other indicators, these same people continue to move forward with their lives even as they are denied a legal place. The view that people remain in limbo until they return Home disregards the creativity and dynamism that emerge in places of desperation. The world’s refugees cannot—and should not—wait patiently for homes to emerge from the many political quagmires that are a natural outcome of exclusionary State policies. Recognizing people’s own desire to return to a settled life back in a Home country or elsewhere, humanitarians must nevertheless focus on the everyday lives that displaced individuals, families and communities craft in the here-and-now of their displacement. This creative work of making home, rather than going home, is a person-centered, rather than a state-centered solution. Paying attention to what refugees do within the strictures of their circumstances does not disregard the desire to return home, nor the realities of the current bordered polities, but rather expands the register of potential policy initiatives.

The ABCs of Displacement in the Middle East

The population hubs of the Middle East are at the forefront of this significant global shift in forced migration. Not only are refugees remaining displaced for longer and longer, but they are doing so in plain sight of the region’s city-dwellers. Due to a range of factors, including the rise of no-camp policies, urban family ties, and livelihood opportunities, the vast majority of refugees in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan live in cities. Examples of long-term refugee situations in Amman, Beirut, and Cairo—the theater of operations that humanitarians call ABC[8]—provide a window into the shortcomings of current migration management policies that foreground State-based durable solutions but overlook the ways in which people manage the uncertainties that shape their predicament. In all three cities, refugees are the unrecognized makers of history through their small-scale home-making practices. Their work to make home at the margins is transforming the meaning of durable solutions.

Amman is a primary example. Jordan has a long history of accepting refugees, most significantly four generations of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 nakba and subsequent waves. The majority of them are stateless—the ultimate form of legal limbo—and yet their ongoing presence in Jordan has shaped policies towards all subsequent refugee populations in the form of lack of rights. In particular, Jordan has limited the right of refugees to work, and a large number of Palestinians with legal residency are subject to restrictions. But with no end to their second-tier status in sight, people have found ways to recreate livelihoods and plan for the future, notably, a long history of circular labor migration to the Arab Gulf countries, and other informal mobile strategies.[9]

The Lebanese authorities introduced a no-camps policy towards the Syrian refugees, in large part due to fears regarding the role played by encamped Palestinian refugees in Lebanese politics. More than a million refugees from Syria have come to Beirut and other urbanized areas where humanitarian aid is decentralized, and refugees seek shelter in the informal housing market. While the housing needs of displaced people in Beirut are met without much input by the international refugee regime, the benefits of flexibility and informality are offset by poor quality shelter, overcrowding, and limited access to water, sanitation, and urban services, as well as predatory landlords. Refugee home-making in Beirut in some cases does contribute to post-war rebuilding, but it is hard to see how refugees can participate in urban renewal when 41 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not have adequate, affordable shelter, particularly over the long term.

Often absent from policy considerations are the ongoing attempts that refugees everywhere make to recreate not just the daily home-making practices of a stable life, but the meaning of home itself.

In the Cairo example, Sudanese refugees at the turn of the century faced similar policy limitations to addressing their long-term needs as months of displacement stretched into years. Like the other urban settings in the region, refugees in prolonged exile face restrictions on seeking employment, educating their children, and accessing housing. But often absent from policy considerations are the ongoing attempts that refugees everywhere make to recreate not just the daily home-making practices of a stable life, but the meaning of home itself. Given the impossibility of going home to Sudan, Sudanese established mobile social networks in Cairo that connected scattered refugee households together through visiting practices. The Sudanese refugees in Cairo reproduced their homeland not only through practicing their cultural traditions and remembering their national pride. The Sudanese quest to make Home in Cairo was also shaped by the lack of legal recognition within the international refugee regime.

“Constellations of Home”—The Third Dimension of the Durable Solutions Framework?

Whether the refugee regime acknowledges it or not, people continue to make Home during conditions of never-ending displacement. A person-centered analysis of chronic exile shifts our focus to people’s strategies to make Home through their daily living patterns, their significant cultural practices, memories of previous homes, and their own recognition of the global predicament of displacement. We propose that these different modes cluster together and form a three-dimensional constellation that represents a more complex concept of Home than the durable solutions model of Home vs. limbo proposed by the refugee regime. The framework helps to explore Home both as an idea and a practice, distinguishing among three elements: the day-to-day practices of homemaking, the values, traditions, memories, and feelings of home, and the broader political and historical contexts of the current global order reflected by the State and its refugee management institutions. For ‘stuck’ refugees, fashioning a meaningful place in the world out of a cluster of practices, recollections, and ideas goes far beyond “waiting to go Home,” and challenges the assumptions that underpin much of the current refugee regime’s migration management policies. The Constellations of Home framework demonstrates that PRS and home-making are not mutually exclusive despite the policy references to Limbo.


The refugee regime of today is comprised of host States, the U.N. system, and humanitarian actors and implementing partners, but not refugees themselves. The refugee regime’s agreement to support Protection Spaces for its global “denizens” has the effect of maintaining the temporary status of the “refugee,” which, in the current situation has the unintended consequence of keeping people’s lives on hold. As a result of national policies and serving their own polity, host nations largely have an interest in keeping people in a temporary status. People who are forced to flee tend to occupy marginal spaces because they are considered a threat to the social and political order. The humanitarian organizations and the international refugee regime largely accept this predicament in order to be allowed by host states to be present to assist refugees. The refugee regime is stuck in its own concepts and solutions where people’s daily lives are largely being overlooked.

But refugees, through the simple—and unimaginably difficult—tasks of living their lives, can contribute to a rethinking of durable solutions. Globalization champions and refugee scholars have argued for years that human mobility should be allowed to contribute creative solutions to global challenges: a fourth durable solution of translocality, where Home may be made in several places at the same time and mobility is a central strategy for seeking protection during lives in exile.[10] Mobile practices of home making do not take place in a policy vacuum. Nation-states have been revising their parochial citizenship regulations to allow mobile people a more transnational scope of action. And refugees have been creating local-global realities in the changing context of what home means for people on the move. To be sure, the significance of the Home-land in an international system built upon national belonging will not disappear any time soon. Nevertheless, adding the dimension of daily home-making to the two-dimensional policy of State-based durable solutions vs. limbo recognizes refugee contributions to act within and beyond the regimes by which they are governed.

Policymakers must acknowledge people’s right to live everyday lives during displacement, and more importantly, recognize that that an everyday perspective and. Constellations of home may help to analyze further the political anxiety around refugee flows and move away from the apolitical language that states and humanitarian actors use to describe protracted refugee situations.


[1] Alexander Betts, B.S. Chimni et al., “Protracted Refugee Situations: The Search for Practical Solutions,” The State of the World’s Refugees (2006): 129-199.

[2] Ibid, 106.

[3] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, “Protracted Refugee Situations,” accessed May 27, 2016,

[4] Liisa Malkki, “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees,” Cultural Anthropology 7, 1 (1992): 24-44.

[5] Barbara E. Harrell-Bond, “Refugees and the International System: The Evolution of Solutions,” University of Oxford. Refugee Studies Programme (June 1995), accessed May 27, 2016, Peter Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[6] Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Midgdal, Palestinians: The Making of a People (New York: The Free Press, 1993).

[7] Jeff Crisp, “The Syrian Refugee Emergency: Implications for State Security and the International Humanitarian System,” Middle East Institute, April 14, 2016.

[8] Before Damascus ceased to be a sanctuary for the region’s refugees, this theater was ABCD.

[9] Geraldine Chatelard, Oroub El-Abed, and Kate Washington, “Protection, Mobility and Livelihood Challenges of Displaced Iraqis in Urban Settings in Jordan,” International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) (May 2009), accessed May 27, 2016, and Oroub El Abed, “Immobile Palestinians: Ongoing Plight of Gazans in Jordan,” Forced Migration Review 26 (2006): 17-18.

[10] Nicholas Van Hear, “From ‘Durable Solutions’ to ‘Transnational Relations’: Home and Exile among Refugee Diasporas,” U.N.H.C.R. Working Paper No. 83 (March 2003), accessed May 27, 2016,