Cities of Paradox, not Exception: Forced migration and trans-scalar ‘humanitarianism’ in the Gulf

When we consider forcibly displaced populations, several images often spring to mind: of sprawling refugee camps in arid environments or people boarding rickety boats in search of a more humane future. What we rarely consider are all those individuals who have valid claims for asylum but instead choose to seek refuge through employment in spaces where refugee status is not an option. These are the individuals who choose not to enter formal systems of protection, find ways to establish ‘security’ for themselves, and who are almost always overlooked in scholarly and policy analyses.

This research project will shed more light on one particular manifestation of this phenomenon: the situation of forced migrants in the Gulf States. More specifically, it will focus on populations leaving Eritrea who move to Riyadh and Dubai, exploring questions including: What role do these cities play in responding to displaced individuals? How have these populations shaped the urban fabrics, labour markets and political economies with which they interact? How does living in these cities affect the trajectories, identities and transnational networks of forced migrants residing there? What are the impacts of these migratory dynamics for regional politics and dynamics in the country of origin? Finally, how do these trends bear on changing humanitarian orthodoxies, in a context in which Gulf and ‘Southern’ actors are becoming more powerful voices globally. 

This research project will seek to build an evidence base to firmly reposition the experiences of forced migrants in the Gulf within global discourses on displacement. Quite rightly the human rights narrative has dominated work on migration in the Gulf, highlighting abuses suffered within the kafala system and through international recruitment bodies. The result, however, has been that nuanced accounts of why individuals choose to enter these systems and then their experiences within them have rarely been recorded. Given the severe strain on the current asylum system, whereby numbers of refugees are increasing while durable solutions appear ever more elusive, it seems particularly expedient to explore the alternative journeys that individuals undertake to avoid this system altogether. Following from this, and from the migrants’ perspectives, are important questions concerning what opportunities and constraints these spaces and Gulf development actors present.

Doing so is important not only for policy-makers and humanitarian organisations, who cannot accurately forecast and plan for population movements while overlooking such a significant region and form of migration. It is also valuable for these populations themselves, whose relative invisibility within these spaces may, despite certain possible advantages, have contributed to their specific needs being overlooked and their resilience, contributions and services being undervalued. 

The findings from this study will also impact certain key paradigmatic debates within geography and refugee studies. Accounts of ‘protection’ within the Gulf will challenge current conceptions of what ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘humanitarian systems’ should consist of. Narratives of those forced migrants inhabiting these spaces will deepen our understanding of migrant-decision making, aspirations and trajectories. And better knowledge of this will serve to reconfigure global geographies of displacement, focusing policy and humanitarian attention on zones such as the Gulf States as well as more familiar sites such as the shores of the Aegean and Mediterranean.