Hospitality and humanitarianism in middle eastern border regions

How Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan welcome Syrian refugees: a comparative study  

General Overview 

Syrians have started fleeing their country since 2011, when the harsh regime of Bashar Assad and the subsequent outbreak of the war obliged them to abandon their homes. Since then, they have found refuge in the neighbouring countries and many have tried to cross the Eastern Mediterranean or the Balkan Route to reach Europe. However, a great majority is still living in the Middle East trying to survive somehow and making their lives meaningful again in a foreign land. In this article I intend to address this regional displacement focusing on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and the way these countries have managed the Syrian flows during almost ten years. 

After an overview about the main immigration policies adopted by each state, I will analyse the concept of hospitality as a gift-giving practice, the negative side hidden in it and the way Syrians try to restore their dignity through the shift from guests to hosts. 

Moreover, I will discuss how humanitarianism becomes either a strategy of socio-spatial control hiding a sort of securitization narrative for the re-establishment of the national sovereignty or a way to depict the suffering of migrants making them depoliticised persons rather than active agents. In this ethnographic research, I will present a comparative analysis among the three mentioned countries, relying on various anthropological case studies as well as on my fieldwork experience at the Turkish-Syrian border in 2019 when I volunteered for the integration of Syrians.  

Immigration Policies for temporary guests 

Arab countries boast internationally their culture of hospitality basing it on their Islamic values linked to the flight of the prophet Muhammed from La Mecca and his great welcoming in Medina; nevertheless, many of them treat the migrants, especially those coming from Syria and Palestine only as temporary guests who can be welcomed but at certain conditions. 

In line with these thoughts, only Turkey out of the three states considered here, has signed the Geneva Convention related to the Status of Refugee of 1951, although this has never represented a guarantee for all the 3,5 million Syrians living in the Turkish territory. Indeed, they have never received the refugee status and have never been treated equally to other asylum seekers from the legal point of view. Only the Law on Foreigners and International Protection enshrined in 2014 has granted them a temporary protection and an ID number with the possibility to access the health care system, public education and a limited chance to work in the formal market . Also, travelling to another place different from that of registration becomes complicated since they must obtain a travel permission without which they cannot have social rights in more than one place. 

Moreover, since 2019, it is always more frequent the narrative of “sending them back”, through which Erdoğan and its party are threatening Europe either to open the borders or to create a military zone in the north of Syria where to deport them. As Derrida argues, to welcome somebody is an act of temporariness in which the guest should never overstay the hospitality of his host and which always implies an end, the moment when the guest returns home. 

While Turkey has a state-centred hospitality, Lebanon has always been a transit country in which a humanitarian-promoted hospitality took the reins of Syrians management with a weak governmental role. Even if the Lebanese State has taken a late control over immigration policies with the enactment of the 2015/16 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, the refugee crisis has been mainly faced through a local and informal cooperation mediated by INGOs present in the northern border areas, where, since 2015, ‘Kafala System’ has also established rules on migrants’ permanence, regulating their possibility to work only for jobs classified as ‘environment’. The presence of humanitarian agencies, especially of evangelical origin, also pervades the Jordanian setting, where a strong governmental policy is lacking too apart from strict regulations which have prevented migrants to cross borders or access the health care system and the labour market since 2014. Hence, local and international organizations are covering a basic role in the humanitarian assistance of displaced Syrians. Before addressing specifically the situation of each country with a detailed analysis of how hospitality as a gift-giving narrative and humanitarianism are conceived, I will firstly deconstruct these two concepts from an anthropological perspective.  

Hospitality: a double bind 

Hospitality is a term that indicates the act of a generous host to receive guests inside his home but in the anthropology of migration it is associated with the welcoming of migrants  within a hosting country different from that of origin. The main problem, which also creates the ambiguity that this term takes with it, is the fact that migrants are most of the time undesired and unexpected guests who are in a certain way invading a national territory with its rules, traditions and policies. 

But the creation of a stranger alien might become a ‘relatable other’- if only we consider concrete and familiar situations, as the case of Istanbul hospitality will point out. In every account, hospitality is considered an ambiguous form of gift similar to the term described by Marcel Mauss, who identifies three notable components of gift exchange: to give, to receive and to reciprocate. The Syrian refugee, when she/he enters the destination country, becomes a guest receiving a gift which will not be able to reciprocate in material terms; she/he is considered a debtor who must return the favour, the gift, to a creditor who is better off and shows his superiority through his welcoming. Derrida, going much deeper into the question, coins the expression ‘hostipitality’ which expresses the double constraint the act of hospitality takes with it. The term includes both hospitality and hostility, since to welcome someone at his own home is an act of temporary generosity but also a declaration of sovereignty over a certain territory where the guest – the migrant – should act in the respect of the host’s rules. The formation of an asymmetrical relationship and the evident tension between a hypothetical unconditional hospitality from one side and the host’s need to maintain the mastery of his space might lead to a paradoxical situation in which the master struggles to keep his power, continuing to concede his welcome. Therefore, Kant’s consideration of universal hospitality cannot be accomplished unless the hostility component is not removed within this type of relationship. Moreover, the consideration of the Syrian refugee not only as a passive victim in need of philanthropic help but an active agent with his own rights is challenged not only by Kant but also by the same Syrians who often try to reverse the host-guest dichotomy, becoming host for the NGOs or the locals that have helped them at first. 

Indeed, during my permanence in Turkey, I experienced first-hand the great sense of hospitality and dignity which helps Syrian families to feel useful and dignified inside their new home. 

But is it possible for Syrian refugees to pay their debt, turning into protagonists of their lives, reshape the relationship with their host in a symmetrical way and dismiss the role of enemy, invader, stranger to simply become a close friend?  To answer this question, before diving into the specificity of the case studies, I will briefly discuss humanitarianism to analyse whether this approach might help the refugee or not.  

The Devil or the Angel of Humanitarianism 

Humanitarianism is a movement which during wars, natural disasters or other emergencies put the human person at the centre of its intervention to alleviate his/her suffering. Although some humanitarian agencies have played a leading and effective role during shocks, many anthropologists have started to criticize the approach since 2000s, as it often considers the beneficiaries of the interventions as passive victims who need a paternalistic relief from their miseries, showing only compassion and not respect for human dignity. The commodification of the ‘suffering body’ to attract more funds from donors has contributed not only to depoliticise the Syrian migrant and his/her historical trajectory but especially to induce the same to act intentionally to show off his/her pain creating a form of ‘pictorial humanitarianism’ which ends up to damage who is supposed to be helped in a controversial use of sympathy and compassion, as the Jordanian case will demonstrate. 

Moreover humanitarianism, with its blurred margins, might shift into a form of securitization of borders, where the control of the refugees acquires much more importance than his protection, making the issue ambiguous and open to more critiques. Furthermore, Wagner argues how humanitarianism prevents the elaboration of political solutions to disasters making them appear only as a technical problem to be solved, but which is the alternative? Would it be useful to stop any form of humanitarian help and leave people to their conditions? Could governments commit themselves for the relief of their own citizens? 

I certainly argue, it is not necessary to erase it from its roots since in many contexts like the Turkish one I have experienced, the presence of many local and international organizations is still the main response of addressing the refugee question, of course considering the necessity to implement shared solutions in accordance with the government. I will rather say, agreeing with Ticktin that a more critical reasoning about individual subjectivity, morality and human rights along with an advocacy role that these agencies could play to involve more national politics, would be the right direction to take. 

A comparative analysis: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan 

Hospitality in Turkish language is a mix of two words: “misafirperverlik” meaning the person who feeds guests or travellers and “konukseverlik” that is one who loves guests, whilst in Arabic language the word for hospitality is karam. As I have discussed in the overview, the strong value of welcoming embodies the intrinsic cultural and religious pride of Middle Eastern hospitality. However, how this tradition is framed within migratory policies and how Syrian refugees are really treated in their host countries really depends on different historical roots, internal politics and/or the presence of humanitarian agencies working in the management of flows and the integration of Syrians in the destination country. 

In Turkey, borders have always been opened to welcome people fleeing Syrian war to the extent that in 2016 it hosted 45% of them . In the same year Erdoğan has blocked the arrivals and has started to threaten Europe of opening the borders with Greece; the benevolent façade that the Turkish Government shows internationally is praised publicly by most of the Syrians who declare to have found in Turkey safety and acceptance. But behind these declarations a more severe reality emerges, especially for all those migrants who are from a particular ethnic group or are discriminated for their sexual orientation. Many are the homosexual Syrians confessing not to feel safe in Turkey and aspiring to reach a more queer-friendly country such as Canada, despite they manifestly shown gratitude in the public sphere. Hence, hospitality received in the Turkish land is synonym of hypocrisy, at least that received from the government which it is also the main responsible, due to its political affairs, of the huge flow of Syrians living there. 

The State-centred hospitality characterizing Turkish immigration policies often creates a strict oversight on all those associations that must establish official partnerships with national organisations in order to implement their aid projects. In addition, the sense of burden felt by Syrians and ascribed to the gift-giving relation, creates the moral obligation to repay the gift or at least to show appreciation, as I have already said above. 

In the last years, the national narrative, shifting from ‘be our guest but behave good’ to ‘leave’ expresses that sense of hostility and temporariness which is clear in Derrida’s idea of hostipitality and which attaches a strong conditionality to the Turkish hospitality. 

For instance, in Gaziantep, local people are convinced with the idea that Syrians create more problems, are violent, harass their women and especially steal their jobs during periods of crisis and this reinforces the unwelcoming treatment that they adopt toward them. On the other hand, the numerous grassroots associations, cooperatives and humanitarian agencies both in Gaziantep and in other cities such as Istanbul, help to create that sense of integration between the locals and Syrians in order to distance the concept of otherness and erase that sense of superiority which is embedded in hospitality as gift-giving described by Derrida and Maurice Godelier. Alkan, in her ethnographic work, succeeds in demonstrating how the strong connections emerging from neighbourhoods’ solidarity in Istanbul, incentive the reproduction of sibling families composed by Turkish and Syrians. 

Accepting to enter the hospitality as gift-giving relationship, is always risky since it might lead either to find a potential enemy or an intimate other. Anyway, refusing a priori to give or to reciprocate, as the Imam of Istanbul does through the refusing of Syrian children’s hospitality expresses the fear to participate into a reciprocal relationship which might take the host’s sovereignty away. 

Lebanon, particularly Akkar northern region, is described by the same scholars, highlighting how this borderland, crossed frequently by Syrian workers in past times, has become since 2011 area full of several international humanitarian associations, involved in the relief of Syrian refugees.

The same migrants who before were perceived as intra-group strangers, have turned now into unknown foreigners who are hosted by local families which receive for this service a payment by INGOs operating there. Hence, old friendships between Lebanese and Syrians become open hostilities when the humanitarianization of hospitality empties the Arabic welcoming of its deep meaning, reinforcing on one side the perception of Syrians as deserving humanitarian victims and on the other side the creation of a humanitarian border similar to that one of Gaziantep Metropolitan city. 

This ‘new borderisation’ incentives the exacerbation of animosities, particularly during crisis and the reaffirmation of a socio-spatial control for a sovereign territory. I have noticed how Lebanon and Turkish effects of hospitality are quite similar despite the former relies much more on international agencies rather than an effective Government. Furthermore, the type of hospitality given in these contexts, nurtures a feeling of resentment and diversity, reinforcing at the same time that sense of nationhood deriving from the negative and asymmetrical dichotomy host-guest. 

What does Jordan share with the analysed countries? It is not difficult to find some similarities but also specificities presented in the manifest critique that Wagner makes about Evangelical associations and humanitarian practices in general. Jordan’s province of Mafraq has in common with the Lebanese context, the presence of many international organizations that try to manage the refugee crisis, including several evangelical associations. A faith-based humanitarianism is analysed in the framework of house visits that one of these NGOs occasionally undertakes. The duality that hospitality assumes, is revealed on one side by the shift from the mainstream host-guest relationship in which aid workers are usually hosts and Syrians guests, to Syrians becoming hosts themselves during house visits in order to re-establish their lost dignity.  On the other side volunteers-guests, try to maintain the distance refusing refreshments or gifts to avoid the trap of gift-giving relationship that would oblige them to reciprocate in the form of service provisions.

Moreover, the reproposed humanitarian control persuades Syrians to act as suffering victims within their same household in order to attract the organization’s help. In accordance with what Boltanski calls ‘Politics of Pity’, volunteers and NGOs staff use their beneficiaries’ pain to obtain more international fundings and nurture a vicious cycle of saviours-victim relationship. 

Syrians in Mafraq share a similar history to those in Akkar, since both groups were already present in their host country before the massive flow of 2011, but the former are this time obliged to play the role of good hosts toward aid workers rather than local people. Hence, if from one side volunteers are intentioned to make symmetrical their connection with Syrians turning them into hosts, their covered willingness to hold social control on them is also evidenced by the narrative of waiting. In fact, this coerces Syrians to be dependent from volunteers’ visits and to be involved in an ill humanitarianism which exchanges their human rights for contingent needs that a regime of compassion might accommodate through international aid.  


With this article I have discussed of  hospitality and humanitarianism in three Middle Eastern countries with respect to Syrian refugees’ welcoming. Although Arabic hospitality is evidenced and resumed many times by Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian Governments, apart from the first one, with its authoritarian control over immigration policies , the other two are less effective giving much more space to a humanitarian-related hospitality. Overall, both national policies and International NGOs’ interventions lead to a strong nationhood and otherness creation also in those places where mixed hamlets peacefully coexisted. Only on some occasions, local grassroots associations erase the hostile meaning hidden within the concept of hospitality giving birth to a relatable other.

Hospitality as gift-giving manifests its narrative in the host-guest relationship which creates a debt the refugee is unable to reciprocate unless he turns himself into host. 

The socio-spatial control of Syrians in these border regions and the temporariness through which their stay is there perceived, induce them to behave as good guests in order to combat the role of scapegoats that local resentment has reinforced and to finally be accepted and integrated. 

On some occasions, they also become the main beneficiaries of humanitarian agencies which try to attract donors and the international support for their work through the commodification of their suffering body. 

My volunteering in Turkey, showed me some aspects of this ambiguous reception system but it also gave me the chance to discover several grassroots associations which try to involve refugees in many activities to make them feel part of the community. As Kant argues, hospitality is a universal right, not a mere concession and it “dissolves through the process of ‘integration’, as guest and host become assimilated to each other” (Grotti, Brightman 2021) while the intrinsic hostility loses its importance. 

Jessica Serva
[Settembre 2022]

Jessica Serva si è laureata in Social Work all’Università di Macerata, dopo aver praticato per 4 mesi nel 2019 il volontariato con Associazione Geged in Turchia. Frequenta il Master da ottobre 2020 in Cooperazione Internazionale presso Unibo, Campus di Ravenna.

Foto: credits archivio redazione