Mediated Lives: Waiting and Hope among Iraqi Refugees in Jordan by Mirjam Twigt (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2022).
Reviewed by Zainab Saleh, Haverford College
Imperial interventions coupled with the imposition of neoliberal reforms by the Global North on the Global South have engendered massive displacement of people in recent decades. Anthropological literature on migration has focused on restrictive and repressive immigration policies employed by US and European governments to keep refugees and migrants out of their borders, and the legal limbo and economic precarity in which displaced people found themselves. However, the majority of refugees in the world live in cities and camps in Third World countries. Twigt’s book on displaced Iraqis in Jordan in an important addition to the literature that examines urban refugees in the Global South. On the one hand, the book discusses the liminal existence of Iraqi refugees in Amman, who daily confront limited access to aid and employment and denial of rights, and maintain hope to be resettled in a Western country through the UNHCR as a permanent solution to their prolonged displacement. On the other hand, it examines the role technologies and transnational connections play in refugees’ strategies to stay connected with fellow-Iraqis and family members all over the world and to get updates about their refugee applications. Twigt, who conducted fieldwork in 2015 and follow-up study in 2018, situates the realities of Iraqis at the intersection of the violence and displacement brought about the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, humanitarian interventions that fail to meet the needs of increasing numbers of refugees from the region (including Sudanese, Syrian, and Yemeni refugees), and the contradictory realities of reliance on digital technologies in terms of connectivity and surveillance.
The introduction focuses on the intersection of prolonged displacement and digital (dis)connectivity. Twigt argues that the process of becoming and being a refugee is not simply the product of crossing national borders or having a proof of persecution. Rather, she maintains that the condition of refugeness “is the gradual transformation through which refugees learn from their own and other’s embedded, embodied and mediated experiences, of interactions with local authorities and humanitarian operations, of everyday encounters in place, and the many conditions that this subjectively and socially imposes on people” (p. 9). In this framework, the image of the connectedness of refugees cannot be understood without taking into consideration the legal and material constraints they face daily while getting a glimpse of lives elsewhere and navigating humanitarian organizations. Instead of celebrating digital technologies as platforms that enable connections, Twigt shows that the figure of the connected refugee or forced migrant should be juxtaposed to the condition of being disconnected at the same time, and that disconnection implies a relationship that is still embedded in structural and historical processes of global inequalities. The triangulation of prolonged displacement, digital technologies, and dwindling humanitarian resources means that waiting, rather than implying passivity and bare life, is “an active and affective attitude” (p. 6). As such, waiting entails hope and despair, and expectation and anxiety. Waiting becomes future oriented while refugees hold on to parts of their previous lives that bring up happy memories while inhabiting the uncertain present. Hope can also become a catalyst for seeking other venues of resettlement (through smuggling) when UNHCR fails to provide a permanent solution.
The book consists of seven chapters. Chapter one offers a historical background of the arrival of Iraqi refugees in Jordan following the US invasion in 2003 and the escalation of sectarian violence in 2006. Chapters Two and Three explore the sense-making practices among Iraqi refugees as they interact with UNHCR Jordan. One of the main challenges for Iraqi refugees is that lack of information and communication about their asylum applications and resettlement in a Western country. Refugees’ online and offline interactions emerge as attempts to find answers, alleviate anxiety, and make sense of resettlement criteria. Chapters Four and Five deal with the mediation of everyday material life of Iraqi refugees who experience economic and legal precarity in Jordan and still appreciate feeling safe and comfortable after escaping violence and death threats in Iraq. Chapters Six and Seven provide a critical reading of the introduction of biometric registration. While humanitarian organizations celebrate biometrics as a way to provide protection and economic opportunities for refugees, Twigt argues that this short-sighted view ignores the fact that biometric data become an instrument of control and surveillance, and that innovative measures fail to account for structural challenges and constraints faced by refugees.
This book offers a timely intervention in studies of migration in that it raises important moral questions about humanitarian discourses and practices. Twigt shows the discourse of the deserving refugee emerges as a crucial criterion in making decisions about resettlement and allocating aid. In the face of increasing numbers of refugees in Jordan due to political upheavals in Syria, Yemen, and Sudan, Iraqi refugees were no longer a priority for UNHCR. The dwindling resources for refugees, which gave more prominence of this discourse of deservedness, prompted the perception of technologies as a venue of economic inclusion. Twigt eloquently shows that this status quo has meant that humanitarian organizations felt obliged to provide accountability to their donors (rather than refugees) and to endorse a neoliberal attitude, whereby it is incumbent upon refugees to act as entrepreneurs who are responsible for their future. Ultimately, humanitarian organizations’ policies have promoted a depoliticized vision of refugeeness, and overlooked political and structural forces behind displacement and violence. Through a detailed account of constraints faced by UNHCR brought about by donors’ restrictions and Western countries’ refusal to accept more refugees, humanitarian organizations fail to live up to their mandate of protecting refugees and instead embrace a neoliberal approach that perceives refugees as depoliticized individuals in charge of their future. In this framework, humanitarian organizations exacerbate the prolonged uncertainty in which refugees live, and turn a blind eye to the role of Western countries in producing conditions of dispossession and displacement through imperial interventions and neoliberal policies. This book is an important text for anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists, as well as scholars of media studies, humanitarian studies, and Middle East studies.