Skip to content

Family in Conflict: Part II

Family networks that drive Syrian migrant workers have continued on despite the civil war.

Words: Sam Ratner

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Last week on Deep Dive, we looked at how family networks shape the decisions of combatants in civil wars. This week we’ll zoom out beyond the immediate conflict zone to look at new research on how family networks allow people who migrate to escape conflict to survive in their new homes.

Before the Syrian civil war drove millions of Syrians to emigrate to avoid the conflict, many rural Syrian families maintained a more stable set of international migration patterns. As Syria shifted away from socialism and toward mechanized agriculture, employment opportunities in the countryside dried up and people were forced to look elsewhere to support themselves. Syrians made up a large proportion of the migrant labor force in the Middle East in the 2000s. For families who sent sons and daughters to work abroad — on construction sites in Beirut or restaurants in Riyadh, for example — remittances made up half their annual income on average.

Even as war has scattered and slowed the movement of Syrian migrant workers, the family networks that drive the migratory work system have lived on.

The Syrian civil war threw those networks of migratory work into chaos, but many of the connections forged by migratory work became crucial for rural Syrians who were now forced to live abroad full time rather than just as seasonal workers. In a recent article in the Journal of Refugee Studies, anthropologist Ann-Christin Zuntz describes the role family networks rooted in migratory labor play in helping Syrian refugees living in Jordan find work.

The most substantial effect of the civil war on the migratory work system was that it removed the hub of the wheel. Syrians who had long moved back and forth between their homes and foreign employment opportunities suddenly could not go home again. Indeed, they often could not go anywhere, and found themselves stuck in either formal or informal refugee settlements. For the many Syrians who have gotten stuck in Jordan, the issue of employment is paramount. Jordan has issued very few work permits to Syrian refugees, and, with everyone looking for work, wages for available jobs are low.

Yet, among Syrians who have pre-war experience working in Jordan, the lack of jobs creates some opportunities. Some Syrians with pre-existing connections in Jordan have become brokers, connecting former employers with Syrian workers. Others use kinship ties to form connections with NGOs, securing volunteer opportunities that can turn into jobs. People who once existed on the periphery of family networks that were centered in Syria now find themselves at the hub of those networks in Jordan, giving them significant power to improve quality of life within their extended families.

Remittances have also changed since the war. While substantial funds once flowed from workers outside Syria to their families in the country, today remittances serve as an emergency backstop between refugees in the same family networks. Refugees who have made it to Europe or found work in Gulf states send small sums to family members in Jordan and, in times of need, often receive funds from those same family members.

Even as war has scattered and slowed the movement of Syrian migrant workers, the family networks that drive the migratory work system have lived on. Today, those networks extend further and fulfill more needs than they did before the war, but they are still shaped by families’ pre-war experiences.

Sam Ratner


Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He earned his MPA in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets at @samratner.


Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.