Refugee aid in a collapsing state

  • August 6, 2021
Refugee aid in a collapsing state

Dima Krayem talks about her research and work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon

I felt there was an alternative way to look at the Syrian refugee presence, grounded in a political economy approach, which positioned the Syrian refugee experience within a history of ruptures and continuities.

Dima Krayem

Since late 2019, Dima Krayem has been working to get emergency aid to Syrian refugees in Lebanon in the midst of the country’s unprecedented economic and financial collapse.

As Senior Project Manager at Lebanon One Unified Inter-Organisational System for E-cards, she has been coordinating life-saving assistance from three UN agencies – the UNHCR, the World Food Programme and UNICEF. 

At a time which has seen the Lebanese currency lose 90% of its value and inflation is in triple digits, the situation has quickly transpired into acute human tragedy. Poverty rates in Lebanon are expected to engulf half of the population as of 2021, while migrant workers and refugee populations’ very precarious conditions and living standards have rapidly deteriorated in the current crisis, following decades of structural and systemic discrimination against them. 

“It is no secret that Lebanon’s current economic and financial collapse is very much the result of an accumulation of structural crises, of a largely failing post-war economic model and political system that has guaranteed the unequivocal interest of a minority of political elites, commercial banks and the Central Bank at the expense of the rest of the population,” says Dima [2016]. 

“The whole country and its nepotistic post-war system is collapsing, while the same interests continue to be protected amidst the unprecedented economic and financial collapse. Saying that people are struggling to make ends meet is an understatement. Mass impoverishment and the ensuing wealth destruction has very much been a deliberate policy adopted by the mercenaries of the Lebanese system.”

Dima’s job involves analysis and negotiating with financial service providers and coordinating with the different agencies to find ways to find the ideal currency to disperse the assistance in which would retain as much value as possible.

Dima, whose PhD focused on examining the different institutions of Syrian refugee governance in Lebanon, is about to start a new role as an economist for the UN office in Lebanon which coordinates humanitarian aid. However, she says that, in the midst of huge poverty, abysmal living conditions and limited employment opportunities, emergency assistance can only do so much.

“We need a more rights-based approach which can provide a more dignified future for all residents alike, rooted in a comprehensive macro-stabilisation strategy and long-term development vision, that makes access to healthcare, education, shelter and basic services an acquired right, neither a privilege nor a reality you are actively barred from” she says.

Early years

Dima was born in Beirut in 1988 where she developed an early interest in economics. “I live in a region where it is very difficult not to be interested in economics, and more importantly economic and political processes are deeply entwined “My interest was fuelled by my experience of living in a very precarious region where instability, wars, autocratic regimes, adapted neoliberal economic models and competing geopolitical interests, have made a dignified, secure and prosperous living all the more remote,” she says.

Her father was a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut before he joined the UN as a governance advisor. He was largely responsible for her interest in development and political economics. 

Dima began her undergraduate degree in economics at the American University of Beirut [AUB], but following the 2006 war and its aftermath she transferred to the University of California Santa Cruz a year later. There she did a BA in Economics and graduated magna cum laude. There she had some great mentors, gained some teaching experience and did an exchange programme with UC Berkeley where she studied development economics.

After graduation she worked for the IMF then returned to Beirut to work as a research assistant at the AUB, working on projects such as the UN High Commission for Refugees’ ‘Mapping the Living Conditions of Iraqi  Refugees in Lebanon’. In 2012, realising that her interest was in questions of development, she went back to the US to do a masters at Yale in international development economics. 

After she finished, she was offered a job at the World Bank in Beirut. Dima was keen to gain some on the ground experience in development and spent three years working as a research analyst in the human development department. It was the beginning of the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon and Dima’s role was two-pronged and involved working on analysis of the economic and social impact of the Syrian conflict on Lebanon, as well as operationalising large scale emergency social programmes  aimed at offsetting that impact and working with policymakers to strengthen them.


Following three years at the World Bank, Dima felt the need to contribute to a more critical understanding of the Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon and decided to apply for a PhD. She applied to Cambridge to do a PhD in Development Studies, focusing on adopting a political economy approach to the Syrian refugee presence, and spent the months before she started working as Country Director for global development firm Sayara International. 

Dima says she wanted to deepen her understanding of the specific context of the Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon, to get back out into the field to talk to those directly affected and to attempt to challenge the rhetoric of exceptionalism around the Syrian refugee influx. 

“The plight of refugees is very often framed as an ‘emergency’ and as a ‘moment of crisis’, rooted in temporariness and unique systems of governance enacted to manage refugees,” she says. “In reality, the governance systems of Syrian refugees are not an exclusive creation of the current moment, but rather stem from a history of turbulent political relations between neighbouring countries, interdependent economies and existing institutions, power structures and political struggles that existed far before the refugee influx and which shape the lived experience of refugees.  I felt there was an alternative way to look at the Syrian refugee presence, grounded in a political economy approach, which positioned the Syrian refugee experience within a history of ruptures and continuities.”

Dima says she was always more interested in politics than standard economics and quantifiable models. “My work has always been founded on lived experience,” she says. “My interest was in how the Lebanese political system, the well-established international humanitarian system in Lebanon and fragmented governance shaped the refugee experience. I was not interested in the refugee as a category, but rather the construction by those institutions leading the response of Syrian refugees as humanitarian and social subjects through processes of ordering and control that essentialise refugee identity. In addition and more importantly, I was interesting in establishing continuities between the previous experience of Syrian migrants and the Palestinian refugee experience in Lebanon.”  


Dima’s fieldwork was conducted through social development centres in Beirut and Mount Lebanon where refugees and other vulnerable populations access basic services. She was keen to look at refugees’ experience of the labour market in urban settings which, she says, has been relatively understudied. Many had previously been migrant workers, but had become ‘refugees’ due to the war.

“I was interested in seeing how their experience had evolved. Examining Syrian displacement through lenses of continuity with the history of the Syrian labour migration experience reveals that it is an experience that has always been dominated by precarious conditions. Nonetheless, precarity is an evolving condition that stems from the failures of humanitarian government that leaves Syrian refugees to fend for themselves for survival and demonstrates the double disenfranchisement of Syrian refugees, both as humanitarian objects and labour market actors,” says Dima. 

She adds that the Lebanese labour market has historically been hierarchical and segmented, and characterised by a growing informal labour force “relying heavily on migrant workers governed through an abysmal sponsorship system and excluded from access to legal rights, epitomising the experience of foreign labour and its overwhelming nature of captivity”. 

Historically, says Dima, Syrian migrant workers were at the heart of this model, often framed as politicised actors of the foreign labour force. However, for decades Syrian migrant workers were able to move freely between Syria and Lebanon and were able to separate the reproduction of existing social structures and employment. The conditions faced by Syrian workers after the Syrian influx were dominated by “a captive character” which enabled their exploitation and rendered them unable to take charge of their subsistence or challenge existing social structures, forcefully driving them away from permanent settlement. 

Dima posited that the Lebanese labour market has never been structured in favour of workers, and that the Syrian refugee influx resulting in an increase in the labour supply did not transform market relations but epitomised market dynamics rooted in labour exploitation, informalisation and segmentation. 

A different way of thinking

Dima’s PhD supervisor was Dr Maha Abdelrahman. “She was more than an academic supervisor to me. She was an inspiring, supportive and compassionate mentor and friend in every sense of the word. Doing the PhD has changed and shaped the way I think  and a big part of that is due to her,” says Dima.

Dima graduated in 2021, having done her viva in August 2020 two weeks after the Beirut explosion. For the time being, she is committed to staying in Lebanon. “While fully recognising my privilege when it comes to having a decent job during these tragic times, I have no plans to leave my family while the country is collapsing,” she says. 

“Everyone has been hit by the current collapse. The magnitude of suffering is unprecedented, particularly for those marginalised populations already living in abysmal conditions prior to the collapse, pensions and deposits have evaporated and with them many dreams for generations to come, and all those outcomes are the result of deliberate policy. It is a daily struggle to seek justice from this political regime rather than revenge. I genuinely hope that the next parliamentary elections in Lebanon scheduled for next summer, will be the beginning of much needed change.”

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