Syrian Transnational Families and the Citizen/Refugee Self


by Sophie Richter-Devroe and Veronica Buffon
published in greek: June 2019 | η κιουρί@ | issue 1

Syrian families have been impacted severely by the on-going war. Family members are held up besieged back home in Syria, have fled their homeland to neighboring countries, or crossed the Mediterranean to reach the shores of Europe. There, in ‘Fortress Europe’ many are stopped in what they had hoped to be mere transit countries, such as Greece and Italy.  In Greece and Italy refugees often live separated from their extended families. They tend to live in smaller nuclear family units or alone, while the rest of their family is dispersed around the world. Some refugees also formed new families, shortly before they left Syria or on the way, by marrying or taking legal guardianship for minors. The Syrian war and the ongoing migration crisis has thus, without doubt, brought about profound transformations to the family, a core social and political institution in the Arab world (Joseph 2000): families have been fragmented, destroyed, dispersed, rethought and reconstructed in different ways. 

One major issue that Syrian refugee families face during their asylum and/or family reunification process is the often taken-for-granted assumption of the migrant/refugee as an individual autonomous agent. This liberal notion not only forms the basis of the social contract between the Westphalian state and its citizens but also underpins the legal framework that regulates the status of refugees in a world defined by nation-states. In both cases, the individual citizen/refugee self is constructed as the basic unit of society. Yet, for refugees, the family remains a core social unit through which they find support and rebuild their uprooted lives.

In this paper, we aim to complicate the legalist focus on the refugee/citizen individual self by taking a closer look at the lived migration experiences and narratives of Syrian refugees. As such, we are interested in questioning how notions such as the nuclear family or the refugee as singular, autonomous unit are challenged by refugees through their actual migration, asylum, and resettlement practices. How do refugees mobilize and (re-)build the family in their migration strategies? What formal and informal networks do they use to gain access to and facilitate movement and inclusion in the EU? Based on several months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Athens and Rome, during which we interviewed Syrian refugees, policy-makers, development, and humanitarian aid practitioners, as well as legal experts, we argue that there exists a wide gap between the EU’s legal framework and refugees’ own lived experiences of forced migration, much of which stems from their very different understandings of the family. 

Syrian Refugees in Greece and Italy

Syrians today are the largest displaced population in the world, with over 5.6 million registered refugees, and over six million people displaced within Syria (Relief Web 2019). In the EU Syrians constitute ca. 25% of first-time asylum applicants (EUROSTAT 2016). Italy and Greece have a long tradition of receiving migrants and refugees from the Middle East. But since the beginning of the Syrian war, many more have arrived by crossing the Mediterranean: the percentage of Syrians smuggled by sea to Greece and Italy increased from 14.7 % (947 asylum seekers) in 2011 to 44.7% (18,972 asylum seekers) in 2013 (Fargues 2014). The EU-Turkey and the EU-Libya Deal might have aimed at deterring refugees from crossing from these two countries, but while numbers might have fallen initially, refugees continue to arrive on the Greek islands and Italy’s southern shore.

Greece and Italy have traditionally been countries of passage for refugees. Refugees enter and often register their asylum in these two countries, but then they hope to move on through relocation or family reunification. This situation changed after the 2003 Dublin Regulation II, which obliges refugees to register in the first European country they enter, complicating the process of family reunification. While in the past political and legal porosity in Greece and Italy allowed a de facto mobility of refugees towards continental Europe, the harshening of the institutional crisis among EU members has contributed to increased stagnation and suspension in the legal and existential conditions of refugees. 

Additionally, the precarious economic and political conditions in austerity-hit Italy and Greece, as well as increasing anti-immigrant nationalist policies—the controversial and contested ‘decree Salvini’ in Italy which eliminated humanitarian protection, or the recent EU regulations in Greece to cut cash support for refugees after 6 months—have made it even more difficult for refugees to plan a stable life with their families in these two countries. 

Legal Frameworks

The EU’s legal frameworks which construct the citizen and its other, the refugee, as individual agent, has posed specific challenges for Syrian refugee families. 

Classic citizenship theory ignores the family as an analytical unit and instead claims that the social contract establishes a direct relation between the individual citizen and the state through rights and duties. Western political theory understands the legal subject of the Westphalian state as an individual who is supposed to be free, autonomous and separate from the state and from other citizens. Family and other subnational collectivities should thus be eradicated as political units in modern nation-states, and ‘modern citizens’ should act and identify as individual selves in a direct relationship and loyalty to the state, rather than to other communal or familial groups. Such a narrative negates the social origins of citizenship (Isin and Turner 2002), and the fact that states integrated subnational social power structures into their citizenship frameworks. This process is highly gendered. Citizenship has been built in Middle Eastern countries on a kin-ship based patriarchy (Joseph 2000), prioritizing men as fathers, and in the European context on fraternal patriarchy, privileging men as brothers (Pateman 1988).

Refugee and asylum law, as the negative other of citizenship law, in a similar way, is based on the notion of the individual refugee self. Family reunification is granted to close relatives only once one member has gained asylum status. Although EU law does consider the family in its migration policies, the starting point remains the individual asylum seeker. Only once an individual has been granted asylum, he/she can apply for family reunification, and only for his/her immediate relatives. This often involves lengthy bureaucratic procedures requiring documentations from Syria which is not easily available for those who escaped war (e.g. civil status or birth certificates). The family – in particular the extended family – thus is effectively marginalized. For Syrian refugees this implies a legalist transition from the extended family to the nuclear family, reducing the social horizon of kinship to the individual subject.

Refugees’ Lived Experiences

Family relations, however, play a crucial role in Syrian refugees’ migration experiences, choices, and trajectories. The family, also in a transnational context (Naber et al, 2004), constitutes an important, if not the most important, social and political unit in the Arab World (Joseph, 2000). Problematising Western political theory, Joseph coins the notion of “relational [rather than autonomous] selves” to describe the context in the Arab world. She argues that people in the Middle East operate with a notion of self “in which the person’s boundaries are relatively fluid so that persons feel they are part of significant others” (ibid). The focus thus is on relatedness rather than individuality and boundedness, and it is a person’s status in the family, which determines and qualifies access to citizenship. As such, rights are conceptualised as relational, rather than contractual. In this context patriarchy, patrilineality and law reinforce each other, and – in their intersection – regulate women’s access to citizenship and nationality (ibid). 

These gendered and family dynamics also exist in the context of migration. Yet, most studies on Syrian refugees have ignored the family as an analytical entry point, and instead focused on borders and security (Vaughan-Williams, 2105; Lazaridis, 2012), integration (Maronitis, 2016; Carrera, 2011), or EU members’ compliance with International Refugee Law and European Migration policy (Zaun, 2017). When family reunification policies were studied (Ruffer 2011), a legalistic approach that reifies the liberal notion of the bounded autonomous individual dominates. 

With few exceptions (e.g. Rabo, 2016), the burgeoning literature on gender and migration which highlights not only the fact that men and women often have very different migration experiences, but also that the transnational family remains an important – yet hierarchical and stratified – social and political unit during migration (Fossan 2016, Kofman, 2004, Rabo, 2016, Salih 2003), thus has yet to be applied to the Syrian refugee crisis. Doing so, might allow for a deeper understanding of why and how family networks are crucial for Syrian refugees. Our fieldwork showed clearly that kinship ties determine not only refugees’ migration routes and coping strategies, but refugees also use kin-ship based strategies and family-making practices in their maneuvering through the EU’s legal requirements. 

Kin networks function as transnational support systems offering important coping strategies for Syrian refugees. Most refugees we spoke took their decisions of where, when and how to migrate based on the experiences by their family members, or their presence in specific European countries. They were informed by other family members where to lodge their asylum claim, which lawyers to contact, or how to find their ways to Germany when borders were shut down, etc. It is usually these informal kinship networks, rather than official channels put in place by international organizations, NGOs or states, that influence refugees’ migration trajectories.

Refugees also use family-making strategies to navigate through the EU’s legal system. Our data show that Syrian refugees indeed strategize when and where to form families in order to secure residency or relocation rights. Family reunification is only granted to close relatives in the nuclear family. Marital bonds to a refugee who has been granted asylum in or holds the nationality of a preferred destination country (often Germany, the Scandinavian countries, or the UK), thus can facilitate family reunification. We spoke to refugees who were in the process of securing their relocation through recently formed marriages or were in the process of registering their marriages. The opposite scenario – of postponing marriage to secure residency rights – also was conveyed to us. A single refugee mother told us how she secured her daughter’s resettlement to Italy by asking her to ‘postpone’ her wedding. While still in the refugee camp in Beirut, she convinced her daughter to put on hold her wedding plan so that mother and daughter could still belong to the same nuclear family unit and move together to Italy. The institutional and legalist aspect of the marital bond, and its relations to residency, asylum and family reunification rights took center stage in most refugee narratives. 

Similarly, parental relations can secure family reunification and residency rights. If an unaccompanied minor manages his/her way to the core of Europe, he/she is usually able to ‘bring’ his/her parents through a family reunification process. The same holds true for asylum seekers with a newborn child. For some refugees to whom we spoke the birth of their child in Germany raised their chances to secure residency and asylum rights as carers for the baby. Refugees thus mobilize notions and practices of ‘family’ in their migration strategies. When and if possible, they carefully strategize when and where to marry, whom to ‘send’ to their preferred destination country to lodge the first asylum care, whether to take legal guardianship for minors or indeed when and where to have a child. Given that personal status documents often function as the make or break in refugees’ asylum claims, it should not come as surprise that refugees are forced to strategize their private lives within and vis-à-vis the EU’s legal framework. 


A better ethnographically-grounded understanding of the informal mechanisms, practices, and knowledges which refugees mobilize and rely on in their migration trajectories can offer important insights for policy-making and development practice. Tapping into the strong, and already existing informal refugee networks in Europe – which, as we hope to have shown, often rely on family ties – is important, not only to provide better support and synergies but also to simply better grasp and adjust to the refugees’ actual lived experiences of forced migration and asylum-seeking. This necessitates engaging critically with the often taken-for-granted assumption on the refugee as a singular autonomous bounded agent, and instead highlighting the important role that the family plays in refugees’ lives. More specifically, a deeper and culturally-sensitive understanding of the different dimensions of the Arab family as a core social, political and economic unit is needed. The family certainly should not be uncritically celebrated as a friction-free and harmonious unit void of power structures. Yet, in specific contexts such as that of Syrian refugees, its importance cannot be denied.


Carrera, Sergio, 2011. ‘The EU’s Dialogue on Migration, Mobility and Security with the Southern Mediterranean: Filling the Gaps in the Global Approach to Migration’, CEPS Paper in Liberty and Security in Europe, CEPS, Brussels.

Fargues, Philipphe (2014) “Europe Must Take on its Share of the Syrian Refugee Burden, but How?”, Migration Policy Centre Policy Briefs.

Fossan, Kirsten (2016). Inclusion and Exclusion of Young Adult Migrants in Europe: Barriers and Bridges, (London: Routledge).

Isin, Engin F. and Bryan S. Turner (eds.) 2002, Handbook of Citizenship Studies, London: Sage.

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Maronitis, Kostas (2016). Postnationalism and the Challenges to European Integration in Greece: The Transformative Power of Immigration, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).

Naber, Nadine, Jureidini, Ray, El Nur, Ibrahim, and Eileen Kuttab, ‘Diasporas, Border Crossings and the Flexible Boundaries of Arab Families’, in Framings: Rethinking Arab Family Projects, The Arab Families Working Group (Eds.), (

Rabo, Annika, ‘Syrian transnational families and family law’, in Shaheen Sardar Ali, Anne Griffiths (eds.), 2016, From Transnational Relations to Transnational Laws: Northern European Laws at the Crossroads, (London: Routledge). 

Ruffer, Galya Benarieh (2011) “Pushed Beyond Recognition? The Liberality of Family Reunification Policies in the EUJournal of Ethnic and Migration Studies,Vol. 37, Issue 6.

Salih, Ruba (2003).  Gender in Transnationalism. Home, Longing and Belonging Among Moroccan Migrant Women. London; New York: Routledge. 

Vaughan-Williams, Nick (2015), Europe’s Border Crisis: Biopolitical Security and Beyond, (Oxford, University of Oxford Press).

Zaun, Natascha (2017), EU Asylum Policies: The Power of Strong Regulating States, (Palgrave Macmillan).

Website sources:

EUROSTAT (2016)]

Relief Web (2019)

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