Dr Melissa Gatter is Lecturer in International Development (University of Sussex)
While a universal experience, the passing of time is not an equal one. For those whose mobility is policed, time becomes more immediately present, almost tangible, as they must wait for permission at every border crossing, however official or informal.
Such is the case for the residents of Azraq refugee camp, the desert site that Jordan and the UNHCR designated for 40,000 Syrian refugees in 2014. Located 35 kilometres from the nearest city on either side, Azraq camp looks nothing like Jordan’s well-known Zaatari camp, which features a booming microeconomy, winding cul-de-sacs, and a consistent rotation of journalists, researchers, and documentary filmmakers. In Azraq, the bustling market is instead a strictly regulated cash-for-work scheme, the neighbourhoods with makeshift patios and courtyards are replaced with straight rows of identical caravans, and the journalists, researchers, and filmmakers are often turned away at the camp’s entrance.
Order and compliance, not liveability or comfort, are prioritised in Azraq camp. This is enforced by the camp’s security apparatus, which responds to disobedience by threatening deportation. Village 5, the camp’s high security zone housing thousands of residents awaiting security clearance in lockdown, is an enduring reminder that residents are never truly settled in Azraq.
Since 2014, those living in Azraq have resided there for an indeterminate period, during which time their biological and biographical fates lie in the hands of a stranger: an aid worker or a security officer. In the meantime, they seldom have access to ‘national’ time; that is, the temporalities available to Jordanian citizens who can participate in capitalist timelines. While UNOs and NGOs run centres throughout Azraq, it does not take long to see that programming seldom carries biographical significance. Because humanitarians do little to address the structural marginalisation of refugees in Jordan, the skills certificates that many residents earn at NGO centres do not grant them access to careers, and diplomas achieved in the camp may not result in a place at a university. Many young residents become frustrated, resorting to the poorly paid cash-for-work scheme not for the income but for the sake of work itself.
The apparent temporal stillness of the forcibly displaced contributes to the archetypal image of refugees as ‘stuck’. Their lives appear on hold; their wait, permanently transitory. My forthcoming book, Time and Power in Azraq Refugee Camp: A Nine-to-Five Emergency (AUC Press, 2023), is an ethnographic investigation into these temporal politics. It foregrounds time in its study of Azraq camp, revealing realities often overlooked by studies of forced displacement that centre around space. Studies that leave time to the background of camp spatialities tend to reproduce narratives of refugees as living in a paradoxical state of temporary permanence in which power is exercised solely through the tangible and perceptible: borders, material infrastructure, and space itself. When we focus solely on the spatial dimensions of power in camps, we miss all the ways that power also operates—and is challenged—through the temporal realm.
By honing in on the everyday temporal experiences of the Jordanian aid workers and Syrian residents of Azraq, my book locates invisible power across the camp as it affects both those who work there and who live there, emphasising the critical importance of the camp as time, not just a space. Examining the numerous ways that power operates through time is crucial to how we understand refugee camps as modern technologies of care and control. Through its investigation of Azraq’s everyday operations, Time and Power depicts a multifaceted timescape within which both aid workers and residents negotiate, challenge, and comply with the workings of the aid regime.
My examination of time in the refugee camp is not only concerned with its residents’ wait for the return to Syria. It carefully situates the everyday tempos of the camp within overlapping and conflicting contexts of humanitarian emergency, bureaucratised aid, neoliberal development, facades of care, and architectures of control. The book’s focus on time considers how humanitarian and development work operate through blurred timelines, how aid jobs are structured by deadlines, contracts, and proceduralism, and how aid workers have deeply personal perspectives on time’s passing in the camp. It is also about how camp residents build daily schedules, wait for services and work, and project themselves into alternative presents and various near and far futures.
The year I spent conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the camp between 2017 and 2018 revealed that while Azraq’s residents are indeed active in their waiting, the realities of displaced temporalities stretch far beyond either active waiting on the one hand and limbo, stuckness, and liminality on the other. Time and Power contends that time in displacement is not straightforward, but messy; not frozen, but confused. The camp is not only an endless present for its residents but also part of their recent pasts and near futures. We can acknowledge the co-evalness of Azraq while still not denying the reality that its residents feel that the timescapes of the camp are different and isolated from outside temporalities. Every moment of Azraq residents’ lives in the camp is bordered not only by material infrastructure that separates and confines but also temporal scaffolding that restricts and alienates.
Through ethnographic accounts of boredom and urgency, the book illustrates how Azraq’s residents are exhausted by keeping busy in the day-to-day while simultaneously confronted with an abundance of time in the camp. It follows residents as they navigate the camp system and negotiate the temporal and spatial power that shapes their lives in order to create more meaningful and comfortable residence in exile.
In its investigation of the ‘best-planned refugee camp in the world’, Time and Power asserts that it is impossible to analyse emergency response without critically evaluating bureaucracy, to understand how residents wait without acknowledging how they resist, to identify how aid workers care without recognising how the aid system controls, and to interrogate power without accounting for time and space together. My book is a call for more research on the politics of time in spaces of displacement, paying attention to the hidden dimension of disempowerment and isolation, but also agency and endurance.
The Iranian diaspora’s role in the Woman, Life, Freedom movement
In October last year, Berlin attracted international attention for a turnout of more than 80,000 Iranian people and allies showing solidarity with protesters in Iran. Capturing a feeling that resonates with myself and other members of the Iranian diaspora, one protester told the BBC: “It’s breath-taking, it’s amazing…it’s the first time that so many people in our nation are united regardless of their political beliefs before revolution and after revolution. I am really proud.” Under the Islamic Republic in Iran (IRI) dictatorship that has gripped the homeland for 44 years, mass protests inside Iran are not new.
Why is this unprecedented solidarity and activism from the diaspora happening now? As a British-Iranian woman under 30 years old, who grew up in the UK and with strong family ties in Iran, I have been struck by the increased diasporic activism both online and in the national and international political arena. I’ve found myself active in Iranian homeland politics like never before. Importantly, I have witnessed an increased cohesiveness among the Iranian diaspora and an unprecedented optimism that real change is in the making.
It is estimated there are more than four million Iranians abroad. The 1979 revolution was a huge driver of emigration, with the upper and middle classes moving to North America and Western Europe. The Iranian diaspora is usually a fractured group that steers clear of organising around homeland politics, but the killing of Kurdish-Iranian woman Zhina (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of morality police in September 2022 led to an eruption of political diasporic activism in support of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. The rallying cry of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ originates from Kurdish liberation movements, and now also embodies the female-led, intersectional revolution in Iran focused on securing human rights for all and an end the dictatorship. As the former Shah’s son and secular democracy advocate, Reza Pahlavi, told the Guardian newspaper, the revolution is continuing because everyone understands this is a “do-or-die” moment. Diasporic activism has ranged from global rallies for solidarity and awareness, social media campaigns to amplify Iranian voices, and political lobbying. This is however while standing against foreign intervention.
Unlike previous uprisings such as the Green Movement in the wake of the hotly contested 2009 election, Iranians use of the internet has rocketed from 14 per cent of the population in 2009 to 79 per cent in 2021, Following the killing of Amini, the ability to document what’s happening on the ground and connect with outside Iran is therefore unprecedented. The messaging online and from prominent human rights campaigners was clear early on to not allow the regime’s nationwide internet shutdown to silence Iranian voices and commit atrocities with impunity. And so members of the diaspora (alongside established independent Iranian media and human rights activist groups) have become facilitators in sharing videos, images and messages from Iranians to the outside world and to keep their stories visible, and IRI accountable, on the international stage.
Diaspora mobilisation included templates to write to political representatives, circulating petitions, details of global rallies, and social media posts to spread awareness of particular protesters recently missing or arrested. Organised actions to gain votes for the women of Iran to be chosen as Time magazine heroes of the year, and for Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour’s song ‘Baraye’ (For Freedom) to be chosen as the Grammy awards song for social change category, were also targeted visibility efforts that succeeded. Existing Iranian businesses and celebrities have also turned their hand to using their social media as a tool to raise awareness of events in Iran. One Texas-based Persian language teacher, for example, began doing vocabulary videos of protest slogans, while Iranian food businesses came together to promote #cookforiran challenges.
Social media has also grown in the number of English language accounts now solely campaigning for Iran. Some examples include United 4 Mahsa, Diaspora for Iran, Be Iran’s Voice and Iranian Diaspora Collective on Instagram whose content ranges from weekly round-ups of news of the ongoing revolution, calls to actions and videos shared from Iran on what’s happening on the ground. Iranian Diaspora Collective for example was formed in response to the “overwhelming demand from Iranians in Iran to amplify their voices”. It describes itself as “non-partisan, multi-faith and queer-led” and has more than 57,000 followers. It launched a crowdfunding campaign to install billboards highlighting the Woman, Life, Freedom movement around the world to counter the lack of coverage in the mainstream media. Within two months it had installed billboards at 136 locations and gained 22 million media impressions, according to its campaign update.
October 1st, 2022 marked the first day of global rallies to show solidarity with protesters in Iran, which took place in more than 150 cities worldwide. Toronto hosted the highest recorded turnout with 50,000 people, and global rallies continued every weekend through 2022, with further events ongoing. In January 2023, bus loads of Iranians from around Europe travelled to Strasbourg to demonstrate in front of the European Parliament demanding that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful branch of the IRI, be placed on the EU’s terror list. In the UK, the same demand is being targeted at Westminster, with British-Iranian activist Vahid Beheshti’s hunger strike outside the Foreign Office ongoing since February 23rd. And this news gets relayed in Iran. One Iranian journalist Tweeted a picture sent to their newsroom of a boy in Iran holding a sign asking the London hunger striker to break his dangerously long action. An underground youth group of Iranian protesters also published a statement of their support of diaspora efforts to designate the IRGC a terrorist group. A key understanding of activism in the diaspora is that their actions must represent and amplify the demands of those inside Iran.
But the threat of the regime beyond borders is also a risk. The social media group, Iranian Diaspora Collective, for example, does not disclose the identities of all its members due to concerns of surveillance and the safety of family members in Iran. London-based independent media Iran International’s newsroom was forced to leave the UK in February due to a “significant escalation” in state-backed threats against its journalists. According to the Metropolitan Police 15 plots to kidnap or kill UK-based people seen as enemies of the regime have been foiled since 2022.
International political lobbying
From removing IRI from the UN women’s rights commission, to establishing the UN to set up an independent investigation to hold IRI accountable for its crimes against Iranian people, the diaspora has been at the forefront of pushing international action. Widespread campaigns gained traction worldwide in December as executions of protesters became a reality. In efforts for the #stopexecutionsiniran campaign, lobbyists tried to galvanise international politicians into giving political sponsorship for prisoners. Joint efforts have also emerged from female Iranian and Afghan activists to launch a campaign to make gender apartheid a crime under international law.
An alliance of diasporic Iranian opposition figures has also formed, drawing up a charter of secular democratic principles. They present themselves not as a “shadow government”, or leaders of the Iranian people, but aims to “reflect and pursue their demands’ with the goal of a secular democracy in Iran. They state practical steps of supporting public strikes and protests in Iran, drawing attention of the international community on the conditions of prisoners in Iran, and asking them to isolate IRI. Members include the former Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, women’s rights campaigner Masih Alinejad and Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.
While continuing unity on Iran’s future political landscape is no easy task, the commitment of Iranians abroad to support those inside Iran on a mass scale gives hope and connectedness across borders I’ve never seen before among Iranians. My own engagement has changed. I previously had a strict ‘no Iranian politics’ social media rule for myself. Since Amini’s death, I have been sharing regular updates online, taken part in demonstrations, written to my MP, created templates for others to do the same, written articles, donated to NGOs and signed and shared petitions.
The celebration, education and pride of Iranian culture and diversity has also flourished within this movement, with excitement growing over the possibilities of a free, democratic Iran. For many in the diaspora, this could mean being able to travel to Iran for the first time or returning after many years in exile. For me as a dual national, it will mean being able to return without fear of arrest, which is something I have been unable to do for several years as IRI’s suspicion of foreign influence grows.
For both the diaspora and those inside Iran, the stakes are high and one thing is clear, there is no returning back to the status quo. The gains of a free Iran are too great to stay silent anymore.
As protesters shout on the streets of Iran: “Be scared, be scared, we are all together”.
Note – The author, a British-Iranian, has asked to be anonymous to protect her family from potential repercussions.
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