Fewer refugees, more refugeeism - why is it so?

Fewer refugees, more refugeeism – why is it so?

As Lebanon prepares to commemorate 100 years of “statehood” two years from now, it apparently neglected during that century to develop the legal tools it needs to deal with the broad issue of asylum. As if to exacerbate this already problematic situation, Lebanon is not a signatory to any international agreement focused on asylum.

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By UMAM Documentation and Research

As 2017 ended, two important numerical assessments of the Palestinian and Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon were published. On December 21, responding to invitations from the Lebanese Central Office of Statistics, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee (under the patronage of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose November trip to Saudi Arabia almost cost him his job), “ministers, ambassadors, diplomats, Lebanese and Palestinian political leaders, heads of international organizations, representatives of military institutions and a crowd of researchers and journalists, as well as representatives of Palestinian and Lebanese civil society” took over the hallway in the Grand Serail where the prime minister’s office is situated.[1] All of those spectators were there to witness the results of the “National Population and Housing Census of Palestinian Camps and Gatherings in Lebanon 2017.” Though the main findings of that census had been leaked intentionally prior to the kickoff of that pompous ceremony, the crowd’s behavior seemed rather like a deafening ovation for the figures that were being announced, and things progressed accordingly…. After an hour of suspense interrupted by tedious speeches and a documentary that both illustrated the various stages of the work and heralded the use of the newest global positioning technologies to verify the data collected, the results were displayed on two large screens. The suspense peaked as the veil began to lift: “the number of Palestinian refugees in the camps and gatherings reached 174,422 individuals in 2017, living in 12 camps and 156 Palestinian gatherings in the five governorates of Lebanon.”

A few days after that ceremony (and with much less spectacle), a respected international news agency quoted a UNHCR spokeswoman as having said, “As of the end of November [2017], the U.N. refugee agency counted 997,905 Syrian refugees […] registered in Lebanon. The number reached one million in April 2014, and this is the first time it [has dropped] below that [level].”[2]

Regardless of whatever coincidence may have caused these two figures to be announced within a week’s time, one should have expected them somehow to assuage the acerbic belief cultivated deliberately among the Lebanese within the last several years that these refugees posed an “existential threat” to Lebanon, a belief that has been embraced vigorously by many people in the country.[3] In reality, however, neither the Palestinian figure nor its Syrian counterpart had any significant impact! On the contrary, aside from some lingering doubts about the accuracy of the Palestinian figure (the “half million” number is preferred by many), that disclosure rekindled a longstanding debate over the naturalization decree adopted by one of Lebanon’s first post-Taif cabinets.[4] Although criticized for allegedly amplifying the confessional imbalance between Lebanese Muslims and Christians, the decree served as the vehicle by which several thousand Palestinians became Lebanese.[5] Further, not only did the Syrian figure go almost entirely unnoticed, it also made no impact whatsoever on the extant political discourse. This muted response should not be surprising, of course, as estimates of the number of Syrians in Lebanon released by official Lebanese sources vary widely.[6] Similarly, since estimates of the cost of Syrian asylum also vary tremendously, the slight drop noted in the UNHCR figures is unlikely to have any dramatic impact.[7]

That notwithstanding, there is little wonder why hundreds of thousands of people have, in such a short time, sought solace in Lebanon as refugees. Interestingly, just a few years after Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, the country experienced the first wave of (Palestinian) refugees crossing its southern borders and settling down. Not only did their arrival effectively disturb many aspects of daily life in the newly independent country, but those refugees were also accused ultimately by a substantial part of the Lebanese population of providing the impetus for the 1975 outbreak of Lebanon’s Civil War. That conflict, particularly sharp in nature, ravaged the country for 15 years and continues to inspire unrelenting fear among many Lebanese despite the 1990 Taif Agreement that ended the war so inconclusively.

As Lebanon prepares to commemorate 100 years of “statehood” two years from now, it apparently neglected during that century to develop the legal tools it needs to deal with the broad issue of asylum. As if to exacerbate this already problematic situation, Lebanon is not a signatory to any international agreement focused on asylum.

Every time Lebanon faces an asylum situation, it purports to be a neophyte unprepared for the attendant realities and therefore condemns itself to fail massively on every such occasion. Of course, legalistic-minded people may lament Lebanon’s legislative shortfalls where asylum is concerned and call on parliament to address the situation. Alternatively, human rights practitioners might extol Lebanon’s urgent need to sign any or all international treaties and protocols focused on asylum. But since both extremes seem somewhat misguided, a third might inject a dose of so-called “pragmatism” that would center on using the tools already at hand, which may range from local legislation to other international treaties to which Lebanon is a signatory.

While debates such as these are both welcome and laudable, a number of essential questions remain unanswered. For instance, why do these circumstances exist in Lebanon? Why has the country continued to sidestep any attempt to devise a policy on asylum? Why does Lebanon choose to deal with asylum using a piecemeal approach while it demands timely responses to existing public policy mandates? More aggressively, is the absence of Lebanese public policy and widespread contentment with both the litany of rhetorical statements and the oppressive silence on this important topic the most genuine example of targeted Lebanese policy?

We can state confidently that not a single instance of asylum that has challenged Lebanon throughout its history has ever been resolved satisfactorily, and it is not particularly difficult to identify the chief reason: Lebanon ignored the problems associated with the arrival of the first waves of asylum-seekers. Officials in the country, however, developed an appreciation for the trickiness and riskiness involved with delving into the framework of the inter-Lebanese debate over defining the notion of national identity vis-à-vis the geographic boundaries of the country they inhabited. According to some Lebanese narratives, asylum is the cornerstone of Lebanon. Thus, it is unsurprising that welcoming or rejecting latter day asylum-seekers depends largely on whether those refugees affirm that narrative and thus can assimilate easily into the country’s predominant sociopolitical structure.[8]

Each year since Lebanon gained its statehood in 1920 or achieved its independence in 1943 can be viewed from the perspective of refugeeism. Of course, such a process cannot be restricted to calculating Lebanese losses or gains vis-à-vis those refugees. Instead, it should focus on the space asylum has occupied in the national life; the impact it has had on inter-Lebanese relations or those between the Lebanese and the refugee communities; the extent to which official and public opinion about asylum in Lebanon has (or has not) changed, ad infinitum. The absence of any such systematic review (which can be attributed to the enduring Lebanese reluctance to deal with the country’s past) or of any appropriate asylumrelated legislation are perhaps indicative of a wider problem, which may have exacerbated asylum-related issues in the
country. Clearly, it would be worthwhile to analyze the root causes of these conditions. More to the point, however, it is also worthwhile to suggest that one of the causes behind this statewide malaise is the culture of denial that has defined Lebanon historically and which substitutes for effective policy decisions, particularly when those in power promote that culture of denial as the de facto state religion—any breach of which is considered nothing short of heresy!

Taking stock from the foregoing, 2017 proved that, in the Lebanese parlance, the “files” on Palestinian or Syrian asylum in Lebanon—despite published figures—are unlikely to be closed anytime soon.

Where Palestinian asylum is concerned, various developments and positions have added tremendous difficulty, such as the U.S. decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—and Palestinian reaction to that decision—or to reduce UNRWA funding after questioning its relevance. To some degree, developments such as these have helped justify Lebanon’s decision to deprive its Palestinian residents of some basic rights in a patently sophomoric effort to advocate their inherent “right of return.” Despite this state-level playmaking, the fact remains that Palestinians in Lebanon are not likely to leave Lebanon anytime soon!

With respect to Syrian asylum, it is obvious that conditions in Syria have become much more complicated of late. These negative changes have foiled all attempts to reach a political solution, and any thought of Syrian refugees returning home in the near future is little more than naïve hope. Thus, it is sufficient to review the response plans for dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis that were prepared by the Lebanese government (or conveyed via pledges from donor countries) and forecast to remain in effect until 2020. Part of this planning effort includes trivial bargaining by the Lebanese authority about the share Lebanon’s host communities will receive through such aid and the amount actually targeted for the refugees. Distribution of those resources among and within the host communities remains subject to petty inter-Lebanese calculations that are beset by corruption and often self-serving personal and partisan agendas.

On a related note, it is impossible to overlook the security considerations associated with asylum in Lebanon. The Ain el-Helwe (Palestinian refugee) camp, referred to caustically as one of Lebanon’s seven wonders due to the constant ambiguity about what occurs behind its newly erected fence, reminds the Lebanese periodically about the threat to Lebanon’s stability posed by Palestinian asylum.[9] Such reminders confirm Lebanese notions of refugee camps more than they disclose the real threat levels. As proof, Ain el-Helwe is the only Palestinian camp among 12 others that has experienced armed clashes motivated by politics or ideology. Apparently, the other camps are uniformly apolitical…. With respect to Syrian asylum, 2017 can be considered a pivotal year where Syrian-related security threats are concerned, whether actual or exaggerated, especially based on the way they were presented to the Lebanese. To counter such threats, Hezbollah “volunteered” in August 2017 to “liberate” the outskirts (jurd) of Orsal. After Hezbollah completed its operation, the Lebanese Armed Forces followed it with Operation “Dawn of the Jurd,” a coordinated action taken to regain control of what remained of Lebanon’s “terrorist-held” eastern border. Despite the bizarre developments and outcomes that accompanied those two operations, they eventually overcame all “organized, armed Syrian asylum-seekers,” leaving only “civilian asylum-seekers” in their wake. Ultimately, little distinguishes the remaining civilians (some of whom are vaguely accused of belonging to “terrorist organizations” and are frequently apprehended by Lebanese authorities) from others, Lebanese or otherwise, who also reside in Lebanon and have been arrested for similar reasons.

In sum, Palestinian refugees will remain in Lebanon unless they have an opportunity to leave it for another asylum/migration destination. Syrian refugees will remain in Lebanon unless they too have an opportunity to leave it in favor of another asylum/migration destination. Threats to Lebanon’s security because of asylumseekers have been dealt with harshly, since such threats represent the primary impetus for ignoring all of Lebanon’s many responsibilities toward its refugee populations. Thus, 2017 ended according to an axiom which holds that regardless of the number of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in the country, Lebanon will find itself dealing increasingly with the contentious issue of refugeeism among the Lebanese, but less so with refugee populations that will follow normal rates of birth and death….

It may seem that since fall 2016, when a president of the republic was finally elected after a long presidential vacancy, a government was formed and state institutions seemed to begin working again, the prevailing political consensus in Lebanon has rendered refugeeism obsolete as a contentious issue among Lebanese. After all, we hear representatives throughout the political spectrum discussing the same kinds of complaints about the weight being exerted on Lebanon because of asylum, and we may interpret that as consensus. But that conclusion would have been accurate only if (a) the issue had been debated adequately and public concerns about asylum were being alleviated and (b) if the reasons behind that consensus would have been any less apparent—which certainly is not the case! Indeed, a driving force behind this example of “Lebanese consensus” is the deal recognized implicitly or explicitly by all internal and external actors, which concludes (1) that Lebanon’s new status quo tips the balance of power in favor of Hezbollah and the regional interests it continues to pursue and (2) acknowledges the miserable economic situation facing the country—a situation none of Lebanon’s decision-makers could possibly deny. Thus, it is highly advisable to remain skeptical about the notion that this consensus, which involves the asylum issue, is immutable. After all, it is perhaps more prudent to discern within that panacea of consensus yet another example of the culture of denial—which still holds the upper hand in Lebanese politics.

Remaining committed to its mission of countering this culture of denial, UMAM D&R launched MOST WELCOMED? Lebanon through its Refugees in early 2017 thanks to a grant from the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa). While the mainstream discourse about refugeeism in Lebanon centers on the number of refugees, the cost of hosting them, the security threats they pose and other considerations that are similarly difficult to quantify, this program seeks to examine the positions on asylum Lebanon has taken in the past and present, and the extent to which the positions being adopted today seek to reanimate the ghosts of Lebanon’s past. In general, by using highly customized tools, this program seeks to situate refugeeism as a particularly Lebanese issue and stoke the ongoing debate in the country over the issue of asylum.

Since documentation reigns supreme among the tools used by UMAM D&R, its MOST WELCOMED? Lebanon through its Refugees project includes a documentation component that has augmented its online Memory At Work database, a number of beneficial workshops and conferences and the publication of several detailed papers. This book incorporates six such papers as examples of that overall effort.

UMAM Documentation and Research aims to preserve, examine and debate the memories of civil violence as well as to provide a platform for public access to, and exchange of such memories. 

To learn more about the work of UMAM Documentation and Research, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation, please click here. 


  1. All quotations in this paragraph are drawn from the website of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee at http://www.lpdc. gov.lb/statements/key-findingsof-thenational-population-andhousin/398/en
  2. “Syrian refugees in Lebanon drop below one million: UN,” The Daily Star, December 26, 2017. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2017/Dec26/431509-syrian-refugees-in-lebanon-dropbelow-onemillion-un.ashx
  3. Unfortunately, use of the expression “existential threat” has become widespread, not only among some high profile Lebanese, but also by the president of the republic. Multiple examples are available on www.MemoryAtWork.org.
  4. Several days after the census was released, the Maronite patriarch referred again to half a million Palestinian refugees in his 2017 Christmas address: “Lebanon houses today some one million seven hundred thousand Syrian refugees, several hundred Iraqis as well as a half million Palestinian refugees.” An-Nahar, December 23, 2017. Regarding the renewed debate over the naturalization decree, the most outspoken initiative was advanced at a press conference called by two MPs, Nimatallah Abi Nasr and Hikmat Deeb. It focused on implementing the decision made by the High Administrative Court to rescind the Lebanese nationality of several individuals to whom it was accorded in 1994. An-Nahar, January 3, 2018.
  5. According to Guita Hourani: In 1994 a decree was signed by the President of the Lebanese Republic, Prime Minister and Minister of Interior naturalizing a large number of persons [88,278]. This decree, which was preceded by the establishment of the Commission on Naturalisation in 1992 during the first postwar government led by Rafic Hariri, aimed at naturalizing some stateless groups such as the Kurds, the Arabs of Wadi Khalid, and the Bedouins, among others. However, the majority of those who acquired Lebanese nationality under this decree were not stateless: over 42% of the naturalised were Syrian nationals versus 36% stateless, 16% Palestinians, and 6% from the rest of the world including descendants of Lebanese immigrants. The full text of the article is available at https://www.academia.edu/1189727/
  6. The variances between the figures provided by the international agencies and the various Lebanese offices in charge of the portfolio are readily apparent, an issue that was examined at length by subject matter expert Ziad Sayegh during a conference hosted by UMAM D&R on December 16, 2017. Sayegh’s presentation is available at https://vimeo.com/249051761
  7. According to Maja Janmyr: UNHCR is furthermore not permitted to freely register Syrian refugees without interference from the Lebanese Government. In April 2015, the Ministry of Social Affairs requested that UNHCR de-register over 1,400 Syrian refugees who had arrived in Lebanon after 5 January 2015. With the exception of humanitarian cases approved by the Ministry, in May 2015, Lebanese authorities even instructed UNHCR to temporarily suspend registration of Syrian refugees, including individuals already in the country and new arrivals. The reason given for this new ban was that a new mechanism for registration of refugees was to be established, but as of mid 2016 this new instrument has yet to materialise. While there have been negotiations about a joint UNHCR-Government registration apparatus, amid the Government aim of reducing the number of refugees in the country, some remain sceptical of the political will to actually re-start registration. In the meantime, UNHCR has resorted to ‘recording’ rather than ‘registering’ individual refugees for the purpose of both assistance and protection, including resettlement abroad. Excerpted from “Precarity in Exile: The Legal Status of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” Refugee Survey Quarterly, Volume 35, Issue 4, December 2016. Available at https://academic.oup.com/rsq/article/35/4/58/2609281
  8. According to Fida Nasrallah: Liban asile, Liban refuge was another device to forge a common identity. This new ideology portrayed Lebanon as a haven—a protectorate for persecuted minorities. Ideas such as these were cultivated and made the basis for a Lebanese national identity. Circulated by Père Lammens, they had potential amongst Christians, Druzes, and Shi’as alike but not amongst the Sunnis: this ideology ‘was considered hardly complimentary… to the Sunni Muslims… who were presumed to have been, historically, the persecutors and oppressors.’ From “Lebanon: The Two Republics,” in: The Politics of Multinational States, edited by Don Maclver, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, p. 144.
  9. In November 2016, the Lebanese Armed Forces began building a wall to enclose Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. Despite some protests, the Lebanese authorities proceeded with this task, which ultimately transformed Ain alHilweh into something of a ghetto.

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