With its snow-covered mountains plunging into the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon is situated in one of the most beautiful corners of the Middle East — and in one of its most troubled. Its fate is closely intertwined with the politics of the wider region and specifically of its challenging neighbours Israel and Syria. The current refugee crisis and the politics surrounding it are in part a continuation of that complex interdependency, which Lebanon has balanced with various degrees of success in the past.
By the time the civil war in Syria started in 2011, Lebanon had enjoyed full sovereignty for a mere five years. The Syrian army had withdrawn from the country only in April 2005 following almost 30 years of military occupation. The direct cause for withdrawal was the Cedar Revolution – a series of mass demonstrations following the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri, committed by the members of the country’s Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, most likely on the orders of the Syrian state, already run by the current president Bashar Al-Assad.
Following these events, Syria and Lebanon maintained uneasy but close bilateral relations. The border between the two countries was open and Syrian citizens could live in Lebanon for six month stretches without formal residency. The countries’ economies — however different in structure — were highly interdependent, with Lebanon’s agriculture and booming construction industry relying on cheap Syrian seasonal labour. In good years, the number of seasonal workers from Syria in Lebanon would reach 300,000.
Many refugees trickling in to Lebanon during the early years of the Syrian war already had connections to the country through seasonal work or more advanced business, personal and political ties. Initially, the overall climate was one of welcome. Memories of Lebanese citizens seeking shelter in Syria during the 2006 war with Israel were still vivid, and there was no sense that the refugees presented an immediate danger. The war was framed as a calamity from which the Lebanese government had officially “disassociated” itself, in the hope of preventing the increasingly sectarian strife from spilling over into the country.
In these early days, Lebanese and Syrians alike seemed to hope and believe the war would be short-lived and that life would return to the old ways soon. Many Syrians tried to maintain life in both countries, regularly traveling back to Syria to check on the security situation and their properties. But as the war continued, the number of refugees rose and people began arriving from further afield, with fewer connections to Lebanon. Increasing numbers were fleeing immediate violence, bringing fewer assets and arriving more traumatised. And though nobody registers refugees’ sectarian allegiance, the areas from which they fled — Homs, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo — and the areas in Lebanon where they settled indicated that these were likely predominantly Sunnis.
For decades Lebanon has hosted Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who arrived in two waves following the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Politically mobilised, financially supported by regional actors and determined to fight their cause, Palestinian militias sprang up in the refugee camps during the 1960s and 1970s and became one of the more important actors in Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. This experience has fed into a narrative among many Lebanese that casts refugees as a threat to the country’s security.
The number of UNHCR-registered refugees started climbing steeply in 2013, reaching over a million in the second half of 2014 (see figure 1). By this time, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia had slowly become embroiled in the Syrian war, defying the country’s policy of disassociation. Hezbollah offered much-needed military support to the embattled Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, whose impact on Lebanese society was still a cause of friction between the country’s Sunni, Shi’ite and Christian residents.
When refugee numbers continued to increase and the protracted nature of Syria’s war became evident, perceptions of Syrian refugees changed, with many in Lebanon fearing a loss of control over the country’s border and territory. Once seen as temporary guests enjoying the hospitality of a neutral neighbour, Syrian refugees began to touch on Lebanon’s social, economic and political strife. They became a threat to be contained.
Lebanon’s response to the presence of over one million Syrian refugees on its territory is best understood through the lens of its political settlement and the way it is influenced by regional interests and power relations. The country’s state policies and behaviours may sometimes appear erratic and self-contradicting to outside observers, but they are often an outcome of intricate internal trade-offs between the country’s three main societal and political groups, aligned roughly along sectarian lines.
The Lebanese political system is a complex consociational power and wealth-sharing arrangement between its Shi’ite, Sunni and Christian elites that emerged from the 1975-1990 civil war. Although consociationalism in Lebanon predates the civil war, its current version is laid out in the Saudi-brokered Ta’if Accord that marked the end of this war. 
The system is based on the premise that all three groups should have equal access to formal power, each providing one of the three key posts in the country’s political system: Christians the president, Sunnis the prime minister and Shi’ite the speaker of parliament. The Shi’ites are the only sectarian group that still maintains an active militia, Hezbollah. The armed groups of the other two sects are largely dormant or defunct, with the exception of some localised Sunni militias in Tripoli and Sayda.
For Sunnis and Shi’ites the key political prize is to ensure the Christian president is aligned with their interests. This issue has been the cause of the main political battles since the civil war, bringing the country to the edge of violence at worst and grinding its policy-making to a halt at best. These battles have recently been won by the Shi’ites and specifically by Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s main sectarian groups often act as proxies for regional powers. The Sunnis, grouped around the Future Movement now led by the late prime minister Hariri’s son Saeed, have close relations with Saudi Arabia, while the two Shi’ite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, are similarly if not more closely linked with Iran. Since before the Syrian war, Hezbollah has also sided with the ruling Baath party in Syria, dominated by the Assad family.
Lebanese Christians have divided allegiances, with some parties such as the Lebanese Forces or Kataeb aligning roughly with the Future Movement, and others, such as the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) aligned with the Shi’ite groups. The small Druze minority, represented by the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and its leader Walid Jumblatt has shifted allegiances in the course of Lebanon’s modern history, although its role as a kingmaker has recently faded. And while the Sunni/Shi’ite regional allegiances are fixed, those of the Christians are less firm. The current president Michel Aoun, whose party is now a staunch Hezbollah ally, has in the past been an equally staunch opponent of Syrian presence in Lebanon, and was even once exiled for this reason.
The premise of Lebanon’s power sharing arrangement is that the three groups are roughly equal in size — an assumption so fundamental to Lebanon’s political settlement that it has remained untested since the 1932 census. Demographic figures have deep political implications in Lebanon, and any measurable imbalance between the main demographic groups could be perceived as a threat to the fragile status quo.
As a result, the country has never ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or additional protocols for fear that nationalising newcomers could bring about demographic imbalances. Lebanon's explicitly states that it is not a country of asylum, and concerns about demographic change run so deep that Lebanese women who marry foreigners are not permitted to pass citizenship on to their children.
The presence of over one million Syrian refugees, predominantly Sunnis, is therefore perceived as deeply problematic by the country’s Shi’ite and Christian political establishments. And while no international or Lebanese stakeholder has ever suggested the option of giving Lebanese nationality to the refugees, even this notional possibility has been used to disrupt substantive debate on the country’s treatment of refugees. At least two main actors — the Shi’ite groups and their FPM Christian allies — have framed refugees as a potential long-term threat to the Lebanese political system and as an existential threat to the future of their sectarian groups. The latter framing is more prevalent among the country’s Christians, whose politicians are more prone to invoking the spectres of political irrelevance and physical disappearance as a rallying tool.
Syrian refugees also represent a political challenge for the Sunni establishment, albeit of a different kind. Either through previous relations or by word of mouth or simply by knowing where they may expect a welcome, many have settled in the poorer Sunni areas in the south of the Beka’a Valley and the northern Akkar region, increasing the strain on already inadequate public services and often competing with locals for low-paid jobs. Whatever sympathy there may initially have been in these communities for the Syrians’ plight, by the seventh year of displacement it is dwindling under the strain of economic competition.
This balance of economic, ideological, sectarian and demographic concerns held by the three main groups creates the political framework within which the refugee response takes place. Based on extensive interviews with representatives of all three groups in high-ranking government positions, we have identified three main types of attitudes/concerns regarding Syrian refugees:
Primarily economic concerns. This attitude is found mainly among the country’s Sunni establishment. It incorporates a degree of understanding of the refugees’ position and sympathy for their plight with some levels of broader solidarity and a sense of sectarian responsibility, which manifests itself in a (diminishing) political protectiveness towards the refugee community. Within this attitude the dominant concerns are of an economic nature and are related to the economic pressures that a refugee presence exerts on the host communities, including the Sunni constituencies. These economic concerns easily translate into political ones, as illustrated by the rift between the Sunni voters and the establishment in the latest parliamentary elections.
In our assessment, actors that harbour this attitude would be willing to continue hosting the refugees in principle given sufficient outside assistance. Such assistance could represent a “refugee dividend” for those who do not harbour existential concerns about the presence of Sunnis, thus strengthening their readiness to host.
Moderate sectarian concerns combined with economic concerns. This attitude is found among Christian parties that are loosely aligned with the Sunni end of the political spectrum. It can also be found among some Christians and Shi’ite individuals who see an opportunity for personal political advancement by presenting themselves as competent managers of the refugee crisis and as providers for their constituencies. The attitude combines both long-term demographic and economic concerns with an awareness of the immediate economic opportunities the refugee presence brings. We encountered these individuals in high-level government and representative functions as well as in some key advisory positions in the private sector. While some Christian actors, like Lebanese Forces or former Minister of Education Eliaas Abou Saab, have carefully articulated these views in public, Shi’ite power brokers who harbour these attitudes air them in private only, outside the realms of public debate.
In our assessment, actors who hold this attitude would be willing to continue hosting the refugees for a limited and agreed period of time, under clear conditions related to the eventual return process. Some of their concern about demographic changes could be mitigated by an improved sense of state control over the response and an influx of funds with visible “refugee dividends” for their constituencies.
Far-reaching demographic concerns. This attitude can be found predominantly among members of the country’s Shi’ite and Maronite Christian establishments. Especially at the more militant end of the Shi’ite spectrum and among their Christian allies, concerns about long-term demographic changes trump economic considerations. These fears reflect the anxieties of Middle Eastern minorities that fuel many of the region’s current conflicts, made more salient by the link between demographics and political representation in Lebanon’s political settlement. While the Shi’ite community has been emboldened by the recent successes of their political parties in the May 2018 parliamentary elections, the existential anxiety of the Maronite Christians still finds expression in the belligerent discourse and policies of their most vocal representative in the government, the FPM and especially its foreign minister Gebran Bassil.
In our assessment, actors who harbour this attitude are difficult to argue with on the practicalities of refugee hosting. Their concerns go beyond (re)asserting state control over the response and are not assuaged by any form of development dividend that could be derived by leveraging the refugee crisis. It is doubtful whether these actors perceive any of the economic and political reforms donors have linked to this dividend as beneficial to them or their constituencies. In fact we believe many among them may have a stake in reverting to economic status quo ante and are not interested in reforms.
Community and state-level policies enacted by this powerful coalition of actors are aimed at facilitating the departure of refugees from Lebanon. The rhetoric is often populist and plays on the anxieties of their respective constituencies — and is very effective.
The result of a complex set of political attitudes, Lebanon’s new legal framework on refugee residency ended decades of visa-free travel between Syria and Lebanon and closed the borders to new refugees. More importantly, it deliberately created mass legal insecurity and undermined the living conditions of refugees in order to prompt their return. The minutes of the Council of Ministers meeting held in October 2014 made explicit the government´s aim of reducing the Syrian refugee population in the country by “encouraging their returns or onward movement to third countries by all means possible”, resulting in structural securitisation of the refugees’ presence and attempts to reclassify many among them as migrant labour (see box 2).
The policy was aimed at: 1) reducing arrivals at the border, 2) reinforcing internal security and 3) protecting Lebanese citizens by strict law enforcement among refugees.
The first objective of the policy was given shape in January 2015 through the GSO circular which tightened the regulations on Syrians attempting to enter Lebanon by severely restricting the inflow of people on the run from conflict and increasing the documentation requirements for those seeking employment in the country. Additionally, obstacles were put in the way of those seeking to maintain legal status in Lebanon. UNHCR was asked to end the registration of new displaced Syrians and residency documentation renewals are required every six months costing 200 USD.
Additionally, the documentation required for renewal was expanded to include an expensive housing commitment document and a pledge not to engage in paid work of any sort.
The government of Lebanon has repeatedly said that individuals who are suspected to be working, or opt to maintain their ability to work, irrespective of the reasons for having sought refuge in Lebanon, will not be considered as “displaced” anymore (the term that Syrian refugees are being referred to by the GoL).
While this provision formally changed in 2017 and refugees were allowed to apply for work permits in construction, agriculture and waste management, without compromising their status as displaced, GSO offices across the country have not been implementing the changes structurally. As application for work permits is complex and costly, only 1,500 Syrians currently hold work permits in Lebanon.
As a consequence of these measures, the proportion of refugees without valid residency permits increased to 76% by mid-2018. The numbers with valid work permits are negligible, as are the number of those in legal employment. Being a Syrian refugee and trying to make ends meet inevitably means breaking at least some of the laws set up to frame the response.
In January 2015 the policy was translated into a complex set of rules for extending residency registration, making it almost impossible for the majority of Syrian refugees to comply. This resulted in the loss of residency permits for huge numbers of refugees, and subsequent impairment of their freedom of movement. Several months later, the government asked UNHCR to stop registering refugees in the country, leaving an estimated 500,000 Syrians without recourse to UNHCR registration documents and internationally recognised status as persons of concern.
At the time of this report, some of the restrictive provisions for residency extension have been lifted, although their implementation remains uneven and this move has not resulted in a tangible improvement of legal security for refugees. According to preliminary findings of the 2018 UN Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VASyR), as many as 76 per cent of surveyed Syrian refugees over the age of 15 do not have legal residency.  Our own anecdotal evidence confirms this. In the course of our field research we did not meet a single Syrian refugee with a valid residency permit extended on the basis of their UNHCR-issued ID. Those that did have Lebanese residency all obtained it through entering the kefala system, where a Lebanese citizen acts as a guarantor for them, often in exchange for money and discounted labour.
The impact of a losing residency permit on refugees’ vulnerability is hard to overestimate. Extensive evidence built up by aid actors active in Lebanon shows the following key pathways in which the lack of legal residency affects refugees’ lives: 
by limiting their freedom of movement by exposing refugees to risks of detention, harassment and potentially even deportations, thereby affecting access to work and services such as health or education as well as cutting them off from their social networks.
direct restriction on access to services.
by cutting refugees’ access to legal recourse, thereby fuelling exploitation.
by limiting access to important civil documentation (such as birth, death and marriage certificates).
Type of pathway
1. Restriction of movement (including curfews).
Fearing detention, harassment or deportation, Syrians (and especially men over the age of 15) avoid crossing permanent or ad hoc checkpoints, which exist along all main Lebanese routes and are especially common in areas closer to the Syrian and Israeli borders.
This hampers access to jobs, ability to accompany children to school or seek medical help beyond checkpoints.
Limited access to livelihoods — both labour and private initiative, as a valid residency permit is required for opening businesses
Contributes to high levels of poverty among refugees and increase in child labour.
Dependency on job brokers for safety.
Vulnerability to exploitation.
Inability to invest in social networks.
Limited access to civil documentation (birth, death and marriage certificates as a result of being unable to reach relevant state offices).
2. Direct restriction on access to services.
A valid residency permit is required for accessing mid and higher education.
Refusal of medical help due to lack of residency permit.
Youth unable to access mid and high education.
Refugees in need of health provisions unable to access services.
Poorer health outcomes as a result of inability to access health services.
3. No legal recourse.
Having unresolved residency status, refugees are unable to file legal complaints of any kind.
This hampers access to justice and facilitates harassment.
Increased vulnerability to exploitation by employers (not being paid daily wages).
Increased vulnerability to harassment of any kind.
It is impossible to fully disentangle the impact of lack of residency on refugees’ wellbeing from the impact of a sluggish economy or the availability of jobs in particular sectors. It is also not an exaggeration to say that government policies enacted in 2015 have been a major contributing factor in the worsening of many socio-economic indicators for the refugee population.
According to the most comprehensive vulnerability assessment available in Lebanon, in 2017 as many as 76% of all refugee households were living below the national poverty line (estimated at USD 3.84 per person per day) and 58% were actually living below the survival minimum expenditure basket. While levels of debt have improved slightly since 2016, the average amount of debt in 2017 was still high, at USD 798 per household. The main reasons for borrowing money have stayed the same over the years: buying food (72%), paying for rent (43%) and covering health expenses (27%).
Refugee attitudes towards staying in Lebanon or moving on were based on respect for human rights and the difficulty in meeting the high cost of living in Lebanon. These were among the top reasons why Syrian refugees may consider moving abroad, with 26% and 25% of VASyR respondents naming them as such.
Many of the key refugee policies in recent years were created and implemented in times of political gridlock in Lebanon. Until November 2016, Lebanese politics had been dominated by a prolonged political struggle between the country’s Sunni and Shi’ite elites for control of the country’s presidency. This struggle was eventually won by the Shi’ite-dominated bloc, whose preferred candidate, FPM chairman General Michel Aoun, was finally elected to the post. Part of the deal that secured his election was the return from exile of Saeed Hariri, son of the late prime minister Rafik Hariri, in order to take the position of prime minister. With a new government installed, a new momentum was created around refugee policy, resulting in what looked like a window of opportunity for improving refugees’ legal status and access to livelihoods.
The Future Movement and its political allies ended up in charge of several key government posts relevant to the management of the refugee crisis: the Prime Minister’s Office, in charge of negotiating major development aid packages; the Ministry of Interior (MoI), in charge of managing municipality-level responses; the newly formed Ministry of Refugees and the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), the key actor in charge of coordinating the response. The latter post was allocated to Future-allied Lebanese Forces.
The key security post remained in the hands of the Shi’ite/FPM coalition - the powerful General Security, although formally a part of the MoI, has continually been run by Hezbollah-aligned General Abbas Ibrahim, the driving force behind the securitisation of the refugee response and the GSO circular of January 2015.
A result of this division of posts was a perceptible shift in the design and implementation of refugee policy in 2017. The Prime Minister’s Office led a push to raise significant amounts of funding from western donors and investors, aiming for a hefty development dividend. With the lead of the Finance Committee, parliament managed to pass the first budget in twelve years and adopt a series of laws aimed at ensuring legal basis for private-public partnerships and more transparent tendering procedures — all of which were donor pre-conditions for access to funds. In parallel, the government was making small symbolic concessions towards refugee wellbeing. The residency renewal fee of USD 200 was lifted and refugees were formally allowed to cross checkpoints in Lebanon’s territory using the UNHCR registration document. However, the UNHCR was not allowed to restart refugee registration, and the implementation of positive measures was patchy, with GSO offices approaching the relevant circulars and bylaws arbitrarily. There was also a clear discursive pushback against the more radical proposals coming from the president’s office and the MoFA, which argued for refugee return to Syria even in the absence of a peace settlement. Prime Minister Hariri drew what seemed like a red line by stating that the government would only support returns organised under the auspices of UNHCR.
But beneath the surface, power relations in Lebanon were shifting. Unable to control Hezbollah’s growing influence, the prime minister could not prevent the small-scale forced returns of Syrian refugees negotiated by Hezbollah or prevent Hezbollah and FPM’s visible rapprochement with Syria’s president. In November 2017, Mr Hariri resigned from his post. Delivered in the Saudi capital Riyadh, the resignation was believed by many to have been forced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as a power play against Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
Prime Minister Hariri returned to Beirut via France several weeks later only to immediately retract his resignation. But his return to the prime minister’s post, and successful efforts in to mobilise donor funds and secure a refugee dividend for Lebanon, could not balance the loss of political clout created by the episode. Sunni voters barely showed up for the country’s parliamentary elections in May 2018, delivering Hezbollah and its allies, the FPM, a strong majority in parliament.
Whatever the outcome of the ongoing negotiations to form a new government, the Sunni bloc remains weakened, as does the minimal political protection from refoulement that refugees counted on until now. At the time of writing, anti-refugee rhetoric is picking up. Localised forced returns have been taking place again and Foreign Minister Bassil has moved to freeze UNHCR visa requests in an apparent retaliation for the organisation’s refusal to endorse these returns. Lebanon’s balancing act between generosity and outright breach of international human rights law has become even more precarious.