1.1 Prologue: the making of the threat

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 The Syrian army had withdrawn from the country only in April 2005 following almost 30 years of military occupation.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.[4]

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[5] — 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

Box 1
The Palestinian experience

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.[10] 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.

Figure 1
The number of UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon[11]
The number of UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon

1.2 Lebanon’s political settlement

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.

Figure 2
Lebanon’s political alliances
Lebanon’s political alliances

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. [12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

1.3 Attitudes to refugees

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.

Figure 3
Alignment of actors by attitudes towards Syrian refugees
Alignment of actors by attitudes towards Syrian refugees

1.5 The framemakers: the road to refugee policies

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,[28] 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.[29] 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.[30]

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.[31]

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.

Bergman, R.2015. ‘The Hezbollah Connection’, New York Times Magazine, 14 February, link. (Accessed July 2018); Knudsen, A. and Kerr, M.(eds.) 2012. Lebanon: After the Cedar Revolution, London: Hurst Publishers; Macdonald, N. 2010. ‘CBC Investigation: Who Killed Lebanon’s Rafik Hariri’, CBS News, 21 November, link (Accessed July 2018).
While Lebanon’s economy is driven by private sector and international trade in goods and services, Syria was one of the world’s last command economies in the socialist style: state-run, self-reliant and focused on industrial production.
For a detailed analysis of this complex interdependence, see: Chalcraft, J. 2008. The invisible cage: Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon, Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Interviews with UN officials, Beirut, September 2017.
Mourad, L. 2017. ‘“Standoffish” Policy-making: Inaction and Change in the Lebanese Response to the Syrian Displacement Crisis’, Middle East Law and Governance, 9(3), pp. 249-266.
No census has ever been conducted among the Syrian refugees to determine the sectarian breakdown of the population. As already noted, the assumption that the vast majority are Sunni has been drawn mainly on the basis of their places of origin, their selected places of settlement in Lebanon and voluntary self-identification when such takes place. While anecdotal evidence can barely be more than an illustration, all the refugees the author met during the 6 months of this research would self-identify as Sunni Muslims, even if they were of different ethnic origins (e.g. Syrian Arabs and Kurds).
International Alert, Citizens’ Perceptions of Security Threats Stemming from the Syrian Refugee Presence in Lebanon, 2015. February. link. (Accessed July 2018).
UNHCR, Operational portal, refugee situations: Syria Regional Refugee Response, 2018. link, (Accessed June 2018). It bears emphasising that the drop in refugee numbers from 2015 onwards is not a consequence of the stagnating influx or onward movement, but a result of Lebanon government’s politically motivated request to the UNHCR to stop registering the refugees. The actual number of Syrian refugees on Lebanon’s territory is estimated at 1.5 million.
For a detailed analysis of the T’aif Accord, see Hamdan, A. 2012. ‘The Limits Of Corporate Consociation: Taif and the Crisis of Power-Sharing in Lebanon Since 2005’ in Knudsen, A. and Kerr, M.(Eds.) Lebanon: After the Cedar Revolution, London: Hurst Publishers.
For a detailed description of sectarian power sharing see: "Salloukh, B. et al. 2015. The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon, pp. 12-31, London: Pluto Press."
Since 2008 Hezbollah has managed either to ensure its allies were in presidency or otherwise block the elections of the Lebanese president. In 2016, such paralysis was overcome only when Michel Aoun, leader of the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement and openly allied with the militia, was elected president. In May 2018 Hezbollah also won the parliamentary elections.
Daher, A. 2015. ‘Hezbollah and the Syrian Conflict’, Middle East Institute, link. (Accessed July 2018).
Janmyr, M. 2017. ‘No country of asylum: 'legitimizing' Lebanon's rejection of the 1951 Refugee Convention’, International Journal of Refugee Law, 29( 3), pp. 438–465.
For the latest such spat, see Reuters, 2018, ‘International community 'dismayed' at Lebanese allegations on Syrian refugees’, 14 June 2018, link. (Accessed July 2018).
Interviews and focus group discussions with Sunni communities and political representatives, July-November 2017.
Levy, A. & Shamiyeh, G. 2016. ‘Responding to crisis: How Lebanon determines its refugee policies’, IMES Capstone Paper Series, The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, link, (Accessed June 2018).
Government of Lebanon, 2014. Session notes from 23 October 2014, link, (Accessed May 2018). The research team thanks our colleague Nancy Ezzeddine for providing an excellent translation of these notes.
Government of Lebanon, 2018, تنظيم دخول السوريين إلى لبنان و الإقامة فيه, link, (Accessed July 2018) On 30 December 2014, GSO issued a Circular pertaining to entry, renewal and regularisation of residency visas for Syrian nationals. This Circular was made public on 31 December 2014 and entered into force on 5 January 2015. It was modified on 13 January, 3 February, and 23 February. See also Human Rights Watch, 2016. ‘“I Just Wanted to be Treated like a Person”: How Lebanon’s Residency Rules Facilitate Abuse of Syrian Refugees’, link, (Accessed June 2018).
UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP, VASyR 2018, preliminary results.
Focus group discussions and subsequent in-depth interviews, Hebbariyeh, July and September 2017; This system not only creates a high degree of dependency between the Syrian refugee and the “guarantor”/”sponsor”, but also makes it impossible for them to revert to renewing residency on the basis of UNHCR-registration. It means that in the eyes of the Lebanese government they become labour migrants whose presence in the country is predicated on the goodwill of the “sponsor”.
For an attempt to capture and measure some the causality between specific government measures and some of these indicators, see Université Saint-Joseph, 2017. Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.
UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP, 2017. Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: VASyR 2017, Geneva, link (Accessed June 2018).
The Committee was headed by a prominent Shi’ite politician and businessmen, Yassin Jaber, former Minister of Economy in Rafik Hariri’s government, with a strong track record of cooperation with Sunni elites and general public-minded polices.
Interviews with UN officials and aid workers, Beirut, September 2017.
Reuters, 2017. ‘Lebanon will coordinate refugee returns to Syria only with U.N.: PM Hariri’, 14 July, link, (Accessed July 2018).
Aljazeera, 2018. ‘Unpicking the results of Lebanon's elections’, 10 May, link, (Accessed July 2018).