The sectarian nature of Lebanon’s political system presents a number of challenges to anyone engaged with it. Due to a deeply ingrained fear of refugee settlement, securing the effective protection of Syrian refugees has proven to be exceptionally difficult in the present political climate.
Finding one: Donor policies seeking to influence the Lebanon response have been constrained by a number of erroneous normative and political narratives that restrict what is possible in terms of refugee protection.
Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world that could credibly claim that the presence of a large number of Sunni refugees on its territory might threaten its politics and way of life, and therefore invoke a moral right to limit refugee reception. While there is no agreed set of conditions under which such claims could be made, there is an understanding in current ethical debates that for such claims to have moral weight, the state needs to have undertaken a range of actions that create a conducive environment for refugee reception. These include attempting to shape its public opinion to be more accepting, and reducing causes for refugee flight.
Lebanon has not succeeded in making this argument convincingly. On the contrary, a large number of its politicians, belonging to Shi’ite and Christian political parties, have created an atmosphere of hostility towards refugees and roused populist fears of refugee settlement. In recent years the FPM in particular has publicly distorted donor policies towards the country, accusing the west of harbouring a secret agenda to “settle the Syrian refugees” in Lebanon.
Such strategies have been used to mobilise voters and as an instrument of political and moral coercion directed towards outside actors. Lebanon has also failed to prevent a powerful Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah, from engaging in the Syrian war in support of the regime whose actions have often caused the displacement. Both these elements weaken the state’s claim to exceptionality in terms of refugee protection, but Lebanon has not been openly challenged on this ground by any outside actors.
Instead donors have allowed two erroneous narratives to dominate public and, we believe, private conversations with Lebanese actors: the narrative of victimhood and neutrality and the narrative of self-harming hospitality. We believe these two narratives severely limited the policy options for providing protection from the outset.
While Lebanon has undoubtedly suffered economically from the onset of the Syrian crisis and the associated refugee influx, it should be noted that its economic woes cannot be fully explained by these events only. Lebanon’s economic woes stem to a large extent from its governance system, which favours clientelistic redistribution, and in which inter-sectarian bargaining and catering to various-sized constituencies is key.
Finding two: The impact of the Syrian crisis and refugee presence is influenced by the nature of the Lebanese political and economic system, which is not geared towards the overall economic benefit of Lebanese society, nor does it support the provision of public goods. Instead it serves to reinforce the sectarian political settlement by allowing for clientelistic redistribution and the protection of selected markets as private fiefdoms. This is why the presence of refugees does not only create tensions between refugees and the Lebanese host community, but also exacerbates sectarian tensions by influencing the distribution of goods and profits between and within host community sects.
The overall economic impact of the Syrian crisis cannot be classified as clearly negative or positive. The Lebanese economy suffers from a number of structural problems, which inhibit its growth. The availability of low-wage foreign labour (often Syrian) has historically been one of the enabling factors allowing for growth in a number of sectors. Among small and medium sized companies, the lower wages of Syrian labourers (and their increasingly long working hours) are viewed as a positive development.
Nonetheless, the majority of Lebanon’s population is affected by the worsening performance of the already weak public infrastructure, while only a limited number among the country’s elites are able to benefit from the opportunities presented by the crisis.
While labour competition between Syrian refugees and Lebanese employees is limited, job competition between Lebanese and Syrians in taxi-driving and restaurant services has allowed for the politicisation of intra-sectarian inequalities that pre-date the arrival of refugees.
Finding three: Domestic political narratives stressing the demographic risk of the refugee presence may have contributed to a loss in consumer confidence and household expenditures, reducing economic growth. At the same time, the availability of Syrian informal labour, refugee consumption expenditures and the additional grants, loans and local expenditures associated with the aid response may have had a stimulative effect.
The available data does not support the narrative that blames Lebanon’s economic slowdown on the loss of export markets for goods and services the beginning of the Syrian war. In a country driven by consumer spending, our findings suggest that the loss of confidence — driven by perceived risks related to the Syrian war and refugee influx — is a much more likely explanation of such a sharp drop. Employing Syrians may have allowed companies to offset their higher fixed costs due to poor infrastructure with lower labour costs and keep the economy growing albeit at a reduced rate. Additionally, increased demand from donor funds, the presence of various (I)NGOs, and refugee consumption provides an additional stimulus to an economy that is largely reliant on domestic consumption.
Increased donor funding, variety of funding instruments and government involvement in the coordination of an emergency response are in theory desirable developments, but in Lebanon this has also created dynamics more common in the Lebanese patronage system. These include intense bargaining and prioritisation of the interests of particular constituencies above the public interest, and a strong class dimension. All these elements became increasingly important in the aftermath of the 2015 Mediterranean crisis and the opening of previously inaccessible development funding channels.
Finding four: There has been a sharp increase in the number and variety of donor instruments used to support the refugee response. The funding available for Lebanon through these instruments is significant. It is however not clear whether the instruments are actually well-aligned and capable of delivering protection in the region.
Donors have created new channels for engaging with the complexity of Lebanon’s refugee crisis. Since 2016, on top of existing humanitarian funding, Lebanon has become eligible for a range of previously inaccessible development instruments, such as concessional loans by international development banks and various new streams of (bilateral) development funding. There is also a steady stream of security funding, which our research has not explored in detail. All these instruments and available funding have, however, not prevented the deterioration of the protection environment for Syrian refugees. On the contrary, this already vulnerable group is now facing the risk of forced returns, and UNHCR is under political attack by parts of the country’s establishment. In our view, this is the consequence of ineffective donor advocacy alongside the new instruments, both within and outside of the response coordination structure.
Finding five: As discussed in the previous chapter, implementing economic reforms significantly influences the interests of a number of sectarian constituencies. In order to improve the protection of refugees, donors must seek to understand which constituencies are affected and how, and whether the associated costs and benefits are likely to pass through Lebanon’s political system. Tying economic reform to the refugee protection is a highly complex endeavour that requires detailed and tailored understanding of the sectarian implications if it is to deliver.
Lebanon’s economy is subject to structural weaknesses stemming from its clientelistic nature and rooted in an agreement among sectarian elites. Attempting to implement economic reforms means challenging the nature of sectarianism, while trying to ensure refugee protection. The rationale for such mechanisms is that the Lebanese system, faced with internal weaknesses and the added challenge of refugee presence, would be more susceptible to reform. In our view, this notion is flawed in two respects:
This in our view means that tying an economic reform agenda with a protection in the region agenda needs to be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis with a thorough understanding of the stakeholders. Otherwise it may jeopardise delivery of both, as reforms may encounter even more resistance from sectarian interests.
Finding six: EU member states’ reluctance to increase the variety of burden sharing modalities in which it engages undermines its ability to ensure protection in the region
While a protection in the region agenda may have merit, as long as it is seen as simply a way of keeping refugees out of the EU it will remain normatively and politically questionable. The choice is not between the two false extremes of keeping all Syrian refugees in the region or having all Syrian refugees resettle in Europe, but about finding a balance between various modalities of burden sharing, and keeping public opinion on both sides of the Mediterranean conscious of international obligations towards this group. Without this recognition, the ability of both sides to ensure dignified living conditions for refugees and vulnerable host communities is limited.