The debate and discourse surrounding migration and the current refugee crisis is one that can be contentious and to a certain extent emotive bringing about polarised stands amongst different parties. The surge of refugees to the UK and other European countries in the past few years has been a major issue to politicians and consequently, been in the foreground of policy makers as well as a topic of great concern among its citizens. So serious is this issue that it has been regarded as a major emergency and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel stated that ‘the issue of asylum could be the next major European project’ (Berry et al 2016). A statement made in response to the high numbers of refugees arriving in the European Union escaping the wars in Syria and Iraq.
Dr. Nasser Yassin’s presentation on ‘Informal Institutions Shaping Refugee’s Cities – Lessons from Lebanon’ drew in an audience from several walks of life. The venue was filled to capacity and the discussions were intellectual, challenging and passionate as expected. His research presented a great avenue to understand and appreciate how Lebanon, a country with its own problems has coped with the huge influx of Syrian refugees.
Lebanon and the Syrian refugee crisis
Lebanon, a small country with a population of about four million has taken in a large number of Syrian refugees (Loveless, 2013). Data and sources gleaned from reports and literature show that about 250,000 Syrians have been killed since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011 (Dionigi, 2016). It is purported in literature that since the start of the war, over three million Syrians have fled their country and over 1.1 million fled to Lebanon (Barnard 2015). Dionigi (2016) attributes the choice of Lebanon to two main reasons. 1. The geographic proximity. 2. Language and historical relations.
According to the UNHCR report, there are about 930,000 refugees that are registered or waiting to be registered. In addition to the Syrian numbers is also an influx of Palestinian refugees (Save the Children 2014 report). Some of the refugees stay in poor areas of Lebanon with limited infrastructure. At this juncture, it is important to note and understand that Lebanon has its own challenges such as a weak and fragile political state and has experienced the absence of a central government for some time. For a country that is characterised by weak state capacity, economic and regional inequalities, social and sectarian schism and inadequate infrastructures that have not been upgraded for decades, Lebanon’s role in absorbing the large number of refugees is commendable (Dahi, 2014).
Lebanon refugees distribution – Source: UNHCR Lebanon
In Dr. Nasser Yassin’s presentation, he highlighted three main ways that Lebanon was able to cope with the crisis.
- History: Lebanon has had a history of accepting refugees going back to 1860 with the acceptance of Christian refugees brought to Beirut.
- Social geography: Refugees move to places where they have social networks and places they know.
- Political economy: 70.5% of Syrian refugees and 27% of Lebanese live below the poverty line. Syrian refugees engage in manual labour doing basic jobs. 95% of Syrians work in the informal economy allowing them to work and earn a living. Hence, there is a rise of micro enterprises started by Syrians, which is mostly informal.
Although Lebanon has done a commendable job in absorbing the large number of refugees, given its fragile and weak state, financial and economic challenges and limited resources, there are some areas of contestation especially in the area of providing legality to the refugees, access to basic amenities – health and education and informality. For example, in January 2015, Lebanon announced a restricted 6-month visa for displaced Syrians. The lack of legal papers meant that Syrian refugees could not have access to basic amenities and social services – meaning that access to education, health facilities and other amenities were often a challenge as either inaccessible or there was a lot of hurdles to cross to get access to these basic needs (Balsari et al, 2015).
From the presentation, it was clear that Lebanon plans to return some of the refugees back to Syria after the war. According to Dr. Yassin, one reason for this is linked to the findings of an interview conducted with Syrian refugees in which they were asked to pick anywhere in the world they wanted to settle in and about 40% of those interviewed stated that they wanted to return home after the war. Hence, Dr. Yassin stated that the main focus for Lebanon is finding a way to end the war so that these refugees can go back home.
In addition to the preceding point is the nuanced debate on being honest about the effects of absorbing huge numbers of refugees and reaching a tipping point whereby the country could not cope with the large numbers given its limited resources and already existing weak infrastructures. According to data presented there are about 100,000 Syrian newborns, 98% have not been registered, 80% have no legal papers, 61 of under 18 are out of work. With inadequate infrastructure and amenities, Lebanon may not be able to cope.
Is informality a bad thing?
The presentation also opened up an avenue to debate on informality and its legality – ‘is informality all-together a negative thing’? Although this question leads to a whole new and separate debate and open to moot point, it is, however, important to highlight on what is meant by informality. Informal institution is often referred to in literature as the ‘unwritten rule’ guiding informal social networks, capital, family and mutual help. In many developing countries where there is a weak state, unwritten rules are the order of the day (Bratton, 2007). Understanding how the Syrian refugees are able to cope in Lebanon entails understanding the role of informal institutions – how informal institutions help in meeting the needs of many where formal institutions are weak, absent or challenging. Unfortunately, whilst informal institutions can provide some form of manageable living to refugees, it has its disadvantages and hence why the audience focused on the debate regarding its legality. However, Dr Yassin argued that there is a need to be open minded on issues such as the role of informality.
Some reflections and conclusions
The debate was concluded on the grounds that there is a need to create a paradigm shift to not totally view informality as a negative phenomenon especially within the context of developing countries – understanding that many households in developing countries function within informal institutions.
There is also a need to be cautious about our criticisms of the workings of countries that we are not all too well familiar with their workings as well as being cautious in our generalisations. There is a need to look at things through different lenses and not assume or follow the hegemonic rhetoric of a particular or familiar view that we are used to.
The question of applying theory to practice needs to be realistic and the complication and complex nature of doing this not taken for granted. As future practitioners, there is a need to be open minded as well as understand the thinking of a policy maker.
Our ontological perspectives and positionality do play an important role in our arguments and assumptions. Hence, it is important to view arguments from different ontological and epistemological perspectives as well as understand the role of the researcher and how research can influence policy change and public knowledge.
You can hear the lecture in the audio podcast here:
Balsari, S., Abisaab, J., Hamill, K. and Leaning, J. (2015) Syrian refugee crisis: when aid is not enough. The Lancet, 385(9972), pp.942-943).
Barnard, A. (2015) As Refugee Tide Swells, Lebanon Plans a Visa Requirement for Syrians. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/03/world/as-refugee-tide-swells-lebanon-plans-a-visa-requirement-for-syrians.html?_r=1. Accessed 28/11/16.
Berry, M., Garcia-Blanco, I. and Moore, K. (2016) Press coverage of the refugee and migrant crisis in the EU: a content analysis of five European countries.
Bratton, M., (2007) Formal versus informal institutions in Africa. Journal of Democracy, 18(3), pp.96-110.
Dahi, O. (2014) The refugee crisis in Lebanon and Jordan: the need for economic development spending. Forced Migration Review, (47), p.11.).
Dionigi, F. (2016) The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: State Fragility and Social Resilience. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/65565/1/Dionigi_Syrian_Refugees%20in%20Lebanon_Author_2016.pdf. LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series. Accessed 29/11/2016.
Loveless, J., 2013. Crisis in Lebanon: camps for Syrian refugees?. Forced Migration Review, (43), p.66.
Save the Children (2014) Save the Children’s Humanitarian response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: Overview. https://lebanon.savethechildren.net/sites/lebanon.savethechildren.net/files/Lebanon%20Context%20and%20Programme%20Overview%20February%202014.pdf [Accessed on the 29/11/2016].
Dr Lilian Schofield is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). She has over five years experience working in Higher Education Institutions in the UK as well as experience in the development field having worked with development consultancies and NGOs in Nigeria. Lilian Schofield has a PhD in Construction and Property Management and investigated the role of stakeholders in housing development projects in poor communities in Nigeria.