X Close

The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Home

Collective reflections about development practice and cities

Menu

Lebanon and the Syrian refugee crisis – Lessons to be learnt

LilianSchofield2 December 2016

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.

 

41_NASSER_poster

 

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

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.

  1. History: Lebanon has had a history of accepting refugees going back to 1860 with the acceptance of Christian refugees brought to Beirut.
  2. Social geography: Refugees move to places where they have social networks and places they know.
  3. 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.

Dr Yassin

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:

 

References

 

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.

UNHCR http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/syria.php.

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.

 

Brexit and Its Malcontents

LizaGriffin12 July 2016

The hateful Brexit campaign has a lot to answer for. The few at its helm have emboldened racists and racist acts and have caused many to be fearful and many more to feel unwelcome or reviled. This is a tragedy that can’t be wished away.

FullSizeRender

But I fear that the outcry after the result is patronising to the very many who voted to come out of Europe for a multitude of reasons or whom  felt excluded from the EU as a set of institutions. While the issues may have been poorly drawn by mainstream media and presented ineffectually by campaigners; I’ve no doubt that millions voted as a result of a careful evaluation of the issues as they saw them.

In my view, there needs to be a legitimate space for airing and discussing those feelings as well as, and in relation to, the fears and attitudes concerning racism and xenophobia.

It is both depressing and concerning that these views have been pitted against one another. It is also alarming that those choosing to leave the EU have been tarred with the same brush as the Brexit campaign itself. The campaign revealed itself to be mendacious and its central strategy was to stir up animosity.

However, choosing to leave the EU was not an automatic vote of support for this invidious campaign. Voters were asked about membership of an institution with contradictory policy objectives and a multifaceted identity. It was a straightforward question – in or out –  but the choice itself was not straightforward.

The EU is undeniably multiple: it is at once a commitment to peace between historically volatile nations; an expression of open borders and a series of safeguards against social and environmental harm. Other imaginaries perceive  it rather differently; as is an elitist entity, an instrument of neoliberalism, an interfering authority or a self-serving confederation facilitating the plunder of sovereign states’ wealth and consuming resources at a time when public spending is being squeezed. For many others, myself included, the Union has symbolised several of these conflicting perspectives.

Whichever imaginaries voters were drawn to, there is little doubt that many were ignorant of the history and finer workings of the EU and its political economy – but this goes for both the brexit and remain supporters. For these reasons, the complexity of the issues at stake and the multiple imaginaries at play inevitably belie any simplistic analysis of the referendum result.

In trying to make sense of the result for myself, I particularly enjoyed Emejulu’s piece on the whiteness of brexit. http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2733-on-the-hideous-whiteness-of-brexit-let-us-be-honest-about-our-past-and-our-present-if-we-truly-seek-to-dismantle-white-supremacy

She argues that issues of race are inherent to EU politics and have infused this referendum but I don’t take from her piece that all ‘no votes’ are simply racist votes. The article doesn’t set up a crude division between broadmindedness and prejudice, a division which has been all too prevalent in the last few days of Brexit reportage.

Attention to whiteness by contrast opens up a space for a conversation not simply about where people situate themselves in arguments on immigration and multiculturalism. Attention to whiteness is one powerful way to destabilise some of the unhelpful and inevitably marginalising rhetoric we’ve been subject to. She asks instead ‘What does it mean that those who now are expressing ‘concern’ about a surge in xenophobia have previously had little to say about everyday and institutionalised racism and violence that people of colour experience?.’

I believe that, like race, class is imbricated in the referendum fall out. The EU is above all a set of institutions which regulate the nature, rhythms and movements of workers’ bodies –  black and white bodies.

And yet different people’s experiences of this regulation will inevitably be diverse and divisive. Another reason why the analysis has to be nuanced; to allow those experiences and grievances – which are not the same for us all – to be validated. Those disenfranchised on low wages and, or those marginalised by the not so subtle codings of racism must be heard and understood with respect to complex social relations, not pitted against one another in a story of heroes and villains.

What initially concerned me about the early referendum reportage is the way it has played out like a game of top trumps: who is the biggest felon or the most put upon victim group – and who has the most legitimate grievance? Are the (mostly white) residents of Seaburn in Sunderland working class heroes who have simply had enough of austerity or are they hatemongering proto-nationalists? And too much coverage talks in terms of ‘they’ when, as I see it, the publics are not clearly interpellated by the poorly orchestrated debate.

Of course I am not so naïve as to think that at least some of the public discussion wont cause conflict or be hateful or racist. And I am one of the last to romanticise the ‘working classes’.  Surely there is a class and race geography to the voting, but it is far from clear-cut.

I also know that there wont be one truth to explain what has happened or a single social movement to coalesce around going forward, but trying to make sense of this confusing and divided time seems important.

Another so-called split I haven’t yet started to get to grips with to is the apparent division between the ‘younger’ and the ‘older’ voters – with disproportionate older voters seeking  Brexit and many younger ones favouring the current arrangements. In a climate of pension crises, youth unemployment, onsies and adult colouring books what does this mean I wonder?

But I guess what I am left really pondering is whether there is a way to acknowledge the fear and bad feeling caused by the apparent shock result while also thinking about what an alternative kinder and more open politics could look like? One that acknowledges how unhappy some folk are about the status quo , but that doesn’t white wash a history of colonialism and marginalisation ? I do hope so. And I hope too that any emerging solidarity first gives room for the expression of manifold, conflicting and complex feelings of those celebrating the result or grieving this separation.


 

Liza Griffin is a lecturer in political ecology and director of studies at DPU