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Machiavellian Middle East: Shifting Alliances

RezaMajd23 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

 Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances

 The recent proxy wars and geopolitical games the two biggest Middle Eastern powers have been engaging in have involved shifting alliances, as states seek to bandwagon with the two regional powers. Egypt is a case in point. Egypt was a firm enemy of Iran under Mubarak, yet this changed under the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammed Morsi seemed to open up to Iran. The overthrow of Morsi and the instalment of Al Sisi, and the bankrolling of Egypt by Saudi Arabia seemed to return Egypt into the Saudi fold, yet tensions between Egypt and Saudi brought Iran and Egypt close again, with Iran even lobbying for Egypt to get a place at the Syrian peace talks. Then only a year later, Egypt was back in Saudi’s corner, backing its Sunni ally in its hostile stance with Iran. Iran also lost long-time ally Sudan over their Saudi feud, after Iran’s takeover of the Saudi embassy, Sudan cut ties with its former patron.

There is of course the case of Qatar, which was long hostile towards Iran, and along with Saudi Arabia, helped arm Syrian rebels, including terrorists to fight against the Iranian ally Bashar Al Assad, hoping Assad’s fall would weaken Iran. Yet, in 2017 there was a diplomatic spat between Saudi and Qatar due in a large part to the latter’s relations with Iran, and Saudi Arabia led a blockade of its former ally on the GCC, pushing Qatar closer to Iran. The situation with Qatar also is closely related to that of Turkey, who, seemed to join an alliance of Sunni states seeking the overthrow of Assad, and Turkey even sent troops into Syria for a while. Yet Turkey’s enduring alliance with Qatar, and the fallout between Qatar and Saudi Arabia brought Turkey down firmly on Qatar’s side, and thus an improvement of relations with Syria and Iran, in part due to a concern about their respective Kurdish populations.

Then of course, there is the special case of Israel, and its relations in the region. Due to their joint concern on the perceived threat of Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia have moved closer together in cooperation. While historical precedent doesn’t tell us everything, there is perhaps precedent in the Saudi-Israeli alliance vis-a-vie the French-Ottoman alliance, two peoples ideologically opposed as can be, yet working together against a powerful common enemy, a Machiavellian move on both their parts, more so on Israel’s. Israel already had warming contacts with the UAE as they begin to see each other, if not as allies, then at least sharing a common foe, Prime Minister Netenyahu admitted as much. There is also the Machiavellian alliance between the Saudis, the puritanical Wahhabi Muslims intolerant of other faiths, with US president Donald Trump who has often shown hostility towards Muslims in general.

In the modern Middle East, one can of course not overlook the role of non-state actors, rebel groups like the FSA, the Houthis and most notoriously of all, terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and Al Nusra have been used as proxies in these wars, especially by Saudi Arabia who has a notorious Machiavellian history of funding terrorism, including backing the MKO an anti-Iranian government terroist organisation. The creation of ISIS was a symptom of state support for a non-state actor going too far, empowering it to stand alone, claim territory and challenge its former benefactors legitimacy while spouting their ideology. The evocation of the non-state actor Hezbollah in the conflict was a reaction to ISIS on the side of Iran.

Despite this being labelled as a Sunni-Shia conflict, and while there are clear signs of alliances based on religious reasons, like Bahrain’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Syria’s alliance with Iran, the reasons are more nuanced. It is textbook case of Realism and Realpolitik triumphing over the Constructivism of religious identity, as was the case in the Middle Ages with Francis I and his rivalry with Charles V. Both rulers were Catholics, yet both often were on opposite sides, as is the case in the modern Middle East. Political calculations are more important that religious identity and the conflict is far more about the struggle for power, and each state considers its own interests political interests, and chooses its alliances primarily on that basis. This is why there is back-and-forth bandwagoning between Iran and Saudi Arabia.





Machiavellian Middle East: The great losers of geopolitics in the Middle East

RezaMajd4 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Subtitle explainer: Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances

Photo Source

            As with any protracted conflict, there are the region’s greatest losers, caught in the crossfire of the proxy war, which is principally Syria with its long-standing civil war. Caught not only in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Russia and the US, Syria has been torn apart and the Syrian people have been the tragic losers in the machinations of geopolitical rivalries. Syria is one battlefield that has gone out of control, with so many outside powers having interests and troops in the mix, from state actors like the US, Russia, Iran, to non-state actors like Hezbollah, ISIS, Al Nusra to states with no official ground presence but with a firm interest in the outcome like Israel and Turkey, and international groups like the EU and the UN. While Syria as whole has lost out in these power games, another group that could well lose out are the Kurds, who aided the US by fighting back ISIS, are viewed by Turkey as a national threat. In the aftermath of the war, they could become one of the bitterest losers of the conflict as Turkey moves in to stifle them.

Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in 2017 and continues on into 2018 thanks to the Saudi bombing campaign and blockade against Houthi rebels against the Saudi-installed government of Hadi. Though not conclusive, it is alleged that the Houthis are backed by Iran. And of course, while not directly affected, the long-suffering Palestinians are neglected by the Arab world as countries in the region focus on their national interests in the proxy war.

Cunning and deceit will every time serve a man better than force to rise from a base condition to great fortune” – Machiavelli, Discourses on Ivy. It would seem that the Saudis and the Iranians, as well as other states, are following his playbook. While the Syrian war appears to be winding down at the time of writing, the proxy wars between the two dominant Middle Eastern powers continue, Lebanon sometimes appears like it could be the next battleground. Alliances may change as states calculate their own interest, and nothing should be taken for granted. The alliance of Saudi Arabia and Israel is one to watch, with potentially explosive consequences wherever one looks, the stability of Syria is still questionable, and the role of non-state actors, while right now in decline, could soon return. Each turn and twist the Middle East takes is studied by the Realist states, both in the region and outside, as they try to understand how they can manipulate the outcomes to their own benefits. Alliances are fickle, religion is secondary, self-interest above all guides the way.


Region: MENA



A Dangerous Result: How Italy’s New Government may Threaten Migrants’ Human Rights

RezaMajd30 March 2018

Written by: Serena Cavasin

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

A boat with immigrants aboard arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa | Credit: ANSA


In line with poll predictions, on March 4th, the recent Italian general election delivered a hung parliament. Although no absolute winners emerged, Italian voters flocked to anti-establishment M5S and anti-immigration Northern League, which secured respectively a record 32.5% and 17% of the vote (the highest percentage among the three-party centre-right coalition led by Berlusconi, which secured a total 36%), as Renzi’s centre-left coalition gathered the lowest support ever gained by the left since 1913.


An election dominated by the topic of migration:

Both the M5S and the centre-right coalition ran on manifestos pledging to stop boats landing on Italian shores, and in the case of the Northern League – rebranded ‘League’ before the election in a bid to increase support amongst Southern Italians, once demonised by the party – to put an end to the migrant “invasion” through a combination of systematic deportations and policies shaped to put “Italians first”.

The M5S and centre-right also offered as part of their programmes fiscal measures, such as the roll-out of a universal basic income (M5S) and a flat income tax of 15% (centre-right), of unquestionable appeal to a country with some of the highest level of youth unemployment and taxation in the European Union. And currently, the latter appears to be the decisive factor to whether the two forces will be able to reach the agreement necessary to form a new government.

In light of this last point, it may seem excessively reductive to consider migration as the issue central to the election’s results. However, it is precisely when the record number of migrant arrivals Italy has experienced in the last three years is understood in context with the other challenges and problems the country faces, that we can see how the migration was able to act as such a significant pull factor shifting consensus towards Eurosceptic and sovereigntist forces.

In fact, these forces were particularly effective at bolstering support for their once derided proposals by capitalising on the deep disillusionment felt by Italians towards European neighbours who closed their borders, leaving Italy to perform the lion’s share of rescue, identification, and accommodation operations largely on its own, thus putting at further strain the already over-stretched resources of a debt-stricken country with a fragile economy barely recovering after suffering half a decade of austerity measures.

Yet, not only did the M5S and centre-right coalition channel the rancour harboured by large parts of the Italian population, but they often actively worked towards fuelling it. This is most evident in the hostile, graphic, aggressively racist and xenophobic rhetoric employed during the campaign by the leaders, as well as supporters, of the League and of fellow centre-right coalition member Brothers of Italy, a far-right party with ties to neo-fascist movements. A toxic use of language that Amnesty International’s annual rapport, in February, marked to be deeply pervasive on social media, with damning figures indicating 95% of discriminatory and racist hate speech as coming from right wing accounts, and over 50% from League leader Matteo Salvini.


The Increased Risk of Human Rights Violations against Migrants:

Amnesty’s warning that this anti-migrant sentiment if left uncurbed may turn Italy into a country steeped in racism, was unfortunately followed by shocking episodes of racist violence, including the deliberate targeting and wounding of 6 African migrants in a shooting by a neo-Nazi former member of the League and the killing of two Senegalese street traders in Florence.

While the attacks prompted a series of protests and displays of solidarity across the country, condemnation from the centre-right was lukewarm at best and victim-blaming at worst. As a result, many migrants living in the country, as well as minority ethnic Italians and Italy-born children of immigrants, have reported fearing for their safety and their ability to remain in the country. In interviews gathered by mainstream national and international news outlets, they cite as the main reason for these feelings the hostile social climate, the record rise in hate crimes reported since the beginning of Summer 2017, as well as the increased delays of processes attributing citizenship and residence permits, and the deferral of the vote on the ius soli bill set to extend Italian citizenship to non-Italian children born and educated in the country.

In terms of the latter, campaigners now despair that a bill that took years to even be drafted and introduced will be one of the first items to be struck down by a potential M5S – centre-right coalition, thus leaving many children and young adults potentially at risk of deportation and at significant disadvantage with regards to access to services and opportunities.

While this is certainly likely to happen given the opposition to the bill openly declared by both forces, other concerning aspects of the migration policy advocated by the M5S and the League (who now leads the centre-right coalition) may not that easily materialise, regardless of the two parties’ hell-bent alignment on curbing migration.

For instance, the League’s plan to remove 600,000 undocumented immigrants living in the country, while not in contrast with the law (which prohibits clandestine migration), would still prove to be a logistic nightmare and an incredibly expensive endeavour that a flat tax of 15% would by no means be able to subsidise. On the other hand, the plan to close ports and trigger forced returns of ships crossing the Mediterranean is a much more worrying possibility, despite the illegality of similar practices under International Law which maintains the principle of non-refoulment.

However, should a potential coalition government choose to go down this path (as the Berlusconi government did in 2009, violating European Human Rights Law as found by the Strasbourg Court in Hirsi v Italy) they would likely risk incurring into sanctions. So, they may instead choose to continue following the route set by former Democratic minister Minniti of engaging in bilateral agreements, such as the infamous deal reached with Libya, with the states where flows originate from and traffickers operate.


A Ray of Hope within the Bleakness of the Picture:


Fortunately, the League and M5S, like other populist movements, have a history of ‘sloppy’ politics and scarce competence which may lead to a failure to implement their manifesto pledges and even produce opposite results, as seen in 2003 when the League’s General Secretary and then Minister for Social Policy Roberto Maroni signed the Dublin Agreement (thus accepting that all undocumented migrants arriving on Italian shores would have to petition for asylum in Italy and remain in the country until the end of the process).

Moreover, considering that negotiations for a coalition are still being undertaken, anything could happen – and a government may not be formed at all. Or, Italy may live up to its reputation of the country with 63 governments in 70 years and any newly formed executive may collapse in a matter of months.

So, perhaps, as famously said by writer Ennio Flaiano: “the political situation in Italy is grave, but not serious”.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the hateful xenophobic rhetoric of the campaign has worked to deeply damage the social tissue of the country, legitimising dangerously violent racist attitudes and behaviours that will not disappear quickly nor easily. And thus, for migrants and their rights, the situation in Italy is certainly both grave and serious.

The Italian- Libya agreement and its relation with non-refoulement of refugees

RezaMajd28 March 2018

Written by: Nidhi Singh

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.


“The refugee crisis.” It’s one of those phrases that really catches your attention. You can barely turn a page in a newspaper or look at the television anymore without there being some reference to it. But the phrase itself is a bit of a misnomer since it does not address who are the people affected by such a crisisWhile the existence of the crisis is now widely accepted by states and the international media, it is difficult to ascertain if the crisis in question relates to the refugees, or the countries which receive them. In most contexts I suppose, both are at stake.

February 2018 marked the one-year anniversary of the The agreement was most famously entered into to ‘cut off the Mediterranean route’ for refugees stemming from Africa, by detaining them in Libya so they could not reach the shores of Italy and subsequently enter Europe. To this end, Italy entered into an agreement with the now fragmented government of Libya (all three of them, and assorted militias) to provide them with boats, funding, and training to and detain all refugees coming from the African route. This push-back agreement was meant to cut back on the number of refugees entering Italy.

This agreement was lauded by the European Union as a whole and was then reinforced in the Turkey and Sudan Agreements. While the Turkish agreement is fairly well known, the push-back agreement for detaining of refugees in Sudan remains one of a kind, since the head of the state of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, remains one of the few people to have received the distinction to be prosecuted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The reason for entering into such agreements can be found in the humanitarian principle underlying the refugee convention, which is unequivocal on the procedure for treatment of refugees. The only way to subvert it, would be to not allow any of the refugees to reach the shores of Italy in the first place. The governments of these countries (Sudan and Libya) are paid to catch boats leaving their shores and force the people back into their countries where they are detained.

The Libyan Agreement is not new, in fact back in 2008, a similar agreement existed between , which famously didn’t allow anyone to get into the detention centres to check conditions, . While this policy has faced major criticism from and NGOs, such as Amnesty International, the key domestic actors remain silent on the subject.

This, in part could be attributed to new , which is alleged to be massively hampers the work most can do , over 70% of the NGO’s have stopped work on this route. It was only the recent reports on the slave trading and auctions happening in Libyan refugee camps which has thrust the matter back into limelight. Meanwhile, the Italian MMarco Minniti has been lauded by the EU for reducing the flow of African migrants by 87%, but no official statements have been issued on the issues of rampant human rights abuses and slave trading of refugees occurring in Libya.

This now brings us to the question of attribution, in terms of the human rights violations committed in Libya, how much of the fault can be placed upon Italy and the EU? Italy has provided 220 million euros to Libya to stem the flow of people. In addition to this they have also provided boats and training to the Libyan coastguards, there have also been reports of Italian officials actually being on board these ships while they arrest boats and turn them back towards Libya. Here, the question of attribution is raised, should Italy be held responsible for the eventual situation of these migrants in Libya; arguably, they would not have suffered the abuse had it not been for Italy’s intervention in providing funding and training. If they are not to be held responsible, should a part of the responsibility them? How does this relate to refugees from countries such as Eritrea, who have almost a 100% recognition rate in Europe and would have otherwise gained refugee status were it not for the push back agreement?

Unfortunately, none of these questions have had yet their moment in court due to a loophole in the jurisdiction clause for refugee dispute. While clear case law already exists prohibiting the violation of non-refoulement[4] i. The only case in this regard to be heard in the European Court of Human Rights was Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy[5], which was only possible as the court somewhat relaxed its stance on jurisdiction. All previous cases brought forth on the matter of interception at sea were dismissed by the court for want of jurisdiction.[6]

So far, no one who has been detained has managed to go forward to Europe, most are detained in Libya itself, [7]

Despite the heavy criticism levelled towards Italy and the EU, there are no signs of suspension of the agreement. Furthermore, it seems that there is no mode of redress as there appears to be no mode of judicial intervention to force the parties into abeyance. This agreement is however one of the cornerstone issues in the upcoming elections in Italy, but whether this debate results in improving or regressing the situation, remains to be seen.






[1] Italy – Libya Memorandum of Understanding (2017), Available at https://www.asgi.it/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ITALY-LIBYA-MEMORANDUM-02.02.2017.pdf, [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].

[2] Libya: Smugglers holding refugees and migrants in deplorable conditions, say UN agencies. Available at https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/libya-smugglers-holding-refugees-and-migrants-deplorable-conditions-say-un-agencies [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].

[3] Italy’s code of conduct for NGOs involved in migrant rescue. [online] Available at: http://www.euronews.com/2017/08/03/text-of-italys-code-of-conduct-for-ngos-involved-in-migrant-rescue [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018]; See also Code of conduct for NGOs involved in the rescue of migrants at sea: the ASGI comment. (2017). [online] ASGI. Available at: https://www.asgi.it/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Draft-ASGI-Position-Paper_Final_EN.pdf [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].

[4] The practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution. It is an obligation under the Refugee Convention, 1951 to which Italy is a party.

[5] Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy, Application no. 27765/09, Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights, 23 February 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/cases,ECHR,4f4507942.html [accessed 16 February 2018]

[6] Ibid

[7] The migrant slave trade is booming in Libya. Why is the world ignoring it? | Ross Kemp. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/20/migrant-slave-trade-libya-europe [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].

Through the looking glass: How western countries are likely to react to the migrant crisis through International Relations Theory

RezaMajd23 March 2018

Written by: Aashna Chatterjee

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Syrian family receiving clothes and other items at their arrival in Canada (CTV News, 2016)

Over the past few years, the refugee crisis in Syria has reached an unavoidable level, greatly impacting its neighbouring countries as well as the Western World, especially in Europe. The reactions of these countries is still being debated about and discussed throughout the international community. Through a broader analysis using the three main International Relations Theories (Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism), it might be possible to understand and clarify the opinions and reactions of western states in the best manner possible.

Refugees and refugee movements are more than just human rights issues. They are and have always been an inherent part of international politics owing to the “way” an individual receives refugee status- conflict and war in the country of origin, which requires them to seek “refuge” in another country (Loescher and Betts; 2011). In the case of the Syrian Refugee crisis, some of the countries that these displaced people have fled to, are those belonging to the European Union. International Relations theories on the other hand, help understand the International arena and provide various “lenses” or perspectives through which one can study it. Thus, an operative theory might help in breaking down the crisis and the debates surrounding it and might help clarify which perspective suits the dynamics a world in crisis, the best.

Realism suggests that the protection of national security is of utmost importance and in this anarchical setting, every country must act out of its own self-interest and thus strive to remain in power. If it is not in the interest of a developed, western country to aid developing nations, then they won’t. For instance, it would be difficult for a realist leader in the western world, like the United States to justify the entry of thousands of Syrians without insinuating terrorist activity or general domestic discord. In this way, a Realist would not allow a nation to risk its security, when it is already at risk by other foreign powers. This however, is not true of the current world dynamics. Countries have taken in a number of refugees and are working towards rehabilitating them. It is taking time and policies are being shaped around recent events, especially in the EU, but this goes against realist thought which would essentially close its gates to all refugees. While this may be the case for a very few countries, it is not a statement that can be generalised. Furthermore, International Organisations have been prevalent in the dialogue surrounding refugees and this would not have been possible in a realist world. Thus again, Realism only explains a part of the situation but is unable to encapsulate it as a whole.

In this case, why not look at the opposite side of the spectrum and see what Liberalism has to offer? Liberalism suggests that the best way to describe state behaviour is through an interdependent drive for peace. In other words, states are more likely to cooperate and establish a peaceful international community. A liberal perspective might look at the crisis and suggest that international cooperation would be the best way to tackle the crisis and that interdependency is what is needed to bring Syria back to life. Furthermore, a refugee coming into a new country would bring in economic advantage over time. A Liberalist would see this as a welcome development, which would help in the process of global, economic cooperation. This again, however is an ideal scenario as the current rhetoric of western states suggests that refugees are seen as people taking away jobs and physical space. Countries are actively rejecting refugees and suggesting a “cap” to the number of people they take in. This is further exacerbated by referring to refugees as “migrants” and thus stripping them of the rights given to them by the 1951 Human Rights Convention, an international treaty, created by an international organisation. This goes against Liberal thought as (a) International Institutions are very important in a liberal world and states comply with regulations set by these IOs and (b) it goes against the “law” of interdependency and cooperation.

Additionally, given the amount of time taken to address the crisis and the fact that it has broken more relationships between countries than it has possibly unified, it can be suggested that Liberalism only addresses one small part of the crisis. It can be used to describe not how the countries are acting currently but how they want to be seen as acting. Countries from the west have indeed banded together to help solve the problem in Syria and have cooperated a great deal to ensure the best possible outcome, however a liberal perspective still cannot be applied to this as each country acts based on their own context and not as a collective team.

This brings us to the last major International Relations theory: Constructivism. Constructivism as a lens is an interesting one: rather than trying to define the world, it seeks to analyse how one thinks about the world (Laffey, 2013 in Oezel, 2015). In constructivism, norms define everything and the world is socially constructed through discourse and practice. This incorporates linguistic practice and rhetoric, institutions and borders (Weldes et al, 1999; 16). It seeks to study how the world forms its assumptions and what the consequences are. Thus when it comes to the refugee crisis and the idea of security, constructivism looks towards a reality constructed through context. A country is likely to think of the “pros and cons” of taking in refugees based on a sense of collective discourse and context (Weldes; 16). In other words, the concept of security and insecurity comes from how individuals, state officials and media outlets describe the world they live in and how that constructs their identities and what they collectively deem as threats to their security. furthermore, the 1951 human rights convention explicitly states that it is a member state’s responsibility to protect refugees and some countries have indeed opened up their borders to welcome those in need. Constructivism would suggest that the convention created a norm for countries to follow. Through this lens, it is possible to gauge and analyse the reactions and policies made by western countries towards refugees. If we were to look at the context and the general discourse of how identity and security are defined in a country, it would help identify the way states are likely to react to the crisis.

The reactions of countries in the western world have varied from being welcoming towards refugees to closing their borders outright. International Relations scholars seek to generalise the phenomenon in order to best study this major crisis and one of the best ways to do this for them is use International Relations theories. This article hoped to shed some light on how the major theories in IR would define the reactions of western states towards the refugee crisis in Syria. Based on the discussion above, it can be suggested that Liberalism and Realism would only be able to explain certain parts of the crisis as opposed to being able to view the crisis as a whole. The crisis is far to complex to fit into a didactic framework set up by these two theories, especially realism. On the other hand, Constructivism, owing to its nature of studying discourse and context, might be the best out of the three to understand the situation and that is far more important than merely explaining it. Understanding the norms and discourse would enable one to understand the situation as a whole and thus be able to work towards a solution to this very large and important crisis.




Betts, A. and Loescher, G. eds., 2011. Refugees in international relations. Oxford University Press.


Oezel, Y.,2015. Providing Security? Border Control and the Politics of Migration in the EU.


Weldes, J., Laffey, M., Gusterson, H. and Duvall, R., 1999. Introduction: constructing insecurity. Cultures of insecurity: States, communities, and the production of danger, pp.1-33.

‘Whenever it rains in Syria, the Lebanese have to Open their Umbrellas’

RezaMajd7 March 2018

Written by: Simon Daunat

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Syrian Refugees in Arsal (Lebanon), March 2014.


The saying goes, ‘whenever it rains in Syria, the Lebanese have to open their umbrella’. Indeed, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis Lebanon has been host to massive numbers of Syrian refugees. With a population of 4.5 million inhabitants, the ‘Cedar Country’ welcomed at least 1.5 million Syrians, accounting for approximately 25 percent of its population. Added to the 450,000 Palestinians already present, this massive influx of refugees makes Lebanon the country with the highest concentration per capita of refugees. Whereas Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently re-affirmed he would not force Syrians to return, Lebanon does not have the capacity to bear such a responsibility, affecting both Lebanese and refugees.

In 2017, the World Bank stated that educational and health infrastructures were struggling to manage such a population increase. For instance, in 2016, demand for hospital care increased by 40%, putting the health sector on the precipice. This sharp increase in the population also pressured the labour market and augmented prices of commodities and rents. As a result, since 2011 170,000 Lebanese were pushed into poverty (Oxfam). Moreover, the crisis exacerbated socio-political tensions in the country; with a political power-system distributed along sectarian lines, the massive arrival of (mainly) Sunni Muslims in the country has increased fear within the broader population. Indeed, the large arrival of Sunnis triggered the memories of the Palestinian exodus, which contributed to a certain extent to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90). Hence, a national opinion poll conducted in 2013 highlighted that 74% of Lebanese respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Syrian refugees were posing a threat to the national security and stability’. Whereas tensions have not yet reached the point of violent escalations, they have considerable repercussion on refugee integration.

Thus in 2015, Lebanon took a tougher stance towards refugees marked by the introduction of visa restrictions, and more difficulty to access to residency permits (and their renewal). Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee convention. Consequently, 80% of Syrian refugees lack legal status (Human Rights Watch), subsequently leaving them exposed to arrest, abuse and exploitation. Furthermore, the lack of status and residency permits affects refugees’ access to jobs and basic services: according to UNCHR, in 2016 58% of refugees in Lebanon lived in extreme poverty (a growing number compared to previous years); and 500,000 Syrian aged 3-18 had no access to education, endangering their future economic and social integration in the country. Without any prospect of access to legal status, jobs and education, the integration of Syrians is unlikely to occur.

Nevertheless, the main constraint to refugees’ integration derives from the Lebanese confessional system. This system is supposed to represent the demographic share of each religious community. Therefore, political power is distributed proportionally among Lebanon’s 17 religious groups. However, such a system prevents any possible integration/ naturalisation of refugees by fear of triggering sectarian tensions due to sudden demographic imbalances among those communities. The Palestinian integration in Lebanon is a striking example. Many Palestinians arrived as early as in 1948 and today still face severe economic social and political difficulties. In 2016, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) indicated that more than half of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon still live in camps, where poverty, unemployment, and poor housing conditions remain prevalent. Palestinians face consistent discrimination in hiring and employment opportunities, and rare are those who are granted Lebanese citizenship. The cause of their non-integration was not dictated by economic growth, job market or the infrastructural capacities of the host country (which since their arrival have known prosperous days). Instead, it is mainly due to the incapacity of the current system to integrate refugees in their societies, obliging them to live as ‘second-class citizens’. Today the situation is occurring once more, but this time with millions of more refugees. As Saad Hariri recently declared “Lebanon is on the verge of a breaking point”.

What future can we imagine for refugees in Lebanon? This is what two Lebanese Professors, Karm Medjad and Dr Abdel-Maoula Chaar tried to answer in a report published in 2016 describing three possible outcomes to this crisis. One of them, ‘Phoenexia’, is a scenario where Lebanese society reinvents itself along secular lines, neutralising political tensions, and increasing the integration of refugees. Enabled by strong political and financial assistance from the international community, this would be the only positive and long-term solution to the current crisis. The two other scenarios (keeping confessionalism as the main political system) only predict further instability, deeper sectarian divisions, and in a worst case a balkanisation of Lebanon.

We cannot accurately predict which path Lebanon will take but our only certainty is that Lebanon needs more support from the international community. In a recent UNHCR report it was stated that $2.8 billion is needed to cover the Lebanese Crisis Response Plan 2017-20 to provide “direct humanitarian assistance and protection to vulnerable individual”. However, to this day donors have only committed to $350 million (2018-2020).

Whereas Lebanon shares a large part of the refugee crisis burden, this magnanimity came with a cost. Therefore, it is up to the international community, and particularly Europe (that failed to fulfil its humanist duty) to assist Lebanon in the management of this crisis, in order to provide a brighter future for both Lebanese and refugees.



UNCHR for Syrian Emergency: UNHCR provides humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and helps the most vulnerable refugees to meet their most urgent needs – including water, food, medicine, blankets and warm clothes and jerry cans:


UNWRA to protect the rights and dignity of Palestine Refugees:





  • Christophersen, M. Liu, J. Thorleifsson, C. and Tiltnes, A. (2013) ‘Lebanese attitudes towards Syrian refugees and the Syrian Crisis’ (Lebanon: ANALP).
  • Human Rights Watch, (2018) ‘Lebanon: Speech Restrictions, Stalled Reforms’ 18 January, Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/18/lebanon-speech-restrictions-stalled-reforms, Accessed 4 February.
  • Kukrety, N. (2016) ‘Poverty, Inequality and Social Protection In Lebanon’, Oxfam, 20 January.
  • McDowall, A. and Maclean, W. (2018) ‘Lebanon says will not force Syrian refugees to return’ Reuters, 02 February.
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