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Working Paper: Assessing the Development Displacement Nexus in Lebanon, November 2018

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by Lama Kabbanji and Jad Kabbanji


This paper focuses on Lebanon, a country which covers some 10,450 km2 and has received the largest influx of refugees from Syria in proportion to its own nationals. In 2015, Syrian refugees represented about a quarter of the Lebanese population, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) considers Lebanon to be an upper-middle income country and estimated its average per capita income to be US $15,077 in 2014. However, high income inequality and poverty rates are also widely acknowledged (UNDP, 2008; Hamdan and Bou Khater, 2015). No recent poverty assessments are available for Lebanon. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2008) found that 28.5% of the Lebanese population was poor, measured as living on less than $4 a day. Data released by the Central Administration for Statistics (CAS) based on a 2011-2012 household budget survey are similar, indicating that 27% of the Lebanese population were poor. Regional disparities are stark. Poverty is particularly pervasive in Bekaa and the North governorates, and these are also the main areas of arrival of Syrian refugees (Table 1 and 2 in Annex).

Refugees fleeing from the fighting in Homs began to arrive in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in 2011. In March 2012, the Bekaa Valley, an agricultural region, became the main destination. Throughout, the Lebanese authorities’ have maintained a reluctance to set up new refugee camps. This has forced many Syrians to seek asylum in places where they have relatives, often big cities like Beirut or Tripoli. Or they settle in border regions, like Wadi Khaled in the north and in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Most rent apartments in small towns, are hosted by relatives or find shelter in informal settlements.

The number of Syrians crossing the border into Lebanon increased significantly when the conflict in Syria escalated in 2013 (Kabbanji and Drapeau, 2017). Today refugees are found in more than 1,700 localities throughout the country, often in communities that themselves are already among the country’s poorest.

Politically, the Syrian regime’s repression of peaceful protests in 2011 aggravated an already explosive polarisation in Lebanon between two multi-sectarian coalitions: the 8 March coalition, which is pro-Syrian regime (including Hezbollah), and the 14 March coalition, which is anti-Syrian regime. That polarisation has smouldered since the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. Indeed, the political stage in Lebanon has been tumultuous for many years. Since 2011, the country has had three transitional governments. It lacked a president between May 2014 and October 2016, at which time Michel Aoun was elected. Parliamentary elections were delayed for nine years, though they were finally held in May 2018. During this period, social protests spread, reaching a climax in 2015 in the wake of a huge crisis over garbage collection. This exposed, yet again, corruption within the various political groups that have shared power since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990 (Dot-Pouillard, 2015).

Security threats in Lebanon have increased as a spillover effect of the war in Syria. These materialised, for example, in the August 2013 car bomb attack on two mosques in Tripoli and in the Battle of Arsal, in which insurgents took control of a north-eastern border region after attacking Lebanese army checkpoints.

To help Lebanon respond to the crisis, the international community created the International Support Group for Lebanon on 25 September 2013. This group includes the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, the European Union (EU), the Arab League, UNHCR, the World Bank and UNDP.

In addition, the EU, in collaboration with the UN, launched the UN-EU Conference on Syria, dedicated to raising funds to assist Syrian refugees and the countries hosting them. Two conferences have been held within this framework: Brussels I in 2017 and Brussels II in 2018. In 2002, the EU signed an association agreement with Lebanon, which entered into force in 2006 (EU Decision 2006/356/EC). Thereafter, talks towards a “mobility partnership” between the EU and Lebanon began in December 2014. These led to the signing of an EU-Lebanon partnership compact in 2016, aimed at improving the living conditions of both Syrian refugees and vulnerable host communities. Section four in the current report goes into these initiatives and agreements in more detail.

This report assesses the development-displacement nexus in Lebanon as a possible locus for managing forced displacement from Syria. We argue that management of the refugee crisis and its dynamics in Lebanon has to be approached with consideration of this country’s instable socio-economic and political situation. This report proposes a number of dimensions which we consider key to understand the Lebanese perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis. Appreciation of these will provide a better grasp of the policy options available for promoting regional protection and development in Lebanon.

This report is organised in five sections. Following this introduction, section two introduces the dynamics of Syrian forced migration to Lebanon and the characteristics of the Syrian refugee population. It looks back at the country’s previous experiences with refugee inflows, to place the current Lebanese political approach in context. Section three presents the effects of refugee arrivals on the Lebanese economy and other relevant sectors, particularly education, healthcare, the property market and the environment. It also analyses how these impacts have played out in terms of perceptions of refugees among the host country communities, in national politics and in international engagements. Section four discusses Lebanese government policies concerning refugee protection and development, and how these policies have evolved over time. The conclusion, section five, summarises the main findings. Particularly, it reviews the main factors in the evolution of the Lebanese response to Syrian refugees and the difficult – if not impossible – route towards implementation of the EU-Lebanon partnership compact.