Restrictions, perceptions, and possibilities of Syrian refugees' self-agency in Lebanon

Publishing Date: 
February, 2015
Migration, Mobility and Circulation, Conflict Analysis Project
Author(s): Yazan al-Saadi
This article provides an overview of the restrictions, perspectives and possibilities of a Syrian refugees' self-agency in Lebanon
Keywords: Syrian Refugees, Lebanon, Restrictions, Self-Agency, Perception, Ownership, Community empowerment

To cite this paper: Yazan al-Saadi,"", Civil Society Knowledge Centre, Lebanon Support, 2015-02-01 00:00:00. doi: 10.28943/CSKC.002.30001

Cited by: 3
Full text: 
Full text

There are over a million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and unofficial estimates place the total number of Syrians dispersed around the country at over two million.

The Syrians in Lebanon find themselves in a very precarious position. They, a “Syrian” community, are overshadowed and impacted, and are indirectly being redefined in terms of status, by a war raging in their national homeland – a conflict which has divided and sub-divided many of them from their overarching national identity into numerous sub-communities composed of differing political ideologies, geographic origins, sects, classes, genders, and ages. They are also a community afflicted by the peculiarities that arise from the space (i.e. Lebanon) that currently hosts them.

By all measures, Lebanon can be considered as a quite restrictive space.1 Its restrictions may be similar to the day-to-day obstacles faced by Lebanese citizens themselves, but they also manifest in a particular way when directed towards non-Lebanese individuals. The application of these restrictions, when directed towards Syrians, are further informed by the historical relationship between Syria and Lebanon since their creation as modern nation-states after Sykes-Picot nearly a century ago.

To say that the situation is complicated is obviously an understatement. The complications stem from many historical, economic, social, and political factors, which occurred over long periods of time, and were shaped by many external and local factors. Most analyses regarding Syrians in Lebanon, or even about Lebanon itself, have mainly been confined to the simplification rather than the embracement of the complexities, in turn pounding out solutions that tend to placate and service decision-makers and current power-holders. The outcomes are usually detrimental to the vulnerable, in this case, the Syrian refugees.

One of the most glaring issues in the current attempts to “help” Syrian refugees in Lebanon is the lack of Syrian “ownership”. According to this concept, the Syrian refugees should be included in the decision-making process of matters that concern them, either by allowing them to voice their concerns or desires, or by enabling them to play a direct role in achieving a better end.

The refugee with a thousand faces

Before any discussion regarding the development of self-agency for Syrian refugees can take place, there needs to be an awareness of the definition and perception of “Syrian refugees” instrumentalized by present Lebanese decision-makers.

Since 2011, the term “Syrian refugee” has become commonly used by most non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society institutions, except for the Lebanese government. Used out of a desire for simplicity or perhaps convenience, it is only partly accurate. A larger portion of the Syrian population fits within the definition of a refugee as set by international conventions.2 

According to Article 1, section A, paragraph 2 of the 1951 Convention, a person is a refugee:

“[...]owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

In the case of a person who has more than one nationality, the term “the country of his nationality” shall mean each of the countries of which he is a national, and a person shall not be deemed to be lacking the protection of the country of his nationality if, without any valid reason based on well-founded fear, he has not availed himself of the protection of one of the countries of which he is a national.”3        

Despite fitting into this abstract “international” definition of a “refugee”, a significant number of Syrians are discounted due to technicalities - such as if they have temporarily returned to check on their homes, if they were linked with any armed movements in Syria or simply if there was a problem with their paperwork. A significant number of Syrians also have the ability to privately and independently sustain themselves. Moreover, many Syrians in vulnerable positions are not comfortable with the common pejorative associations to being defined as a “refugee”.  

There is a major contradiction within the very connotation of the term “refugee”. The designation of the term “refugee” comes with benefits and risks, and prompts ranging results. That paradox is strongly related to the power of naming.

As the American military sociologist Michael Bhatia once wrote, in describing the power of naming:

“Once assigned, the power of a name is such that the process by which the name was selected generally disappears and a series of normative associations, motives and characteristics are attached to the named subject.”4   

In terms of benefits, the “refugee” is provided with legal and political rights. The very fact that the Lebanese government prefers to substitute “refugee” with the hollow phrase, “displaced”, is an attempt by the authorities to circumvent any obligations and privileges owed to such individuals, thereby enacting laws and allowing policies that treat Syrian refugees as undesirable foreigners, devoid of any difficult humanitarian or political circumstances. But still, the designation of “refugee” offers the Syrian a possibility to seek asylum and protection from foreign states or international humanitarian organizations.   

On the flip side, a “refugee” in Lebanon is saddled with much social, if not political, liability. Consider the common perception articulated by the Lebanese media and politicians that have been documented by Lebanon Support and others. The “Syrian refugees” are typically, and vulgarly, presented as an “existential threat”, masculine “criminals”, poor, corrupt, dangerous, alien, and so on, undeterred by counter-evidence on the ground.

This aversion to refugees, born out of yet unresolved historical sensitivities, is routinely exploited among the various political, economic, and social power-holders in Lebanon.5  

This selective, negative perception filters down into the local Lebanese and Syrian communities, with some believing it as true, while others oppose these representations.6 In other words, the label “refugee” informs acquiescence or resistance to any policies related to “refugees”, by the multitude of Syrians (if not everyone else within Lebanon too). For any Syrian or Lebanese who do not see themselves as “refugees”, there is less urgency to challenge repressive laws like curfews because it is seen as being applied to an “other”.

In addition to this, Syrians' hesitancy towards the term “refugee” is a result of the international aid system’s way of functioning.

Broadly speaking, “refugees” are perceived to be, rightly so, first and foremost “victims”. While that in and of itself is not a problem, the perception of this “victimhood” by non-victims, by the host community, or by NGOs (especially international ones) can be. Often, these “victims” are deemed –  intentionally or otherwise, overtly or subtly – as apolitical, homogeneous, incapable of comprehending complexities, and utterly vacant of any agency or power.

This is illustrated by an anecdote:

An NGO visited a Syrian refugee camp – or in NGO-speak, an “informal tented settlement” – only a five-minute drive from the town of Bar Elias located in the Beka'a valley. The camp of 140 tents, amounting to around 260 individuals, is predominately composed of Syrians who fled violence in Homs and its surrounding areas in 2012. They are all of a certain sect (Sunni), are middle to lower class, have geographic or familial ties with each other, and have varying political beliefs within the contours of opposing the current Syrian regime. The visiting NGO's mission that day was to teach this community how to clean themselves with soap – literally.

“I told her we aren't cattle, we know how to clean ourselves,” J.7 recounted about the incident. “But the water well that this NGO had previously dug up mixed the clean water with the filthy water in the ground.”

The term “cattle” used by J. demands a moment of pause.

Hygiene is no doubt important, especially in the rough living environments of these camps, but the core problem here, at least for J., is the assumption made by the NGO that his community and himself needed to learn how to use a bar of soap, when they knew how. Furthermore, the friction is compounded by the fact that J. and his community were presented with a non-solution that appeared to be insulting their intelligence – i.e. treating them like an oblivious, headless entity (cattle).

It goes without saying that no one likes to be treated like cattle, but most types of humanitarian work directed towards refugees (and others) usually concern themselves with providing the barest levels of aid, and rarely is that type of aid about refugees' long-term self-sustainability or results in tangible social, economic, and political avenues for developing their own agency; in effect, it temporarily transforms the refugees into helpless cattle-like beings.8

As multifaceted as a human being, the plethora of perceptions about Syrian refugees is to be deconstructed and readdressed – perhaps also expanding and morphing the parameters of who a “Syrian refugee” is according to the local context – because, through that process, it can clear up general misconceptions, and include many of those who have fallen through gaps, as well as provide much needed room for other more creative solutions.

A labyrinth of restrictions   

Beyond the problems and obstacles growing off from perception, there are very real restrictions to challenge if there are to be serious efforts in developing agency (i.e. playing a direct positive influential role) for the Syrian populace in Lebanon.

Suppose one wants to conduct the most elementary action of gathering Syrians together in one place to discuss their present needs and plan for their future. This act alone automatically faces many dilemmas.

The nature of the Lebanese authorities' hostility towards the very existence of Syrians – heavily directed on poorer Syrians who predominately compose the bulk of the “refugees” – is filtered through the paradigm and realities of the many political conflicts that are occurring within and outside of Lebanon. While it is true that Lebanon is facing a major security threat from non-state armed actors linked to the Syrian conflict,9 the brunt of the Lebanese state's repressive policies have persistently been directed towards innocent, vulnerable Syrians, and when not committing abuses, the Lebanese authorities tend to turn a blind eye to violence and discrimination committed by others. 10 

From visa restrictions and curfews, to security raids and general harassment, the Lebanese authorities are clearly weary of any mobilization or mass gathering of Syrians together. Add politics to the mix, and the response by the Lebanese state, when it functions, is absolute in its opposition.

Indeed, the Syrians living in camps are well aware of this. In a discussion with J. and a gathering of eight men in camps about the idea of political mobilizations, immediately their response was of fear of reprisal by the security forces, the army, or by the Lebanese landowners which they are beholden to for the land. There is fear that the camp will be torn down, at worst, or face more difficulties, at best, and to buttress this fear are personal tales, hearsay, about the experiences of other camps.

It should be noted that this camp, and the tales of other camps, are located in the Beka'a region, where the ripples of the Syrian conflict are more intimately felt. But this awareness of the sensitivity over Syrian political mobilization is also echoed by other Syrians throughout the country. It is understandable that the Lebanese authorities do not want to further embroil themselves into the developments in Syria – whether this is realistic or not is another matter – the result of these fears has caused a paralysis within the Syrian community, in an environment where they vitally need some sort of representation.

Added to this, Syrians face restrictions inherent to the composition of their society and the many divisions due to the conflict in Syria. These restrictions range from socio-economic class divisions to political positions about the uprising, complemented by the fact that neither the Syrian regime (and its allies), nor its political opponents (from the Syrian National Coalition, the National Coordinating Body, or whoever else) are providing actual solutions for the Syrian populace in Lebanon.

“There was a general position from on top that there would be no real political mobilization for Syrians in Lebanon,” a young member of the National Coordination Body for Democracy Change (NCB), an opposition group, recalled of the matter. “The younger generation pushed back of course, but we were told that we are limited to private actions.”

Meanwhile, the Union of Syrian Democrats, a sub-division of the the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), appointed Nadim Ghanoum to oversee the state of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Ghanoum has mainly been ineffective, and is generally unknown by the Syrian populace at large. For his part, Ghanoum argued that any attempts to communicate with international organizations (let alone the Lebanese state) has been a complete failure.

“We've been sending the same message [to international organizations] for three years, but we haven't gotten any responses. What's more important than forming a new group is finding someone willing to listen,” he said to a journalist for the Daily Star.11  

Witnesses in the Syrian refugee camp in Beka'a valley say that the only contact they've had with the SNC was a year ago, when the SNC representative had come to the camp, gave a lecture, passed around 5,000 Lebanese pounds (about $US 3.32) to those in attendance, and then promptly departed, never to be seen again.

For its part, the Syrian regime’s responses to its refugees in Lebanon can be described as equally aloof, and is mainly concerned with how to utilize these refugees to shore up its own legitimacy, despite the fact that many of them are opposed to it.

There is an overall clear sense of abandonment felt by the most vulnerable segments of Syrian nationals, and they are consumed by the day-to-day struggles that entail life in squalor.12  

This is further complemented by the alleged sense that international aid structures are depoliticizing Syrian refugees, as noted by academic Estella Carpi in her research on the experiences of humanitarianism in Akkar.13 Most international NGO workers are beholden to the paradigm of Lebanese authorities’ interests for “security and stability”, which results in projects that have a strong apolitical bent to them. Any project seeking to facilitate some form of political organization of the Syrian population is immediately nipped in the bud, because viewed from the prism of state security, it endangers political, social, and economic elites who are the main benefactors of the present state of affairs.

Without representation from above, compounded by the various rifts within Syrian society itself, and the limitations of the international aid system, the Syrian populace is actively left without a voice, waiting in a limbo state for a change. The fragmentation and isolation of the Syrians is so prominent due not only to their geographic dispersion, but also to the internalization of their social and political marginalization - it needs to be overcome.

The disconnection between themselves is so great that even when they are living a few meters apart, each living in make-shift camps, they are not actively and routinely communicating or interacting with each other. Based on accounts from the field in the Beka’a, residents of different camps say they lack of solidarity with each other because they feel like they are competing against each other over aid, work, and resources. This results in mass distrust, and reinforces divisions between various Syrian communities, making any forms of networking, coordination or mobilization even more difficult than it already is.  

Furthermore, the monopoly over basic aid disposal has reached such stellar heights that most of the Syrians are organizing solely around “aid” rather than advocacy issues. There has been a mushrooming of Syrian NGOs along those lines, including organizations like Sawa for Syria, Syrian Eyes, the League of Syrian Refugees in North Lebanon, Sarda, Basma wa Zeitouneh, Najda Now,among many others. They too face immense constraints and scrutiny, even though they are solely concerned with humanitarian work.14

Even so, there are possible avenues that can be used, developed, or learned from.

Possibilities for agency

Culture and art, especially theater, have played an interesting role in articulating and bringing Syrians of varying stripes together. However, art/culture can be subjective, and they alone are not sufficient to generate enough energy to mobilize and/or set a foundation for the formulation of tangible solutions. But for a fleeting moment, Syrians, as participants of these projects or as the audience, are connecting with each other. Theatrical productions like “Antigone of Syria”, although not perfect models, do offer some space for members of the Syrians to articulate and respond to different experiences within their community. 15    

Another possibility is to consider the experiences of Palestinian mobilization and organizational efforts like the Palestinian National Council (PNC), or even Kurdish organizations as examples to mimic or expand from.

Out of all the Syrian sub-communities, the Kurdish Syrians have set themselves apart by their ability to link between themselves and be incorporated into systems designed by other Kurds that form protections and forms of empowerment.

The young Syrian NCB member refers to Tev-Dam (the Movement of the Democracy Society),16 a political organization formed by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as a potential source of knowledge and collaboration from within Lebanon. Most Kurds in Lebanon, regardless of their geographic origins, benefit from representation and oversight by Tev-Dam, which in turn offers labor protections, political representation, and forms of networking, and thus does not simply leave Kurds to fend for themselves. The Kurdish experience is distinctive because their struggle as a minority in various countries, notably Syria, has forced them to form tight bonds and develop organizations that efficiently service the general populace’s needs. They needed to do it out of sheer survival, and those skills garnered over time offer a pool of relevant knowledge.

These are merely two of a number of avenues worth pursuing intellectually and practically as alternatives to the current, convoluted aid regime in place.

Ultimately, Syrians communicating and organizing with each other, facilitated by other Syrians or non-Syrians, will lead to reasserting their agency into the equation. The Syrian refugees must have a voice. Continual disenfranchisement and abandonment, or merely ignoring them will only result in further calamity – more tensions, conflicts, radicalization, hopelessness.   

The “Syrian crisis” directly affects their lives, and from all aspects, they should have a more active role in solving it, or at least in structuring their situation until it ends.

Cited by
About the author(s):
Yazan al-Saadi:

Yazan L. al-Saadi is a native of the West Asian region. Based primarily between Kuwait and Lebanon, Yazan has lived, studied and worked in three continents. He is currently a writer for the online Lebanese news-site, Al-Akhbar English, with interests in a number of subjects from pop-culture to politics, sociological issues to economic theories. He occasionally moonlights as a freelance writer and researcher for other publications. Yazan holds a Bachelor’s (Honors) degree in Economics and Development Studies from Queen’s University, Canada and a Masters of Arts in Law, Development, and Globalization from the School of Oriental and African Studies.