Lebanon currently shelters one of the largest Syrian refugee populations in the world. Political scientist Tamirace Fakhoury talks about how her home country deals with the challenges and what Europe might learn from it. MEMO: The new Lebanon report of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, BTI 2016, finds that the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on the Lebanese government’s capacity for reform is enormous. The humongous refugee population has “intensified internal tensions and disagreements leading to a standstill in reforms and appointments of top government positions.” Could you explain this?
Tamirace Fakhoury: Lebanon has the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the world, over 1 million. For a country with a population of 4.5 million, this is a demographic shock. However, the political deadlock in Lebanon cannot be attributed solely to the Syrian refugee crisis. Another reason is the politics of sectarianism whereby many parties struggle over the distribution of power and the allocation of resources. The fact that Lebanon has been at the centre of so much political turmoil has also added to what I call in this context “governance overload”. Since May 2014, for instance, the parliament has been unable to agree on a president.
MEMO: How stable is Lebanon right now?
TF: What is holding the political system together is the informal consensus that contending parties do not want to slide into war again. Because of its longstanding power-sharing culture, Lebanon has been able to hold up against the spillover from the surrounding crises. Furthermore, there is a well-entrenched history of democratic practices, albeit precarious and flawed. Still, freedom of speech and intellectual freedom have not been compromised. Look at what’s happening in Libya, Syria or Egypt! Nevertheless, we cannot just keep on betting on Lebanon’s resilience and power-sharing culture and close our eyes to the necessity of reviving slack institutions and providing the country with structural governance. In July 2015, for example, there was a huge garbage crisis. For many that was a proof that the Lebanese political system is unsustainable because it no longer addresses the key issues: managing public goods and providing public services and infrastructure.
MEMO: How does Lebanon deal with the Syrian refugee crisis?
TF: Lebanon has been lauded for its open-door and non-encampment policy vis-à-vis the Syrian refugees. The country has a long history of labour relations and circular migration with Syria. Since the 1990s, many Syrians have come to Lebanon to work. This has facilitated the recent integration of refugees and their dispersal among the population. Still, it is worth noting that Lebanon’s non-encampment policy is motivated by security reasons. The government fears that refugee camps could become havens for terrorism, although this issue remains contentious. On the one hand, there are informal settlements, particularly in the region bordering Syria. On the other, some policy-makers and NGOs have argued that UNHCR-led camps could provide Syrian refugees with better livelihood patterns.
MEMO: The Syrian conflict is entering its sixth year. How does the Lebanese government deal with the constant strain on its hospitality?
TF: Indeed, the fact that the conflict proves to be protracted makes Lebanon increasingly unable to deal with the huge humanitarian and political spillover. The country does not have the capacity to integrate all those refugees fully, and has since October 2014 imposed major restrictions on refugee arrivals. Although Lebanon collaborates with the international community to ensure a coordinated response to the refugee surge, policies have been rather ad-hoc and inconsistent — with regard to registration, for example — and many refugees have fallen into an illegal status. The municipalities complain about a lack of a coherent national policy and often formulate their own rules when setting curfews or regulating the mobility of Syrians in the locality, for instance.
MEMO: What role should the international community play, in your opinion?
TF: Lebanon is in need of a global stabilisation strategy. It cannot deal with the crisis on its own. Lebanon’s social infrastructure – education, health, water supply – is strained. The situation is daunting, for both refugee and poor host communities. This leads to a rise in tensions and grievances. There should be a better-coordinated response with Europe, for instance an agreement on more legal channels for migration. The refugee-sharing scheme in Europe is very slow, though. We need a global governance approach to the Syrian refugee crisis.
MEMO: How likely is this?
TF: With the rising refugee influx to Europe last year, there have been some developments. Germany and Sweden have shouldered some of the burden, but today that is not a viable policy option because European governments are focusing more on security than migrants’ interests. The gap between national and supranational migration governance in Europe makes it difficult to generate well-coordinated schemes on how to distribute refugees. States argue about whether, to what extent, and, if so, how they should take in refugees. Still, we must think about the potential of an improved global governance mechanism even if it is unlikely to go into effect soon. This mechanism could better define states’ obligations when it comes to taking in conflict-induced human flows.
MEMO: What role does civil society in Lebanon play in dealing with the refugees?
TF: Civil society has done a lot. The refugee crisis has been an opportunity to revive civic platforms and reflections related to refugee governance. Civil society and communities have come up with novel solutions for how locals and refugees can work together, particularly in poor communities. Here Lebanon has good practices to convey to countries in Europe and beyond because of the local and bottom-up initiatives that were designed to mitigate tensions. For instance, various projects have generated possibilities for host and refugee populations to work together or have sought to debunk popular assumptions that refugees are a strain or cannot participate in local governance and be agents of development.
Tamirace Fakhoury is an assistant professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut and currently a Humboldt fellow at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg, Germany. Her latest article in Current History, “Lebanon’s Perilous Balancing Act”, discusses the country’s governance dilemmas in the wake of the Syrian conflict. Tamirace Fakhoury is one of 250 country experts of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2016, released on 29 February, 2016.