Course:GEOG352/Beirut: A City of Refuge

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International migration has been a growing phenomenon since the early 20th century. It is defined as “the act of moving across international boundaries from a country of origin to take up residence in a country of destination” (Samers and Collyer, 2017). Migration has been an increasing process worldwide, with over 232 million international migrants in the world today (United Nations, 2013). With the phenomenon of time-space compression, it has increased the accessibility for individuals to travel across borders in hopes of finding greater opportunities. There are a multitude of reasons that push individuals out of their country and pull factors that lure individuals to various countries. People often believe that migration is mostly driven by people finding better opportunities in boosting their financial situation. However, in recent findings, it has shown that one of the most common type of migration is political migration (Rappole, 2013). Political migration is the act of moving away from home due to war or fear of persecution (, 2018). Another common assumption made is that individuals who migrate out of the Global South would tend to choose to migrate to countries in the Global North. Although this is a hopeful and optimistic way of looking it, unfortunately this is not always the case.

Beirut has accommodated a large sum of refugees in the past decade. Due to recent political wars occurring in the Middle-East, Beirut has become a hot destination for the incoming refugees. Migration can affect the dynamics of the city profoundly, and in many cases, it helps shapes the city and the urban space. Beruit being a growing urban city, accommodating a sudden surge of migrants can have a huge effect on the urban space. It is important to understand the effects and consequences of migration as it is believed to be a source of "political mobilization and conflict" (Zamora-Kapoor, Moreno Fuentes and Schain, 2016).


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Syrian children outside their temporary home, in Lebanons Bekaa Valley


Migration and more specifically, refugee migration, has become a very prominent part of life in Lebanon. This is due to its geographical location and its relation to neighboring countries who have been facing and currently face wars on their land. Therefore, many refugees, especially those affected in Syria, have been seeking asylum in Lebanon as it is one of the easier countries to get to with their limited resources. As of January 2015, it was recorded that 452,669 Palestinian refugees were registered in Lebanon. Along with that, as of 2018, it was recorded that the Greater Beirut area has 995,512 registered Syrian Refugees (UNHCR, 2018). These large numbers of refugees has resulted in a 1 in 3 ratio between refugees and local Lebanese residing within the borders of the country. This has prompted social anxieties and rising tension between the differing ethnicities, brought about economic strain on the nation as well as further political unrest with conflicting ideas on crisis management solutions.

Syrian Refugee Crisis

The long disputed civil war occurring in Syria has resulted in a refugee crisis affecting the whole world. Around half of the Syrian population has been displaced both nationally and internationally due to this war where around 4.8 million people have fled Syria and 6.6 million have been displaced internally (Levin, 2017). This abundance of refugees has resulted in a global crisis where nations surrounding Syria such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq have received the highest number of asylum seekers yet do not necessarily have the economic means to sustain them. One of these nations in Lebanon as they have a recorded national debt reaching almost 140% of their nation’s gross domestic product (HRW, 2017). These refugees residing in Lebanon do not solely consist of Syrians but also contain many Palestinians. This is due to the amount of Palestinian refugees that resided in Syria that have been forced to become displaced once again. There is a branch within the United Nations called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that solely aids those displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict. The UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee as a person, “whose normal place of residence was Mandatory Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” As of March 2014, there was a recorded 270,000 Palestinians residing in Syria who have now been part of the mass out-migration of asylum seeking peoples (UNRWA, 2015).

Along with these Palestinian refugees are Syrian refugees who make up the bulk of the refugee population residing Lebanon. One of the most vulnerable localities in the country being the Greater Beirut Area. 54% of the displaced Syrians in Beirut are children and more than half of these children remain out of school due to the lack of welfare programs in the country and economic instability within families (UN LCRP, 2017). This has caused there to be a fear of a whole generation of Syrians being uneducated and traumatized by the war.

Response Plan

Lebanon has responded to this refugee crisis by absorbing the amount of refugees’ equivalent to one third of the Lebanese population. According to the document published by the United Nations and the Government of Lebanon in 2017, some strategic objectives for their response to the refugee crisis would be the protection of vulnerable populations such as those who are economically unstable and under-aged peoples. As well as trying to reinforce Lebanon’s economic, social and environmental stability through job creation, sustainable agriculture production and trying to prevent social tensions within stressed communities (UN LCRP, 2017)

Case Study

Panorama of Beirut

Syrian Refugees and the Economy

As a result of the fleeing refugees, the Lebanese labor market gained access to vast amounts of cheap Syrian labor, as Syrian participation in the Lebanese labor market has risen to levels on par with 2004 levels (Lewis Turner, 2015). Lebanese law legally permits Syrian refugees to work in agriculture, construction and environment. These are the economic sectors within Lebanon that Syrians worked in before the Syrian War. Most other forms of work done by Syrians is thus informal (UNHCR, 2017). 60% of the Syrians refugees in Beirut work, receiving an average household monthly income of above US$ 300 while working 21 days per month, with the majority (57%) working in the service sector (UNHCR, 2017).

However, these wages make survival in Beirut difficult considering the high cost of living within the city in comparison to rural areas. Syrian refugees in Beirut have the highest expenditures of refugees in Lebanon, as the average spenders spends US$ 580 a month (BRIC, 2013). 50% of households receive assistance from the governorate, with a jump to 56% amongst children 0-17 (UNHCR, 2017). Furthermore, refugees in Beirut are increasingly going into debt, with 20% owing more than US$ 200 and 50% owing more than US$ 600 (UNHCR, 2017).

Meanwhile, many wealthy Syrians have also settled into Beirut, purchasing luxury apartments and cars, renting housing, sending their children to expensive private schools and investing in local startups (Bachir el Khoury, 2017).

The local Beiruti population has generally viewed Syrian refugees impacts on the economy as negative. In 2013, Lebanese GDP grew by only 0.7%, as Lebanons 4th largest trading export partner, Syria, fell into war and Syrian refugees fled into Lebanon (The Daily Star, 2013). In a 2015 Fafo poll, 93% of Lebanese respondents believed that Syrians were straining Lebanon’s economy, 98% thought Syrain refugees were taking jobs from Lebanese and lowering wages, and 63% believed Syrian refugees to be receiving financial support an unfair degree (Thorleifsson, 2016). Meanwhile, in another poll, 45% of Lebanese employers said would not hire Syrian workers, 18% said maybe, 9% would if it saves money, and 28% certainly would. When asked why they would not hire Syrian refugees, 69% of Lebanese employers said it was due to the fear that it would take jobs away from Lebanese (Alsharabati & Nammour, 2015).

Social Issues within the Syrian Refugee Community

As a result of increased tensions between Lebanese Beiruti’s and the Syrian refugee population, feelings of insecurity are high. A survey conducted by Beirut’s Saint Joseph University found that amongst the Syrian refugee population 17.83% of respondents claimed they felt unsafe, while 15.92% felt relatively unsafe, these numbers being the highest found in Lebanon (Alsharabati & Nammour, 2015). This is a result of increasing violence towards Syrians, with public attacks becoming more common and as political elites use Syrians as the nation’s scapegoat. In this insecure environment, 33% of Syrian refugees reported that either themselves or a family member had been assaulted while in Beirut (Alsharabati & Nammour, 2015). Meanwhile, 52% of Lebanese Beiruti respondents felt unsafe, with 25% having either been a victim or know a friend or family member who had been assaulted by a refugee, with another 27% claiming to have heard stories regarding Syrian refugees assault on Lebanese Beiruti’s (Alsharabati & Nammour, 2015)

Working together to help Syrian refugee children in Lebanon

Another issue present for the Syrian population in Beirut is mobility. With 65% of Syrian refugees in Beirut not being legal residents, the issue of checkpoints is especially pertinent (Alsharabati & Nammour, 2015). With a high percentage of Syrian refugees being illegal residents, there is limited mobility amongst these refugees throughout Beirut. As such, there is difficulty in finding jobs beyond one’s immediate district or accessing better health services, leading to 34% of Syrian refugees stating they have problems with checkpoints (Alsharabati & Nammour, 2015). Compounding limited mobility and poor wages, 31% of Syrian refugees who needed primary health care were unable to receive it, leading to further issues in the community with untreated sick and limited secondary options.

Education is an area of concern for Syrian refugees, as it provides access to better jobs and social mobility. While school enrolment rates are widely varying, at 18%, 77% and 26% for 3-5 year olds, 6-14 year olds and 15-17 year olds respectively, the school completion rate is much lower. 13.5% of Syrian refugee primary school students in Beirut completed school, while both lower and upper secondary saw a 12% completion rate (UNHCR, 2017). This is closely tied to the need for family members to work to help the family, therefore neglecting school for employment.

The Political Effects of Refugee Assimilation

The estimation by the Lebanese government is that 267,000 Syrian immigrants had settled down in Beirut as a result of the Syrian internal conflict by 2015. At the scale of the nation state, this means that over 1.2 million new citizens had been absorbed (Turner, 2015). The purpose of this section will be to asses the effect of these "citizens" on the power structures of the city.

First, at the nation state level the influx of Syrian migrants has unsettled a fragile sectarian balance in the Lebanese government which has paralyzed decision making at different levels of government (The Economist, 2018). In fact, reliable estimates on the amount of refugees in Beirut, or Lebanon, is difficult to obtain since the Lebanese government has not carried out a census since 1932 or allowed for UNHCR to create formal refugee camps (Jordan Times, 2018). This is in order to preserve the delicate sect balance at the national government level whose representation is related to percentage of population by the religious groups in the nation. Underrepresentation and the refusal by the government to run a census since 1932 has been a problem in Lebanon for decades, which has been made worse by the influx of one million sunni muslims (The Economist, 2018). Christians refuse to formalize the refugees, or allow for a census to be carried out in order to not become a political minority. The Islamic sects (Sunnis and Shiites) have been polarized, citizens and politicians alike, over their view on the role of Lebanon as an ally or foe of the Assad regime (The Economist, 2018).

The lack of recognition of the Syrian refugees is problematic, it has created an unrecognized underclass that inhabits the same spaces but has no rights in the nation. Over 70% of the Syrian population in Beirut exists without legal documents (Alsharabati & Nammour, 2015). Access to legal documents is expensive and requires the immigrant to have a Lebanese sponsor. Furthermore, the refugees are unable to seek refugee status or asylum as Lebanon is not part of the 1951 Refugee Convention (Turner, 2015). The reasons behind this decision by the government have roots in their history with problematic Palestinian refugees since the creation of the Israeli state (Jordan Times, 2018). As a result, the immigrant refugee populations, Syrian and Palestinian, are extremely reliant on the informal sector, and often exist without lack of access to basic social services (The Guardian, 2018; Alsharabati & Nammour, 2015; Turner, 2015).

The result of this Syrian migration for the city dwellers, both local and immigrant, in Lebanon is a feeling of underrepresentation as citizens (The Guardian, 2018). It is estimated that 62% of the Syrian population works, and therefore contribute to the economy, but only 30% of the Syrian total population has appropriate access to basic social services such as welfare, and health care (Alsharabati & Nammour, 2015). Similarly, the local population has seen as rise in rent and land prices, a decrease in real wages, and a more competitive job market without any real official action by the government to counteract these effects (Turner, 2015). The population of the city of Beirut feels misrepresent and excluded from the formal apparatus to decide the future of its city, robbed of their right to the city as citizens (LeGates, et al., 2016).

Beyond Lebanon: Lessons Applicable to Other Urban Contexts

The recent influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon as a result of the Syrian civil conflict is useful to draw conclusions about migration in general.

First, the general label of "immigrant" is insufficient. Economic immigrants and refugees are very different from each other and have different effects on the host population. The evidence shows that there exist wealthy Syrians living in Beirut, as well as many undocumented ones living in slum areas. Therefore, generalizing the overall effect of immigration is difficult to have when they are treated as one cohesive entity. For example, in Beirut wealthy immigrants are contributing to the economy and driving rent prices up, while low skilled illegal workers are lowering real wages by accepting less pay than the locals.

Second, this case study shows the importance of history and local politics as a determinant of how host citizens make sense of refugees. The evidence shows that the treatment of Syrians, the failure to recognize them, and the rising tensions inside of Beirut amongst its citizens is not just about the recent migrant influx. The problems the government faced with the Palestinians, the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon, and the fragile sectarian balance of the government are important factors in the imaginings of the local population of Beirut and the government as to how to treat these immigrants.

Lastly, the Lebanese case study is useful to understand the complex concept of modern borders. Despite policies of "open borders" Syrian immigrants must pay a high price to become real citizens. Refugees may enter but they exist as an underclass without any legal recognition as a part of the city or the nation state. Furthermore, once within the boundaries of the city there are economic barriers, as well as cultural perceptions that act as barriers for social, cultural, and economic assimilation. The international border exists, as well as the one of the city but these immigrants exist informally despite residing in the same geographical spaces.

This study has not been exhaustive, and in fact, further research is encouraged as the problem is more complex beyond the capital of Beirut. Research into the original Palestinian migration, the history between Lebanon and Syria since their creation as states, and statistics from other cities would be useful to create a more complete study of Syrian migration into Beirut and overall Lebanon. Policy, at this point, national and local level should focus on the successful assimilation of these refugees in order to restrain violence in the urban center, and ensure economic welfare in the future as these populations continue to coexist.


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