Building resilience in strained refugee-hosting states? The EU in the face of Lebanon’s cumulative crises

Forum on the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum in light of the UN GCR

Contribution by Tamirace Fakhoury, Associate Professor of Political Science & Global Migration and Refugee Studies, Aalborg University & Scientific Advisor to the Kuwait Chair (2020-2022), Sciences Po

29 October 2020

Setting the context

The European Union’s Southern Neighbourhood has gone through major upheavals in recent years. Revolutionary episodes and their spillovers have instigated a heated debate about the EU’s ability to find solutions for the regional root causes of conflict and dispossession. Displacement from Syria has emerged as “one of the largest, most complex and protracted humanitarian emergencies today”.[1] Syria’s neighbouring polities (namely Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey) have taken in more than six million displaced Syrians. In this context, they have evolved into key hosting states in the international refugee regime even though they officially declare themselves to be no-asylum countries.

Within this climate, the EU’s refugee diplomacy has consisted of boosting these countries’ abilities to host refugees while governing the challenge of displacement from a distance. To this end, it has provided regional host states with financial incentives and partnerships that would prompt them to host refugees while equipping them with protection tools. Under the motto of resilience-building, the EU’s approach has emphasized the need to synchronize cooperation and migration management with development. In this vein, the refugee challenge would evolve into a development opportunity for both host and refugee communities. The EU’s key policy instruments, ranging from the European Neighbourhood Policy to more tailored instruments such as the Compacts, stress the importance of reinforcing the ability of both refugee and host communities to bounce back in the context of adversities and shocks. At the same time, in light of divisions over burden-sharing and given the limited resettlement opportunities that refugees have had, the EU has sought to embed resilience-building in the countries of first arrival within a broader politics of regional containment.

  1. The EU’s regional approach in the context of displacement from Syria.

Insofar as the EU’s Southern neighbourhood is concerned, the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Mobility offers no novel perspective. It is to be read in the context of the EU’s approach of consolidating regional stabilization and resilience while governing migration from afar. In this light, the New Pact builds on the EU’s repertoire of policy tools that turn migration management into a key pillar for shaping neighbouring regions. With the arrival of more than one million Syrians to Europe by 2015, the EU devised new partnership frameworks with third countries on migration, including Syria’s neighbouring host states. One of these partnership pillars is to design “comprehensive partnerships” that leverage the EU’s funding power in sectors such as development and trade. “Positive incentives” revolve around providing financial arrangements, equipping host states with a toolbox of capacity-building programs, and devising trade facilitation schemes. In return, host states would be encouraged to improve the integration of refugees into their societies and labour markets. The EU-Turkey refugee deal and the EU-Jordan compact are cases in point. According to the EU, these policy instruments twin development, refugee protection and stabilization. In other words, they aim to strengthen the capacity of local refugee protection regimes while fostering the resilience of refugees and providing them with solutions close to their countries of origin.

Still, as many analysts argue, this approach has yielded complex consequences. First, these partnership tools cater to the EU’s logic of externalisation. In line with the logic of containing migration, they offer avenues to discourage the departure of potential asylum seekers to Europe. Secondly, by devising package instruments that cater to the mutual interests of the EU and partner governments in areas such as trade or border management, they turn refugee hosting states into co-partners in migration management. Not surprisingly, these policy scripts have various backlash effects. Through this policy lens, the EU seeks to “construct” Syria’s neighbours into first asylum countries although they have always been transit countries that have refused to provide durable solutions to the displaced. Historically, such countries have looked at refugeeness through the lens of temporary hospitality and guesthood. In key junctures of displacement, they have opened their borders only to close them as displacement evolved into a protracted refugee challenge. They have furthermore buttressed “local closures” in the face of displaced individuals such as curfews, mobility restrictions and confinement in settlements and camps, affirming and reaffirming the narrative that they are no destination for those seeking refuge. Lebanon provides a key case for understanding how the EU’s regional refugee approach has led to contestation and incoherence. Seen in this light, the EU’s goal of reconciling resilience-building has had an uneasy relationship with the pragmatic goal of deterring asylum. It has also encroached on rights-based refugee humanitarianism. [2]

  1. Lebanon and the EU: clashing logics?

Lebanon has been a key site for widespread displacement from Syria since 2011, and the EU has been the main funding power that has provided refugee aid since then. The country is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention. Still, since 2011, in a context of divided bureaucracies and elite cartels, it has hosted more than one million Syrian refugees. At the beginning of the conflict, the Lebanese government adopted a loose policy of border regulation. Soon, however, a securitized politics of refugee containment superseded the open-border approach. In 2015, the government ordered the borders to be shut down except for humanitarian cases. It also asked the UN Refugee Agency to stop registering refugees. In the last years, Lebanon has witnessed an acute securitization of the refugee question. Politicians have portrayed refugees as security and economic threats, and mostly as threats to Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing arrangement which rests on safeguarding the balance of power between Christians and Muslims. As soon as the Syrian regime re-established its authority on Syrian soil, various political parties began continually lobbying the international community for Syrian refugee return, stressing Lebanon’s overstretched capacity. Municipalities and security forces have enforced practices that have significantly restricted Syrians’ access to legal residency, employment and housing and have reduced their livelihood opportunities. Municipalities have enforced illegal curfews that have limited refugee mobility especially in times of COVID-19. Armed forces have also demolished refugee shelters in the name of environmental violations even though displaced individuals have increasingly been unable to afford decent housing. Moreover, security forces have intensified their crackdowns on Syrians who have worked in the informal labour market. This has occurred although the Lebanese government has made it almost impossible for Syrians to obtain legal labour permits. In parallel, the political elite have scaled up calls for refugee repatriation. In coordination with Syrian authorities, the government has moreover been processing applications for return. In a nutshell, Lebanon’s asylum policy has increasingly consisted of making it unbearable for refugees to stay. Lebanese General Security has reported that about 170,000 Syrians have voluntarily returned to Syria – although the numbers are contested. Still, researchers have cautioned against these so-called voluntary returns. Push factors such as recurrent evictions, denial of rights and marginalization from access to services have coerced Syrians into searching for alternative options.

Against this background, Lebanon’s realities have been at odds with the EU’s proclaimed resilience-building approach. Since the onset of refugee flight from Syria, the EU has upscaled its cooperation with Lebanon, framed in the EU’s key policy instruments as a prioritized host country. It has also embarked on a series of cooperative dialogues with Lebanon’s successive governments in the search for mutual benefits as to how Lebanon and the EU could benefit from regional refugee cooperation. The EU and Lebanon’s governing powers have thus discussed support to security reform, governance, development and trade in the context of the refugee challenge. In 2016, in the framework of the London Conference for Supporting Syria and the Region, the EU and Lebanon signed the so-called Lebanon Compact.

Vague and less ambitious than the EU-Jordan compact, the compact promises to explore avenues for facilitating the temporary inclusion of Syrian refugees and their integration into the job market. Nonetheless, it affirms the primacy of Lebanon’s sovereignty and labour laws. In the context of the four Brussels conferences that the EU has co-hosted since 2017, Lebanon and the EU have spelled out respective commitments in view of boosting refugee inclusion. Objectives such as facilitating refugee documentation procedures, allowing refugees to work in restricted sectors and facilitating their access to education and health as well as registering Syrian children born on Lebanese soil arise as key projected outcomes of this cooperation.

Cooperation has however been a bumpy ride and spelled out commitments on the part of the Lebanese government have turned out to be aspirational. In practice, despite the EU’s funding power and its palette of positive incentives, Lebanon has increasingly securitized its approach towards refugees, and turned a blind eye to the EU’s rhetoric of resilience-building. Today, according to UNHCR, more than 70 % of surveyed Syrians do not hold a legal permit. Furthermore, the number of job permits for Syrians that have been issued have remained extremely limited. Soon enough it has become clear that the EU’s search for refugee solutions on Lebanese soil and its quest for building resilience for both host and refugee communities hold no achievable outcomes. Here, several factors come into play.

The EU’s refugee approach which seeks to entice Lebanon to facilitate refugee inclusion and to foster refugee resilience, has been at odds with Lebanon’s geopolitics of asylum. It is true that the EU was able to inspire a conversation on improving refugee inclusion in policy spheres. As underscored, with the adoption of the 2016 compact which promised funding in return for the Lebanese government relaxing measures vis-à-vis Syrians’ temporary stay, the government pledged to deliver on some reforms. In 2017, it announced its decision to waive the USD 200 refugee residency fee enabling Syrian refugees to renew their legal stay. These commitments turned out to be fleeting rhetoric. In the last years, soft conflicts between Lebanese officials and their EU counterparts have increased. Some Lebanese politicians have started calling on the EU to divert funds from Lebanon to Syria in the hope of incentivizing refugees to go home. Still the EU has renewed its willingness to support Lebanon’s recovery in the context of the refugee challenge. Also, as Lebanese officials started lobbying for rash refugee repatriation, the EU has reiterated on various occasions that conditions for return are still not favourable, and that it proposes instead as a temporary solution “resilience-building” through humanitarian and development aid. In return, key governing powers have insisted that Lebanon is no country of asylum and that the massive strains that Lebanon is exposed to will most likely backfire on Lebanon and the EU. More precisely, they will trigger refugee waves to Europe and destabilize the polity reeling from the weight of so many burdens. In this light, various Lebanese politicians have criticized the EU’s so-called politics of resilience-building where refugees are, framing it instead as a politics of deterrence. They have also criticized unbalanced burden-sharing in the international refugee regime. These clashes have not remained pure rhetorical divergences. They have had consequences for refugees’ lived realities and rights. As the EU and Lebanon have diverged on their search for refugee solutions, a logic of crisis governance has prevailed. This logic has privileged quick fixes that remained disconnected from local perceptions and practices.

From yet another complex perspective, the EU’s refugee diplomacy in Lebanon has remained detached from an engagement with Lebanon’s divided allegiances vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict and the domestic polarities that the issue of displacement has brought along. Ever since Syria’s lethal conflict erupted, Lebanese governing powers have held divergent positions vis-à-vis Syria’s war and the refugee issue. In the context of Syria’s war, some Lebanese factions have backed the Syrian regime in the face of its rivals. Others have viewed the conflict as an opportunity to weaken Syria’s control in Lebanon. Amid domestic tensions, most political factions have started portraying the extended stay of Syrian refugees, who are mostly Sunni, as a threat to Lebanon’s system of sectarian power-sharing. In this setting, the issue of Syrian refugee stay and return has become tightly enmeshed with Lebanese politicians’ geostrategic interests. Some political executives who are staunch allies of the Syrian regime hoped that, by advocating for Syrian refugee return, they would contribute to restoring the legitimacy of Bashar-al-Assad’s rule. Within this climate, the EU’s “resilience-building” approach has been moulded by the complex geopolitics of Lebanese Syrian relations, and its policy pleas for improving refugee inclusion have remained mere ink on paper. [3]

  1. Overlapping crises

In October 2019, a massive protest wave broke out in Lebanon. The protest wave which started in the wake of a proposed WhatsApp tax, called for overthrowing Lebanon’s political leaders and changing the country’s sectarian-based model of politics which promotes patronage, corruption, and inept governance. The protests, which happened on the heels of a worsening financial crash where both refugees and host communities found themselves on the verge of destitution, have called the EU to rethink its politics of resilience-building. Since then, the Lebanese pound has lost 80% percent of its value, and about 50% of Lebanese citizens have been classified as poor by the Ministry of Social Affairs. UNHCR has recently announced as well that because of Lebanon’s economic crisis – further compounded by the global pandemic – more than 75% of Syrian refugees have fallen below the poverty line in contrast to 50% in 2019. Here, it is no exaggeration to say that the rhetoric of resilience-building has not been backed by facts. It is also necessary to question the extent to which it has been beneficiary-led and to explore what factors have thwarted its proclaimed objectives. In this context, refugees have been thrown into more precarity, and signs of dissatisfaction and despair amongst them have become strikingly visible in the last months. Back in December 2019, some refugees started staging a sit-in at the UNHCR in Tripoli, protesting shrinking funds and precarious trajectories. In the wake of the Beirut Blasts on August 4, 2020, Syrian refugees began embarking on dangerous journeys in the Mediterranean.

Concluding remarks and the way forward: Resilience-building as a cautionary tale?

Against this backdrop of cumulative crises, the gap between the EU’s “resilience-building” rhetoric and policy outcomes on the ground has widened by the day. Following the state’s recent failings, the EU has vowed to rethink its politics of cooperation with Lebanon’s authorities. It has multiplied its calls for reforms and announced that an internationally backed economic rescue plan will be tied to conditionalities necessitating the Lebanese government begin imminent reforms. Still, the EU finds itself grappling with various dilemmas in the wake of both a grassroots movement of contestation and a massive blast that have completely discredited the political establishment. One important dilemma is cooperation with Lebanon’s governing powers over Syria’s protracted refugee challenge. In the last years, as underscored, the EU has developed an approach of principled pragmatism, favouring stabilization, and dialogue with Middle East and North African (MENA) governments despite their questionable track record on human rights. It has thus sought close cooperation with the Lebanese government notwithstanding the government’s complex record on refugee rights. Still, with the latest episode of collapse, civil society organizations and activists have called for tracking international and EU aid and their outputs.[4] They have also called on the EU and its member states to halt its cooperation with governing powers and to reconfigure its architecture of aid in the small state. In this regard, the EU’s pragmatic refugee diplomacy with Lebanon’s government – despite its bad record of public services, rule of law and accountability – has come under fierce criticism.

Against this background, the implosion of Lebanon’s social contract and the deterioration of refugee rights spell out colossal challenges for the EU’s external policy. Firstly, how can the EU build on Lebanon’s overlapping crises to develop an external policy that is more attuned to people’s and refugees’ aspirations? And how can its funding power have more tangible effects on improving the livelihoods and rights of both refugee and host communities? Finally, what are the implications and risks of cooperating with host governments and economies in which social contracts are imploding?

In Lebanon, the current social contract between the government and its citizens as well as its non-citizens does not hold anymore. As it falls apart, refugees are mired in a complex struggle. A resilience-building approach built on comprehensive policy partnerships is more likely to produce severe backlash effects as far as vulnerable communities are concerned, when the roots of vulnerability are not duly tackled, and when “resilience-building” remains disconnected from an underlying protection environment. Lebanon’s successive crises, ranging from the financial crash to the Beirut Blasts, have broader insights to convey. It cautions the EU against the perils of cooperation, and mutual partnerships with third countries when an underlying “rights-based environment” and legal remedies for refugees remain absent. It also cautions against glorifying resiliency humanitarianism as a surrogate solution for rights-based humanitarianism.


[1] Are John Knudsen. 2020. “Displacement” in Humanitarianism, edited by Antonio De Lauri (Brill: Leiden), 4648. 

[2] Sandra Lavenex and Tamirace Fakhoury, “Trade Agreements as a Venue for Migration Governance?
Potential and Challenges for the European Union”, Report for Delegationen för migrationsstudier (Delmi), forthcoming.

[3] Lavenex and Fakhoury, “Trade Agreements as a Venue for Migration Governance?”

[4] Author’s field research and conversations with activists between October 2019 and August 2020