The burgeoning refugee situation in Lebanon

Date: 10 February 2015

Lebanon has a complex history that has been fraught with sub-state violence and political instability, axiomatic of sectarian divisions within the country. In addition to its own domestic strife, Lebanon has also been perennially impacted by the instability in its neighbouring states. Most recently, the civil war in Syria that began in July 2011, following the Arab Spring and anti-Assad uprisings, has precipitated the flight of over a million Syrian refugees into Lebanese sovereign territory. As with the Palestinian refugee flow in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli wars, the recent influx of Syrian refugees has already, and is likely to continue to have, severe implications upon both the Lebanese and regional stability more broadly. Kachi Nwokenna, analyst at Bradburys Global Risk focuses upon three themes derivative from the refugee crisis that demonstrates particularly dangerous implications at local and regional levels.

The burgeoning refugee situation in Lebanon: Local and regional implications

1. The Growing Guest vs. Host dynamic within Lebanon

2. Exacerbated Sunni-Shia tensions

3. Potential Islamic State expansion into Lebanon

Kachi begins by providing a brief overview of the social and political context in Lebanon, focusing upon endemic sectarian tensions and the fragile peace that exists within the state. The focus will then shift to the refugee situation itself in order to provide an outline of the crisis; focusing on the number of refugees and where they have sought to settle; before demonstrating the manner in which the burgeoning refugee crisis poses severe implications at both the local and regional levels according to the three aforementioned thematic components outlined above.

Lebanese political and social context

Lebanon is an ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse state. According to the US Department of State, Lebanon is comprised of just over four million inhabitants. The main ethno-religious groupings are estimated as follows: 27% Sunni Muslims, 27% Shia Muslims, 21% Maronite Christians, 8% Greek Orthodox, 5.6% Druze and 5% Greek Orthodox with the remainder an amalgamation of several different smaller religious and cultural groupings.

Power struggles that have resulted in inter-religious conflict have defined the social and political history of the state. As such, sectarian tensions and distrust are socially engrained within Lebanese society, in spite of reconciliatory attempts such as the ‘National Pact’ and ‘Taif Accords’ that have intended to foster greater unity. The politic apparatus within Lebanon is composed of a consociational arrangement whereby the major cultural and ethnic groups within the state share power.

This political system has proved to be extremely idealistic and has been characterized not only by institutional standstill, but also by violent mobilization along sectarian fault lines. This is best illustrated by the civil war that occurred within the state from 1975-1990. Whilst several factors precipitated this civil war (including sectarian divisions), an important catalyst to the process was arguably the presence and militarization of stateless Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanese territory. This demonstrates the destabilizing impact that refugees have had on Lebanon in the past, and thus there should be grave concern over the potential impact of such a substantial number of Syrian refugees entering, and residing in, the country at present.

The severity of the refugee crisis in Lebanon is evinced by the fact that Lebanon now has the highest refugee population per capita in the world. One is able to identify three main refugee population flows within the country; Palestinians, Syrians and Iraqis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 1.3 million Syrian refugees have now crossed the border into Lebanon since the onset of the crisis. This represents 25% of the Lebanese population. In addition to the recent influx of Syrian refugees, there still exist a substantive number of Palestinian refugees in UNHCR refugee camps (400,000).

Since the onset of the Syrian crisis, the Government of Lebanon (GoL) has maintained a virtual open door policy, however; this has recently been reversed and it is now seeking to implement a more stringent border policy with the aim of restricting entry into the country. This change in policy represents the realisation within the GoL of the gravity of the burgeoning refugee situation.

In contrast to their Palestinian counterparts, the Syrian refugee population has been denied the opportunity to relocate within refugee camps. Rather, they have been forced to settle directly within host communities in Lebanon. The most heavily impacted areas are those that lie within close proximity to the Lebanon-Syria border. Regions such as Akkar, Hermal and Bekaa have been most affected and demonstrate the highest host-guest ratios within the country.


1. The Growing Guest vs. Host dynamic within Lebanon

For any state, let alone one with pre-existing socio-economic, institutional and sectarian issues, such a substantial influx of refugees would generate an extremely challenging context. The areas that have borne the brunt of the Syrian influx are zones that have traditionally suffered from low economic development and a weak public service infrastructure. An inevitable strain has been placed upon this infrastructure, particularly in terms of healthcare, education and housing. The provision of and access to such services have naturally declined due to the rapid increase in demand within the country, and consequently; the influx of Syrian refugees will only exacerbate these structural issues for the foreseeable future.

It is estimated than an additional 170,000 Lebanese are now living below the poverty line due to the socioeconomic impact of the influx of Syrian refugees. The increase in poverty within the country can be partially explained by the impact that Syrian refugees have had upon the labour market, which has come under notable pressure due to the increased competition for jobs, resulting in the rise of unemployment rates to 20%. Thus far, these pressures show no signs of abating as Lebanese workers have found themselves undercut by young, low-skilled, Syrian workers who command significantly lower wages than their Lebanese counterparts. As such the host community have increasingly focused their resentment towards the labour market on the guest population.

The refugee crisis has also had a detrimental impact on Lebanese economic performance. The instability of Syria has negatively impacted two industries central to government revenue; trade and tourism. The shrinking of these industries combined with the growing strain that refugees have placed upon governmental resources has facilitated a rapidly growing fiscal deficit. As such the GoL has been unable to adequately tackle the socio-economic and infrastructural issues created by the refugee crisis, and looks unlikely to be able to effectively do so in the future.

Consequently, there is a growing resentment towards the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This poses serious implications for future stability as it will become increasingly likely that host communities may begin to denounce these refugees as the perceived cause of their hardships. In reaction to this, Syrian refugees will undoubtedly seek to protect themselves from retribution directed at them from host communities. Should such a situation occur, it could have the propensity to trigger a destructive cycle of violence that would pose severe internal implications for a country that is managing fragile peace agreements, and sports a relatively recent history of civil war.

2. Exacerbated Sunni-Shia tensions

Countries such as Iraq and Syria have illustrated the destructive impact that conflicts based upon ethno-religious divisions can have. Moreover, within Lebanese history such divides have been poignant enough to mobilise violent confrontation, most notably during the civil war. Worryingly, the burgeoning refugee situation in Lebanon has the ability to tip the balance of the fragile peace within the country, stoking the flames of this cultural divide. This is particularly the case as the Syrian crisis has led to the flight of a large number of Sunni Muslims into Lebanon. This represents a threat to stability, particularly in cases where Sunnis have been forced to settle in Shia areas that are invariably administered by Hezbollah.

The fact that Hezbollah are now actively involved in Syria, fighting against anti-Assad forces, only fuels this potentially dangerous dynamic. Primarily, Hezbollah and associated Shia groups may see the influx of such a large number of Sunni Syrians into their territory as an existential threat, and may begin to take violent action against such groups to protect their own interests. Although this has yet to occur, one would be naïve to completely rule out such events. Should this polarisation occur within Lebanon, we may witness initial sporadic and then widespread violence across these ethnoreligious fault lines within Lebanon as in Syria and Iraq. To this end, future occurrences of the street battles and car bombings that have recently taken place in Lebanon’s largest cities of Beirut and Tripoli may be viewed as potential indicators of a worsening socio-political situation in Lebanon.

3. Potential Islamic State expansion into Lebanon

The actions and operations of Islamic State (IS) have garnered widespread international focus over the past year. Thus far, the wave of violence implemented by the group has been largely restricted to Iraqi and Syrian territory, however; given the aforementioned instability that the refugee crisis has created in Lebanon and the unresolved sectarian divides that exist within the country, one could argue that the country is increasingly vulnerable to the threat of IS . As IS now operates a substantial amount of territory across the Levant, and may seek to exploit growing Sunni grievances within Lebanon particularly within the refugee population.

The disenfranchisement experienced by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon led to a large number to become militarised by the PLO. One should not rule out a similar process occurring within the Syrian refugee population, who offer an extremely attractive pool of potential fighters for IS. Grievances emanating from anti-Hezbollah sentiment, mistreatment, and poor socioeconomic conditions, may render many susceptible to radicalisation, and the economic benefits offered by IS. As such there is the potential that IS may seek to spread violence into Lebanese territory using Syrian refugees by proxy.

Such events would hold both local and regional implications, specifically in relation to Israel and its own national security. If such a process were to occur, Israel would likely view the instability as an increasing threat along its border regions with Lebanon. Due to the nature of its inception, and its location (surrounded by unfriendly states) Israel operates an aggressive military posture in regards to its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Throughout history, Israel has been committed to preemptive and preventative strikes if its own security is threatened. Indeed, Israel invaded Lebanon due to the threat that it perceived militarised Palestinian refugees to pose, and has engaged in overt bombing campaigns against Hezbollah. If a scenario were to occur whereby IS began to expand into Lebanese territory, the possibility of Israeli military action in pursuit of its own security agenda would not be unlikely. In a worst-case scenario, therefore, the refugee crisis may have the propensity to cause more prolific destabilisation throughout the wider region.

What’s next for Lebanon?

The GoL, regional stakeholders, International Organizations and NGOs should make a concerted and coordinated effort to combat factors that may exacerbate the deep-rooted sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which are being stressed by the burgeoning refugee crisis. Crucially, the GoL needs assistance in order to adjust to the drastic influx of refugees, but also to ensure that the quality of life for host communities and the refugee population does not continue to diminish. If the GoL are able to ease host community concerns with regards to the substantial refugee population, this would play an important role in tackling one dimension of the potential instability that the refugee crisis may pose. A continuation of the disintegration of the Syrian state, however, only offers a bleak picture for future stability in Lebanon.


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