Turning the Tables In The Fight For Refugee Rights in Lebanon

Yazan al-Saadi

The past few weeks in Lebanon are indicative of how abysmal the state of affairs are for Syrian refugees. Lebanese army raids and removals of camps, Lebanese town residents burning camps, major media outlets publishing scare-mongering headlines on their papers and their television screens, increased restrictions on health, jobs, and mobility, increased rhetoric by politicians and political groups of all sides about sending Syrians back to 'safe zones', 'deescalation zones', or whathaveyou zones. 

These actions are not necessarily new and have been part and parcel of what the Syrian refugee have experienced throughout these seven years. But Things Are Visibly Getting Worse.

This is not limited to Syrian refugees.

Palestinians, who have been trapped in a seemingly-eternal open air prison camps, such as Ain el-Hilweh, which has been circled by a recently-completed wall. For decades until today, the Palestinian refugee communities are discriminated against socially, politically, and economically, left to fend over themselves, exposed to the games of militas, religious groups, among other affronts, as they await the (inevitable) end of Zionism.

Sudanese refugees have been trying to protest the horrid treatment by the UNHCR, they are faced with harassment and beatings by guards at the metal gates of the compound, and the even worse fact that their suffering is ignored in most conversations about refugeehood in Lebanon.

Then there are the Iraqi refugees, some of whom are lounging within prisons – with other refugees – for lack of documentation, for being vulnerable, and for having the unfortunate fact that the tragedy of their country has become normalized in the minds of many.

Lest we forget the migrant workers – refugees from their homes as well, in an economic and social sense – who are caught in a slave-infrastructure dubbed 'kafala' or 'sponsorship', to be used and abused by agencies, families, and the system. 

Let us recognize that we are losing the fight for refugee rights in Lebanon akin to the losses in the larger struggle within the international arena. Barbed wires, concrete walls, security are at their zenith, bolstered by the potent 'war on terror' narrative. The powers-that-be are coordinating and mobilizing together to this effect, in a frightful degree. The have the weapons, the resources, and the infrastructure to do so.  We must first take stock on where our position lie, and frankly we are in a weak one.

Yet, there is still time to turn the tables. 

There are more and different refugee communities in Lebanon not mentioned above, of course, but the last group mentioned – the migrant workers – should give one pause to realize that even in this difficult context, there is always a form of resistance. Migrant workers have been effectively organizing and pushing back in inspiring ways against immense odds. They are networking, educating themselves, and acting. There are other examples that I can present, but for brevity it is simply worth saying that there are small acts of resistance and solidarity occurring everyday  trying to chip away at the status quo.  

Here are some suggestions, while is already happening in a various ways, must be escalated in an expanded, immediate, and aggressive manner:

  • Organizations and allied individuals must start working together, sharing knowledge and failures, breaking through their personal and institutional barriers and egos in order to create a joint front within Lebanon, reaching to other points in the region, and further. The enemies of refugees are unified in their animosity across borders, and the allies of refugees must urgently respond in kind. The fragmentation and discord within the Lebanese arena allows much room for repression. Close the gap in order to allow stronger forms of mobilization and responses. There should be coordinating committees created enabling consistent meetings and plannings among the allies.
  • There must be immediate interaction and incorporation of the refugee communities in the planning, actions, and directives. Each refugee community have their respective needs, and they must be part of the process in articulating their needs and their solutions in whatever way possible. Go to the camps. Sit and talk in the camps. Bring the residents of the camps to you – physically or virtually. 
  • There must be an acute readiness for confrontation. This means that the most privileged among us – particularly the Lebanese citizen – must be prepared to bare serious risks. One can understand any hesitancy to face injury or difficulty by anyone, but there must be sober discussions and awareness that risks have to be taken by those who can bare it. Jeopardy has to accepted, desperately so. 
  • Fight the narrative that dehumanizes the refugee communities in any and all possible ways. Mock it. Harass those who peddle it. Spin it back to them. Deny it. Create new and more positive narratives. The facts cannot speak for themselves and must be clothed in a socially-acceptable, digestible way. Create memes. Our narratives must be complex, intersectional, positive. Everything that theirs are not.   
  • Build alternatives to cushion the blows. There has to be, for example, economic (i.e. a bartering infrastructure) or health (i.e. clandestine clinics), legal, social, and political systems rapidly built to counter the shaky and dependent-inducing services that iNGOs, local NGOs, and others have laid out. Although difficult and complicated, this is very possible, and should be explored in creative ways among the communities.  


There is much that can be done, and the suggestions above are simple and not really novel, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the many tactics at our disposal. The key point that underpins the above is the need to act and to act now, rather than staring with hopelessness and paralysis as things get worse.

We are losing. It is not time to start turning it around?  

3 July 2017

In arabic here