Laws, Policies and Politics of Forced Displacement in Lebanon

National and Municipal Approaches: Complementarity or Autonomy?


Shirine ARAB

Ph.D. Candidate

Public International Law (ILF-GERJC) at Aix-Marseille University


The armed conflicts currently underway in Syria, with its flurry of deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and ensuing large-scale displacement of populations have been a consistent feature of the Syrian conflict since its inception. The level of violence has generated a massive population of 6.3 million Internally Displaced Persons and 4.8 million refugees in the region and beyond[1].

“Despite the magnitude and almost continuous nature of the flows of displacement over several decades in the Middle East, the region has also been characterised by having largely informal, sometimes ad hoc, systems of dealing with refugee issues, which raises concerns among analysts and practitioners […] in providing effective protection and assistance to those who need it most’’[2]. Some of the questions that arise include the influence of the current (Arab Spring linked) uprisings on policies and laws on protection, sovereignty and Nation-State building and Nation-Identity, and citizenship and border controls, which are challenged by the increasing numbers of people currently fleeing the conflicts, as well as the respect of Fundamental Rights. In dealing with forced displacement, politics are referred to informal and formal political factors that impact policies making.

In Lebanon, the response to the Syrian refugee crisis has from the outset faced many challenges including the lack of an adequate national response strategy due to weak local governance capacities, the lack of effective protection agenda and poor coordination amongst the main stakeholders: International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and Local NGO’s, United Nations Agencies, State Actors, Informal and Formal Local Authorities, Human Rights, Development Actors, etc.

As the Syrian Non-International Armed conflict[3] (NIAC) prolonged, the government of Lebanon nevertheless took on its own measures to respond to the refugee crisis. Although lacking official responsibility municipalities considered addressing the issue of displacement at local level, based on moral and legal imperatives. In fact, there was a need to focus on humanitarian relief and development aid while maintaining stability as stipulated by the Lebanese Constitution, including through the Lebanese government and municipalities. Some discussions focused on whether aid should be limited to Syrian refugees or extended to local communities, for whom the crisis was posing serious challenges, especially in those municipalities hosting large numbers of refugees.

A number of factors help explain the increasing number of Syrians at the beginning of the conflict, including the 1993 Bilateral Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination[4]. This policy remained de facto in place until January 2015. As the Syrian Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) forced civilians to flee to Lebanon, they settled primarily in the North – and later in the Bekaa, given the proximity of the border to the main zones of conflict and to historic and familial links or trade relations between the two populations, in addition to the migrant workers who used to work in either seasonal or low-skilled field activities.

In this context, this working paper seeks to discuss the collaboration mechanisms amongst central and local Lebanese authorities and international humanitarian actors in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, in light of the recent regulatory changes. This report will also focus on the situation in the urban district of Zgharta-Ehden in North Lebanon, as an illustration of national and municipal responses: do they intermesh?

National Policies and Politics

In the early stages of the Syrian refugee influx in Lebanon, which ran from March 2011 through the beginning of 2012, the border remained de facto open, which eased humanitarian assistance, despite the fact that Lebanon is not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. As such, Lebanon “won significant praise from Human Rights groups and UNHCR for its open borders and non-encampment policy”, which appeared as an ad hoc response rather than a commitment to International Law within a policy framework[5]. The non-encampment policy was accompanied with the rejection of permanent settlement of Syrian refugees based on widely shared feeling amongst Lebanese stakeholders that such settlement would be negative for the country’s political and economic interests.

The negative feelings is geared to factors including thirty years of Syrian military presence in Lebanon and the country’s previous experience with Palestinians, have disabled public policy, including the major opposed political lines towards the conflict in Syria who read the crisis differently. In addition the Syrian refugee crisis has divided the Lebanese political arena[6] to the current rupture point: either the State implements more integration policies, or the Syrian refugee crisis will lead to more internal political rifts.

In 2012, as no agreement among political parties was set up by the Ba’abda Declaration[7] vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, and the use of “displaced persons or groups[8] (a less legally constraining and binding term) as a legitimate phrasing by the Lebanese Government rather than “refugees” (a more loaded term with reference to the obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention), all emphasise that Lebanon is not a country of asylum nor it does integrate refugees in their social fabric. In addition to the absence of a clear vision and national strategy to cope with the crisis, the focus of the discussion of the Lebanese National Dialogue Committee was also on the nature of the assistance, whether it should focus more on development or humanitarian relief. The declaration, as said, did not refer to the refugee context but underlined the “right to humanitarian solidarity” as “guaranteed under the constitution and the law”[9]. Besides, the discussions resulted in consensus that “measures should then be taken to control the situation on the Lebanese-Syrian border”, and that the country “should seek to avoid the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crisis in order to preserve its own paramount interest, national unity and civil peace, except where the matter concerns resolutions of international legitimacy, Arab consensus or the rightful Palestinian cause, including the right of Palestinian refugees return to their land and homes rather than being integrated.’’[10]

All the while, different Lebanese political actors have been involved in the Syria civil war, such as Hezbollah who have backed the regime – the Syrian NIAC was turning into a protracted one. In Lebanon, the political dynamic is divided into pro and anti-Assad supports. The Syrian refugee crisis triggered new concerns about the confessional balance in Lebanon, especially within the Christian community, and the possibility of increasing sectarian tension in the country. Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese President at that time defined the Syrian refugee presence as an existential crisis when voicing concerns to the UN General Assembly in 2013. Indeed, Hezbollah pointed out the humanitarian duty to prove their hospitality towards Syrians referring to the 2006 Lebanon-Israel War where many Lebanese from Shi’a areas took refuge in Syria. In parallel, in the first phase, representatives of the March 14 Coalition[11] called for a hospitable approach as a moral humanitarian duty, which was also perceived as a political asset in the light of their political ideas. However, throughout the evolving nature of the war in Syria and the flows of refugees in Lebanon, the debate on sectarianism, politicisation, confessional structures and the magnitude and uncertainty of the crisis and borders’ matters, the Syrian refugee crisis was rather defined as an existential threat.

Then, a “political controversy over what was to be done with displaced people’’ began between the two main political camps in Lebanon: the first camp advocated a do nothing policy whereas the second one suggested the construction of refugee camps[12]. The idea of establishing camps was abandoned as it may turn into long-term settlement, and correlated risk of that Syrian similarly to the Palestinians reorganize into political and extra-territorial entities and armed groups and further erode the security situation in Lebanon.

With the change of the Lebanese government in 2014 breaking a ten-month political deadlock during which the Syrian conflict worsened internal instability, more regulations were taken. The government conducted discussions with international organisations involved in, the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan[13] such as the World Bank and the United Nations. Among the response points was ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance primarily to Syrian de facto refugees and the poorest Lebanese, with a view to developing a constructive relationship between the two communities. By the last quarter of 2014, a “policy on Syrian displacement” was proposed and approved by the Lebanese Government. The final policy paper, which became effective in January 2015, focuses more on development than humanitarian aid, and aims at reducing the number of Syrian registered refugees with the UNHCR by reducing access of Syrian refugees to the national territory and encouraging returns to Syria. Finally, the paper addresses security concerns and economic burdens, notably at the institutional and local community levels. K. GEBARA, Lebanon’s Interior Ministry Advisor, explains “there were cooperation initiatives with the UNHCR aimed at producing policies based on identifying the displaced, and distinguishing them from the Syrians present in Lebanon for economic reasons. The aim was to distinguish between the two groups on the basis that the displaced would get more protection mechanisms. Some of the measures at the end of 2014 therefore appear illogical or inconsistent with international standards. […]”[14]. Indeed, the political and legal approach of the Lebanese Government towards the UNHCR and other NGOs became relevant.

As many other States in the Middle East, Lebanon does not have formal domestic refugee legislation. Rather, with the 2015 regulations, the Lebanese authorities have underlined the Syrian refugee crisis not to be governed by law, but by governmental decisions, which means that domestic law and bilateral agreements are dismissed. As such, many refugees are in a deeply precarious legal position, as they have no status other than that afforded to Syrian nationals in general. As with previous refugee populations such as the Palestinians and the Iraqis, the legal status of Syrians in Lebanon currently sits in a vague area between aliens, displaced, and de facto refugees[15]. The internationally acknowledged notion of refugee was consequently abandoned. The related-problems extended to lacking legal registration[16] or personal legal records – and therefore stateless, invalid resident permits, and the loss of legal information and documentation, which all pose serious humanitarian (such as resettlement for Syrians), security, and political impacts on both Lebanese and Syrian communities.

Municipal Regulation of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Under such conditions, municipalities have been coping with the social and economic consequences of inflow of Syrian refugees with limited human and material resources. In administrative language, municipal governance is the third local-level of public administration. First come governorate that are, in turn, divided into districts. In fact, the governorates are not of importance due to the fact that the Governor (Al Muhafez) does not have defined authority, except he is the representative of the central government. The second reason lies in the fact that the political authority and power are centralised and exclusive to the central government, which monopolises all authority in the country.

According to the 1977 Decree-Law[17], any work having a public character or utility within the area of the municipality falls under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Council. Yet, many municipalities have formed municipal unions, which have become important actors in the context of decentralisation, as they represent the front line in dealing with refugees and are aware of community needs, alongside local and international organisations. This same commitment to decentralisation was reflected in the 1989 Ta’if Agreement of National Reconciliation to empower municipal public work. However, municipalities remain constrained administratively and fiscally and the central government still monopolises regional and local powers. Their resources are insufficient to cover the needs of both their constituents and the refugees under their jurisdiction, despite the support from international organizations.

Due to the lack of a national policy for the management of the Syrian refugees, local-level municipalities were actually left alone to regulate the latter’s presence and integration. In turn, this led to varying and sometimes contradictory responses within government agencies and municipalities. Indeed, with the lack of a coherent national plan, many informal tented settlements and camps were established. Moreover, “misinterpretation of governmental decisions[18]” drove them to lead actions that were not always in line with national law or the municipalities’ legal authority. The imposition by municipalities of local curfews on Syrians, which reduced freedom of movement and blocked access to small businesses, and access to justice, in the purpose of addressing insecurity and “general social fatigue” perceptions, is a case in point,[19]. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW)[20], Municipal Council and others imposed some curfews by Mayors. The autonomy conveyed to municipalities has also led to a fragmented-management of the crisis. Central authorities, at the State and Municipal levels, are selective in their commitment to the laws and the Lebanese Constitution when dealing with refugees, and the absence of centralised policies has created various different levels of measures [21]. Yet, on a short-term, local-level initiatives conducted by municipalities’ units filled gaps in services provision. However, on a longer-term, the question remains whether, options should be gathered and unified to provide central support policies and manage the large-scale refugee crisis in Lebanon.

Moreover, while “municipalities were required to determine the Syrian refugees qualified for different forms of aid based on their varying needs and vulnerabilities, their Lebanese hosts that live in similar conditions were excluded from the exercise”[22]. In this context, municipalities voiced concerns over the challenges of needs classification and transferred the task to the central government and donors, who later included the Lebanese host communities as beneficiaries of their assistance schemes.

Since 2014, a number of municipalities in Lebanon have established new procedures to regulate the presence of Syrian refugees within their jurisdiction. The majority of municipalities considered these new options to address security concerns and complaints from their Lebanese counterparts. These procedures were adopted based on instructions announced by the Interior Ministry starting in 2014, including security matters.

The Municipality of Zgharta-Ehden: towards regulatory options?

In the district of Zgharta-Ehden, numerous Syrian refugees wait to receive the voucher for the purchase of food, hygiene and childhood kit, distributed by the municipality through a partnership with international NGOs, including Oxfam.

In the Maronite Christian district of Zgharta, in which Ehden lies, residents believe that Syrian newcomers in the town brought instability, took off their jobs, and paralysed tourism (competing with nationals, existential and demographic dimension, etc.). In order to improve the municipality’s ability to reduce the conflict between Syrian refugees and the hosting communities, the Municipality of Zgharta-Ehden is, first, “collecting information about the presence of Syrian refugees and issuing cards to them[23], for the sake of creating a lawful and orderly situation”[24]. Going forward, the municipality intends to map refugees scattered in the various neighbourhoods of the town, including informal settlements, schools or urban localities. In practice, the main measure is checking the sponsorship for each Syrian individual in order to help the latter regularise his/her status. In parallel to the field surveys, the municipality aims at developing a more pragmatic approach to address the flows of displacement, in the absence of central policies, while the Municipal Council has enjoyed more autonomy. In the longer run, the Ehden local initiative calls for facilitating repatriation and return to their homes when the conflict in Syria ends, as stressed the Mayor of Zgharta-Ehden. In this context, the option of regularising is legal-oriented and seeks to address refugees’ temporary presence in the district, their access to job market, and the need of social cohesion and integration for the on-going period of time.

In developing collaborations with neighbouring municipalities to cope with refugee matters, and through discussions with State authorities regarding a possible return to home, the municipality appears to put forward local binding regulatory options within its jurisdiction. In the case of Zgharta’s district, the municipality’s involvement in managing the Syrian refugee displacement crisis has reduced the impact of restricting the issue to the central authorities.


Despite being a country hosting a high number of refugees, and despite the remarkable generosity in receiving a large proportion of refugees, the refugees’ protection regime in Lebanon remains fragile. In fact, in addition to the fears of the country’s long term Palestinian refugee presence and the lack of refugee protection legal regulations, the security approach to governance takes precedence over the rights based approach. Furthermore, as discussed above, policies towards large-scale displacement, throughout its contemporary history, remain ad hoc and emergency-based, despite the development assistance approach. It may be said that, for all it shortcomings, Lebanon’s governance offers “a certain degree of flexibility”. However, operational challenges remain acute: aid agencies struggle to reach all refugees due to the urban nature of today’s displacement, which all contribute to more marginalisation and vulnerability. In the midst of on-going conflicts, the new waves of displacement, in Lebanon, took place “in or to areas already struggling with previous waves, leading to multi-layered and complex crises[25]”.

The initial hope of strengthening the existing fragile protection regime is challenged by the evolving situation on the ground on political and policies’ changes levels.

Looking forward to the end of the Syrian conflicts, it is indeed more likely that Syrian refugees will return to Syria than resettling in a third country by the UNHCR. Not least the refugees themselves agree that the main solution will be to return home when violations of their rights cease and to voluntary repatriate in safety and dignity. Integration in the host country, such as Lebanon, seems to face numerous obstacles and existing barriers, including the regulatory forms placed on their socio-economic rights and livelihoods opportunities, and notably during the protracted previous Iraqi and Palestinian refugee crises.

To conclude, despite all challenges discussed above, there is indeed on the long term a new sense of justice among both populations and policy-makers, and the curious and significant resilience of refugees themselves throughout the country and the region. Such factors could help temper transitional phases, which are often disturbed, to address the effects of past or on-going violations and failures to protect individuals. Transitional Justice phases also presuppose that sustainable goal protection requires the achievement of accountable forms of democratic systems of governance, which concludes normative development in related fields[26]. For that purpose, policies should be developed, differentiating between the medium and longer run needs, taking into account formal and informal practices and structures. Engaging hosting communities and refugees is very much in demand and the activities led by international organisations and local NGOs shall take part of policies in emergencies relief. Historic connections and international law are only one part of the whole massive displacement questions; they are indeed socio-political and economic angles that should be in.

[1] Mapping the Law That Applies to War Crimes in Syria, by Beth VAN SCHAACK, in Just Security, February 2016

[2] Displacement in the Middle East and North Africa: Between an Arab Winter and the Arab Spring, Working Paper by Shaden KHALLAF, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut Policy Institute, August 2013

[3] Under Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, non-international armed conflicts are armed conflicts in which one or more non-State armed groups are involved. Depending on the situation, hostilities may occur between governmental armed forces and non-State armed groups or between such groups only. International Committee of the Red Cross definition of NIAC under International Humanitarian Law.

[4] Article 1 of the 1993 Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination between the Lebanese Republic and the Syrian Arab Republic ensures the Freedom of persons’ movement between both countries’ and Freedom to stay, work, employ and practice economic activity in conformity with the laws and regulations in force in each country (Available at:

[5] The Legal Status of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, Working Paper by Maja JANMYR, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut Policy Institute, March 2016

[6] The Lebanese political landscape is a system of power sharing where all members of government have to agree on major decisions. The government is considered unconstitutional when a third of the Lebanese cabinet resigns: the Blocking Third Mechanism is based on an interpretation of the Lebanese Constitution. See Articles 65, 69, and Article 95 of the Constitution. This model aims at maintaining stability.

[7] Baabda Declaration issued by the National Dialogue Committee on 11 June 2012

[8] International law and Soft Law frameworks on displaced persons refer to Internally Displaced Persons according to Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, they are “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border.” Unlike refugees, these internally displaced persons do not have a special status in international law with rights specific to their situation. The term “internally displaced person” is merely descriptive (Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, OHCHR).

[9] National Dialogue, Presidency of the Republic of Lebanon, 2012

[10] Identical Letters Dated 13 June 2012 from the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Lebanon to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council, United Nations General Assembly Security Council A/66/849-S/2012/477, 21 June 2012

[11] The March 14 Alliance, named after the date of the Cedar Revolution, is a coalition of political parties and independents in Lebanon formed in 2005 that are united by their anti-Syrian regime stance and their opposition to the March 8 Alliance.

[12] The Repercussions of the Syrian Refugee Crisis on Lebanon: The Challenges of Providing Services and Creating Jobs, The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), Roundtable Report Series, January 2016

[13] The LCPR aims at ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance primarily to Syrian de facto refugees and the poorest Lebanese, strengthening the capacity of national and local public delivery systems to accommodate the basic needs of the aforementioned peoples, and supporting Lebanon’s economic, social, institutional and environmental stability.

[14] Interior Ministry Advisor: Lebanon Refugee Policy Based on Set of “Nos”, Interview with Khalil GEBARA, by Ghida FRANGIEH and Elham BARJAS, The Legal Agenda, 2016

[15] De facto refugee was a temporary solution to the grey area the legal status of Syrians lies in – referring to Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon. Even if the Government of Lebanon does not legally recognise the UNHCR document as resident permit, the latter shall guarantee protection, namely the Non-Refoulement Principle as stated in the 1962 Regulation of the Status of Foreign Nationals in Lebanon in its Article 31 (Appendix 1).

[16] Gebara explains that the Ministry of Interior’s ‘’does not oppose registering the birth of Syrians so they are not separated from their families, but it can not break the laws that stipulate that residence is needed to obtain a birth certificate”, in Interior Ministry Advisor: Lebanon Refugee Policy Based on Set of “Nos”, Interview with Khalil GEBARA, by Ghida FRANGIEH and Elham BARJAS, The Legal Agenda, 2016

[17] Decree-Law No. 118 Dated 30/6/1977& Its Amendments Municipal Act, Government of Lebanon Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, 2009

[18] Supporting Municipalities in Responding to the Refugee Crisis, The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), May 2016

[19] The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon, State Fragility and Social Resilience, Filippo DIONIGI, LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series, LSE Middle East Centre, February 2016

[20] Lebanon: At least 45 Local Curfews Imposed on Syrian Refugees, Human Rights Watch, 2014

[21] Interior Ministry Advisor: Lebanon Refugee Policy Based on Set of “Nos”, Interview with Khalil GEBARA, by Ghida FRANGIEH and Elham BARJAS, The Legal Agenda, 2016

[22] Supporting Municipalities in Responding to the Refugee Crisis, Ibid.

[23] Temporary and Identification Cards seek to address mainly the freedom of movement but does not replace a residence permit

[24] These information were collected during a meeting with the Mayor of Zgharta-Ehden, Dr. Cesar BASSIM, in January 2017 in Ehden, North Lebanon

[25] Displacement in the Middle East and North Africa: Between an Arab Winter and the Arab Spring, Working Paper by Shaden KHALLAF, Ibid.

[26] Protection in the Past Tense: Restitution at the Juncture of Humanitarian Response to Displacement and Transitional Justice, by Rhodri C.WILLIAMS, in Transitional Justice and Displacement, Edited by Roger DUTHIE, ICTJ Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2012