Lebanon through its Refugees
A Project by UMAM Documentation and Research
2017 - 2018
Supported by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa)

On March 10, 2017, a regional television network aired an interview with Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi, the head of Lebanon's Maronite Church. In response to a question about Al-Rahi's ambiguous stand on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian conflict and the support it provides the Assad regime, the patriarch stated, seemingly extemporaneously: "The Palestinians are the ones who in 1975 orchestrated a war against the Lebanese army in Lebanon, and as a result, we experienced Lebanon's civil war." Predictably, his statement raised the ire of some viewers. In fact, it precipitated a brief debate between supporters and opponents of his opinion.

Although that debate eventually waned, refugee-related controversies continued in force. Several weeks after the patriarch's interview, as Lebanon's prime minister was preparing to attend an EU-sponsored conference in Brussels titled "Supporting Syria and the Region," he disclosed to a group of foreign media correspondents in Beirut that Lebanon was near the "point of collapse." Later in his remarks, the Lebanese PM expressed concern that the 1,5 million Syrians in the country could incite strife between that growing community and its Lebanese hosts.

Sometime between Patriarch Al-Rahi's observation and the prime minister’s dire warning, Lebanon's minister of tourism (a man of Armenian descent who is thus affiliated with a refugee community that once sought shelter in Lebanon) also spoke seemingly out of turn. While criticizing Turkey, the minister angered some Lebanese by implying that he favored his loyalty to Armenia over his Lebanese nationality.

One need not be a methodical observer of Lebanese affairs to encounter, almost daily, other revelations that parallel at least one of the three situations mentioned above. After all, many such declarations express, sometimes quite unintentionally, the centrality of the very notion of asylum in Lebanese life, whether in the past, the present or in the future.

As the initial waves of Syrian refugees began seeking shelter in Lebanon in late 2011, the event marked the onset of the second substantial flood of migrants since the country became independent in 1943. From 2011 onward, the international community has exerted tremendous effort and committed substantial resources to help Lebanon contain this crisis. Despite that support, however, large portions of Lebanese society and a number of the country's major political actors have continued to describe the situation grimly as an existential threat to the integrity of the Lebanese entity. Interestingly, the rhetoric being used to characterize the issue of Syrian asylum in Lebanon seems to have been drawn from the remarkably deep well of arguments that were already in use just before Lebanon's civil war erupted in 1975.

Remaining committed to its mission of countering this culture of denial, UMAM D&R launched MOST WELCOMED? LEBANON THROUGH ITS REFUGEES in early 2017. While the mainstream discourse about refugeeism in Lebanon centers on the number of refugees, the costs of hosting them, the security threats they pose and other considerations that are similarly difficult to quantify, this program seeks to examine the positions on asylum Lebanon has taken in the past and present, and the extent to which the positions being adopted today seek to reanimate the ghosts of Lebanon's past.

In general, by using highly customized tools, this program seeks to situate refugeeism as a particularly Lebanese issue and stoke the ongoing debate in the country over the issue of asylum. Since documentation reigns supreme among the tools used by UMAM D&R, its MOST WELCOMED? LEBANON THROUGH ITS REFUGEES project includes a documentation component that has augmented its online Memory At Work database, a number of beneficial workshops and conferences and the publication of several highly detailed papers and the publication LEBANON 2017/2018 – FEWER REFUGEES, MORE REFUGEEISM.

Media coverage of MOST WELCOMED? LEBANON THROUGH ITS REFUGEES can be found here or in the section UMAM IN THE MEDIA.